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I listened to trance around 2003-2006, and it was almost a closet musical enjoyment. I was an American teenager, and I knew very few people who shared my preference for electronic music - it was a fringe genre at best. Fast forward to college in 2012, and ever since electronic has been very well in or close to the mainstream. From Bassnectar to Calvin Harris, it is not only acceptable, but commonplace to enjoy and prefer electronic music.

So how did this happen? If it was so uncool, and almost nerdy to listen to electronica in 2005, how did that change ten years later? Is the music inherently so different, or did people decide to change their taste?

EDIT: After 2006 I attended college for 3 years where electronic was still a fringe genre. From 2009 to 2012 I took a hiatus, and when I returned in 2012 is when I noticed the sudden change in its popularity.

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tl;dr

How did electronic music become popular in the early 2010s?

Miley Cyrus, FL Studio, and Sirius XM, and electronic music festivals.

First one's to get your attention, but still kinda true.


2020 Update: Something I didn't realize when I wrote this answer in 2016 is that this experience—of electronic music going from shunned to mainstream—is specific to a narrow generation of those born in the late 80s and 90s. By the 90s when we old enough to explore our identities in music, radio and MTV had already shifted to grunge, rock, and hip hop. The entire era of synths and electronica preceding the 90s was invisible to us, except maybe through our parents (but mine were immigrants, for example). So indeed to us it was a surprising shift, seemingly from "non-existent" and abused for listening to it, to a social mainstream.


1. OP means EDM, not electronica in the modern sense. But it was called electronica and techno in the 2000s. The distinctions we know today aren't the same as what existed back then.

So in this post, I'm talking about EDM. Not Prodigy, not Aphex Twin. Not The Postal Service, or Royksopp. All of which one might consider "electronica". I'm talking about "four-to-the-floor," anyone-can-dance-to electronic music.

EDM is a relatively new word, though. I definitely didn't hear it used until the early 2010s, and some sources support this:

By the early 2010s the term "electronic dance music" and the initialism "EDM" was being pushed by the U.S. music industry and music press in what was largely an effort to re-brand U.S. rave culture.1

(I'm not as cynical though. I think the media needed a word for a phenomenon, and "EDM" stuck with the people.)

Anyway, what did we call EDM in the 2000s, then?

Most people knew it as techno. The general population in the 2000s didn't really distinguish subgenres of electronic music like we do today. There just wasn't enough critical mass of each variety to need more words. If it sounded like video game music, it was techno. Today, you would probably never associate EDM with video games, right? Back then though, the sound of a basic synth was heavily tied to video games, to Americans at least.

Some knew it as electronica, too. In that era, this was the reigning umbrella term, synonymous to us saying electronic music. I believe it was spread by niche "electronica" websites (the Geocities type) as well as the now-defunct garageband.com and other amateur music production sites, where artists were asked to pick from a scanty list of genres to classify their creations—often it was a choice between techno, dance, and electronica.

In high school and college, though I can't speak for the older demographic, listening to this "techno" (outside of playing Dance Dance Revolution) was shunned, and made you some cross between a nerd gamer, weeaboo*, and goth (not makeup-wise, but reputation and fashion-wise). It really was a "closet" genre as OP put it. I kept my Kazaa / Morpheus (pre-BitTorrent) finds to myself.

* This may not be PC, but kids were pretty brutal in the 90s. I've been called much worse for listening to electronic music.

2. A look at nightlife 2000s versus 2010s: Things definitely changed, besides graduating from college and suddenly embracing the mainstream.

I was in upstate New York though, so maybe that wasn't the case everywhere. So I interviewed a friend from NYC and another from Des Moines. Both experienced the uncoolness of techno. But maybe in a city like Miami, which has hosted Ultra Music Festival (UMF) since 1999, or cities with huge entertainment industries like Vegas and LA, there might've been less stigma about techno. Regardless, I tend to believe that nightlife still wasn't dominated by techno.

For a teen growing up in the 2000s, "going to the club" meant: hip hop, maybe punk. In 2016 now, it means a DJ from Berlin spinning minimal or house, anywhere we go. [2020 update: And now it's techno.] That's why I don't think it's just post-college migrations, something every age cohort goes through in the same way.

Mainstream changed dramatically in America, EDM coming to the forefront of nightlife as well as mainstream outlets, and becoming accessible to a demographic that included teens, finally eradicating the 2000s stigma against techno.

3. Mainstream's evolution in the early to mid-2000s.

In the early 2000s, amidst a lot of R&B, boy bands, this guy, there was Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Outkast, and others whose music revived a bit of the "dance" aspect in mainstream. Maybe not quite four-to-the-floor, but the production was increasingly picking up elements that already existed in "modern" electronica: compressed kicks, percussive delays and verbs, synths and pads. There was also Daft Punk, though, in my neck of the woods, they didn't get big until their Discovery album in 2005 (and gained another surge of followers post-Kanye); and Eric Prydz's Call on Me.

I think it's possible that these developments in the early to mid-2000s may have "primed" Americans—even those who don't typically listen to the radio—to embrace a more energetic and "constant" style of music, in contrast to rocky, funky, or hip-hoppy variants also competing for mainstream in that era.

In 2008 I happened to hear Miley Cyrus's "See You Again". In it you can hear the budding semi-EDM mainstream of the 2000s as well as the EDM of today—besides the four-to-the-floor, the "and of" kicks reminiscent of techno, also the saw bass (nowadays mostly recognized in dubstep).

4. The evolution of electronic music technology in the 2000s.

Let's skip over to another side of things: production.

By now, we've all heard of or used FL Studio. In 2007, it was enough to send a bedroom producer to MTV, remember?

FL Studio is very easy (and pretty) to use. With a plugin called Soundgoodizer...

enter image description here

...you literally pick A, B, C, or D, and turn the dial for intensity, and it will inject umph into your kick and bass, while filling the headroom to make your track sound wide and full. All without a drop of audio engineering knowledge.

Such innovations attracted a large following of music hobbyists who wanted to try their hand at production. One of them was Alpha 9, now known as Arty, who release his trance tracks Bliss and Come Home in 2009 and 2010, both produced on FL Studio. Many migrated to more "professional" DAWs like Ableton, Logic, and Cubase, further dismantling the perceived wall between the home versus industry user.

Besides FL Studio, plugin developers were writing some great software. The famed mastering plugins iZotope Ozone and Mercury Waves were both released between 2005 and 2007. LennarDigital Sylenth1 came out in 2007. Native Instruments Massive came out in 2007. Everything happened in 2007, and I'm not even cherry-picking yet.

(Maybe producers at multi-million dollar studios were also noticing these new technologies, and that was part of the mainstream pop transition. But probably the bigger factor was that EDM-ized music was selling more records and views.)

5. Satellite Radio

We're almost there, hang in there.

In most locations in America in the mid-2000s, there were probably no FM stations dedicated to electronica. But EDM was already playing on a station called The Beat (now known as BPM), and progressive house and trance were playing on a station called Area 63/33 (now known as Electric Area).

When Sirius and XM merged in 2007-2008, there was a surge in subscriptions, further increasing access to electronica, whose content was dominated by European DJs such as Tiesto and Armin van Buuren. By 2010, Sirius XM made BPM and Electric Area available to 20 million American subscribers.

6. Electric Zoo, NYC, 2009

One last piece before we tie everything together.

UMF and EDC were two electronic music festivals that were always there, and others I'm sure. But, for most Americans far away from Miami and LA, these events were things we might view like Ibiza or Amsterdam: a trip. Something you actually plan, to go party somewhere, where they're gonna play "party" music, which you normally don't listen to at home, because the closest thing you know about is mainstream pop, or whatever. [*For those born in the late 80s and 90s.]

But in 2009, as an example, the first Electric Zoo changed that for New Yorkers.

Even then, I didn't have any friends who (admitted to) listening to electronica, save one. I felt the stigma and scorn against listening to electronica in high school, just as OP did. One day, my younger sister, who I wasn't very close with, asked me if I was interested in going to a music festival. She then cautiously revealed it was an electronic music festival. We were both weirded out that we had both been listening to electronic music in secret for all these years—she, too, felt like she couldn't tell anyone.

The next morning, there were articles about the event in every tabloid, people talking about it at work: some kind of giant light show the whole Upper East Side of Manhattan could see and hear.

The next year, they pushed the main stage back hundreds of feet to make space for thousands more. The scramble for tickets on Craigslist started a whole month before, and unlike 2009, almost every area, even outside the tents and stage areas, were packed. The transformation happened in New York City precisely between 2009 and 2010.

Then in 2011 alone, three new festivals launched: Electric Forest (Michigan), Escape from Wonderland (South Carolina), and Dancefestopia (Kansas). In 2013, Belgium's Tomorrowland launched TomorrowWorld (Atlanta). By this time, all the boutique festivals already directed festival-goers' attentions to the Big Leagues: EDC and UMF. EDC launched EDC New York, EDC Chicago, and possibly others. There's Holy Ship!, whenever that started. Here's a full list.

In the 2000s, going to an electronic music festival wasn't something every kid wanted to do. In the 2010s, it pretty much is, and almost compulsive in NYC, e.g. "Are you going to Electric Zoo this year?". So now we have a compelling social element to add to the mix.

Tying everything together! (2020 Update)

Those of us born in the late 80s or 90s in America missed an entire era of electronica as mainstream radio and TV had shifted completely to rock and hip hop by the time our young selves were exploring our identities in music. Then in the 2000s alone,

  • Pop began to incorporate more and more dance elements (but we still couldn't connect it back to the 80s since it was never in our repertoire),
  • DAW technologies boomed, and everyone and their moms became bedroom producers (remember Madeon?—he was a toddler at that time),
  • and Sirius XM came bundled with cars providing a direct channel to European EDM (it was always big there!) through stations like Area and BPM.

Finally, at the turn of the decade entering the 2010s, there was a sudden explosion of electronic music festivals. I consider these years—between 2009 and 2013—to be the delineation that ushered in the age of modern EDM.

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If it was so uncool, and almost nerdy to listen to electronica in 2005...

The genre name electronica might be relatively recent, but wildly popular music that can be considered "electronic music" goes back at least until the 80s. Once drum machines became popular (in the late 70s and definitely by the 80s), primarly or 100% synthesized music became mainstream pretty quickly.

In 1981, the sountrack to Chariots of Fire won the Academy Award for best soundtrack. In 1983, Electric Avenue by Eddy Grant hit number 2 on both the US and UK charts. In 1984, Lucky Star by Madonna hit number 4 in the US (yes there is guitar on the track). In 1985, Axel F by Harold Faltermeyer was an international number 1 hit and was part of the soundtrack of a very popular film starring Eddie Murphy (Beverly Hills Cop). Also through the late 70s and 80s, electronic music production formed the basis of rap and the new kinds of R&B. In 1990, Depeche Mode (a firmly electronic band) hit number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 with Enjoy the Silence.

While grunge (and it's inherent rejection of electronic and synthesized instruments) was taking over the radio in the 90s, electronic music maintained popularity and grew in new ways. Bands like Skinny Puppy and KMFDM firmly established the Industrial genre (which add metal-style guitars to primarily electronic production), while Ministry and Nine Inch Nails crossed over with more accessible music that still had roots in Industrial (many would consider Ministry to still be firmly Industrial, just with more popularity than many other bands, NIN might best be described as "pop-industrial").

At the same time, and more underground, amateur and professional musicians (primarily in Europe, as far as I know) were jumping into music production on home personal computers. In the early 90s, "demos" (electronic music combined with computer animation into little videos) became quite popular and were made on Amiga and other personal computers by enthusiasts of all levels, and then traded on the Internet (this is before MP3s or the World Wide Web were invented - we traded demos using Archie and FTP on AT&T Unix System V servers).

So much was going on in electronic music in the 90s that I just can't even summarize it. Bands like Electronic, LA Style, C&C Music Factory, The KLF, The Prodigy, and many others I can't remember right now had genre hits, MTV hits, and minor crossover hits. All this while the technology was advancing so quickly most professionals didn't even try to keep up with it (and many outright rejected it, and still do to this day). This was laying the ground work for what we've seen in the last 15 years, like dubstep.

Today, everybody and their brother is making and listening to electronica, although we've really be listening to it for over 30 years, we just don't call it that when it's put out by Madonna. And all the music I've mentioned above was definitely cool, at least in certain circles.

Let's get back to your question, and the important part of your question is quoted here (emphasis mine):

I was an American teenager, and I knew very few people who shared my preference for electronic music - it was a fringe genre at best. Fast forward to college in 2012, and ever since electronic has been very well in or close to the mainstream.

Welcome to modern (American?) music culture. And by "modern", I mean "how it's been since at least 1960". At least in the US, high school music culture is very clique-ish. You have your metalheads, and your electronica nerds, and the "total losers" (who are actually awesome) who love Weird Al and the Beach Boys, and everyone else at least pretends to like Pop, Alternative, R&B, and Hip Hop, more or less. A hallmark of high school culture is that if you're not "cool", you're the worst. And "cool" is pretty much what the 1% - 5% most popular people think it is, whatever that is.

College is totally different. In college, it can be uncool to listen to Pop, and for many people, the more obscure the music is, the better. My experience was that hardly anyone liked bands like The Cure until I went to college and heard all kinds of music that I didn't even know existed and everyone loved The Cure and The Pixies and TLC, etc.

So the answer to your question is that, more or less, the popularity of Electronica overall has not changed. You just changed environments and moved away from a culture where anything not firmly mainstream was derided and towards a culture where individuality and other ideas are more highly valued.

This cultural difference between college and high school in the US is well-known in the music industry. College radio is a very important nationwide "market" for certain kinds of music, and college towns and college gigs are very important for up-and-coming bands. There's even a joke about it in the movie This Is Spinal Tap. They are talking in the limo and the manager says, "Oh, and the Boston gig is cancelled." The band looks very disappointed until the manager says, "That's ok, Boston's not a big college town, anyway." The joke being that in reality, Boston is possibly the biggest college town in the country.

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  • 1
    +1 for zeroing in on the OP's change in age and context. You might want to add this citation to your post, it definitely backs up your argument: newsweek.com/… – Chris Sunami supports Monica Jul 27 '16 at 17:33
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    Hm, I disagree wholly! (No disrespect. You helped me quite immensely re: gain knobs, at music.se.) I'll have to write my own answer... – Andrew Cheong Aug 2 '16 at 2:08
  • I should clarify the change in age and "college realization". I first attended college from 2006 to 2009 and music then was largely unchanged from high school. This change in environment did not bring about significant change in music (that I noticed). I then took 3 years off and returned to college in 2012--this is when I noticed the big difference. I still had all my peers and friends from before, but being planted into college a mere 3 years later presented drastically different themes in the popular music. – Trevor D Aug 22 '16 at 16:33
  • Years later, I think I finally realized the disconnect. I think on the whole you were right, but there was an additional, circumstantial factor. This: For kids born in the late 80s and 90s, (I'm '87 and OP is probably '88), radio and MTV had completely shifted to grunge, rock, and hip hop when we were exploring our identity in music. The entire era of synths and electronica preceding the 90s was invisible to us. I think that's why OP and I experienced what we did. Clique-ish niche groups were not electronica for our generation—it was emo, metal at best—electronica literally didn't exist to us. – Andrew Cheong Jul 10 at 11:42
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Most mainstream crazes have a pre-life as the niche enthusiasm of a small subgroup. In this particular case, as with certain other formerly nerdy activities such as computer gaming, the decisive factor is perhaps the increasingly mainstream influence of cutting edge technology on popular culture.

Your timeline seems far too recent, however. If there was a significant shift in mainstream popularity for electronica, I would have estimated it to have happened far earlier.

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As an avid listener of electronic music(techno, house, IDM, noise, etc) I would say this generation's idea of electronic as portrayed in the mainstream media is vastly different from the underground of today. I would even say the comparison between the "darknet" and the "internet" in terms of size could be used here.

I'm sure everyone has heard of Calvin Harris or Bassnectar. But when was the last time you heard about kids geeking out over Aphex Twin or Surgeon? These guys are pioneers on the scene but they are still active and successful producers today and loved by fans of electronic music.

And that hardly scratches the surface of electronic music today. Some genres have only been invented recently(footwork comes to mind), that while have a large following, is grossly overwhelmed by the number of people who listen to the artists you mentioned or today's 'EDM'.

Feel free to call me an elitist, but kids these days don't actively love or even like electronic music, they like what's popular. And with the technology we have today, it's incredibly easy and inexpensive to make 'electronic' music.

I would go so far as to say that interest in electronic music in the U.S. has been dying or has stagnated since the late 90's.

If I were to sum this up in a few words, I would say popular music in general has become more electronic by nature. But people haven't started listening to more electronic music.

Take this with a grain of salt as I believe all of today's mainstream electronic music(pop music) is commercial fodder to generate revenue.

My dad was also a big fan and DJ/Producer of trance music, and he feels the same way I do if that helps.

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  • Welcome to the site! I feel this could be a very good answer if it was rewritten a bit to tighten it up and take out some of the more opinion based material. Essentially you're saying that while current mainstream pop has an electronic sound, it hasn't had a huge impact on the popularity of more authentic electronica, which is an interesting perspective, if true. You might also want to add some citations to back that claim up. – Chris Sunami supports Monica Aug 2 '16 at 17:33
  • Thanks for the comment! It is definitely opinion based because of my attachment to the scene haha. Sorry about that. I would like to say though, just because the fans of this style of mainstream EDM aren't listening to authentic electronic music, the underground scene is seeing a rebirth as of right now. It's kind of contradictory but I would say there's an independent rise in underground culture. This medium article gives a few numbers on the amount of festival goers to underground and EDM events: medium.com/cuepoint/… – Patrick Aug 4 '16 at 15:54
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I will admit I am one of those who is a huge fan of the general EDM/Techno genre. I believe it is a growing genre because of the huge boost in artists and styles it brings to the table; almost to the point where its almost a crime to put it all under the label of ¨Techno¨ or ¨EDM¨.

Name the ¨feel¨ or ¨desire¨ of a song you want to listen to and there´s always gonna be a techno song to match. There´s sad, slow techno songs, bass pounding speed songs, and everything in between. Its easy to find a little niche community who shares the same musical tastes as you online, which also adds to the sense of belonging or popularity.

It also helps the fact it is easy to make and refine such songs; also creating further depth of adding remixes of already interesting songs, and ends up in a smoothie of each artist´s styles, allowing for a much more immersive experience.

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