Dance music’s recent mainstream acceptance as "EDM" has brought about a fury from certain elements in the artistic/underground scenes, which is nothing new in itself - it happens whenever anything "underground" finds love from the mainstream.
From articles like a recent one in SPIN Magazine to those carried by a plethora of blogs, many DJs, critics, and producers have been claiming that the music has hit a creative zero. That we’ve lost that innovative spark that can do things like make one sound explode into a plethora of ideas and genres, as has happened in the past. That it's lost its soul.
The first sign of this dissention came in 2009 when blogger Mark Fisher wrote:
“The current decade... has been characterised by an abrupt sense of deceleration. A thought experiment makes the point. Imagine going back 15 years in time to play records from the latest dance genres – dubstep, or funky, for example – to a fan of jungle. One can only conclude that they would have been stunned – not by how much things had changed, but by how little things have moved on. Something like jungle was scarcely imaginable in 1989, but dubstep or funky, while by no means pastiches, sound like extrapolations from the matrix of sounds established a decade and a half ago.”
I sense a bit of truth as I listen to electro-house now, and feel like it’s only devolved from the tweaky ideology Benny Benassi started with Satisfaction back in 2003. I’ll admit while the newer sound pushes epic trance-like buildups and synths, it hasn’t changed much. I’d even agree with Fisher that most of the popular dubstep reminds me of the jungle I’d hear 10 years ago, only with a different beat.
I even gave Trap a listen recently and found myself asking how it's any different than rap music.??It would be easy to believe that the well for creativity has run dry - but I don't think it's that simple.
"Normal" people are not DJs
One might wonder why it seems there is so much bad "manufactured" music being released, while "creative" or "good" music seems non-existent. You all have to remember that the regular market of people consuming clubs and dance music are not DJs. They aren’t drawn to the intricate little things about the music the way we are.
They’re drawn to the images of posh cool clubs with gorgeous people or big massive festivals that are out of this world.?? The masses might be drawn to the images they carry in their minds of what the club and rave scene is, but they still want the safety of their familiar music. Jim Fusilli of the Wall Street Journal had this to say:
“As EDM and its related events continue to grow, an audience may be developing that wants nothing more than predictable, middling entertainment.”
Maybe for some of us here in this blog, as "serious" clubbers/DJs we were/are drawn to that uncertainty. To go to an event, see a DJ come on, and just hear new sounds we’ve never heard. Unfortunately for us, we’re part of a small number of what I call “the converted”. We get it, we know it, and thus we’re capable of opening our minds to new things. Most people who simply rush off to Vegas or Miami to party in the usual touristy/glam spots do not.
Thus the music industry will jump on the bandwagon. You’ve seen this many times. Right now everyone is copying Guetta and Harris. A few years ago it was everyone copying Deep Dish and Benny Benassi. Years before that they copied Armin Van Buuren, Tiesto, and Paul Van Dyk.??This is the usual cycle and problem of a mass of producers more interested in being famous/successful as opposed to being creative. In a Mixmag interview, trance artists Above and Beyond had this to add:
“I've noticed that many smaller producers are seemingly feeling a bit lost in where to go with their direction, and are perhaps seeing artists like David Guetta having mainstream commercial success and saying, 'I want a piece of that!’ They are then diverting from their chosen flight path and heading towards that, which is of course fine if it's where they genuinely want to be, as some do. But for a lot of producers, they dilute what they are about because they are not David Guetta and don't do what he does best. That's not experimenting in my eyes, it's panic!”
I somewhat agree with Above and Beyond. You would think that the drive for mainstream success may have brought about an end in creativity. But this isn’t the first time the scene has hit this conundrum…
It’s a perpetual cycle
For anyone who really remembers disco, they’ll remember when underground scenes like the Paradise Garage and the Loft played the cutting-edge of the 70s. A wonderful world of funk brought to a faster tempo. Once Saturday Night Fever and Studio 54 came about, we saw the music go downhill... but even after Steve Dahl killed disco here in Chicago, things just wouldn’t die. Ironically enough it all came back as house... in the same city!
We saw this same demise several times in the 1990s. We had pop music with house beats, eurodance music from the ashes of the rave/hardcore scene, and let’s not forget the soundtrack to A Night at the Roxbury.
It happened again after trance’s big explosion at the end of the 20th century. I personally will never forget how in 2000 I’d show up to play a set and drop amazing tunes from the likes of Sasha and Paul Van Dyk, but then a year later would have audiences begging me to play more mainstream like Ian Van Dahl and Sarina Parris.
All those times when I'd seen the creativity go downhill, I'd eventually find a new sound to my liking and thus move on. I like to think that dance music isn’t a person that is born, grows up, and then dies a slow stale death. It’s a phoenix, that dies to rise again.
Yes, we could see the same tweaky basslines of dubstep and think it’s just jungle with a new beat structure, but that’s again how the music is a phoenix. Think about it. How much jungle or even drum and bass are you hearing at events now compared to dubstep? From the ashes of jungle came dubstep.
There is no stagnation, only saturation
Imagine your favourite record store... or something similar if you never bought a record your whole life. It’s in a small storefront, and the space is packed with bins of vinyl and the walls contain top picks from the staff. Every time you walk in, you can quickly and easily find a small stack of music you would love to buy.
Now imagine one day you find that store expanded into the adjoining storefronts, and now it's as big as a warehouse. More bins were added and more stuff was placed on the walls, but you find that the music you think is great has been mixed in with loads of more stock that you find mediocre or terrible.
This is what’s happened now in music. We’ve gone from having a finite space to infinite space. We’ve gone from having access to only one local record shop to access to a plethora of shops all over the globe. Even before MP3, I used to buy vinyl from all over the planet. If I heard it and wanted it, somehow I would get it.
Now, some can still push that music just sucks nowadays, but I disagree. My only rationale of why is that I still go on Beatport or Traxsource, and end up with a shopping cart or wish list full of tunes. I’ll want to spend $20 and end up with $100 in stuff I’d like. So in my opinion, there is still plenty of great stuff being released... you just have to sift through a lot of mediocre or terrible music to find it. Some make the claim again that vinyl record shops kept the quality level up and the crap out, but I more look at the music industry as the culprit, as they will pick whatever will easily sell.
So let’s say we were all still playing vinyl records: Imagine how you would react if your local small record shop is stock full of big label David Guetta-sounding copycat artists, and not many small innovative producers?
We might have ended up with an over-saturation of music because of the internet, but we also ended up with an even playing field where the small bedroom artist can still blow up without any big label support. That’s a big win in my eyes, because it means I’ll still find good music out there... I just have to dig for it like I did in the past with vinyl.
How to find the good music...
If you’re one of those DJs who goes online shopping and can’t find anything that excites you any more, check out my 5 Smarter Ways To Buy Music Online post. I give you some great tips on how to beat the “saturation blues” and help you get more for the money you spend on music.
If you've been DJing for a while, do you have an opinion on whether the overall quality of music has gone up or down? How has the shift from vinyl and record shops to digital files and online stores affected this? what does the future hold? Please share your thoughts in the comments.