Shaky Beats’ Fall Belies An Electronic Festival Market On Stable Ground

Santiago Felipe / Getty Images
– Changing Landscape
Since opening in 2017, New York’s Brooklyn Mirage has shown the hard-ticket appeal of underground artists such as Honey Dijon.

Whenever an electronic music festival goes kaput, doomsayers use the news as more evidence of an enduring, if not entirely accurate, narrative: The EDM bubble has burst. Like many misconceptions, this one contains some truth. Since events like HARD and Electric Daisy Carnival stormed the live music world earlier this decade, sub-genre trends have come and gone and the clientele has evolved, prompting both multi-genre and electronic-specific festival bookers to adapt their offerings.

But with Shaky Beats, the fourth-year Atlanta electronic music festival that announced last month that it wouldn’t return in 2020, a simpler explanation is probably correct: Isolated circumstances, namely the early curfew and volume restrictions dictated by the fest’s Central Park venue, spelled demise from the start.

“The festival had been going on for four years, and because it was in a downtown metropolis, I couldn’t fully expand the production and show elements to what we wanted it to be,” says C3 Presents promoter Tim Sweetwood, who founded and owns Shaky Beats, rock-oriented Shaky Knees and country-oriented Shaky Boots, the latter of which returns next year for the first time since 2015.

“It was trying to force it into a space that wasn’t as good as it should be,” says Sweetwood, explaining that Central Park was less hospitable to an electronic festival than one of another genre. “Do I think that the electronic industry is headed downhill? No. There’s a lot of stuff out there doing really well, and continuing to do well.”

The cultural prominence of early ‘10s EDM mega-events has receded, but electronic music – at the multi-genre festival level, at the genre-specific festival level and at the hard-ticket club and theater level – remains among live music’s most bankable genres.

Electronic music has been integral to cross-genre festivals for decades; the first Coachella, in 1999, featured several electronic artists, including The Chemical Brothers and Moby. This decade, the genre became more entrenched, with Calvin Harris becoming Coachella’s first electronic headliner in 2015.

“If you’re a festival booker in 2019, and you want people under 30 to show up, guess what you’re booking?” says Michaelangelo Matos, author of the 2015 book “The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America,” when analyzing the modern abundance of electronic acts on the bills of multi-genre festivals such as Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza. “That’s the way things are now. What happened this decade is that EDM experienced this insane, over-the-top boom, and people wanted to pretend like it went away, but it didn’t. It just migrated.”

Kevin Gimble, who founded powerhouse electronic agency Circle Talent Agency, which was acquired by UTA in 2018, describes a similar shift. “We are seeing more and more electronic acts on top lines of major crossover festivals than ever before,” he says. “Electronic music culture is finally being considered as an essential part of the music industry, and not as an underground offshoot.”

As electronic music strains like trap and electro house became pop’s du jour flavor, electronic-specific events responded. Plenty of big-tent electronic music festivals remain strong, from Las Vegas’ Electric Daisy Carnival to New York’s Electric Zoo: Evolved, which this year welcomed 107,000 attendees, marking its best attendance since 2013. But smaller boutique festivals, often devoted to sub-genres or curated by artists, have started to proliferate throughout North America.

Steve Gordon, a Circle Talent partner who moved to UTA with Gimble after the acquisition, says he and client Excision had discussed an Excision-curated, bass-heavy event for 10 years before the eventual festival, Lost Lands, made its 2017 debut in Thornville, Ohio. The event held its third edition earlier in October, and Gordon says it’ll happen again in 2020. Across the country, Second Sky, curated by Porter Robinson, debuted last June in Oakland, Calif., to overwhelming demand.

Promoters and agents cite bass and underground – a contemporary catch-all for the types of house and techno currently en vogue – as two rapidly rising electronic sub-genres.

“We’re seeing a lot of specific festivals: just bass festivals, just underground festivals, just trance festivals,” says WME’s Peter Wiederlight, who handles many of the festival bookings for the agency’s roster, which includes A-listers like Calvin Harris and Deadmau5, as well as smaller acts like Peggy Gou. “There’s been an explosion, in that regard.”

Secret Project, the L.A. fest that held its second edition last month, captures another aspect of the sphere’s evolution. Over two days, it drew some 12,500 attendees to Factory 93 – a venue launched by electronic promoter and Live Nation partner Insomniac to emphasize underground – with a lineup that included critical favorites such as Four Tet, Honey Dijon and Gou. (Matos says increasing bookings of women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community – and the simultaneous de-emphasizing of straight white men – is among the genre’s most positive recent developments.)

“The thing you began to see in the middle of the decade, is smaller promoters – and even bigger promoters – deliberately delimiting the size of their events, doing pseudo-underground events,” Matos says. “They’re rebranding themselves.”

Consider how Gary Richards, who revolutionized electronic festivals when he created HARD Events in 2007, has approached his role as president of LiveStyle North America. After moving from Live Nation – which acquired HARD in 2012 – to LiveStyle in 2017, Richards launched AMFAMFAMF, a LiveStyle brand devoted to eclectic but electronic-rooted programming. Club shows, fests and even cruises have received AMFAMFAMF’s imprimatur, but its marquee event is L.A.’s All My Friends festival, which made its debut last year, drawing 20,000 over two days with a lineup topped by RL Grime, Gucci Mane, M.I.A. and Jamie xx.

Richards, who also DJs as Destructo, says AMF drew “an older crowd” with “more refined taste.” He’s introduced AMF-branded tents at multiple festivals staged by LiveStyle subsidiaries Disco Donnie Presents, Made Event and React Presents, even though those events still draw young adults in substantial numbers.

Evelyne Côté, who books electronic acts at the club and festival levels as Canadian-based promoter Evenko’s Director of Booking, Concerts and Events, recently introduced something similar at ÎleSoniq, Evenko’s electronic festival in Montreal. Major electronic names including Marshmello and Above & Beyond lined the bill, as did trap-infused hip-hop artists such as Bad Bunny and Lil Pump – but ÎleSoniq’s underground house and techno stage, featuring Nicole Moudaber, Claptone, Yotto and Lane 8, also found an audience.

“We’re seeing that it’s not just a thing where you go to two, three raves when you’re young and then you go, ‘Oh, that was a phase,’” Côté says. “People get more and more knowledgeable about different sounds, and what we know as underground will definitely grow in the next five years tremendously.”

The teenagers who were drawn to big, brash sounds at the decade’s start have matured, Côté says, and now “want to party more discerningly, and they want to feel like they’re discovering things and not just hearing the same things over and over again.”

That’s diversified and expanded electronic music fandom, but, “in some cases, the clientele is becoming more divided, since many people are going solely to watch their favorite sub-genre of artists,” Gordon says. “For example, bass music fans and techno fans will stay at their respective stages throughout the festival.”

Shaky Beats occupied a middle ground between two vibrant ends of the spectrum: not as far-reaching as everything-but-the-kitchen-sink behemoths like Electric Zoo, not as focused as more curated events like Secret Project.

“The consumer is a little more savvy now,” Richards says. “They want something special; they don’t just want your average, another-McDonald’s-hamburger festival.”

Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images / Coachella
– Sol Mates
Aussie trio Rüfüs Du Sol, pictured at Coachella 2019, uses live instrumentation for its brand of alternative dance music, which has helped it become a major electronic hard-ticket headliner.

Agent Alex Becket has represented electronic artists at CAA since 2007, and current client Rüfüs Du Sol topped Shaky Beats this year, although he says Rüfüs didn’t quite align with the event’s “commercial-DJ-heavy lineup.” Instead, the Australian alternative dance trio embodies some of the trends currently shaping electronic music. For one, Rüfüs integrates live instrumentation, which audiences are increasingly gravitating toward over DJs. But more importantly, Rüfüs demonstrates the growing influence of hard-ticket tours on festivals.

Take the trio’s sold-out, three-night August run at Brooklyn Mirage, the 5,000-capacity New York dance mecca that opened in July 2017. After Rüfüs moved 8,400 tickets over three sold-out nights at Manhattan’s Terminal 5 in late 2018, Team Rüfüs contemplated what its next New York move should be.

“We got a nice offer from Governors Ball,” Becket says. “Do we do the festival, or do we come back into the marketplace and sell 15,000 tickets [at hard-ticket Brooklyn Mirage shows], and then negotiate our deal with Governors Ball? We thought we were worth a lot more there.”

This mutually beneficial strategy helps agents net clients bigger fees while showing promoters which acts have strong followings.

Electric Zoo festival director Adam Richman also serves as Made Event senior vice president, and has overseen a New York hard-ticket expansion, upping Made Event’s club show count to 95 this year, from just seven in 2016. Many of those have come at Brooklyn Mirage, where Made is the preferred promoter and puts on shows by mainstream artists like Alesso and Kaskade. Brooklyn Mirage is just one facet of the compound known as Avant Gardner, which also includes indoor rooms Kings Hall (800 capacity) and Great Hall (3,400 capacity).

The format allows Made to “test artists out and see where the demand is,” Richman says. “We have this great venue to sort of be our test ground, and can make [booking Electric Zoo] a little less luck and a little more data-focused.”

Hard-ticket sales have reoriented North American festival booking. Evenko, for example, stages festivals including ÎleSoniq and multi-genre Osheaga, as well as more than 1,000 hard-ticket shows, which Côte says are “a great way to test the market.” It also lets artists “test their value – and then ask us for more money,” she says with a laugh.

Earlier this decade, “the metrics were different,” Becket says. “None of these guys were playing hard-ticketed concert venues, at least in the U.S. They were showing up on the top two lines of festivals because the festival bookers knew that kids wanted to see these artists, but it wasn’t the same currency that Lollapalooza or Coachella or any of these places is used to having in their conversations.”

Hard-ticket tours, he says, have made the process “more apples to apples,” because bookers can now evaluate electronic acts with the metrics they use for other genres.

As with any genre, electronic festivals evolve and the market continues to morph. As Becket puts it, “Overall, you’re just seeing a maturation of the marketplace.”