Our new regular columnist Thomas Cox introduces himself and sets out his manifesto for this column: an honest, no-holds-barred take on dance culture.
Underground dance music as we know it today is part of a lineage that dates back 40-odd years to loft parties thrown in New York City in the early 70s. As the music grew out from its roots and embraced technology, the already nameless and faceless disco producer and DJ became even more obscured.
The insider nature of the underground dance media has led us to a place where it seems like any strong opinion, especially a negative one, is unwelcome in the general discussion. It’s time for that to change.
Sure, underground dance music is a relatively small world, especially as you get deeper and deeper into it. But what happens when the media are afraid to say anything negative for fear of offending a friend, or perhaps a PR agency who supplies promos and access? The same is true with music technology companies: the potential success of industry powerhouses and small independent companies alike relies heavily on positive reviews. This is compounded by the fact that dance music journalism is such a low-paid, low-prestige job that it has a high turnover rate.
It is far easier for journalists who don’t have as much history in the dance underground to just follow the flow of PR and hype, without upsetting the apple cart, and do their thing until they move on to bigger and better pastures. DJs and artists are even less likely to dish out criticism, especially when they’re relying on gigs and tech sponsorships for their pay cheques and those gigs and sponsorships are intertwined in the same dense web of politics.
So who is there to cut through the shit? Who really wins if PR firms and rich corporate sponsors get their way? A string of four-out-of-five ratings for each and every new release is not the way to keep this music moving forward.
Some of you may know of me from the music my group Pittsburgh Track Authority makes, or perhaps from the labels we run, including Love What You Feel. Long before any of that, I was throwing parties in Pittsburgh and of course going out to hear the music that moves me. It is likely though that you might have heard of me from my internet presence as pipecock. I have been talking about dance music on the internet since 1996 when I got my first PC at my house.
At 16 years old, I was used to going to record shops where bantering with more experienced and knowledgeable DJs helped point me in the direction of some of the more timeless music (much of which is the subject of heavy reissue and bootleg treatment even now) instead of the shallow trend of the day. The guys I was talking to were not even thinking about the big picture, they were just experienced and were not afraid to call it like they saw it. When I dove into the world of email discussion lists, it seemed as though anyone who said anything negative was labelled a ‘troll’, and their opinion dismissed. This attitude was reflected through the days of forums as well.
A string of four-out-of-five ratings for each and every new release is not the way to keep this music moving forward.
Blogging was a big step forward for critical approaches to dance music. It allowed upstart journalists to set up a home base where a certain perspective could be fostered without worrying about the politics or big media. It was the first time you saw the little guy able to take on such wide reaching criticism. Sites like Little White Earbuds, mnml ssgs and my blog infinitestatemachine each had something to add to the bigger discussion, something rooted in experience and taste, and less susceptible to outside influence.
Even more interesting was the fact that these blogs were able to begin focusing the spotlight on artists who had previously been ignored by the media. Many of those artists are now among the biggest names in the underground.
Eventually the world of dance music blogs became oversaturated, and the rise of bigger media sites began to take over. Some were formerly print magazines, a few were offshoots of record shops, while others had come out of more popular genres but were now covering underground music. The end result was that the discussion was now being led once again by a rotating cast of less experienced players who had less invested in their taste and style. There are some notable exceptions, of course, but a casual glance at most of the year-end lists generated by these writers reveals that they all seem to be drinking the same Kool Aid. There are even writers who will try to tell you that this isn’t how it works.
There is a feeling in the air right now that reminds me of the days over six years ago when I first started infinitestatemachine. At that moment, ‘minimal’ was in its death throes and the media, having suckled at the teat of minimal for years, was not in touch with what was coming up next. Hopefully more people will step up and use new platforms to point the discussion in a better direction, because I for one surely don’t want to sit through the last days of what they are (erroneously) calling deep house choking on its own vomit until it’s finally gone. Right now it seems the push is for lo-fi ‘outsider’ house, which feels even more limited in scope and definitely more limited in dancefloor usefulness.
I don’t want to sit through the last days of what they are (erroneously) calling deep house choking on its own vomit.
There are too many styles out there that are largely being ignored in the fight for everyone to have access to the same few hyped artists and labels. My job here at Attack is to use my experience and knowledge to discuss whatever topic might be of interest at any time, and in my own way. They have given me carte blanche, and the green light to pull no punches. I have no agenda other than leading the discussion on topics that I feel need to be addressed, whether that be the music, the industry, the business, the media, or really any facet of underground dance music.
Attack has given me carte blanche, and the green light to pull no punches.
One of the best things about underground dance music for me is the variety of sounds contained within. Experienced DJs, producers, promoters, and label owners, as well as journalists and even just punters would be greatly served by making sure their voices are heard. I personally have my hand in all of these activities. We are all responsible for the journey this music takes; following the pied piper will lead us down dead ends, as we have seen many times over. There is no reason for people to not say their piece. This column will be where I say mine; it will often be an unpopular one, which makes it even more imperative that it gets said.
The chain of back-slapping and PR hype ends here.
Thomas Cox has been causing trouble on teh interwebs since 1996 and representing Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania since birth. You can find him on Twitter.