Thomas Cox argues that amateurism on multiple levels within the dance music industry traps us in a harmful cycle.
Comments made by clowns like Sebastian Ingrosso don’t usually even enter my consciousness, but one thing the former Swedish House Mafia member said in a recent New York Times interview struck a chord with me:
“Underground dance music – in the nicest way possible – it’s amateur.”
Much handwringing ensued from self-proclaimed members of the underground attempting to defend themselves, but Ingrosso’s comment echoed a Facebook post by techno legend Claude Young that already had me thinking about this exact issue. Young claims that “techno part-timers are ruining the music”, and having been making a living from music full time for a few years now, I can see what he means. The problem with “part-timers”, or people who don’t really have a full investment in this world, isn’t unique to music, but it’s one that snakes its way through the entire underground dance music economy and has various negative effects, both in the short term and the long term.
Claude Young claims that techno part-timers are ruining the music
Many people form their perceptions of dance music through the media, whether that might mean big websites, smaller blogs, or other outlets. For better or worse, dance music is generally not considered serious by the majority of the more established music media, which means that most coverage exists within the confines of outlets aimed directly at dance music fans. This creates a kind of music journalism ‘ghetto’, where there are low standards of entry, as well as a lack of high paying jobs that could lead to a long-term career in the field. The result is an influx of less-than-ideal candidates, and when there’s high demand for content from these media outlets, more and more young, inexperienced and uninformed writers end up filling in that content. Even worse, low wages result in a high turnover of dance music writers, which leads to a repeating cycle of the slightly more experienced moving out of the field to make room for those with less experience.
So how does this relate to Ingrosso’s contentious claim about amateurism in underground dance? The problem is that this isn’t an isolated example; we’re all caught up in a cycle in which amateurism on a number of levels perpetuates certain behaviour, with detrimental results to the entire industry.
That lack of knowledge and demand for content leaves underground dance music media wide open for hijacking by PR firms. Inexperienced writers get their email inboxes filled with tantalisingly ‘professional’ write-ups about artists and labels. This isn’t necessarily a knock against PR firms – they exist in every industry – but in dance music, their influence is insanely disproportionate as a result of the low number of truly professional journalists. Anyone who can see how this direct relationship between PR and media coverage works immediately knows how to exploit it.
The influence of PR firms in dance music is insanely disproportionate as a result of the low number of truly professional journalists.
That exploitation typically comes from young, inexperienced and unknowledgeable DJs and producers – generally with some money to kick around – who think that it would be fun to play in the music business for a while. Why, you ask, have we heard the names of terrible ‘DJs’ who play the same Beatport Top 10 tracks with no mixing skills, and get booking off the back of one big ‘hit’ track? This is the answer to the question. Artists like these are also the ones using ready-made loops from sample packs to make identical-sounding tracks, or paying other established producers to ghost-write music for them. They typically aren’t worried about making money from selling music, which means they can do things like run record labels where each release is guaranteed to lose money by being pressed in limited quantities, as long as it helps generate hype for them.
Once this kind of artist has infiltrated the journalists and music charts by paying for it, they are now being taken seriously by some dance fans for almost no real reason outside of media hype. Promoters of dance nights are often also inexperienced, looking for ways to get into what seems like a cool, fun job by putting on some of the up-and-coming talent. So they look to the media to see who’s making waves, and they hire them, sight unseen.
Everything gets set back to zero again, typically as each hyped subgenre's tenure expires.
I’ve already talked about the problem with promoters booking DJs based on popularity rather than skills, but the problem of the amateur promoter is subtly different. Now we have an inexperienced promoter putting on a night by this DJ, neither of whom really has any idea of what they are doing. Most of the people who attend a night like this are also going to be kids who are new to the whole scene. This might work for them while they are young and full of energy (and drugs), but as they grow older and more responsible, the lack of quality surrounding some of the largest DJs and parties leads to the high turnover in dance music fans. Everything gets set back to zero again, typically as each hyped subgenre’s tenure expires. And the artists, journalists and promoters don’t have much to lose, so they just move on to something else once their moment is over. This lack of commitment is a huge problem, and it sets the industry as a whole back every time there’s a downturn.
Where does this leave the true professionals? Where does it leave the skilled DJs, young and old, who are committed to dance music for the long haul? They have to fight for table scraps from the much smaller number of promoters who know what’s up and fight for support from the committed fans. As the economy of music has evolved to the point where most artists make the majority of their income from touring, you can probably imagine how badly this has affect those DJs and producers actually interested in making outstanding art. If there’s no money for people doing the good stuff, how are they going to make a career out of it and grow even further as artists? I see so many artists stuck in the loop of needing to constantly tour just to generate income, and the result is lower quality music output or lower volume of output – all the way down to zero.
Do you want to assist people trying to make a quick buck, or do you want to help committed artists pay their bills?
So what’s the solution to this cycle of mediocrity? It’s tough to pin total blame on any one step in this process, but it seems to me like so much rides on public perception of artists and their music, which is influenced heavily by a largely uncritical media. If more journalists were educated about the music, and had the financial incentive to stay in the field and be more honest about music – and more careful about what they co-sign – this would have a domino effect. It would take the power back from PR firms and their clients, which would result in fewer bookings for undeserving artists, which would lead to better overall nights out, which would lead to more people staying involved with dance music beyond the expiration of whatever subgenre it was that got them interested in it in the first place.
But there’s also a strong argument that we as listeners need to be more critical. That doesn’t mean a system of self-appointed gatekeepers – this isn’t about me deciding which artists or tracks deserve the hype; it’s about all of us being critical and making our own minds up about which producers and DJs deserve our support. Do you want to assist people trying to make a quick buck, or do you want to help committed artists pay their bills?
A more educated and more committed audience leads to a better economic situation for quality artists like Claude Young, but it might not help someone like Sebastian Ingrosso, who quite ironically seems not to understand that – in the nicest possible way – he’s part of the problem.
Thomas Cox has been causing trouble on teh interwebs since 1996 and representing Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania since birth. You can find him on Twitter.