What’s happening with dance music? (Part 1)
With this post, I’m beginning a series to start out the new year. There are so many angles to ponder here, there’s no hope whatever of fitting it into a single article.
To put some context around this, in my recent Top 50 chart, I cited my belief that mainstream dance music is an industry in decline. Now, while I believe that to be the case, I think it’s necessary to dig past the sound bite, because one could make a pretty good case that electronica, as a music meta-genre, is actually more vibrant than it’s ever been. So as I contradict myself left and right, I think it’s important in this first part to define some scope.
Before I do that, I want to make something very clear:
First, let’s define things a bit. What I personally consider “dance music” is both broad and narrow at the same time. What I’m “into” is what I’ve come to call (as I said above) mainstream dance music. It’s not a genre, as much as a genre-crossing classification. How do I define mainstream dance music? It is music that:
- Is melodic. Unless you know a thing or two about music and music theory, this may be meaningless to you, but melodic music has a central theme of some sort… Musical notes, in defined patterns. Typically those patterns are a popular song form (see below), and each one typically represents the pitches associated with each syllable of the lyrics (if in fact there are words, which is not a prerequisite for a melody; see below). The opposite of melodic is free-form, often called experimental. A lot of hip-hop and rap also lacks a defined melodic element. I can’t really describe this any better; consult a book on music theory for a better explanation.
- Has a conventional popular song form. Some experimental types of music have melodic elements without having a melody per se. What makes that different from what I’m talking about is that—in my view—mainstream dance music has a popular song form. Again, consult a music theory book if you want, but by “popular” I don’t necessarily mean pop music, but any popular music form from the 19th century or so, up to today, whether big band or country or jazz or modern pop or whatever. Put in another context, song form is what we’re talking about when you think of a song having verses of a particular melodic pattern, choruses of a particular melodic pattern, and bridges of a particular melodic pattern. It’s what makes a song recognizable structurally.
- Is generally vocal. Vocals are not a prerequisite to a dance track by any means, but it sort of goes hand-in-hand with a melody.
- Has four-on-the-floor percussion. You just don’t have mainstream dance songs with 3/4 (waltz) time, like you do in, say, country or folk. They’re always (always) 4/4, with a heavy, defined, consistent kick (bass) drum with which people on a dance floor can keep time.
- Is electronic. This probably goes without saying. I suppose mainstream dance music wouldn’t have to be constructed with fully electronic instruments, and in fact, large parts often are acoustic. But you won’t ordinarily find a so-called dance track made without at least some sort of drum machine.
- Is listenable. This is the most ethereal of any of these attributes. But mainstream dance music is, in my view, music that can also be listened-to off of a dance floor without sounding harsh or putting someone on edge. There’s an awful lot of dance music that is, in my view, only enjoyable in the context of a night at the clubs, or in conjunction with a drug trip. Obviously that’s quite subjective.
I suppose mainstream dance music is sort of like obscenity; it’s hard to define what’s obscene, you just know it when you see it. Many people associate what I know as mainstream dance music, with pop and pop remixes. A dance remix of Lady Gaga or Beyoncé or whoever is, in fact, usually mainstream dance music.
But my definition of mainstream dance extends beyond mere pop and pop remixes to include a lot of techno, vocal trance, some dubstep, and perhaps many other electronic/dance sub-genres. But it’s all melodic, has conventional song form, is generally vocal, has 4/4 time, is electronic, and is listenable.
Examples of mainstream dance music are everywhere:
- It’s the music you hear on radio stations such as iDanceRadio.fm (which I program), Fusion Radio Chicago, BPM (a channel on Sirius/XM satellite radio), Radio Danz (where my mixshow airs), NRRRadio (where my mixshow also airs).
- It’s the music that results from popular producer/remixers like Dave Audé, Klubjumpers, Cahill, Cutmore, Freemasons, 7th Heaven, and many more.
- It’s the music that’s on the Billboard dance charts.
- It’s the music that DJs get on CD subscriptions like ERG’s Nu Dance Traxx or XMIX.
- It’s the music that’s promoted by long-term industry players like Loren Chidez, Brad LeBeau, Claudia Cuseta, Bobby Shaw, and others.
All of that, and more, is what I call mainstream dance music.
So, to be very specific, my contention is that mainstream dance music is what’s in decline. Electronic music as a whole, and dance music more generally, is probably in roughly the same condition with respect to the music industry as a whole as it ever was (well, except for perhaps the disco era, when it all pretty much started, and at which time dance dominated the greater music scene). The music industry as a whole is in decline too in many respects, according to many people, but like dance music, it’s rather a matter of which part(s) you’re looking at.
In any event, with mainstream dance music now defined to the best of my ability, in the next part, I’ll start to look a little more closely at what I think is going on, and make my case about why I think it’s in decline.
As always, I welcome your feedback. Disagree with me? Tell me why… I’m always willing to change my mind.