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‘Levels’, Avicii, and the legacy that dance music didn’t know was left behind

If you were asked to pick the darkest year for dance music since it first came to being in the 1980s, you couldn’t go far wrong with 2008. Clubs were closing by the day, major dance music festivals were having to branch out, booking indie bands as their headline act, and even BBC Radio 1, normally the bellwether of dance music in the UK, undertook a brutal culling of anything electronic from its schedule. Pretty much every dance music DJ on the station felt the cold-steel of a BBC service revolver, at one point leaving the ever-present Pete Tong as the only dance DJ on the station, pushed aside into the graveyard slot on Saturday morning, while for the first time since the mid-90s, Radio 1 didn’t feature any Ibiza coverage at all. It all seemed a bit hopeless for a while, but as we now know, things changed. Man did things change.

Of course, the global domination of dance music over the past decade can be attributed to many things, many people, many producers, tracks, and tastemakers. It’s a group effort of which we can all be proud – the fact America suddenly remembered it invented dance music in the first place some 25 years after it had been put out to mature in Europe certainly helped a lot. But even the most hardcore, underground, and dare we say pretentious dance music fan probably wouldn’t put up too much of a fight if you put a good portion of the credit at the door of Mr Tim Bergling, better known as Avicii.

It was also in 2008 that Avicii first burst onto the scene. I say burst, it was, like with most dance music producers, a rather more understated beginning. It was also a rather understated track. ‘Sound Of Now‘ was a chilled progressive house record – of the “proper” kind – released on Australia’s Vicious Grooves with little fanfare of attention, and starkly different to the sound we all came to know.

By the end of 2010 though, something was changing. The dark nights were being replaced with the slow burning light of a new dawn, peeping through the kitchen window at a house party that had lost its edge. A new energy was starting to reveal itself, a new sound was starting to emerge. Dance music was becoming cool again.

It was subtle at first, small clubs that had seen a few tough years, not helped by the Great Recession, were starting to get full again. Indie music was no longer the cool kid in the class – “EDM” had just made an entrance, and was trying and succeeding in gaining some attention. Initially, and incorrectly, referred to as “progressive house” this style of dance music took cues from electro, euro dance, and even trance. It was bold, brash, loud, and like so many genres of dance music before it, the Dutch were champions of its production. People like Hardwell, Afrojack, and Nicky Romero were dominating the scene, but as with ABBA and Max Martin before them, it was the Swedish who were really at the top of the game. From Eric Prydz, to Axwell, to Steve Angello, to Sebastian Ingrosso (all of them initially forming the imitable Swedish House Mafia, though Prydz quickly departed, though to major success since), the output of one Scandinavian country put the rest of Europe to shame, again. But for all their hits, all their success in the scene then and since, Avicii was arguably the cream of crop, knocking out tracks that not only had some serious traction in the clubs, but were also getting picked up by the mainstream. Those who had dismissed dance music as a ‘90s fad now consigned to a smattering of disparate underground scenes and superstore compilation albums were also realising their mistake. By the time Avicii released his breakthrough hit ‘Levels‘ in on this day in 2011, the entire industry suddenly realised something major was afoot and took steps to capitalise on dance music in ways that would have seemed utterly insane even 18 months earlier. ‘Levels’ quickly became a top 10 hit and went platinum in countless countries worldwide, crucially including the US.

It would seem remiss to foster too much of dance music’s success onto Avicii. You could equally quote the rise of people like deadmau5, Skrillex, David Guetta, and Calvin Harris as managing to bridge the gap between the underground and the mainstream. But it is worth remembering that while Avicii’s music was often looked down upon with disgust by those who wouldn’t listen to anything that wasn’t a limited edition white label test pressing released by an unknown German techno label, the rise of dance music in the mainstream has had far reaching effects that go well beyond the acts who hit the main stages. It’s the age-old trickle-down effect – those who originally heard ‘Levels’ in a club just as dance music and the “EDM” craze started to hit its zenith, also started to search for dance music online, then within a few years they were listening to nothing but white label test pressings from unknown German techno labels. We all know someone, or maybe we are someone, who has travelled that exact same path. From an industry perspective too, the breakthrough mainstream hits tempt people to festivals, and in the case of Ibiza, entire islands. And yet while the sales figures can easily be counted up, the reach cannot – we’ll never know how many people first took that trip to Ultra, EDC, Creamfields, or first set foot on the sacred rocks of Ibiza, simply because they happened to hear a pop-tinged dance record on the radio during a random mundane car journey one Tuesday afternoon in February.

Of course, the story of Avicii took a turn when he decided to retire from touring in 2016, then just a few years later became a devastating imprint on the EDM saga when he took his own life in April 2018. Indeed, this article is loosely based on an unpublished piece written when he decided to retire, before his death sent ripples through the scene. Yet the core lesson remains unchanged. This is what his legacy left – like his music or not, the impact his career, ‘Levels’ and other tracks of his made on the scene is still being felt to this day.

As dance music enters a recovery stage following the events of 2021, and the world returns to steady normality, it’s worth remembering, no matter what your allegiance, no matter what your specific taste, the massive popularity of our scene is owed to a small shower of sparks that happened a decade ago. One of those sparks was the release of ‘Levels’, ten years ago to this day, and while it may not be to the taste of your average techno artist, the fact they’re headlining main stages and commanding record figures for bookings, and deservedly so, is largely thanks to tracks like ‘Levels’ suddenly upping the stakes. Whether anyone likes it or not, no matter the combination of the what, the where, and the how, the facts remain – even if you think it’s deeply uncool, brash electronic music with radio friendly riffs and vocals exactly like ‘Levels’ are the reason dance music rules the world again.

 

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Of course, Avicii wasn’t the only factor, but it would be remiss of any of us to discount his radio friendly sound from having a serious impact. So whether you’re an EDM fan who got into dance music in that golden era, whether you’re an old school dance music fan who got to experience another renaissance when it all seemed like it was over, or whether you’re a techno DJ commanding serious money for something you’d barely have been able to fill a 100 capacity club in Shoreditch with in 2008, raise a glass to Tim tonight. You might not agree with this article, you might not think EDM is cool, but remember that the dark days could easily come again, quite suddenly and without warning, and it might take a touch of commercial genius to dig us out again.

 

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Amy Sussman/Invision/AP/Shutterstock (9217679a)
Swedish DJ, remixer and record producer Avicii poses for a portrait, on in New York
Avicii Portraits, New York, USA – 30 Aug 2013