Colored lights stream from all directions as a single, pulsing beat moves through hundreds of bodies dancing in the dark. The DJ controlling the beat from the stage asks if everyone is ready for “the drop.”
This is an electronic dance music concert, or as many would call it, a rave. EDM is a relatively recent trend, and the term describes several kinds of music, including trap, house and dubstep. This means the style and sound can be vastly different, but they all have a few things in common. For one, the music is percussive and electronic, and a DJ or producer is almost always the one to create the mix for playback in a live show, usually performed in nightclubs, raves and increasingly popular EDM festivals like Ultra.
Andrew Phung, a VCU biomedical engineering student, said he started DJing about a year ago for fun after watching his older brother, a VCU alumnus, find huge success with DJing.
“I got into it through him (my brother) pretty much, and I really didn’t like the music at first, I really didn’t understand it until I went somewhere where this type of music was appreciated, and it was just a lot of fun,” Phung said.
Currently Phung said he DJ’s at college parties and plays mostly trap or hip-hop mixes that he creates specifically for each party. He got his start after buying turntables and some software, and the musicality came naturally.
“I just enjoy performing musically,” Phung said. “I used to play guitar and I was in a little band with my friends in high school. And that stuff was fun, but I wanted to do something a little (more) current so I just picked up DJing.”
While Phung said he doesn’t have much experience with the EDM scene of Richmond other than his occasional performances, he feels the EDM culture here is growing slowly. According to Emma Taggart, a VCUarts student, a number of EDM concerts held in Richmond venues have sold out in recent months, which shows their popularity.
“I think there is a big demand for EDM shows, and there is a huge range of types of fans,” Taggart said in a Facebook message. “There have been some awesome sold out shows at the National recently, like Zeds Dead and Lotus, but there are also much smaller local shows going on at the Canal Club.”
According to Phung and Taggart, one of the largest EDM concerts to take place in Richmond was in June 2014, when Skrillex played a large outdoor show on Brown’s Island. Despite the popularity of the genre both in Richmond and around the world, criticism of the art form has arisen from both music critics and artists within the genre.
Indie rock group Arcade Fire spoke out at Coachella 2014 expressing respect for “all the bands still playing actual instruments” at the festival, taking a stab at DJs and electronic artists like Deadmau5. Critics like Anthony Bourdain have said that the EDM culture is merely a moneymaker, and an easy way for “untalented” musicians to become famous.
Taggart disagrees, and said she feels EDM is a true art form.
“DJs have a never ending pool of resources to pull from including songs and sounds that are already made, but they can also record their own,” Taggart said. “Trying to choose what to use and how to put it all together is an art form that few have mastered. I think that people who think it isn’t just haven’t experienced the good artists out there, because what they make is ridiculously creative.”
Taggart also mentioned that the visual displays put on by EDM artists are a large part of their creativity and heighten the experience of an EDM concert. Phung said that he feels there are EDM artists who may be taking advantage of the ease of using computer software who don’t add their own creativity, but these are a minority.
“Personally, I think DJing is actually pretty easy to pick up, but it’s hard to do extremely well,” Phung said.
Regardless of criticism, Phung and Taggart agreed the EDM scene in Richmond is growing, though not without reservations. Taggart said Richmond needs a better venue.
“I think what would really help the scene grow is if a new venue was created that is at least as big as the National, but that caters better to electronic artists,” Taggart said.
Phung said that he feels that “hipsters” in Richmond probably won’t take as easily to EDM, but that those who aren’t already listening to the genre might be “experimenting” with it.
“EDM concerts aren’t going to sell out at the National faster than like, a Neutral Milk Hotel concert or a The Head and the Heart concert,” Phung said.
Either way, Richmond provides a rich scene for all genres of music, and gives EDM a great opportunity to grow. Whether you listen to country or hip-hop or both, Phung said what matters is the sound of the music itself.
“The number one rule that I think everyone should keep for music in general whether listening to it, or making it or playing it is, if it sounds good it is good,” Phung said.