Up against Hardwell and Bassnectar on day 1 of EDC-NY, trance legend Armin van Buuren attracted and maintained a huge crowd throughout his set. This is no little accomplishment, as performing at a mainstream festival like EDC-NY in today’s music culture can be tricky, especially for a DJ whose roots originate from a genre that a newer generation of EDM fans are not as familiar with. He once said he feels like “the last of the mohicans” playing trance on the mainstage.
I think other DJs could play trance if they wanted. A lot of DJ’s dropped the 138 sound- “Oh let’s all go to 128.” But that sound still works for me on the main stage. I played 138 in New York last Saturday and everyone was going crazy! I have to incorporate it a little, to get people accustomed to it. If i play a show with 1,000 trance enthusiasts, i can play more of that sound. But at a larger stage, I have the chance to introduce people to trance, a sound many of them haven’t been in touch with before. There’s a whole new generation that doesn’t have that history of trance that the rest of us do.
On the other end of the spectrum are the enduring, often uncompromising trance enthusiasts who will always miss the “old Armin.” Despite them, Armin does not allow outside pressure to discourage him. He’d rather try out new sounds and styles, “whatever feels right in the moment,” rather than attempt to duplicate previous successes, or, even worse, conform to generic trends that consume much of today’s dance music. As we sat down with Armin after his EDC-NY set and spoke with him about the evolution of Electronic Dance Music culture and trance music in particular, his optimism for the future and eagerness to push past the boundaries of current standards were clear.
You know, I’ll tell you another story which shows how quickly things are changing. In 2004, 60% of Armada’s (Armin’s record label) revenue came from selling vinyls. Now, 60% comes from Spotify streams. 11 years is not that long a time…
On left, Maykel Piron (Co-Founder Armada Music) along with Armin on right
Even in the midst of today’s constantly changing EDM scene, Armin has not been afraid to step outside his comfort zone and experiment with different musical genres and sub-genres, from purist to more Progressive Trance and Progressive House. The creative process of making music is “beautiful” to him, and revolves around inspiration as opposed to some artificial process where a producer is forced to adhere to genre expectations:
“Why are we constantly trying to reconfirm what is and is not Trance? I mean who cares! If it’s great music and it brings you that emotional state that we all know and love, we should stop the discussion about what is what, you know?”
Naturally, as an artist who continues to evolve and refuses to copy his old successes, Armin has drawn criticism about betraying the “purest” trance sound, but that’s a glass ceiling he isn’t afraid to break. But lets not get confused- Armin is still the King of Trance. He’s advanced the genre and its culture through a number of projects such as Armin Only and the ever growing “A State of Trance” podcast and the accompanying ASOT tours Armin hosts after milestone podcasts:
“I love trance for what it is, and I know a lot of people would disagree with me, but at the moment I think it’s absolutely at a peak. There are so many great genres within trance. If you look at the lineup we had for ASOT in Utrecht, for example: we had the psi-trance sound, the Bryan Kearney sound, the more mainstage sound of Cosmic Gate, Orjan Nilsen, and Andrew Rayel, and we even had Audien and guys like Mark Sixma. There’s something for everyone to love.”
Last year at Ultra Music Festival, Armin debuted his most recent contribution to the trance scene: his mysterious, almost legendary side project Gaia with Benno de Goeij. We asked about what the inspiration behind Gaia is, and if fans can look forward to an original Gaia album any time soon:
I really like the project. Because that’s the sound I really love. The problem with me, Armin van Buuren, is that I like way too many different styles. But Gaia means mother earth. It’s sort of a reference to the sound I come from: Purest Trance. Even though there’s less of a market for it now, I will always continue to play the Gaia sound. I do know when the next performance will be, but I don’t think I’m allowed to say it! (laughs) A Gaia album is definitely an ambition I have. Right now, we’re still trying to find what the original Gaia sound really is. I have in my head an idea of the direction I want to go, so we’ll see.”
The need for more freedom to pursue his personal vision for his career is what motivated Armin to start his own record label, Armada Music, along with co-founders Maykel Piron and David Lewis back in 2003. Forming an independent label at a time when major labels were dominating the industry was a huge feat. Convincing artists that Armada would serve their best interests, pay their royalties, and promote their music effectively was the greatest initial challenge. Fast-forward 12 years, and the issue of reputation and exposure is long past. As one of the biggest electronic dance music labels in the world, Armada is a label that many aspiring producers dream of being associated with, which puts a lot of pressure on Armin:
“When I started A State of Trance… I had such a hard time filling a 2 hour radio show every week, because there just weren’t enough tracks! And now it’s the opposite- every week we have about 60 or 70 tracks that we think are amazing and have to be on the show, and then you have to skip half of them. I also know that it’s a responsibility to these artists that deserve their place in the limelight, and I wish that I didn’t have that responsibility because I don’t like to disappoint people. Like, who am I? I never said A State of Trance is perfect, it’s “A” State of Trance not “THE” State of Trance! It’s my vision of what I like, so sometimes I miss out on a track. I’m a human being, sorry. But I think in general we do play 9/10 tracks that absolutely deserve it.”
Despite the pressure and responsibility that comes with his success, Armin is still enjoying every minute of his life right now. Even after a Grammy nomination, being voted #1 DJ in the world five times, founding and running a world-renowned record label, and headlining the biggest electronic music festivals in the world, he finds that he still has more to learn, and a lot more he wants to bring to the table within the world of dance music. Understanding that not every track he puts out is going to receive the most positives responses, he feeds off of his own curiosity and excitement in trying something new:
“I’m still learning so much. I’m learning about techniques in the studio, about songwriting, about recording, and that is what drives me, because it’s still so much fun to do it… For example, on my new track ‘Another You’ with Mr Probz, we brought in a full string orchestra and I got to help conduct them- I had never done that before and it was incredible. There is always more to learn.“
As for the future, opportunities for new talent, new sounds, and new styles continue to grow, and that’s something Armin thinks we should all be excited about rather than argue about genres or lament about the “good old days” of trance:
“I think this whole genre discussion is sort of blurring what the discussion should actually be about, which is— Good music that we love, and the emotions that we feel when we celebrate this music together! It should not be about, ‘this is uplifting, this is not uplifting, this is pure trance, this is not pure trance, This is 138, this is not 138, I’m like, ‘who cares!’ Yes, I’m a trance DJ, and yes that’s what I’m known for, and I’m proud of it, but it doesn’t hurt to look over your own fence and see what other styles and genres have to offer.”
Speaking with Armin, it was easy to see that as much frustration as he has with genre-sticklers and haters, his optimism and passion for dance music surpasses everything, and that’s something we can all be excited about.
Written by Roma Moradian and Brendan Donovan
Photo Credit: Krijn van Noordwijk