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The Problem With Mainstream EDM Festivals

John Digweed, AC Slater and Paul Van Dyk discuss the issue with modern dance shows with MTV News.

With reporting by Andrew Maclean

MIAMI -- With nearly 165,000 music-lovers attending 2015's Ultra Music Festival this weekend in Miami, you know organizers must be doing something right. As people poured in from all over the globe, the world's best DJs and producers took their spots behind the turntables for one of the biggest EDM events of the year. Ultra sets the standard for fests coming later in the summer, and it's a platform for DJs to showcase what they've been working on. What's the problem with that?

As a first-time EDM reveler, I thought I would know few of the songs played at Ultra. But as I walked around, I found myself mouthing the words to songs like Zedd's "Clarity," Nicki Minaj's "Feelin' Myself" and, of course DJ Snake and Lil Jon's "Turn Down For What" -- songs I would hear on the radio. And I wasn't alone: I saw people singing along as they bounced up and down and shuffled around. But fans positively lost their minds when any hugely popular song came on during DJ sets.

This is an issue, according to some DJs, like 2001's World No. 1 DJ, John Digweed, who told MTV News that main-stage talent should be spinning lesser-known records to broaden the musical scope of their listeners.

"If you're the biggest DJ in the world, you're in a position where you can play stuff that people don't know and blow people's minds, but if you just chose to play stuff they know just to get a reaction, that's just being lazy," Digweed said, directing his comment toward main-stage artists. "There's no challenge there."

Digweed admitted that when he took the Carl Cox stage on Saturday, he played records he had only downloaded that afternoon, saying that policy is what earned him the top DJ title in the past. But it's not like that anymore.

"Now you could be the No. 1 DJ and everyone knows your records in your set from start to finish before you've gone onstage, so there's no surprise there," Digweed said.

Antics aren't necessary

More and more DJs though, base their show around spectacle. Steve Aoki, a main-stage artist, is known for incorporating new technology into every show -- and most famously, he's known for "caking" his fans, chucking frosted, party-sized cakes into the audience and leaving attendees sticky and sweet. At Aoki's set on Saturday, he had a drone fly over the massive crowd and instructed fans to point their phone flashlight toward the sky. The attempt to capture a twinkling audience on video failed however, since the sun hadn't set yet.

These antics, Grammy-winning DJ Paul Van Dyk says, are unnecessary. Instead, the artists should just allow the music speak for itself.

"I'm not part of that EDM culture -- I'm not playing these pre-programmed sets and I'm not throwing cake at anyone," Van Dyk told MTV News. "I can't tell you anything about that."

The everlasting debate of authenticity

As for the pre-programmed sets -- many DJs have denied that they just "press play" once they get onstage. Back in 2012, Deadmau5 admitted to doing it for the sake of a safe, successful, entertaining show. In a blog outing the "button pushers," he wrote, "I dont have any shame in admitting that for 'unhooked' sets.. i just roll up with a laptop and a midi controller and 'select' tracks n hit a spacebar."

This weekend at Ultra, Mau5 called out Krewella, who, in addition to playing a live set with drums and vocals, had their DJ element. Although the sister duo later debunked his theory (and that of others on the Internet), he charged that their equipment was unplugged, insinuating that they were just pretending to DJ. This debate about authenticity is nothing new in the world of EDM, and it rolls on.

The DJ's duty

Part of this argument over authenticity includes Digweed's and Van Dyk's view on playing more obscure music. In Van Dyk's eyes, it's the DJs' duty:

"I think it is our responsibility as DJs to dig through all those thousands and thousands of tracks that come out each week and pick out the ones that actually mean something," he said.

When we talked to AC Slater a day later, he agreed, but he explained that Ultra-goers don't make the trip to the festival to hear new music -- they come for what they already know and love.

"I play a lot of new stuff that people probably don't know, trying out new things, seeing how it goes down," Slater said. "As I fan, I love going out and hearing brand-new stuff that I've never heard before. It's exciting -- you're like, 'What is this?'"

What he's saying makes sense. Mainstream festivals are for a mainstream audience, not for people digging for the underground scene. When you go to a concert, don't you like getting down and singing along to the tracks you love? In a way, it brings people together. When everyone is in on a song together, they all have something in common. Slater said that DJs should keep this approach, but also mix in new tracks, introducing them to new stuff. It's a balance, he said.

"Ultra crowd, they really want to hear hits and songs they know," Slater said. "But it's nice to try to get them to open up and accept new music. And you know, sprinkle some recognizable songs in there for sure."

So what do you think? Are mainstream festivals plagued with stale hits? Tell us in the comments!