Inside an airplane hangar deep in Pacoima last Saturday night, 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 will back up his main-stage set this weekend at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. As Kaskade — born Ryan Raddon — positioned his DJ rigging inside it, a few 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 scale of the stage equipment.
Raddon’s handlers stressed that details of this setup were still under wraps and being finalized. But as the LED screens burst with color and filled the vast, hollow space with light, it was clear his 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.” Raddon said. “But this is such a highly regarded festival. I’ll be playing a club in Hong Kong and everyone backstage wants to ask me about Coachella.”
This weekend’s performance will be Raddon’s fourth time at the festival, and by now he is synonymous with the American dance music boom of the last decade. He’s headlined almost every major U.S. dance music festival, and he was the first EDM act to headline Staples Center.
Raddon kicked off the Las Vegas megabucks EDM residency trend in 2011 at the Cosmopolitan’s venue Marquee, and that same year he unexpectedly 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 a number of pop artists, including Lana Del Rey and Beyoncé, and became one of the top live draws in a global dance music industry worth an estimated $6.2 billion, according to the industry group IMS.
But his forthcoming Coachella set also poses 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?
On Saturday night, Raddon kicked back on a tiny couch during a break in his prep work. Raddon grew up in Chicago but became a son of Southern California (he lives in L.A. and spent years based in beachy San Clemente). In a music scene with a reputation for hedonism, the 44-year-old is famously a teetotaler Mormon husband and father. He’s also an old hand at playing to festival crowds (he’s headlined the EDM-focused Electric Daisy Carnival, which draws even bigger crowds).
But he acknowledges 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 America has grown up along with it.
“I recently saw some old pictures of my first time playing [Coachella] in 2006,” he said. “There was just a card table and a black curtain onstage.”
Now EDM is often 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 fest’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 drives the festival’s ongoing popularity.
That’s in large part because of the kind of sound and spectacle that Raddon 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. After Raddon began his ascent, younger acts like Zedd and Avicii have used similar styles to scale the top-40 charts and major festival stages.
Raddon recently shifted record labels, from the 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 is 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,” said Jeff Fenster, executive vice president of AR 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.”
The view from Raddon’s eventual set on the Coachella stage looks pretty good in 2015. But now his elite EDM peers, so foundational to the genre’s rise in America, are having to re-invent themselves to stay appealing to young crowds, for whom dance music is a default sound and not a new discovery.
As new festivals like San Diego’s recent CRSSD Fest prove that edgier, darker dance sounds can draw big crowds, audiences may someday tune out the first wave of pop-friendly EDM acts like Kaskade.
That’s a fate Raddon is focused on avoiding. He’s been pushing audiences lately — his new single “Never Sleep Alone” is a twisty, 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,” Raddon said. “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.”
As Raddon’s rehearsal rolled on, he eventually bid his visitors goodbye and returned to the enormous pillars of light flanking his stage setup. Raddon, in his purple hoodie and flip-flops, looked very small beside them. But then again, in the dance music business today, a little perspective is important.