Year in Summary: The Trends That Defined Dance Music in 2021

As we turn the page on 2021, we look back on what was a very mixed bag of highs and lows. Sure, anything beats 2020, but we still have a ways to go before things are totally back to normal. We actually skipped this feature last year because there was nothing fun to think about from 2020. The dance music scene went through many changes since COVID hit, and we’ll talk about those here.

Getting Back to Normal – Sort Of

It’s funny how quickly things change. A month or two ago, it seemed pretty safe to say we were nearing the end of the COVID nightmare. In many ways, 2021 saw us begin to emerge from the doldrums of 2020. The vaccine began to roll out and suddenly things began to move again. All credit goes to Disco Donnie’s Ubbi Dubbi festival for being the “first festival back” in April of 2021.

From there, Miami took off once again with Secret Project/III Points in May and the full re-opening of Club Space. After Miami and Texas showed it could be done, the rest of the country began to open up relatively quickly. By July, America was wide open for business with events back in almost full swing. Then the Delta variant emerged as a new concern and things began to plunge into uncertainty again.

Europe continued to struggle with the constant pendulum swings between open and closed, freedom and lockdown. Sadly, Tomorrowland 2021 was called off as a result even while Creamfields went off without a hitch in August. Back in America, cities like New York, DC, Chicago, LA, and San Francisco began laying down new restrictions.

Despite it all, we managed to see a good amount of major festivals like EDC Vegas, Creamfields, EXIT Festival, EDC Orlando, ARC Music Festival, and more. Eventgoers grew used to some degree of uncertainty but things ran relatively well.

Now as we close 2021 we have some places like Florida and Texas that remain completely open and ready to host full-scale festivals once again (Ultra is back!), but we also have Europe and Australia closing down businesses and locking down once again because of Omicron. New York, DC, Chicago, and LA are all employing relatively strict mask and vaccine requirements, with eyes towards scaling down major events. Now our attention turns towards those early 2022 events like ASOT1000 Utrecht and Tomorrowland Winter. We hope these governments come to their senses and allow people to enjoy themselves.

It’s Now Totally Acceptable to Cancel/Change Events With Minimal Notice

Postponed Due to Current Circumstances

Besides the literal lockdowns we see across Australia and Europe, this is definitely the worst trend that COVID gave us in 2021. Since almost every festival and/or DJ had to cancel an event in 2020 (and maybe also 2021), there is no longer any shame or trepidation in last-minute cancelations or major event changes. In fact, there’s a built-in excuse.

Before 2020 a festival cancelation happened only due to extreme weather or a major lack of ticket sales. If a festival was canceled at the last minute, it was safe to assume that the festival was finished. Now if you have poor ticket sales you can just blame “current circumstances” or say some DJs got sick. It’s hard to put into words how much this sucks as an event-goer in 2022.

We pay hundreds or even thousands to buy festival tickets, flights, hotel rooms, alcohol, accessories – and now all of those plans are subject to change at almost any time, leaving you holding the bag financially. Your festival could be canceled or impose last-minute onerous restrictions. Your festival could even change locations from a camping venue in Okeechobee, Florida to Orlando several hours north – as Insomniac did with their Countdown NYE event. At the very least it’s safe to expect last-minute lineup changes at your event if multiple DJs are involved. Sadly we’re still not at a point where you can feel secure in your festival plans, and that won’t change until we see an entire year’s slate of events go off without incident.

It remains to be seen how this will affect event sales overall, but in the recent term, attendance has been decreasing at events due to uncertainty and constantly changing circumstances across the board. When making plans to travel to an event in 2022 make sure all of your travel arrangements are refundable.

Insomniac Takeover

You may not have noticed, but between the time before COVID and “post-COVID” EDC’s Insomniac basically took over the entire American dance music events scene. It’s getting pretty close to being a monopoly in the dance music events scene. Insomniac, via Live Nation, started its takeover with South Florida. While UItra Music Festival was completely MIA, it acquired a controlling stake in Club Space, promoter group Link Miami Rebels, and Okeechobee Music Festival. Then, Link Miami Rebels expanded its footprint to new outdoor venues, Space Park and Factory Town. As soon as the vaccine became readily available, Insomniac began using all of these venues for new events. By October, Insomniac was running the city/region.

Thus, Insomniac launched its east coast division that also came to own Club Glow and Echostage in DC, The Vanguard in Orlando, and more. By the time events started returning in May, pretty much all of them were Insomniac events. In addition to the East coast growth, Insomniac gained outdoor venues in Las Vegas and LA that began hosting events nearly every week.

Most of the festivals that went off in 2021 were affiliated in some way with Insomniac, and the company even managed to successfully stage its full-scale EDC Vegas in October. It’s impressive, to say the least, but let’s hope Insomniac doesn’t let the monopoly powers get to its head.

Small Destination Festivals Dominate the Scene

If an event in 2021 wasn’t an Insomniac event, chances are it was a destination festival in Mexico. Perhaps it was the ever-changing restriction landscape across most of the US, but pretty much every festival brand and artist decided to try their hand at a Mexican resort event. Lax restrictions, beautiful weather, and all-inclusive resorts made this possible. Oh yeah….and Pollen. Pollen is a company that specializes in setting up these destination festivals in places like Cancun, Tulum, Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas, and more. However, occasional spurts of drug cartel violence threaten to damage the appeal of these events.

In 2021 it’s not enough for a DJ to have a label, a podcast, a YouTube channel, and a Twitch account – you also need to have your own headline destination festival put on by Pollen. Tiesto, Kygo, deadmau5, and Illenium are just a few of the artists that decided to go this route, and it’s been extremely popular. You get a tight-knit group, a hotel right near all the action, beautiful beaches, and an experience curated by your favorite artist. Pollen even had events in Miami and planned events on the island nation of Malta.

Many festival brands decided to try Mexico spin-offs too – from Electric Zoo to Spring Awakening. However several of these events ended up being canceled. Perhaps the trend is becoming worn out already.

Nobody Cares About Your Virtual/AR/Metaverse/Multiverse Festival

W&W “Extended Reality” live stream event

One of the worst trends to come out of the pandemic lockdowns was virtual festivals. Sure, in a world where the government has literally forced all festivals, clubs, bars, and even restaurants to close down indefinitely this type of event makes sense. But besides that dystopian sci-fi scenario we all lived through for several months, virtual festivals are boring and nobody cares about them.

As soon as real events started happening again, the idea of a digital festival became somewhat laughable. As a blog, we field hundreds of requests from artists, festivals, etc that continued to push digital “events” long after they became stale. Of course, the teams that invested lots of time and money into developing these digital platforms had to add some pizazz to make them stay somewhat relevant. Instead of a regular stream set from the DJ’s kitchen, it was an AR set or a performance within the “metaverse” or “multiverse” – something to make it sounds exciting! Essentially, it was a DJ set that is probably pre-recorded and digitalized in a video-game style environment that you watch on your screen. When you think about it – there’s really nothing groundbreaking there because video games have had these types of features in one weird form or another for years. While the metaverse is a popular buzzword these days, we are a long way away from Avatar-style escapism that can compare to the real thing. That being said, Tomorrowland came as close as anybody can to pulling this off. The Tomorrowland digital festivals were top notch and you could see how that platform may be useful on some sort of ongoing basis.

David Guetta’s United At Home stream series

Stream sets were nifty for a little while, and the DJ set videos from beautiful places are still appreciated, but the reason dance music exploded in the first place was the festival atmosphere. People crave the togetherness they feel with other dance music fans feeling the same things at the same time. The excitement of hearing a new track together for the first time is something that a DJ set on a screen can never replicate.

Stop Trying to Make NFTs a Thing

The other most annoying thing to come out of the pandemic was the NFT trend. Without show bookings, DJs had few ways to make an income. Without show bookings, it was harder for DJs to encourage fans to purchase Beatport tracks or merchandise either. Thus the entire music industry dove headfirst into the world of NFTs. In the simplest terms, an NFT is like a digital version of fine-art collecting. You pay money to get the official version, and everybody else just gets a knockoff. In concept it makes sense, but does anybody really care whether the GIF you have is the original one or not? No.

In addition to receiving hundreds of pitches for virtual festivals, blogs received hundreds of pitches from DJs, festivals, labels, and publicists pushing something NFT-related. Every DJ you can think of tried their hand at something with the buzzword in it. Maybe they commissioned a little art piece or made a track into an NFT or sold event tickets as NFTs. Either way, everybody was trying desperately to make NFTs a thing, and a way to make money. To keep the hype going, you saw dozens of articles about NFTs being “sold” for obscene amounts of money.

While the NFT concept probably has some smart future use cases and seems to work well for preventing fake event tickets, it’s safe to say NFTs are not ready yet to become a phenomenon in the dance music community. The wave of NFT stories has died down, at least within the dance music scene. Now everybody is “paying” obscene amounts of money for digital objects in the “metaverse”. Soon enough the two worst trends of 2021 will be combined together.

Swedish House Mafia Returns, Daft Punk Quits

In 2021 dance music’s most recognizable group acts both made major news for opposite reasons. Way back in 2013 Swedish House Mafia called it quits and Daft Punk released a new album. Now all the way forward in 2021 Swedish House Mafia returns with new music and an album on the way while Daft Punk calls it quits. Is it possible to live up to the hypes that these groups have created?

Swedish House Mafia has had some stumbles since their 2018 reunion, and you could say they returned with a whimper rather than a bang. Their 2019 world tour had several canceled shows and fans found it a bit formulaic. Now the trio has reunited for real with new music and even an album on the way. That being said, it’s hard to say that SHM today feels like it did back in 20212. Their first show since 2019 was canceled when 2 of the trio caught COVID, then the second show back was canceled when iHeartMedia pulled out of CES over COVID fears. Looks like the Swedes will make their big return at Coachella. Ditching the anthemic house music for radio plays might be good for business, but it remains to be seen how it will all translate to the new album tour. We’re crossing our fingers for a slew of club mixes to come for these singles.

Daft Punk clearly decided the hype had gotten away from them. Rather than fail to live up to the hype with a new tour/show, the duo has called it quits. We have no idea what lies ahead for either of the Daft Punk members, but we know their talent remains unmatched.

Everybody Has an Underground Alias Now

At this point, techno is the new “EDM” (any by “EDM” we mean commercialized mainstage dance music). That is, the underground music scene has all of the vibrancy and excitement that the mainstage EDM scene had in the early 2010s. Numerous events with impressive lineups, reasonable prices for events, long sets, minimal interruptions for DJs to talk on the mic, and friendly crowds. This trend had begun before the pandemic, but by the end of 2021 almost every DJ playing the mainstage had adopted an “underground” or alternative alias. You’re more than likely to see one of these artists at a techno festival or see some sort of underground music being played on the mainstage. Zedd and Alesso remain the most notable exceptions. The following DJs have “underground” aliases or have switched to techno/underground music.

  • Tiesto (VERWEST)
  • David Guetta (Jack Back)
  • Calvin Harris (Love Regenerator)
  • deadmau5 (testpilot)
  • Nicky Romero (Monocule)
  • Oliver Heldens (HI LO)
  • Sander van Doorn (Purple Haze)
  • ARTY (Alpha 9)
  • Martin Garrix (YTRAM)
  • Armin van Buuren (Gaia, Rising Star)
  • Afrojack (Kapuchon)
  • Steve Aoki (Ninja Attack)
  • W&W (NWYR)
  • Danny Avila (same name)
  • Carnage (GORDO)
  • Eric Prydz (Pryda, Cirez D, Tonja Holma)

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