The Grammys are conflicted about electronic dance music (EDM), and online music store Beatport sees an opening.
In 2012, the Recording Academy nominated US dubstep producer Skrillex for best new artist, but its Grammy "tribute to EDM" was a strange melange of DJs performing mash-ups with rap and rock stars.
In 2013, the academy was roundly mocked after a dance recording nomination went to Al Walser, a keytar-toting unknown (the Grammys later tweaked rules to prevent such flukes). Dance music legends Daft Punk won album of the year this year, but for an album that sounds more like classic disco than today's EDM.
In contrast, the annual awards handed out by Beatport - the pacesetting EDM download site for DJs and dance-music fans worldwide - combines fan-voted favourites, staff accolades and sales-data victories to come to some kind of consensus about the year in dance music from within the genre.
It announced the winners of the sixth annual Beatport Awards on March 7, and while Daft Punk's Random Access Memories was recognised (as bestselling album of the year), accolades were also handed out to artists who would be unfamiliar to most Grammy voters.
Dance music is a messy scene whose rules and virtues can confound even its fans, let alone mainstream Grammy voters. As a barometer of today's young music culture, the Beatport Awards might eventually prove the more accurate tastemaker - if the site can keep its credibility in the churn of big-money EDM investments.
"For Beatport to be the North Pole of authenticity, we have to honour what's best," says Clark Warner, Beatport's creative director. "But dance music is unlike anything else. There's a very tribal aspect to the fan base, and we have to represent that as well."
The Denver-based Beatport opened in 2004 as a clearing house for high-quality downloads of electronic music meant to be played by professional DJs. But in the late 2000s the site turned from a wonkish virtual record store into an authority on the biggest new trend in American music.
Its front-page top 10 chart is the most relevant measure of what's popular in clubland. Its myriad sub-genre and DJ playlist charts keep track of the scene's ebb and flow, and its editorial picks can instantly escalate an artist's career.
In 2013, concert promoter SFX Entertainment bought the company, which was a controversial move in professional EDM circles. Late last year, SFX fired much of the site's long-time engineering team and closed its San Francisco office, a move one source described to the site TechCrunch as "crazy. It was a … bloodbath".
Despite Beatport's increasing mainstream relevance and high-profile acquisition, the site lost US$1 million in the third quarter of fiscal year 2013.
The growing Beatport Awards are, in part, a recognition of SFX's goals for the site's future - from a nerdy, dance-music professional resource into the public entry point for EDM culture.
While the Grammys tend to reward pop-crossover acts such as Avicii and Calvin Harris in their nominations, Beatport's fan-voted Community Choice awards this year honoured artists yet to fully emerge from the EDM underground, including Armin Van Buuren (for album of the year), and Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike (for artist of the year). Their tracks are ubiquitous at festivals, nightclubs and online.
"This year, we're estimating roughly eight times the number of people and 10 times the number of votes in the Community Choice categories than any previous year," says Tyler Jensen, the senior manager for events at Beatport. The site won't provide exact figures on fan voting, but it's clear that its role as the primary filter for a "tribal" EDM culture is expanding.
The site's relevance also hinges on its tastemaking authority. Beatport staff in its global offices - which include Los Angeles, Tokyo and Berlin - provide their own picks in separate categories, including DJ of the year, best new artist, lifetime achievement and track of the year. Nina Kraviz, a regular fixture at underground dance music festivals, was Beatport's 2014 DJ of the year.
Unlike the Grammys, Beatport also has a major category for record label of the year, a reflection of the ways that EDM's vastness rewards allegiance to favourite sounds and styles. Labels such as Spinnin' and Anjunabeats are the bedrock of today's club and festival culture. Spinnin' was this year's winner.
For artists making a name in this sea of dance music, a Beatport award is a different kind of validation than a Grammy nod, and it's arguably more reflective of where they really are in a dance music career.
"Awards driven by consumers are a more active and engaging process that usually proves how loyal and cult-like a fan base can be," says Jahan Yousaf, of the DJ and production trio Krewella, an artist-of-the-year nominee. "Because of the growing information overload on other social media sites, music hubs such as Beatport, Spotify [or] Grooveshark will become the main music hubs for consumers and for artists to reach a wider audience."
The breakout EDM artist in 2013, 17-year-old Dutch producer Martin Garrix, also acknowledges the essential role that Beatport plays in elevating a dance music career. His track Animals won the award for bestselling original track of the year. The official video for Animals has more than 170 million plays on YouTube, and he has a management deal with Scooter Braun (of Justin Bieber fame) and a headlining Coachella slot in April.
Being the youngest artist to score a Beatport No1 - and to be nominated for artist of the year and track of the year - is its own reward. "I'm extremely proud of that, still feels unreal sometimes," Garrix says. "Of course it's really meaningful to get support from the peers of dance music."
As the lines between EDM culture, top-40 and the overall music-festival scene become more blurred, a Beatport award could become the genre's definitive seal of success and acclaim. Its artists are pop stars now and play to more fans in one sitting at Electric Daisy Carnival than Beyonce or Jay-Z at one of their arena shows.
Beatport executives admit they have bigger long-term plans for its awards ceremonies. They wouldn't specify if that would include a telecast like the Grammys, a web-centric stream like the new YouTube Video Awards, or a live concert. It is easy to imagine the young, demographically desirable eyeballs that would want to take in such a show, however.
EDM now has its new class of Beatport-approved champions. But the biggest competition might be between the site and its duelling demands - satisfying its established EDM audience and Beatport's goals to be a global pop-culture brand.
"Dance music is a specific, cohesive family, but it's a universal language," Warner says. "I've been watching the Olympics, and dance music feels more like the snowboarding competitions there - it's all bear hugs and the athletes are just happy to be there."
Los Angeles Times