Has the Democratisation of Dance Music Morphed into a Tyranny?

Beyond the radical sonic shifts that electronics and dance music ushered in towards the end of the 1980s came a parallel and reciprocal revolution in the sociology of music. Or Sociomusicology as it is also known. The dawn of acid house and the wave of abstract frequency that swept through warehouses and fields thrived on a self-generating, self-sustaining, DIY spirit that not only saw party organisers and promoters step outside the licensed bounds of convention, but  also spawned a new breed of musician. Musicians that did not necessarily have a formal grounding in musical theory or years of music lessons behind them, but who embraced new technology with instinct, passion and raw talent. Suddenly as synthesisers, drum machines and samplers booted the doors off music’s hallowed institutions, a new levelling of talent crystallised into a new subculture.

As the prohibitively expensive wardrobe-sized synthesisers were superseded by Roland’s arsenal of electronics and samples, the phenomenon of the bedroom producer began to swell. A vast plethora of independent labels sprang up, often founded by a producer and his best mate. Having knocked out a tune in their bedroom, they would cobble together some cash for a cottage vinyl-run and then start distributing it themselves by dropping off 10 records on sale or return at record shops in surrounding cities. With a vibrant movement swirling around the new music and an intoxicating sense of love and unity, major labels suddenly became all but irrelevant to nascent dance music. The underground began crafting its own sound on its own terms, using its own networks to distribute and earn money from the music. In essence, this was a new matrix, and despite inevitable cases of artists getting ripped off by unaccountable, fly by night labels, it was, for the most part, a sustainable business model.

"...Suddenly the numbers of
people producing music
went through the roof.
A triumph for democratisation

As the millennium drew near, these twin threads of DIY music making and distribution began to extrapolate exponentially, driven once more by emergent technology. To be a bedroom producer in 1990, you needed about £5k for decent equipment. £5k tended to be affordable if you were really determined, but it was still £5k. Compared to a Moog though, or to years of musical training, it was a liberating price tag, but only for those who saw raising that kind of money as a challenge on the way to realising a dream.

As personal computing technology accelerated at breakneck pace, suddenly it was becoming possible to buy just a laptop, download some cracked software and do everything in the box for £1k or less. Moreover, people who weren’t necessarily intent on becoming producers would get music software and mess about with it for fun. Suddenly the numbers of people producing music went through the roof. A triumph for democratisation surely?

"...Surely the internet and
the MP3 would finally
eradicate major labels
from the equation.."

The same went for actually releasing music. £800 to press up 500 records was still £800, and that was even before you took into consideration the man hours of pavement pounding between record shops to get your label off the ground. It was eminently doable, but you had to be pretty motivated to actually do it. With the rise of digital formats and the extraordinary connectivity of the internet, it quickly became possible to put your music out for next to nothing. Another barrier removed.

Here we had the natural progression of the democratisation that had been such a key factor in the birth of underground dance music. Money was now virtually no barrier to production, and surely the internet and the MP3 would finally eradicate major labels from the equation and create a global musical subculture where open source dynamics and digital freedoms would forge ever more independent models.

So what happened? The removal of physicality from music somehow began to devalue it as something lasting and intrinsically substantial. MP3s slowly became somehow transient and disposable, without people – your author included – really being aware of that subtle shift in perception.  Anthems with club lifespans of many months dwindled to a few weeks and then often into obscurity. With these investment filters vanishing, people no longer had to take a long hard look at a track before releasing it as there was nothing to lose by releasing it digitally anyway.

Democratisation began to leak away into saturation as it became virtually impossible to wade through every new release to try and find a hidden gem. Rather than have 10 tracks a week to look through, hundreds of unmastered and effectively unfinished tracks began to clog the pathways. Many DJs looking for digital downloads began to feel as if they were drowning in a sea of white noise. 

"...The freedom of technology driven,
intuition based dance music had
morphed into a tyranny..."

Piracy rode rampant through any real hope of creating a sustainable living. Most disturbing of all, the filters that were being eradicated were being replaced by even bigger corporate entities. Somewhere along the line the democratised freedom of technology driven, intuition based dance music had morphed into a tyranny.

Ironically, the more democratised both production and distribution have become, the more difficult it is to actually get heard, especially if we are talking about new independent labels rather than a talented producer getting picked up by an established label.

"...If 94% of all digital tracks
are selling less than 100
copies, how does one
even contemplate
breaking through...?"

“According to Nielsen SoundScan which collects recorded-music sales information, of the eight million unique digital tracks sold in 2011, 94 percent – 7.5 million tracks – sold fewer than one hundred units, and an astonishing 32 percent sold only one copy,” writes Bob Lefsetz, music lawyer.

If 94% of all digital tracks are selling less than 100 copies, how does one even contemplate breaking through? Buying sales, likes, plays and follows is a particularly cringeworthy example, but many major labels do exactly that. YouTube recently removed billions of hits from the major labels play counts in a crackdown on fake plays. Clearly the idea is that ‘success breeds success’ – even if that initial success is allegedly fraudulent.  Universal alone lost a billion plays. And yet their strategy seems to be working, despite the passing red faces over the Youtube backlash. So it is difficult not to conclude that now more than ever, a well oiled, well funded PR machine to get you heard above the oceans of music out there is critical.

Take a look at the recent DJ Mag’s Top 100 DJ list. It is, as we well know, an absolute farce, with people who press play on a set and produce bubble gum electro pop dominating the rankings. But how did all those young guys get there? Is it a coincidence that half of them look like androgynous male models, or are they carefully manufactured PR constructions?
Crossfadr recently published an insight into the increasingly prevalent phenomenon of ghost production. If we once understood dance music – and indeed any credible music as a direct connection between musician and listener, we have to examine the idea of ghost production very closely. It’s not intrinsically wrong, but like anything, it depends how it is done.

The idea of a DJ who lacks production skills sitting down with an engineer to execute a vision he passionately feels but can’t quite articulate technically is surely fair enough. But whole production houses dedicated to making identikit radio friendly tracks for a ‘face’ that often has little input during the production process is surely not. Is the idea of democratisation taken so far that you no longer need to necessarily know how to produce professionally or know how to mix taking logical extrapolation and reducing it to the absurd?
Looking at the charts and at the EDM scene one can draw a parallel between the dynamics of the dance music business and socio-economic patterns, particularly inequalities in wider society. One of the most disturbing trends within corporate capitalism is widening inequality. Output is increasing, yet rewards for that go to management and shareholders rather than to the factory floor. Wages remain stagnant amongst low paid workers and in some cases are cut, the middle remains ‘squeezed’ but a small oligarchy are getting richer at astonishing rates of growth. The gap between rich and poor is widening by the day across the Western economies.

"...In 2011, 102 tracks on iTunes
sold more than a million units each,
accounting for
15% of total sales..."

And you might consider this a trivial comparison, but the exact same pattern is being mimicked within the business of dance music. Tracks like Avicii’s Levels are the Walmarts of the musical stock exchange, but outside the door, the sonic Occupy movement is bedraggled and windswept. And between the two extremes is a squeezed middle of quality producers staring down the barrel of ever diminishing returns, wondering why the hell they don’t just jack it all in. How did we arrive at this point where such a promising trajectory that seemed set to empower the many and weaken the few ended up doing just the opposite?

In 2011, 102 tracks on iTunes sold more than a million units each, accounting for 15 percent of total sales. That is not a typo: 0.00001 percent of the eight million tracks sold that year generated almost a sixth of all sales. The trend suggests that hits are gaining in relevance. In 2007, 36 tracks each sold more than a million copies, together these tracks accounted for 7 percent of total market volume. In 2009, 79 tracks reached that milestone; together they make up 12 percent of the sales volume.

"...Who cares about low record sales
when you own publishing rights,
invest in hugely lucrative tours
and strike sponsorship deals
for your artists..."

Piracy is another huge issue on a skewed playing field. The chances of those pirating underground music growing a conscience is slim. Indeed one has to wonder why piracy is so rife if the largest, best funded corporations in the world are dead set against it. All the signs are that the majors have in fact adapted to survive and changed their business models accordingly. Who cares about low record sales when you own publishing rights, license music left and right, invest in hugely lucrative tours and strike sponsorship deals for your artists. Are music sales now simply a loss leader, or even just a marketing tool while the real business is done elsewhere? And if this is the case and there is an unspoken acceptance of piracy amongst those who might actually be able to do something about it, what chance does the small independent have?

The world has changed and we have to change with it, finding ways round this growing tyranny. Ever since the financial crash exposed the degree of inequality inherent within the prevalent model of capitalism, people have been looking for alternatives, but to little avail. The rich get richer and the poor don’t get a voice, and in dance music, huge cheesy breakdowns and neon drops make millions while edgy, soul-driven creativity battles against the corporate tide. We have seen a DIY subculture get hijacked into an oligarchy, and a model that once defied those structures become subsumed by them.
‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ A quote falsely attributed to Gandhi and overused to the point of triteness on social networks, does still apply. Before we take aim at the really quite ludicrous corporate interests, we should see if our own behaviour can be tweaked to help contribute back into our own society within real dance music. 

Recently award winning songwriter, and music industry critic David Lowery, wrote an open letter to Emily White, an intern at NPR. In response to an online article in which she had stated, amongst other things, that "that while she had 11,000 songs in her music library, she’s only paid for 15 CDs in her life."

The letter touched upon the following questions:

- “Why do we value the network and hardware that delivers music but not the music itself?”

- “Why are we willing to pay for computers, iPods, smartphones, data plans, and high speed internet access but not the music itself?”

- “Why do we gladly give our money to some of the largest richest corporations in the world but not the companies and individuals  who create and  sell music?”

Beyond questioning our own value system and how it has been conditioned or skewed, it is worth questioning our own behaviour patterns. If we hear a track on Soundcloud and appreciate it – but it’s not out for a month, do we note down the release date and go back to get it or is it already old news in our increasingly immediate minds? Do the little dopamine hits that make social media so addictive permit us to actually take some time to explore the deeper recesses of download sites?
Vinyl may have had its day as a mass medium but we could still take inspiration from the way every disc of black wax meant something to its owner, something beyond a mere set ingredient for a few weeks, but part of its owner’s identity, their journey and their musical expression as a DJ.

Ultimately, what it really comes down to is how we as individuals view the music we make, play and listen to. We have to decide whether we see music as merely a sonic Twitter feed or an element to our souls. If more people were prepared to invest some time to look beyond the chart positioned glossy shop fronts to duck down a back alley and uncover an uncut diamond we might start to see a recalibration, at least in some small way of an increasingly distorted equation. In short, we have to decide what kind of dance music we want to see in 5 years time, will it be an EDM empire or a genuinely thriving network of creativity, social responsibility and groundbreaking music. What’s it to be, the red pill or the blue pill?

image: 310k