By Jake Krzeczowski December 26, 2012 10:28PMOriginally appeared for Chicago Sun-Times
This summer 50,000 people flooded Soldier Field — not for a football game, or any game, for that matter. The young people coming through the gates of the home of the Chicago Bears were there for another reason: to dance.
Spring Awakening, a dance-music festival held June 16-17 in and around Soldier Field, is just one local example of how big the electronic dance music craze got this year.
EDM concerts are usually pre-packaged parties led by larger-than-life DJs, producers and musicians armed with extravagant light shows, glowstick cannons and head-pounding bass.
“The dance scene in Chicago right now is just thriving,” said DJ Steve Aoki, who played a sold-out show Dec. 15 at the Congress Theater. “Especially the past two years, it’s really gotten bigger and not even in terms of people but energy too. Kids have really embraced it and taken it to this state.”
Chicago’s concert winter calendar is packed with shows, culminating in a pair of concerts on New Year’s Eve: Big Gigantic at the Aragon Ballroom and Porter Robinson at the Congress Theater.
Big Gigantic, which returns for its second consecutive NYE in Chicago, and Porter Robinson represent two different takes on the genre widely known just as EDM.
Big Gigantic creates its dubstep-infused art with a live aspect, blending drums and a saxophone with computer-generated synth lines and bass. Porter Robinson, meanwhile, mixes on a computer.
“These days,” said Dominic Lalli, one half of Big Gigantic, “there’s so much out there and so much music coming out, being different is really key.”
The word “different” is important. The EDM community came under fire this year when Canadian dance music mogul Deadmau5 criticized DJs within the genre, most notably David Guetta and Skrillex, referring to them as “button pushers” who pretend to work a lot harder onstage than they do.
The issue also was sparked by a YouTube video showing Swedish House Mafia DJ Steve Angello casually smoking a cigarette onstage as the party raged on in front of him. While that behavior certainly isn’t status quo, it does raise questions about whether some DJs are being paid millions essentially just to hit “play.”
For its part, Big Gigantic tries to keep its music connected to performance.
“We just love making music,” said Lalli, who lists jazz greats John Coltrane and Joe Henderson as sax influences. “We try to bring all those elements together to make this new thing or sound, and I think that’s the biggest thing these days.”
While live instrumentation may attract some to the music, others couldn’t care less what the artist is doing onstage.
“I don’t really care, people can say whatever they want,” said Los Angeles DJ Audrey Napolean. “I know what I do, and I know what I do onstage is real, and I know that I do everything I can to put on a good show, and that’s all I need to know.”
The emergence of music on the Internet has assisted the rise of dance music. One of the most recognized sites for artists trying to break into the scene is BeatPort.com, a sort of iTunes for DJs.
“We are a site for music for DJs,” said BeatPort CEO Matthew Adell. “DJs have special music needs. They’re different from the average consumer. Our goal is to get DJs the most important material they need for their set, right now.”
The site, started in 2004, has helped launch the careers of many of the biggest artists in dance music and also hosts the annual BeatPort Music Awards, which recognize the best in EDM.
One of the most recent products of BeatPort is the Chicago-born trio Krewella, booked for Saturday at the Congress Theater.
The three-person group, consisting of sisters Jahan and Yasmine Yousef and producer Rain Man (Kris Trindl), is indicative of the rising scene here. Trindl handles the beats while the sisters provide their piercing vocals to the bands eclectic sound. The online venue allowed them to pursue a more cohesive live show with a larger following.
“Being featured on Beatport opened up a whole new world for our EP distribution,” Jahan said. “It’s amazing coming home to Chicago because I remember even a year and a half ago when we were playing raves with like 10 kids. We feel a sense of loyalty when we come back.”
As computers and programs advance and EDM stars grow more familiar, it seems as though there is no ceiling on where the scene will go.
“I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg, to be honest,” said Avi Gallant, who runs the Untz, a leading EDM news website. “I don’t think it’ll get too big, [but] the sky is the limit. This is just the beginning.”
Jake Krzeczowski is a locally based free-lance writer. Follow him on Twitter: @jakekrez