There is no middle ground with megastar producer and DJ Hardwell. Either you're an uber-fan counting down the seconds to his concert at the 14,000 capacity O2 tonight. Or you've just become aware of his existence. He could be sitting next to you on the bus and you'd never suspect (then, with artists at his level commanding up to $250,000 per appearance, he's unlikely to be slumming it by Nitelink.)
As one of the leading talents in 'Electronic Dance Music' Hardwell – aka 26-year-old Dutch native Robbert van de Corput – is used to hiding in plain sight. He's headlined Ultra festival in Florida (estimated attendance: 55,000), clocked up 19 million (million!) YouTube hits and was the subject of an award-winning 2012 documentary. And yet, his stardom remains news to most of us. He has found a way to be simultaneously famous and anonymous.
A clunky American coinage, 'EDM' represents a break with dance music's eclectic past. Where earlier generations of rave and clubbing artists were rooted in the counter-culture (no matter how tenuously), EDM is panties-in-your-face capitalist. In 2013, Calvin Harris, the Scottish born unofficial king of EDM, trousered an estimated $14 million, mostly from DJ dates around the world (including multiple turns at Las Vegas, EDM's champagne soaked spiritual home). This places him marginally ahead of peers/rivals such as Afrojack, Deadmau5 and Avicii. The late 90s era of 'superstar' deck-spinners, when names such as Paul Oakenfold could earn £10,000 per booking, feels quaint by comparison.
If you are a dance music snob – not exactly an endangered species in Ireland – you will likely despise EDM. In every aspect, it makes the average hater's skin crawl: the formulaic 'drop' whereupon the beat kicks in, the relentlessly upbeat rhythms, the way its stars glory in the spotlight to a degree older DJs never did.
What's strangest about EDM is that even leading exponents of the genre seem quite luke-warm on it. In interviews, Deadmau5, aka 33-year-old Canadian Joel Thomas Zimmerman, has been open about the music's commercial imperatives. "The way I see EDM right now it's a healthy industry for sure." he told a public interview. "Minimal work for maximum profit, right?"
He has also addressed the suspicion that, thanks to technology, DJing is nowadays a more straightforward process, suggesting certain EDM performers simply cue up pre-sequenced mixes. "There's still button-pushers getting paid half a million," he told Rolling Stone. "And not to say I'm not a button-pusher. I'm just pushing a lot more buttons."
Strangely one of the loudest critics of the genre, judging by his public pronouncements at least, is its biggest superstar, Avicii,
"Originality is definitely missing from EDM," Avicii, aka 24-year-old Swede Tim Bergling, said in an interview. "There are people looking for it and exploring but I feel it's so big now it is getting milked. House music is losing all its melody as it becomes more about how dirty the drop is and how energetic it is. It loses touch with what music really is. It's gotten to a point where everything sounds the same. There is no longevity in what's happening at the moment."
Others are turned off by what they perceive as EDM's soullessness. "There's a lot of stuff that's preprogrammed," Drew Best, a prime mover in the Los Angeles dub step scene, told the Guardian last year. "The tracks in a Deadmau5 set precisely trigger the visual and lighting systems. All the imagery is absolutely on beat, and that beat is 128 bpm. If you see Deadmau5 several times in a row, you might see the same show."
But if EDM is so reviled, how is it that 14,000 people will congregate at the O2 tonight for Hardwell? Why do American electro festivals draw audiences four or five times that figure? Is there a reason Avicii's Aloe Blacc collaboration Wake Me Up – a deeply unsettling mash-up of dub step and Mumford folk – has had permanent residency in Spotify Ireland's top ten since October?
The secret to EDM's success can be summed up as: kids and Americans. Dispatched to review Deadmau5 at Dublin's RDS in 2012, this reviewer expected a cross section of dance fans – youngsters, of course, but also older ex-ravers, in cheerful, substance-mediated denial about the vicissitudes of age.
Well, we were half right – it was kids, kids, kids. No average punter looked over 25 – most appeared to be at least half a decade younger. They were unlikely dance fans, too. The guys had their shirts off and were pumping fists, as if at a Kings of Leon show; the girls looked like the sort you'd push your way past to get to the front row at Bon Jovi.
"We are at the stage where the big labels know how popular EDM is and are cashing in on it," says Eugene James McGrath of Irish-based Daft Punk tribute act Daft As Punk.
"They are using EDM so it targets girls and boys between the ages of 11-14 – in other words, people who buy merchandise and don't know how to illegally download."
The real driver of the scene, though, is America, traditionally cool on dance music. With raves rebranded 'festivals' and promoters working hard to severe the link between electronic music and drugs, EDM commandeers the US zeitgeist in a way past clubbing moments were unable to.
The looming unknown, of course, is longevity. A decade ago, dance music was perceived to be in its dotage as guitar acts such as The White Stripes and The Strokes sucked up all the love. Now the charts are a barren wasteland for rock bands. Could EDM go the same way? It's possible a backlash is already in process, originating in the unlikeliest of places.
A neon-drenched sensory overload, Daft Punk's 2006 world tour is regarded as a template for the current EDM live experience. However, when the French duo came to make their newest album, Grammy garlanded Random Access Memories, they pushed back against the movement they had (unwittingly) spawned. Samples and sequences were junked in favour of musicianship and song structure. It was difficult not to interpret this as repudiation of EDM and their part in its rise.
"Today, electronic music is made in airports and hotel rooms, by DJs travelling," Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter said last year. "It has a sense of movement, maybe, but it's not the same vibe as going into these studios that contain specific things ... You hear a song – whose track is it? There's no signature."