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From Small Clubs to Stadiums: The Rise of EDM in North America

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This summer, my DJ/production partner and I played a bunch of really fun outdoor dance music festivals as Smalltown DJs. It's a great job; I get to go to shows, see some of my favourite bands and DJs, and perform on the same bill as these people I look up to. I've been working the festival circut for a few years, but this summer was the biggest I've ever seen in terms of attendance in North America. There's no sign of slowing down this fall as we're gearing up for Red Bull Thre3Style; a program that has grown from humble Canadian roots to the largest DJ competition in the world. My hometown of Calgary, Alberta will play host to the Canadian Championship on Oct. 6, where the eight top local DJs from across the country will battle for a chance to compete at the World Finals in Toronto in November. Since the inception of the program, Smalltown DJs have been involved in Red Bull Thre3Style as hosts, judges, and headline performers, and this year's event is sure to be the biggest yet.

Kids all over the continent are in love with dance music right now. It's so popular that they made an acronym for it: EDM (Electronic Dance Music), which isn't very helpful since it covers pretty much any song with a beat made on a computer, and some that aren't. Just like at warehouse raves in the '90s, kids today are going mad for it. Only now dance music is mainstream. Big brand-sponsored festivals are selling tens of thousands of tickets all over North America. The internet fuels the hype. It's like a nonstop inflating piñata of popularity that wont burst when you hit it, but instead will keep growing and showering everyone with riches and adoration every time it gets smacked. But it wasn't always this way.

Ten years ago, I had a weekly DJ night at a rock club in Calgary. Prior to that time no one wanted to hear dance music. Before the digital craze, Calgary was like most other smaller cities, it took a couple years for the trends from big cities to take root. When James Murphy sang about playing "Daft Punk for the rock kids" in 2002, that's exactly what happened. The five biggest records at that party were: "House of Jealous Lovers" by The Rapture, "Drop the Pressure" by Mylo, "NY Excuse" by Soulwax, "Heartbeat" by Annie, and "Take me Out" by Franz Ferdinand. We played vinyl records on turntables., and across North America, dance music was turning a corner.

Around the same time, Hollertronix (former Philly DJ duo made up of Diplo and Low Budget) was really connecting the dots between rap and electronic music. We met Diplo in 2004 when we brought him to Calgary to play at the aforementioned rock bar. He played southern rap with these huge dance rock & pop songs. It made so much sense, to make dance music palatable in North America this had to happen. No one came. I think maybe 50 people showed up. But it mattered a lot to the ones that did.

As Smalltown DJs we began producing and releasing mash-ups, rap acapellas over top of well-known and unlikely instrumental versions. Mixing rap with dance music. Pressing them to vinyl. It seems archaic but we had to do that to be able to play the sound we wanted. Guys like DJ AM & Canada's own A-Trak continued to bridge the gap between pop, rap and dance music. Mashing up mainstream anthems with underground dance records made it possible - this was a unique skill that a great DJ could provide.

Then the Internet craze hit. Myspace, which came up in 2006, provided a great platform for the music to spread, allowing artists to come up from underground and quickly gain attention. It also caused trends to flip with more speed and other niche sounds like dubstep, electro, and Baltimore club were thrown into the mix and grew. The rest is history. Skream to Skrillex. Diplo to Guetta. Like Nirvana to Nickelback, Bohannon to The Bee Gees, Little Richard to Elvis. These are the arcs of an initially underground sound reaching its popularity peak. And now new strains and subcultures are growing and thriving and the cycle will never stop.

Two of the best festivals we played this summer were the Mad Decent Block Parties, with Diplo's current group Major Lazer (a take on Jamaican dancehall clashing with house and club music) headlining. There were 6000 people at each show. They were mayhem. Packed with people who were probably 10 years old in 2004. Next stop is stadiums, I guess. But the best part is that right now at some dive bar in Calgary, there are 50 kids partying to some new sound. Something you haven't heard. It's the future. And in 10 years it will be huge.

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