There was a time when making money hand-over-fist with dance music was easier than finding snails after the morning rains. As in all areas of activity linked to a market economy (music is not exempt from this, although some idealists may try to resist the connection), the law of supply and demand plays a crucial role. In the old days, when DJs were naïve and music was nobler, there was already a growing public looking for intense sensations, even though there weren’t many creators able to fulfil this need. This is why people started coming up with different ways to do business, as music evolved as an art, and at the same time that trends were born —intelligent techno, drum’n’bass, or speed garage, to name a few— business sharks were right there looking to make this wave of genius into a large amount of money with ideas like festivals, mix-CDs and sponsorship. It’s no secret to anyone that the hidden face of the art —like the moon, it does have one— is it’s commercialisation, and not even rough (so as not to say “wild”) electronic music, which seemed to be about to destroy the status quo of the rock circus, could resist the call of that siren in the shape of a dollar sign. Everybody and their brother likes cold, hard cash, of course they do: DJs are dressed by brand names, tobacco companies fund events and there are advertisements on TV. In this column we talk about music, genres that are in vogue, and news — but this time we will start out and end up by talking about money because the “root of all evil” is at the heart of some current movements, which will help us to reflect on where we are and where the clubbing that we have known is headed.
Renaissance and Death
This is all starting like this because in the middle of September, it was announced that the British record company Renaissance had declared the suspension of payments (if you look at their website, you’ll see that it is stopped). Renaissance is, so to speak, like the Nike of house (progressive, deep or trance, depending on the year): a high-end brand name aimed at a general public that believes in the charismatic magnetism of the star they associate with. Renaissance had three important divisions —albums, maxis, and mix-CDs— but the well-edited session albums were the big money-makers. As you can imagine, this Renaissance merchandise is neither here nor there: at home, stored away like a treasure, I have the overwhelming triple CD “The Renaissance Collection” (1994) mixed by Sasha & John Digweed, which some defend as the best mix-CD of all time; personally, I prefer another pack by the same two stars, “Northern Exposure” (1996). But in general, and with a few exceptions, generic British progressive is nothing we should lose sleep over. I have to admit (and why not?), that those really Quattrocento cover designs, based on Botticelli and Caravaggio, had their kitsch value. But since normally we don’t buy albums because there’s an effigy of Zeus on it, 95% of Renaissances stayed in the shops. Nevertheless, many people bought Renaissance products with pleasure, in order to form a part of a consolidated brand name —that is to say, the record division of the famed super-club Nottingham— in the same way that people buy material, (which we’ll get to now), with the seal of Fabric or Ministry Of Sound.It definitely seemed that Renaissance would be around forever. But surprise, surprise, the record company has announced its losses and made public it’s delicate financial situation. It seems to be on the verge of disappearing — to the joy of some artists with contracts still in effect, who didn’t know how to get rid of them, and to the despair of the bank. The moral of the story is, in theory, unsettling: nobody, not even the strongest of companies, is safe from the crisis — not even the most commercial companies. It doesn’t matter if you sell like hotcakes on Beatport, you have listening points in the stores at airports, and your potential buyers number in the millions: illegal downloads have changed the lay of the land forever, and the future of many record companies is similar to that of animal life when two meteorites hit the Earth 65 millions of years ago: the dinosaurs will become extinct, and only the mammals and rodents will survive. The public (read: people who spend their money) want something new, and the old will turn into fossils. Even if you’re commercial, there are formulas that nobody will swallow anymore: you have to be imaginative even to be mainstream. Electronic dance music can’t lock itself into formulas that aren’t going anywhere anymore, because then you turn into Renaissance: a cadaver.
The “Mixtery” of the Mix-CD
Another unsettling conclusion is that the format of the mix-CD is dying out as well. The ones from Renaissance weren’t brilliant —the best ones, those put out by Cattáneo; Zabiela and Seaman, more of the same— but they sold more than others. A few years ago, on forums and other places in cyberspace, people were already debating what the point of putting out mix-CDs was when the Internet was chock full of podcasts, recordings of club sessions, and other promotional devices in mp3 that didn’t cost a single euro and which, generally, had a better tracklist than albums that you bought, for the simple reason that they didn’t have to pay licences. At that time —we’re talking about no more than five years ago— it seemed logical to shift to downloading and blow off CDs, however much pretty artwork they might have. Although podcasts are a mass consumption item —the proliferation on the Internet might soon reach a point of saturation, with people starting to react (watch out)— there are still a lot of mix-CDs being put out. There have been many new items in recent weeks, that is to say, going back to the end of August— and some of them were even costly. How much does it cost to licence 30 songs for Surgeon’s “Fabric 53”? We’ll have to audit the accounts of the London club —which they say was about to close— to find out, but it couldn’t have been cheap, and Surgeon, although he might be one of the best techno DJs of all time, isn’t exactly a bestseller. The session he offers does come close to being exemplary: a continuous game of cat and mouse between dry, anonymous techno and metallic dubstep, finding the meeting point between the two styles without ever mixing the two codes in the same piece. Surgeon calls on producers like Ancient Methods, Greena, Ital Tek, Robert Hood, Instra:mental and Scuba to give an interpretation of the present: without mixing, there are no advances, even though they might be mixes as easy as those of Orphx with Gatekeeper.Where is the mix-CD headed? One imagines that they will continue to exist as long as there is a strong brand name behind them to justify them. The old modest projects of a few years ago —the DJ with an original idea who got the money together to put out a showcase for his style— are no longer viable, and the Internet allows podcasts to circulate more quickly. A mix-CD is released if a club with a faithful clientele decides to start a series, but in light of the contents of the latest deliveries from Fabric ( “Fabriclive 53” by Drop The Lime: acid house, all kinds of bass manipulations on the edge of pain, post-garage), “Fabric 54” house for the pop audience, with the Damian Lazarus label Bugged Out! ( “Suck my Deck Mixed by Friendly Fires”: electro, techno retro, space disco, dub, deep house), or Watergate ( “Watergate 07” by Lee Jones: a ton of new deep house in the new German, post-minimal style), it seems clear that if the brand name were weaker, not many canned CDs would make the cut of the minimum required by the public to get them to spend their hard-earned cash. You have to give something more, and only DJs who take risks do so. The problem is that things are so hard right now, and it’s so hard to stay on the circuit, that few DJs take a chance.
Here, We’re Talking about TechnoThen there’s the issue of compilations. They are still there, hanging on heroically. They are another of the forms that the industry is clinging to maintain a certain level of income, the faithfulness of a public that is besieged with so many offers that today people seem to be more lost than ever in a forest of information. The good thing about compilations with respect to mix-CDs is that there aren’t as many as promotional downloads on websites, but the same thing happens with them: the more powerful the brand name is, the more they are seen. They depend on it, and this isn’t always good. One of the compilations with the greatest promotional support this month is “Fünf” (Ostgut Ton, 2010). It’s to be expected: the Berlin club Berghain has dominated techno with an iron hand for the last five years, taking the 4x4 again to the land of the darkness behind the disperse, liquid empire of post-Cologne minimal; therefore, they have put out a double CD that, on one hand, is an interesting work conceptually and in terms of sound, but which is also an homage to itself that is not exempt from false modesty. “Fünf” isn’t a five-year review of Ostgut Ton —that is to say, it isn’t an album full of classic pieces from Marcel Dettmann, Ben Klock, Prosumer and Shed— but rather an exploration of the ghosts inside of Berghain —and the top floor, Panorama Bar— when daylight comes and the doors close. Emika, a producer associated with Ninja Tune and on the periphery of instrumental hip hop and dubstep, reflected one day on the sounds of the club when there was no audience or DJ. She recorded samples of silence and the random noise that the cleaning lady might make when she’s mopping the floor to clean up the remains of the bottle of beer dropped on the cement floor, and she spread them out among a collection of serious-faced techno-masters like Len Faki, Cassy, Norman Nodge, Ryan Elliott, Substance or Marcel Fengler. Each one has used these samples —or not, they weren’t required to— and the work stands on its own two feet as a whole: far from the 12” format, the artists dare to experiment more, not to let themselves be dominated by the fury of the 4x4, and to tame the drum like Alexander the Great tamed Bucephalus; here there are examples of how today’s techno can be an intellectual challenge based on dissonance (Shed’s “Boom Room” for example, is textbook Detroit techno, but with out-of-tune strings), the tension between solid rhythm and background noise, nervous phases alternating with calm ones, and all of those tricks that are already known, but which are still useful.
And Here We Are Talking about House“Fünf” is another contradiction (a sweet contradiction, in this case) of that trend that implies sounding retro in order to sound absolutely modern. “The Traveller” (Ostgut Ton, 2010), Shed’s second album, is transparent in this sense: it sounds like English techno from 1990 —The Black Dog, Irdial, Network— but with the editing procedure that has proliferated so much lately, and which consists of keeping touches from the past that work —in this case, ambiental pads, some fractured rhythmic structures— and purging what has gone stale along the way. Another recent compilation, “Permanent Vacation: Selected Label Works 2” (Permanent Vacation, 2010), also participates in this selective memory of the past: here there are songs that were only put out on vinyl and as downloads, so that now they are all together in a sort of double CD almanac with a green texture. The invention, as always, is useful for those who don’t buy plastic, or for people who don’t buy the entire catalogue — which except for a minority, is all of us. Inside, Tensnake, Lexx, John Talabot or Midnight Magic polish acid house, the deepest years of Chicago, and the standard remains of Italo revival, boogie and mutant disco. It is thoroughly obsessed with the past, but the music from this Hamburg recording company sounds fresh and modern, exciting precisely because they don’t aspire only to a revival, but rather to take up where the past left off and bring something new to it — even if it isn’t much.Detroit and Chicago, as always, are cities to go back to any time. There are people who need to do so when their imagination runs dry. Others do it by habit, or because it’s in their DNA. An exciting album that has come out recently is the selection of the new Detroit sound made by Rick Wilhite –one of the survivors of the golden age of techno-soul, once Aaron Carl couldn’t win the battle against cancer that carried him away a few days ago– in “Rick Wilhite Presents: Vibes: New & Rare Music” (Rush Hour, 2010). Oriented towards jazz deconstruction and techno Cubism, with angular drums and a lot of anarchic melodic phrasing, the volume brings together front-runners like Theo Parrish, Kyle Hall, The Godson (Rick himself, that is to say), Marcellus Pittman and Urban Tribe. This type of techno –or abstract house, depending how you look at it– will never be hype because it doesn’t have commercial power. But it’s the type of album that contradicts everything we said above: as long as there is originality, there will be a public that is searching for it as if it were manna from heaven, or the Holy Grail, or the centre of the Earth. This is the music that will survive if the structure that we know falls some day like the Tower of Babylon in the face of the wrath of God.
Scratching around in the Underground
Is it possible to be new in electronic music? Of course, but you have to look for new ways. The old ways are like motorways with a traffic jam: you have to look for back roads, dirt paths, and get as far away as you can from civilisation —the mainstream, that is to say— before it makes everything unrecognisable. Witch house could be that interesting refuge —thanks to albums like Salem’s, which is like brain surgery without anaesthesia, or catalogues like Tri Angle’s, in which the Gothic shadows of the witch sound are mixed with dubstep, ambient, disco and brain-cracking techno— although you’ve got to wrap your head around the idea that it won’t be a secret for a few, but rather a pleasure for many. The !k7 label has released “F*>k Dance, Let’s Art”, the first compilation —outside of the sphere of labels like Disaro, obviously, which were around before when nobody was paying any attention— of the new American underground between punk, crunk, screw and witch vaudeville with allusions to the remains of electroclash and lo-fi: that is to say, from Balam Acab to Toro Y Moi, from Crystal Castles to oOoOO, from Memory Tapes to Animal Collective. A trendsetter mixer that in reality doesn’t explain anything, and which is not as coherent as “Tapes” (also on !k7) mixed by The Big Pink, and which brings together an even more out-of-the-way underground — in spite of the inclusion of The xx and Gang Gang Dance – in which there is distortion, witchcraft, psychophony, sounds that infect you with tetanus, and other madcap escapades courtesy of yusuf b, ZVA or Actress. These are impressions off the cuff that give us a clue that all of this is on the move in spite of the shadow that tinges much of current club music. When the stars go out, there will always be something new shining with a faint light from a basement or a student’s bedroom.After all of this, some people will ask themselves: is mainstream bad? No, it isn’t necessarily, but it runs out of steam and needs to be revamped. Is mainstream what it was? The answer is also no: progressive house has been living in the greatest immobility for months, and techno and house need an immediate catharsis–one that is still far off– as urgently as Tiger Woods needs a new lover. But everybody already knew that, because you should have realised that all of this is a long preamble to conclude that there is a new sheriff in town, a style that is dominating everything from one end to the other of the electronic spectrum, a style that until recently was a powerful force, but still in the shadows, and which overnight has taken over on all levels. Dubstep (TA-DAH!) is the new electronic mainstream. The tables have finally turned. This column ends here for this month–on the table I’m laying the promise not to delay the next issue, as has happened these days; I’m red-faced with embarrassment and you, faithful, long-suffering reader, deserve an apology that I hope you will accept—but in the coming hours, we will take up this argument again. Stick to your screens: there is still much more to be said.
As they say at the end of episodes in a series… to be continued.