The word "tastemaker" is never far from Jason Bentley's name, and that’s with good reason. Perhaps best known as music director for LA NPR affiliate KCRW and host of its influential music programs "Morning Becomes Eclectic" and "Metropolis," Bentley has made separate careers of music supervision for film and advertising, as well as DJing nightclubs and music festivals.
This week, he returns as host and co-curator of the second annual EDMbiz conference, part of Insomniac's EDC Week. The two-day, three-night event at the Cosmopolitan features panels, keynotes, presentations and parties centered on the burgeoning dance music industry and the culture surrounding it.
Now that EDMbiz is in its second year, what went into the decision-making process for this year's conference?
It's the second year so I think we just wanted to grow it a little bit from last year and follow the greater conversation in the scene. I think one really awesome thing that we did was include more nighttime events. As we aspire to be something like a SXSW or a CMJ, some of these really well-established conferences around the country, that's so much a part of what they do, where you can attend keynotes and networking events during the day, but then there's a whole music program that reflects the most exciting things happening. This is a small step in that direction. We're certainly not a SXSW yet. But as far as picking the speakers, it's really just a sense of who is most active in the industry doing the most interesting things, the biggest thinkers, the movers and the shakers, and also people who appreciate EDC for what it is, being the largest event of its kind in the country. ... I think it's just a sense of who’s got something to say.
How has this year's lineup evolved from last year?
I'm probably too close to the whole thing, but I felt like last year there was some redundancy in terms of topics and what was covered. We sort of kept on hitting on some of what you might expect, which is the festival culture and agents and promoters. And we certainly have that again but we don't have multiple panels covering similar stuff. I think we tried to trim the fat a little bit. ... I can’t say it's perfect at this point, but I think because we’re on the leading edge of youth culture with this conference and its affiliation to EDC that we have a tremendous opportunity. I hope people just come and get involved. I think getting in the game is the most important thing.
It does look more accessible this year in terms of topics that go beyond insider business. Was that intentional?
Yeah. I think what I want to see happen for the conference is for it to be more appealing and more accessible. I feel l can go to a lot of functions where it's inside baseball; it's just very esoteric. I think back to having opportunities when I was in my early twenties and at college I would go to conferences and just be really bright eyed and all ears, and I don't want to come off as just the insiders with a lot of back-slapping and self-aggrandizement. I really want this conference to be accessible and attractive to people at any level. I don’t want it to be just too cool for the room.
One of the panels, “The Greatest Night of Your Life,” includes the directors behind the upcoming EDC documentary, who have also directed documentaries about Katy Perry and Justin Bieber. Do you think there’s still a divide between pop music and EDM, and the whole culture that’s been ushered into the mainstream along with it?
That gap is closing, for sure. I think the challenge though, for [the directors], is that there’s a difference between a glossy, poppy version of the world and the real world. And so I’m just wondering how they’re going to handle all of that. When I go out to events like [EDC], there’s a lot of like, rail-thin jacked-up kids from the suburbs. It’s not really that glamorous. I don’t know. I’ll have to see how they treat all that stuff.
Conversely, with all the hype and attention now surrounding EDC and EDM culture, do you think there’s almost too much importance being ascribed to it? Could it be a bubble that’s going to burst soon?
That’s a really good question. There have been some comparisons to the disco era—when it hit sort of a pop saturation and then it just completely had to go back underground. And then what came out of that was House music, actually. But there was a point where the biggest stars in the world of music were making disco records: Mick Jagger, David Bowie, everybody was doing disco. And it just completely got too much. There was just a point where no one wanted to hear that anymore. And I do think there is a certain truth to that, but I think it’s more of a snowball effect rather than history repeating itself. I think that as we move forward we collect and we learn from all kinds of stages and phases in pop music.
Is EDMbiz part of that learning process?
[As] a conference we can set the agenda. We can make sure that some of the fundamentals of the scene are respected as it grows. And especially as it grows so big in scope, it’s more important than ever that we make sure some of the promise of the underground is kept. And these are interesting topics that will play out at the conference, because you have major corporate concert promoters that want to jam a square peg in a round hole. They’re like, ‘We want the experience of electronic music and rave, but we want to do it at the Staples Center.’ And they want to do it at Staples Center because that’s the most efficient method they have. They need to understand why that’s not really going to work. It’s about advocacy and it’s about education and it’s about stepping up and having a responsible voice in this community. And I think that we can actually get a better result if we make an effort, if we explain ourselves, if we point out why these things are important. The success of EDC over the years is a testament to that. But I think for a long time it had to exist in a bubble, on its own terms, on its own track. Things like EDMbiz are about making significant inroads to the mainstream and dictating the conversation, making sure that the history and the fundamentals of it are respected.
What role do you think Las Vegas has played in that, with EDC entering its third year here now?
To a certain extent, the way Las Vegas goes, so goes the country, because it’s a heightened reality. I think what happens there sets a certain tone, because it’s also such a science. If you talk to a club promoter in Las Vegas, they are so aware of all the details that make for success or failure. The profit margins, all the little things. So the fact that it can be successful there and it can innovate there is a very good sign for the rest of the country. I think forever there was a real difficulty playing this music in Las Vegas. I never had much success with it in years past. It was the most mainstream stuff, it was the most poppy. It was country. So maybe the fact that it is successful there shows some real promise for it everywhere else. At least I’d like to think so. But it’s a very strange reality there, it’s a bizarre place. The economies there are so different as a DJ, the bookings, the stakes are so high. I’ve only heard rumors for what some of these guys are getting for residencies. It’s millions of dollars, it’s like, “What?!” More power to them. I think it bodes well for the future and the rest of the country with the music.
EDM has impacted the Vegas club scene, but as someone outside of it, would you say that goes both ways?
I don’t think EDC could have grown the way that it has outside of Las Vegas. And it’s funny because it was probably a happy accident, by being essentially kicked out of LA. But then that just turned out to be the perfect home. I think people go to Vegas with the mind-set of cutting loose and having a great time and wanting to have that time of your life. That’s the whole idea, that “YOLO” mentality. And that’s what EDC promises. With this sensory overload environment, you can just continually have the time of your life. Some of the elements, as far as people coming together, I think have a transformative power for people.
Do you see the significance of that reaching beyond personal experience or cultural watermarks?
No one is holding political signs or hearing folk artists talking about ending war and all that stuff, but I do believe that just the act of coming together in groups of people has the power to change. And music brings people together. And that’s important. I know it’s really, really simple but I just think it’s something that’s so basic to us and tribal, and any opportunity to feel that sense, to look around and go ‘Wow! There’s a lot of different people here and everyone’s getting along and that’s cool, and I’m gonna take that home with me and remember that.’ So some of these life-changing things are a sense of hopefulness in what we can accomplish. I know nothing is being explicitly stated like “Go and do this or that politically,” but I still think it has a power.
Why do you think EDM, versus other kinds of music, has that power right now? At Coachella or more rock-oriented festivals, you don’t see people gathering around the music in that same way.
I think dance music has a very primal effect on people. Also because it’s not so specific to lyrics. A lot of times if there are lyrics, they’re generally sample-based or just fragments. So I think it’s more inclusive that way. Also, I’ve had this theory as a DJ that when you’re really locked in a groove, it’s almost like you’re putting out this singular wavelength, and everybody is on that wavelength. I’m not trying to get all silly about it, but I do believe there is a power to that unifying effect of the music. Music has a magical power, there’s no denying. It can say things and do things that are just impossible in other formats, and that’s something that I’ve always been moved by and that’s the bigger purpose of what I do. It’s putting that idea out there on a big scale and reinforced by all of these other elements—visuals, environment. It’s that power of experience. And that’s not exclusive to EDC or to dance music, but it’s certainly powerful and accessible. EDM is also future-minded. The music is always pushing forward in terms of what’s next. ... I’m always amazed at the universal appeal. And, of course, the biggest audience is an active youth culture. But I have seen all ages and all people drawn to this music. Because it is so appealing, fundamentally, to your body and your mind. Something about dancing, it’s just opening up a little bit and revealing yourself a little more. I think you’re a better person for it. Hopefully everybody feels that way.