Katie Bain Has Spent Her Career Covering EDM; There's More to It Than You Think
a.k.a. An in-depth interview with the director of Billboard Dance.
EDM has never been my beat, and neither has much of anything else that pertains to electronic music’s overtly commercial sphere. Considering my age and background—I’m someone who literally first went to raves in the ’90s and came of age worshipping at the altar of independent music culture—I suppose that’s not terribly surprising. Even as electronic music has exploded in popularity (and profitability), limiting the effectiveness of terms like “underground,” my perspective continues to be colored by a certain set of (admittedly idealized and possibly outdated) DIY and anti-commercial values. (It was only a few months ago that I wrote an entire essay about why I didn’t review the new Skrillex album.)
Does that create a level of bias in my work? Probably, and I’ll openly cop to the fact that there are facets of electronic music I don’t even try to engage with, simply because they’re not to my particular taste. What’s strange, however, is that many of these facets—especially the ones related to EDM and dance music’s more commercial tier—oftentimes aren’t being covered elsewhere either. Most dance / electronic music publications (e.g. Resident Advisor, Crack, FACT, The Quietus, Inverted Audio, Ransom Note, etc.) are focused on the genre’s “underground” sphere (or whatever passes for “underground” these days), and even outlets like Mixmag and DJ Mag, which previously championed the Ibiza circuit and glossy tech house / trance stars, have notably shifted their coverage away from the genre’s more commercial corners in recent years.
The dance music industry is arguably bigger now than it’s ever been (at least on a financial level), but even the more mainstream publications don’t seem all that interested in covering it. Outlets like Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and broadsheet newspapers are theoretically supposed to be covering everything, and in the wake of the past decade’s poptimist push, have made mainstream pop music and other blatantly commercial sounds central to their editorial offerings. These places have no problem highlighting the latest exploits of Taylor Swift, Rihanna and The Weeknd—and to their credit, the best publications manage, at least occasionally, to do so thoughtfully and with real nuance—but when it comes to dance / electronic music, their dedicated coverage frequently shies away from the genre’s largest events and most popular contemporary acts, instead prioritizing established icons and trendy, relatively niche figures.
To cite an example, during the past two months, Pitchfork has run features on Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, Avalon Emerson, Stephen O’Malley’s drone festival, Marta Salgoni, Everything but the Girl and Ryuichi Sakamoto. (The site’s electronic music reviews also skew heavily towards “underground” acts.) During that same period, the new album from Illenium—an American electronic artist who routinely sells out stadiums—hasn’t been mentioned.
This is not a complaint! Speaking as someone who generally doesn’t love blatantly commercial electronic sounds or identify with that aspect of the culture / industry, this kind of editorial strategy coincides nicely with my personal tastes. I was pleasantly surprised when the New York Times profiled ambient / experimental hero Tim Hecker a few weeks ago, and wouldn’t necessarily prefer that attention be shifted to the likes of Deadmau5 and Steve Aoki instead.
At the same time, is what’s happening not profoundly weird? In a time where music publications are constantly chasing clicks, and are increasingly reliant on social media to deliver pageviews, the choice to not engage with EDM and commercial dance music—which, again, is hugely popular in a way that most artists featured on sites like Resident Advisor never will be—feels like a giant missed opportunity. This music (and its attendant culture / industry) is profoundly impactful, and yet it’s largely being ignored by the press. Even if individual music journalists themselves don’t like this stuff (which is almost certainly the case), it does seem like such a mass cultural movement merits some level of formal documentation, and in an ideal world, genuine critical engagement.
This is a topic I’ve written about before, and have also previously discussed with fellow music scribe Gabriel Szatan, but after recently meeting another journalist, Katie Bain, I was compelled to revisit the issue once again. A veteran writer based in Los Angeles, Bain is currently the director of Billboard Dance, which makes her arguably the most prominent editorial figure in dance music’s commercial realm. (For the record, she also holds a second title: Senior Correspondent, Music.)
Knowing that, I jumped at the chance to speak with her, and over the course of a long call last week (and a few supplementary conversations in the days that followed), we talked not just about the day-to-day realities of her job at Billboard, but her thoughts on the seeming gulf between electronic music’s commercial and “underground” spheres. Having been on the proverbial front lines of EDM for quite some time, Bain is well aware of the critiques often hurled at commercial dance music, and during our discussion she addressed them directly, providing an inside look at the genre, its undeniable popularity and its many shortcomings, both real and assumed. By devoting herself to a lane of electronic music that’s often scoffed at or ignored, she’s become something of a singular figure, and the knowledge and insight she’s gained along the way provides plenty of food for thought—even for those of us who long ago dismissed EDM and its various offshoots.