Intelligent dance music (commonly abbreviated as IDM) is a form of electronic music originating in the early 1990s. Relative to other forms of electronic and rave music, IDM came to be characterized as better suited to home listening than dancing. Inspired by a variety of sources, including Detroit techno, acid house, ambient music, and breakbeat, IDM tended to rely upon individualistic experimentation rather than adhering to characteristics associated with specific genres. Prominent artists associated with the genre include Aphex Twin, ?-Ziq, the Black Dog, the Orb, the Future Sound of London, Autechre, Luke Vibert, Squarepusher, Venetian Snares and Boards of Canada.
The term "intelligent dance music" has been widely criticised and rejected by artists associated with the style, including Aphex Twin and µ-Ziq, as elitist and derogatory towards other genres. The term is said to have originated in the US in 1993 with the formation of the "IDM list", an electronic mailing list originally chartered for the discussion of a number of prominent English artists appearing on the 1992 Warp compilation Artificial Intelligence. In 2014, music critic Sasha Frere-Jones observed that the term "is widely reviled but still commonly used".
In the late 1980s, riding the wave of the acid house and early rave party scenes, UK-based groups such as The Orb and The KLF produced ambient house, a genre that fused house music (particularly acid house) with ambient music. The term ambient house was often indiscriminately applied to any of that era's electronic dance music regarded as suitable for listening, not just dancing, and the term soon fell out of favor as a plethora of new genre names arose.
A parallel progression occurred in techno music, with artists such as Cornwall's Aphex Twin and Japan's Tetsu Inoue producing what the press called "ambient techno", combining the melodic and rhythmic elements of dancefloor-oriented techno with elements of ambient and other experimental music.
By the early 1990s, the increasingly distinct music associated with dance music experimentation had gained prominence with releases on a variety of mostly UK-based record labels, including Warp (1989), Black Dog Productions (1989), R&S Records (1989), Carl Craig's Planet E, Rising High Records (1991), Richard James's Rephlex Records (1991), Kirk Degiorgio's Applied Rhythmic Technology (1991), Eevo Lute Muzique (1991), General Production Recordings (1989), Soma Quality Recordings (1991), Peacefrog Records (1991), and Metamorphic Recordings (1992). In 1992, Warp released Artificial Intelligence, the first album in the Artificial Intelligence series. Subtitled "electronic listening music from Warp", the record was a collection of tracks from artists such as Autechre, B12, The Black Dog, Aphex Twin and The Orb, under various aliases. Steve Beckett, co-owner of Warp, has said the electronic music that the label was releasing then was targeting a post-club, home-listening audience. Following the success of the Artificial Intelligence series, "intelligent techno" became the favored term, although ambient--without a qualifying house or techno suffix, but still referring to a hybrid form--was a common synonym.
In the same period (1992-93), other names were also used, such as "art techno," "armchair techno," and "electronica", but all were attempts to describe an emerging offshoot of electronic dance music that was being enjoyed by the "sedentary and stay at home". At the same time, the UK market was saturated with increasingly frenetic breakbeat and sample-laden hardcore techno records that quickly became formulaic. Rave had become a "dirty word," so as an alternative, it was common for London nightclubs to advertise that they were playing "intelligent" or "pure" techno, appealing to a "discerning" crowd that considered the hardcore sound to be too commercial.
In 1993, a number of new "intelligent techno"/"electronica" record labels emerged, including New Electronica, Mille Plateaux, 100% Pure, and Ferox Records.
In November 1991, the phrase "intelligent techno" appeared on Usenet in reference to Coil's The Snow EP. Off the Internet, the same phrase appeared in both the U.S. and U.K. music press in late 1992, in reference to Jam & Spoon's Tales from a Danceographic Ocean and the music of The Future Sound of London. Another instance of the phrase appeared on Usenet in April 1993 in reference to The Black Dog's album Bytes. And in July 1993, in his review of an ethno-dance compilation for NME, Ben Willmott replaced techno with dance music, writing "...current 'intelligent' dance music owes much more to Eastern mantra-like repetition and neo-ambient instrumentation than the disco era which preceded the advent of acid and techno."
Wider public use of such terms on the Internet came in August 1993, when Alan Parry announced the existence of a new electronic mailing list for discussion of "intelligent" dance music: the "Intelligent Dance Music list", or "IDM List" for short.
The first message, sent on 1 August 1993, was entitled "Can Dumb People Enjoy IDM, Too?". A reply from the list server's system administrator, Brian Behlendorf, revealed that Parry originally wanted to create a list devoted to discussion of the music on the Rephlex label, but they decided together to expand its charter to include music similar to what was on Rephlex or that was in different genres but which had been made with similar approaches. They picked the word "intelligent" because it had already appeared on Artificial Intelligence and because it connoted being something beyond just music for dancing, while still being open to interpretation.
Artists that appeared in the first discussions on the list included Autechre, Atom Heart, LFO and Rephlex Records artists such as Aphex Twin, µ-ziq and Luke Vibert; plus artists such as The Orb, Richard H. Kirk and The Future Sound of London, and even artists like System 7, William Orbit, Sabres of Paradise, Orbital, Plastikman and Björk. By the end of 1996, Boards of Canada and the Schematic Records label were among the usual topics of discussion, alongside perennial favorites like Aphex Twin and the Warp repertoire.
As of 2015, the mailing list is still active.
Warp's second Artificial Intelligence compilation was released in 1994. The album featured fragments of posts from the IDM mailing list incorporated into typographic artwork by The Designers Republic. Sleeve notes by David Toop acknowledged the genre's multitude of musical and cultural influences and suggested none should be considered more important than any other.
During this period, the electronic music produced by Warp Records artists such as Aphex Twin (an alias of Richard D. James), Autechre, LFO, B12, Seefeel and The Black Dog, gained popularity among electronic music fans, as did music by artists on the Rephlex and Skam labels. Lesser-known artists on the Likemind label and Kirk Degiorgio's A.R.T. and Op-Art labels, including Degiorgio himself under various names (As One, Future/Past and Esoterik), Steve Pickton (Stasis) and Nurmad Jusat (Nuron) also found an audience, along with bigger-name, cross-genre artists like Björk and Future Sound of London.
In the mid-1990s, North American audiences welcomed IDM, and many IDM record labels were founded, including Drop Beat, Isophlux, Suction, Schematic and Cytrax. In Miami, Florida, labels like Schematic, Merck Records, Nophi Recordings and The Beta Bodega Coalition released material by artists such as Phoenecia, Dino Felipe, Machinedrum and Proem. Another burgeoning scene was the Chicago/Milwaukee area, with labels such as Addict, Chocolate Industries, Hefty and Zod supporting artists like Doormouse, TRS-80, Telefon Tel Aviv and Emotional Joystick. Tigerbeat 6, a San Francisco-based label has released IDM from artists such as Cex, Kid 606 and Kevin Blechdom.
Contemporary IDM artists include Team Doyobi, Himuro Yoshiteru, Kettel, Ochre, 8b, Marumari, Benn Jordan, Proem, Lackluster, Arovane, Ulrich Schnauss, East India Youth, and Wisp, among many others.
British electronic music and techno artists, including Aphex Twin, Cylob, and Mike Paradinas (A.K.A. ?-Ziq), have criticised the term IDM. Paradinas has stated that the term IDM was only used in North America. Criticism is dominated by the use of the term "intelligent" in the genre name, and also often calls attention to the fact that artists working under this name often produce music that is not easy to dance to.
Allmusic Guide describes the IDM name as
A loaded term meant to distinguish electronic music of the '90s and later that's equally comfortable on the dancefloor as in the living room, IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) eventually acquired a good deal of negative publicity, not least among the legion of dance producers and fans whose exclusion from the community prompted the question of whether they produced "Stupid" dance music.
In a September 1997 interview, Aphex Twin commented on the 'Intelligent Dance Music' label:
I just think it's really funny to have terms like that. It's basically saying 'this is intelligent and everything else is stupid.' It's really nasty to everyone else's music. (laughs) It makes me laugh, things like that. I don't use names. I just say that I like something or I don't.
Aphex Twin's Rephlex records official overarching genre name is Braindance, of which Dave Segal of Stylus Magazine asked whether it was a "snide dig at IDM's mockworthy Intelligent Dance Music tag?"
Kid 606 has said,
It's a label invented by PR companies who need catchphrases. I like sounds, but hate what people attach to sounds.
I belong to the weblist called "IDM" and occasionally enjoy the discussions there, because I like some of the artists who get lassoed into that category (not to mention that we, occasionally, are lumped into that category too), and because you can occasionally find out about interesting records on that list... Matmos is IDM if that only means "might be talked about on the IDM list"- but I don't endorse that term "intelligent dance music" because it's laughable.
All these things about us being "intelligent" and the term "IDM" are just silly. I'm not a particularly intelligent person, me. I'm diligent, I'm pretty hardworking, but I'm not that clever. I ain't got any qualifications, I just pick up stuff that I think is interesting at the time. And is our music abstract and weird? To us or our mates it's not! Maybe if you've only listened to pop music, then yeah, it's weirder, because you've not been exposed to it. But that works the other way, too. I don't listen to pop, but someone dumped a load of Max Martin tracks on me to try and explain what he was about, and it seemed really, really alien to me, like Nazi youth music or something. I think everyone has a different idea of what weird is. There was also the "Artificial Intelligence" tag that Warp coined, but to me as a listener that never seemed to be saying "this is more intelligent." It was just a signifier of it being sci-fi music... I think it was a joke, really. There was a definite tongue-in-cheek thing going on with the AI series initially, everyone knew it was a bit silly. But we were enjoying doing it. Thing is, almost all the artists on that first AI compilation are just like us, they were regular kids, they're not intelligent people particularly. Richard [D. James] is a fucking blagger, Richie Hawtin too... I don't know how the fuck he gets away with the things he does! Alex Paterson, people like that, they're not known for being intellectually powerful, they're just fucking good musicians.
...use of the idiom was initiated online with the conception of the IDM mailing list in 1993, which functioned as a forum for discussion on leading IDM artists and Artificial Intelligence. Incidentally, when I questioned Mike Paradinas (µ-Ziq) on his feelings towards the term, he bluntly answered: 'No one uses or used it in UK. Only Americans ever used the term. It was invented by Alan Parry who set up the IDM mailing list'.