EDM pioneer Kaskade looks to re-invention to appeal to young fans
As electronic dance music continuesto grow, the pioneering Kaskade is reinventing the genre for a new generation of fans
Inside an airplane hangar earlier this month, Kaskade walked across his stage of the future.
The DJ and EDM (electronic dance music) producer directed stagehands who were tweaking a massive lighting apparatus that would back up his main-stage set at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. (The event ended last week.) As Kaskade - born Ryan Raddon - positioned his DJ rigging inside it, some techs futzed over software settings from a monitor console across the hangar. In between them, two assistants sat at a coffee table, dwarfed by the stage equipment.
As the LED screens burst with colours and filled the vast, hollow space with light, it was clear Kaskade's set would stand as a testament to EDM's enduring primacy at Coachella. "Every time, I want to blow people away, whether it's Electric Daisy [Carnival] or a spring break festival in Florida," he says. "But [Coachella] is such a highly regarded festival. I'll be playing a club in Hong Kong [he has appeared here twice, in September 2008 and last December] and everyone backstage wants to ask me about Coachella."
His performance at Coachella this month 4 marked Kaskade's fourth time at the festival, and by now he is synonymous with the dance music boom of the past decade. He's headlined almost every major US dance music festival, and he was the first EDM act to headline Staples Centre in Los Angeles.
Kaskade kicked off the Las Vegas megabucks EDM residency trend in 2012 at the Cosmopolitan's venue Marquee, and in 2011 he started a fracas on Hollywood Boulevard when an impromptu truck-top show at the premiere of an Electric Daisy Carnival documentary led to hundreds of fans swarming the street. He's remixed pop artists including Lana Del Rey and Beyoncé, and is one of the top live draws in a global dance music industry worth an estimated US$6.2 billion, according to the industry group IMS.
But his Coachella set posed new challenges: how do artists who rode the top of the late-2000s EDM wave stay relevant to young crowds? And when cost is no object with shows at the top tier of dance music, how do you put on a set that still feels authentic and musical while also wowing audiences?
Before the gig, Kaskade kicks back on a tiny couch during a break in his prep work. He grew up in Chicago but became a son of Southern California (he lives in Los Angeles). In a music scene with a reputation for hedonism, the 44-year-old is famously a Mormon husband and father. He's also an old hand at playing to festival crowds.
But he says there's something particular about Coachella. The festival has championed dance music since its 1999 debut (Chemical Brothers, Underworld and Moby were among the top acts), and in a way, dance music in the US has grown up with it. "I recently saw some old pictures of my first time playing [Coachella] in 2006. There was just a card table and a black curtain onstage," Kaskade says.
Now EDM is sometimes a bigger draw at Coachella than the rock and hip-hop headliners. Last year, dance artists including Calvin Harris and Disclosure pulled crowds around the outdoor stages as big or bigger than such headliners as Arcade Fire. The EDM-focused Sahara Tent remains packed from morning until shutdown every day of the fest, and the air-conditioned, underground-centric Yuma tent has been one of the event's most popular additions since its 2013 debut. AC/DC, Jack White and Steely Dan may have high billing on the Coachella poster, but electronic dance music helps drive the festival's ongoing popularity.
That's in large part because of the kind of sound and spectacle Kaskade has helped create during his rise to prominence. His tracks have always appealed to pop fans - his aesthetic is dreamier and more uplifting than many hard-hitting peers, and his singles are often driven by breathy female vocalists.
Since Kaskade began his ascent, younger acts such as Zedd and Avicii have used similar styles to scale the top-40 charts and the stages at major festivals.
Kaskade recently shifted record labels, from dance music mainstay Ultra to Warner Bros, a move that reflects his rise out of EDM's genre confines and into a recording and songwriting climate more befitting an arena-sized pop act.
"He's open to pushing boundaries and pursuing that kind of crossover success, but he'll never pander or do something that isn't true to his musical identity," says Jeff Fenster, executive vice-president of A&R at Warner Bros. "He's not going to turn around and make something just to get on the radio. His audience expects integrity, and we support him not thinking just about the short term."
While Kaskade's set for Coachella 2015 was well-received, he and his elite EDM peers, so foundational to the genre's rise in America, are having to re-invent themselves to appeal to young crowds, for whom dance music is a default sound and not a new discovery.
As newer festivals prove edgier, darker dance sounds can draw big crowds, audiences may one day tune out the first wave of pop-friendly EDM acts such as Kaskade. That's a fate he's focused on avoiding. He's been pushing audiences lately: his new single Never Sleep Alone is a ruminative, progressive house number that's equal parts invigorating and melancholy. His last major solo tour, for his 2013 LP Atmosphere, featured long stretches where he dropped his songs' body-moving drums out of the mix entirely.
"The underground moves and changes so quickly, and that's cool. Innovation is built into electronic music's DNA," he says. "It's challenging in a good way. In the EDM heyday, it was music by numbers, but right now it reminds me of how it felt six or seven years ago, and it's a lot more interesting."
Back in the hangar, Kaskade, in his purple hoodie and flip-flops, looked very small beside under the enormous pillars of light flanking his stage set-up. But then again, in the dance music business today, a little perspective is important.
"I was here for the first boom in the 1990s," he says, referencing electronic acts such as the Prodigy and Moby that first broke in the US during that time. In the past decade, "a lot of young kids have seen this onslaught onto the scene. But they're looking at it all wrong.
"They think it's a sprint, but this is a marathon."
Los Angeles Times