With all the recent talk of political manifestos, we got to thinking about what an ideal dance music scene might look like in 2020 and beyond. Here’s what we came up with.
Death to Rare Records
Credit goes to Bill Brewster for this one: through a series of irregular Facebook posts, the lifelong disco activist has quite rightly been pointing out that fawning over records just because they are expensive is a fool’s errand. All it takes is for Hunee, Floating Points or Zip to drop a banger in their set and suddenly every copy sells out on Discogs and any new ones that appear are in triple figures.
Those records are no better than they were the day before when they remained unknown – would you honestly have been so quick to buy them then? For my money, they should actually be slightly less revered once a) everyone knows about them and b) the DJ who played them first will always be credited for finding them, so you’ll always be just a copycat. Playing a set full of these is basically like playing the Top 10 of Beatport for people with more money and some over-inflated view of their own sense of importance/cool/taste.
You’re much better off unearthing some other unknown, overlooked or forgotten gems and making them your own. Your PayPal account will also be thankful.
Long Live Small Events
Festival culture has exploded in the last five years, but so have season-long party programmes at places like Printworks London, In Motion in Bristol and The Warehouse Project in Manchester. As much as there is plenty to love about being lost in a sea of thousands of people, raving to the same beat, those parties often tie DJs into restrictive contracts which means they can’t play anywhere else. That sucks the lifeblood out of the underground and smaller venues, means ticket prices continue to spiral, and DJ fees with them, and means people have to travel far and wide to see who they want, which is bad for your finances, but also the environment.
Small events will always be special because they’re more personal and intimate so are better for building communities and nurturing relationships between resident DJs and dancers. Rather than always offering smash and grab headline sets, guests can play in more experimental and interesting ways, which in turn will only ever make the atmosphere better and the musical offerings more unique each week.
There has never been a better time to focus on local and UK talent.
In the UK, it feels like we have always fetishised foreign DJs. A UK selector will have to work twice as hard and prove themselves twice as often as, say, a new young gun from Detroit who will become flavour of the month seemingly overnight, just because of where they’re from. That is not only unfair but might be unfeasible in the future, once we leave the EU, VISA requirements change, environmental pressures grow and whatever else.
As such, there has never been a better time to focus on local and UK talent. For one, DJ culture is thriving. People – ie your unknown, keen-as-fuck bedroom DJ – are digging deep, learning their trade on a wide range of formats and are playing with the musical and stylistic freedom that has come with the explosion of the internet and destruction of boundaries and borders between sound and scenes. Give them the chance to regularly play in a small venue, learn their crowd and hone their skills, and there’s every chance they will become a homegrown superstar.
We often seem to hear promoters complaining of high DJ fees and having to risk serious financial burdens to book the DJs they want. But why bother? As DJ fees continue to rise, it’s time for promoters to say no rather than bankrupting themselves, underpaying residents or hiking up ticket prices just so they can say they booked so and so. That’s a vanity game, and nothing more. You’d be far better building your party from the ground up, with a loyal following and DJs who don’t take their sets for granted. It’s how the likes of Frankie Knuckles at The Warehouse, Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage and David Mancuso at The Loft started, so if it’s good enough for them…
Grow Old Gracefully
We get it, it’s difficult. You were once the hottest ticket in town. A trailblazer. A game-changer. In a league of your own. But now, as time has gone on, the next generation has caught up and even overtaken you in terms of bookings and releases. You might not like it, but that’s life. You have a few options at this stage: keep on churning out what you always have and become a heritage act, a classics DJ, a permanent window into yesteryear. And that’s fine – Greg Wilson is still doing fine and likely always will. Or you can dig deep, take some risks, step out of your comfort zone and use all your knowledge of the rules to break every single one of them and thrill us all with some wonderfully weird or masterfully executed new shit. Paul Woolford’s Special Request project is a fine example of that.
What you don’t need to do is go on social media and whine about how nowadays young DJs are more bothered about likes than tunes, or constantly point out that certain DJs are better at curating Instagram shots than they are DJ sets. That shit is here to stay, and you moaning about it makes you sound jealous and of touch, like some fist-waving OAP who is basically mad at the passing of time. In a scene that prides itself on being progressive, such behaviour is out of order. Despite what you may feel, no one owes you anything.
One side note here: there are certainly plenty of older DJs and producers who still very much have the skills to pay the bills but don’t get the bookings because they aren’t a hot enough name. In this case, it is promoters who need to step up here and take a chance. Stop buying into hype narratives. Listen with your ears, don’t just look for the likes. You might just get yourself a bargain.
Think of the Environment
Yes, it’s trendy right now, but it is also vitally important. Dance music culture is particularly bad for the environment, with DJs and dancers travelling the world to get their thrills, the manufacture and distribution of party prescriptions ruining natural habitats (and underprivileged lives) in various parts of the global south, and records chewing up and spitting out more plastic than ever. Festivals, too, are heavy on non-renewable energy sources and single-use plastic, and there have never been more of them than there are now.
It’s time to take a stand. Through collective action – or non-action, by not attending festivals who don’t have a strict and clear environment-conscious – we can force more of them to wise up, to ban single-use plastics, better recycle their waste, use green energy, sell locally and responsibly sourced food and much more. Plenty already do, from Paradise City in Belgium to Burning Man in Nevada, but many more could, and should follow suit before it’s too late. It’s the same deal with labels. Sure, I love vinyl as much as the next person, but as we continue to wake up to our own environmental impact, it feels increasingly selfish to keep lapping up the black crack when the perceived benefits are so niche.
Plenty of people in the scene are putting their money with their mouth is: various DJ agencies (including one run by Attack fav Cinthie) use carbon off-setting schemes like this one when booking global tours for their artists, and Berlin DJ and Reef promoter Darwin, along with others, has launched a similar scheme called Clean Scene, which includes a carbon calculator for DJs and agencies. In early 2019, Kompakt outfit Blond:ish launched Bye Bye Plastic, which aims to encourage venues to stop using single-use plastics like straws, cups and bottles and also asks artists to demand “eco-riders” at shows as well as offering a hotline service for promoters to get advice on the alternatives to using plastics at their shows. The more people who follow this lead, the better.
Respect others, respect their right to be who they want, and their right to their own space.
No More Celebrity DJs
Because of the technology now available, the likes of Idris Elba of Virgil Abloh might well be able to thread together a few tunes together, but that doesn’t make them DJs worth hearing. And certainly not DJs worth hearing on the sort of stage they have been given this year at credible places like DC10, amongst others. Frankly, it’s a real diss to bump these opportunists to the top of the pile in place of people who have been honing their trade for years. We wouldn’t want to hear a poorly cobbled together mix of Hot New Tunes from anyone else, so why would we from a celebrity?
Of course, these people get the platform because they sell the tickets, but that in itself is at best cynical, at worst insulting. We’re aware this phenomenon won’t go away – Paris Hilton is the original and most enduring example – but maybe if these parties also pledged to spotlight a couple of local unknowns alongside the big-name stars we’d all be a little more cool with it?
All the Gear and No Idea
Like expensive records, expensive gear should not be fetishised, The reason all that early Chicago house music sounded so raw was because of the shitty gear it was made on. That was not an aesthetic choice, it was just the reality. Rather than spending a ton of time and effort trying to sound authentic by recapturing those frayed sonic aesthetics, write your own story. Do you. Make music on whatever you have and embrace how it sounds, because knowledge is key, not possession. And if you are lucky enough to buy some hardware you’ve always wanted, make sure you become a master of it and can speak your very own language through your machines before you move onto the next piece. It takes time, sure, but nothing worth doing is ever easy.
In 99% of cases, it is what comes out of the speakers that matters. Most people listening will not care about how you made the music: learning that an artist made something with the latest VST rather than a Juno 101 will not likely alter someone’s enjoyment of your sounds. From the hi-fidelity synth deftness of Floating Points to the crunchy dystopianism of Kassem Mosse and everything in between, there is room for everyone. And frankly, the more different perspectives we have, the better.
This is so simple and obvious yet somehow still so often overlooked: respect others, respect their right to be who they want, and their right to their own space. People don’t need your permission or understanding. Also, respect the culture dance music comes from. Never forget its black, queer and Latino roots. Don’t make an ‘ethnic sounding’ tune as a white person. Don’t use sex to sell. Do your research, learn about the history and pay homage by staying the fuck away from anything that isn’t yours. The world does not need to hear ‘your version’ of a classic. Instead, always credit and celebrate the originators.