Did you know that if you search “festival city of Canada” in Google, the results are about Edmonton?
Those who live in the city may not see it as a party destination, but Edmonton is actually a cultural hot spot in a lot of ways. The city hosts huge festivals and events, such as the annual folk music festival or North America’s largest Fringe festival.
It’s a poorly kept secret that Edmonton has an amazing music community. Though few famous artists come from Edmonton, the music scene here has always had passionate people keeping it active and alive in one way or another. Whether it’s the blues festival or small bands playing basement venues, it isn’t hard to find good live music all around the city.
But there’s one genre of music that Edmontonians may not realize has been a growing part of the local scene: electronic music.
Compared to something like folk music, electronic is a relatively new genre. In the past, finding electronic music in Edmonton clubs and bars was a bit of a challenge due to the genre being less widespread and accessible than it is now.
“There was nothing for it in those times, from about 2001 to about 2006 … it was really weird because back then, no one listened to that stuff,” says Mikey Wong, a professional DJ. Today, it’s rare to find a bar or club that doesn’t play any modern electronic at all.
Wong taught himself to DJ in 2001 and has now been involved with the electronic music industry in Edmonton for over 15 years.
He currently plays weekly around Edmonton and is involved with the booking and event companies Boodang, AGNT, and his own Half Past Zero. Wong has also opened for and collaborated with a multitude of big acts, including Calvin Harris and Skrillex to name only a couple.
Wong recalls his first major resident DJ gig at the Bank Ultralounge in 2007 being a major point in his career. It enabled him to begin to grow with the electronic music industry — an industry in Edmonton that was beginning to move away from being a niche and becoming more mainstream.
“That was kinda my beginning to the professional side of things, like playing every week now and getting paid for it. You had to learn to be a promoter at that point, but back then, it was easy because no one was doing it. It was very different,” says Wong. “And Facebook had just started, too. Back then, when people sent out Facebook event invites, it meant something. So if people said that they were going, they showed up.”
Edmonton’s underground electronic scene quickly rose to the limelight after electronic music grew in popularity and blew up in the city’s mainstream. However, it wasn’t just Edmonton that was starting to find an appreciation for the genre.
“The thing is, it actually wasn’t very much different from city to city. (The scene) probably (grew) at different paces, but we were always bringing artists from (Los Angeles) and from other places, so it was always brewing in other cities,” says Wong. “You could say this about Calgary, you could say this about Vancouver, and all those places.”
But why was there suddenly so much demand for electronic music? In addition to audiences craving something different than hip hop-heavy radio songs, Wong believes the negativity in music at the time was beginning to change Edmonton nightlife for the worse.
“People were getting hurt in clubs. There was a lot of fighting and bad stuff, and electronic music was a totally different thing. It was all about being happy and caring about one another,” says Wong.
Since then, Edmonton’s electronic scene has found a huge following and become an Albertan staple, mostly due to local event companies such as Boodang hosting yearly events like Pure and Scream. West Edmonton Mall has also been a key supporter by bringing in big artists for their rave, Soundwave, which takes place in the WEM Waterpark. Vancouver-based Blueprint also books shows and events to round out the year.
These events frequently bring the best of the best in electronic to Edmonton, and while the artists may not be local, the events make Edmonton a destination to fans of the genre in Alberta and elsewhere.
“We actually have a really good (reputation) in Edmonton with the promoters that work in the city. (Artists) know they get treated really well when they come to Edmonton,” says Wong. “It’s been happening for years — I’d say a solid 10 full years. We’ve been getting the best artists in the world and creating the craziest parties with these guys … Tiesto has been coming here since the ‘90s.”
Despite the big events hosted in Edmonton and the popularity of electronic music in clubs, there are only a few bars that have dedicated electronic nights with local DJs. Chvrch of John and The Bower have weekly shows on Friday and Saturdays, respectively, while other clubs such as 99ten and The Common occasionally have small events. Other big events are usually held at the Starlight Room, Shaw Conference Centre, and Union Hall.
“We’ve turned a page where electronic music isn’t as popular anymore as it was, say, three to four years ago. It kinda peaked out two to three years ago, and hip hop has really taken back over everything …. The demand is different now. It’s gone back kinda underground, which is kinda cool, but it kinda sucks at the same time,” says Wong.
The decline of dedicated electronic music nights may be attributed to the saturation of different electronic genres and styles in modern radio songs. The emergence of new types of rap and hip hop have also made big waves in the music industry as a whole. Tastemakers, producers, and artists have all been chasing rappers such as Migos or Lil Yachty for their original sounds and commercial success.
For the most part, big-name shows in Edmonton won’t be affected by new trends. Edmonton has secured a reputation with fans as being an electronic music festival destination, and a surprising number of popular artists regard Edmonton as more than just a cold, Canadian city — Tiesto certainly isn’t coming back for the weather.