Kingdom Come: A beige noise

I haven’t felt this dismayed about electronic club music since House music moved into “lounge” bars in the summer of 2004 and joined forces with jazz in one of the genres more shadowy periods. It was a summer fedora-wearing pseudo boho chic “artists” forcing an improvised pedestrian saxophone, or some other obvious sexual innuendo of an instrument, down the throats of his/her listeners while a DJ played a “progressive” House set by way of a rhythm section. It was an era of pointy shoes and real estate agents, shoehorning fruity expensive cocktails down their gullets and mountains of cocaine up their nose, unaware of the inevitable crash that awaited them on the other side. People like throwing the word dystopian around to describe dark, somber, industrial music, but for me dystopia would always be that moment, when the real-estate agents had turned the world into a forest of cheap high-rises soundtracked by a sax – DJ combo calling themselves an artistic duo, playing lounge bars everywhere for a restless clientele bobbing along on white pleather couches.

Luckily, in 2008 the recession hit and real-estate agents everywhere had to give away the last of their pointy shoes to pay excessive cocaine habits; expensive cocktail bars and clubs were closed because nobody could afford to re-upholster the badly stained pleather couches; and the saxophone playing DJ combo had finally been resigned to the archives. One such saxophone-player, sans DJ, did attempt to crash a house party in London in 2008, but was promptly shown the door when an eagle-eyed guest spotted a brassy sheen reflecting off a fedora from across the room.

The 2008 recession marked a cultural reset button, as much as it did a financial one and ushered in a new enlightened musical age. Emboldened by a digital infrastructure and spurred on by the institutional failure of the entire financial system, the independent label, artist and producer had found its own era. With sites like beatport taking the distribution out of the hands of the big players and handing it over to the individual, and with digital mediums rising in quality to become the accepted the norm, artists and labels no longer needed the infrastructure provided by the institution to get their music out there, and as such independent labels and -artists proliferated like no other era before them. Yes there were independent labels before them, but in most cases they were imprints of big labels, boutique labels acquired by more established companies to corner every inch of the market and would not exist if it were not for the parent company’s distributing, marketing and publishing channels. No, only after the last recession could we taste the air of freedom, and in one of the most fertile landscapes of electronic music since the 90’s, this music exploded, like a pubescent teen at his first Disco.

Labels and artists sprung up around Europe with great prosperity using the infrastructure of the online community to proliferate burgeoning scenes all around the world, and undermine the institutional dogmas established by a ruling musical elite. It’s their efforts that brought vinyl back into the fray when most labels and distributors had assigned the format to the thrift shops as obsolete. These small independent labels kept the printing presses moving in small, short but effective batches as the taciturn alternative to the volumes of innocuous factory music polluting the digital ether shortly after the big wigs also caught onto the digital revenue streams.    

I turn to Blawan’s Fram/Iddy release by way of example here. Jamie Roberts rose to prominence in the vast plains of endless possibility leftover after dubstep dismantled itself. Blawan took up the call, like so many of his peers, to harness outsider elements to create music with a new fevered disdain for common musical tropes. Elements of Garage blended perfectly with Techno at 138 BPM and cemented a sound that for me at the time was completely alien, new and above all inspiring. Hessle Audio also plays its own role in this analogy as a label that burst forth out of the community of the dubstep “scene” in London frequenting parties like FWD at plastic people and contributing to online forums like dubstepforum and djhistory.com. They had been releasing records from the likes of TRG, Untold, Joe and their own Pangea, for three years before Blawan and had adopted a punkish attitude to the business of music. Even though their roots were planted in the dubstep community, they negated obvious musical platitudes, looking for those artists and tracks that begged, stole and borrowed across musical traditions like Joy Orbison and Martyn. They were immediately successful with a new generation that had come accustomed to a broad musical palette through the internet, and trusted the blogs and forums cut from the same cloth.

Where labels like Hessle and acts like Blawan had basically set the clock back to year zero for electronic club music, to those early nineties where everything went and nothing was taboo, the music media too was facing its own existential crisis. Music print media was officially pronounced dead in 2008, with the few print media outlets like MixMag and DJmag consigned to the retirement home where grey-haired white men who hadn’t seen a club floor since the nineties, wrote about contemporary music from a completely detached point of view. Paging through a Mixmag or DJmag circa 2009, the writing might have been good, but the subject matter seemed alien, like a golden oldies radio channel incorporating a contemporary Maroon 5 song in their playlist. It might have been new, but it wasn’t cutting edge and mostly a pliable kind of sound, soft enough that even the geriatrics could swallow it. They would catch on eventually, but it would seem a little too late often.  The issue was that print media was basing their work and subject matter on an old model, designed for selling print copies and had completely lost touch with anything happening below the superficial to appease that model, and thus only catch on to artists like blawan after they’d become popular. All the while Resident Advisor had already broken the artist through a whole onslaught of reviews and in-depth interviews. For a generation that was raised on the internet, which had cultivated a penchant for the obscure, print media and their opinions became irrelevant, and they exclusively turned to their online peers for everything, including music.

Forums and blogs had become the proliferators of good musical taste as objective coequal voices audiences could trust, and the few print outlets that could see its potential thrived as a result. Outlets like Factmag and Dummymag, which had been little more than fanzines suddenly became to purveyors of cool. Being a digital outlet that was free, they reached a wider audience, but at the same time they turned to the very same writers and critics from the blogosphere who had been intrusted by their online peers as the voices of their generation. Writers like Laura Martin, Aimee Cliff and Joe Muggs were modern-day soothsayers across the digital media, tapping straight into the vein of youth culture and electronic club music, and taking the power from the old institutionalised white men before them. As much as the likes of Hessle Audio and Blawan had a role to play, so did publications like Fact, Dummy, Resident Advisor and, to a degree dubstepforum.

Never before since the invention of pop music perhaps had the musical landscape changed so drastically. Everything from the distribution and promotion of music to the influences changed significantly and electronic music was at the forefront of it all, calling in a new bold era of innovative and daring music. Computer instruments obviously had their part to play too, and although they’ve been a prominent feature in studios since in the nineties, they’d only just become accessible to the majority in affordable, comprehensive (and stable) packages like Ableton. I would argue that the significance of computer music was more significant for a previous generation and their role in this grand musical era after the recession was rather more perfunctory than anything else.

“These days even reality has to look artificial.”

― J.G. Ballard, Kingdom Come

It was a glorious era for electronic music and had even encouraged this blog, but it didn’t take long for the bubble to burst and, for me, the shift came around 2013, during a live show by the  brutalists Techno group, Clouds. I had liked the music of Clouds as Techno, tinged with drony atmospheres and aggressive percussive arrangements and sounds distilled from the new modular rack synthesisers, which had become more attainable in recent years. The duo were playing a small bar in London’s Kingsland road called On the Rocks, a working man’s pub entertaining shoreditch’s queer partygoers in the years preceding as a venue for parties like Trailer Trash. Thanks to the efforts of the queer community and the pink pound, it could finally throw out the broken speakers, bring in a bigger sound system and with a little help of community gentrification, spruce up the look of the place. Everything about it felt wrong now, and the crowd dotted around the small venue seemed seemed noticeably absent. Illuminated by the shallow incandescent glow of mobile phones, their engagement with the music appeared non-existent and the music suffered as a result. Whether Clouds’ performance was influenced by the audience participation or not, their music seemed lacklustre, mechanical at best and formulaic at worst.

It seemed like many of their peers, Clouds had caught onto an idea of sound rather than a sound. They were mimicking something of a stylised Germanic sound, and had gentrified it into its bare components where hyperboles like like raw and industrial had been proffered as descriptions. The music was not in fact industrial or raw but rather bland and uninteresting. It was a model of a model, gentrifying the eccentricities of a music down to bare curiosities, where the unique identity of the music evaporates into wispy blandness.

In many ways that particular concert marked the beginning of the end of it all for electronic club music, but it was by no means an isolated affair and at the centre of it, Tech House and Deep House became the main contributing factors to electronic club music’s ultimate demise today.

Although in the 90’s and early 00’s Tech- and Deep House were soulful interpretations of dance floor genres, during the recession it had become a model of a model to such a degree that today it constitutes little more than an empty loop on the dance floor. Superficial, formulaic and barely functional Tech- and Deep House has ushered in an era of beige tedium in club land. Paint-by-numbers variations on House and Techno had started infiltrating music before the recession too, but in recent years it had become ubiquitous, and every “DJ” with a beatport account swam in the banality of these genres. Where we had seen the kind of formulaic, loopy functionalism creep into Techno through largely British artists trying to evoke an idea of Berlin rather than the actual sound of it, Techno could still boast some semblance of a marginal music with its aggressively uncompromising sound palette. Tech and Deep-House however couldn’t, and unashamedly played in common denominators to reach a wider audience and in doing so propelled electronic club music in Europe into popular consciousness. Audiences and DJs are consuming these iterations of club music like everything else in their life and the music has reciprocated, engaging on the simplest and most superficial level with its audiences – a model of a model of a model…

All the eccentricities had been removed from the music and the innovators were lost in the fray, as the self-promoting hordes saturated electronic club music. Those that had been on the dance floor, had suddenly assumed positions as DJ’s, journalists and music promoters, fetishising and monetising it for the sake of commodity, bolstered by the unsubstantiated notion that they knew best. New labels pounced on the new model established post recession and exploited it for the sole purpose of market purchase. They weren’t so much interested in making money, but rather just saturating public consciousness with their factory-made music. What the labels were doing out of necessity before them, new labels were using as a business model, and even something like the vinyl format, which was used  to undercut saturated distribution channels in the past, now became a marketing gimmick. Limited edition presses, ironic because it was largely available digitally, became the norm for “boutique” labels as a sales strategy, not for the sake of selling records, but rather selling an image. The distributors have become the new record labels, and flood printing presses with what they deem to be notable, precisely based on sales tactics and nothing else. The major distributors of electronic club music like Rush Hour, Clone, Hardwax and Word and Sound are the keepers at the gate of getting your record pressed. The more patient amongst you can press the record yourself – recent accounts are up to a year waiting time – but then what are you going to do, sell it out of the back of your van. Without the physical distribution network your dead out of luck and unless you fit the distributors profile you are dead out of luck.

 

“The human race sleepwalked to oblivion, thinking only of the corporate logos on its shroud.”

― J.G. Ballard, Kingdom Come

 

A DJ or artist’s public profile today is the yard stick by which they are measured today, and this is probably the most discouraging and disheartening of what is going on in music today, and not just electronic club music either. Facebook likes, Soundcloud plays, YouTube views are the new credentials by which we judge music, and everybody’s followed suit, from the listeners to the bookers, who often book artists/DJs on the merit of their social media presence today. (That’s why a lot of festivals have the same line-up.) Artists and DJ’s need to assume personalities that relay their music through an image, and often to make for the lack of the music. They’ll often criticise the very system they are pandering to to get noticed and increase their visibility for market share. The music blogs, the few of them that remained, pander to the very system they fought so hard against, with journalists and bloggers considering themselves the gatekeepers of good taste, conforming to the very institution they had broken out from, as they go from their independent blogs to brand partnered media outlets, designed to sell… what exactly I’m not sure… equity perhaps? Where before you could differentiate between blogs now they all spew pretty much the same noise into digisphere with quantity over content winning. Where before they were interviewing artists for the sake of interview, they are now selling the image of an artist: The artist who’s releasing a record, not to sell the record, but to book 1h DJ sets playing to audiences numbed by the incessant noise of a media feedback loop, that tell them what to listen to, which in turn the DJ/artist panders to through ego to sustain the artificial popularity, which the media exploit in one exhausting self-perpetuating endless circle.

It’s a dire situation for electronic club music today, and yes there is still hope in the margins, but the margins are appearing ever more constricted. I can still find solace in those incredibly leftfield music genres like EBM and Electro, and dig through the back catalogue of House and Techno to still find some gems, but these are coming fewer and further between as everything is drowned out by a beige omnipresent noise. Yes there is still music out there that inspires like Blawan’s Bored Young Adults project from last year or Phase Fatale’s next EP, but as people like Phase Fatale become Resident Advisor’s new poster boy for cool; Discogs’ interest rates for old records reach unattainable levels; and bland Electro tracks start cropping up in Deep House DJ sets, even these sacred institutions don’t seem long for this world. How long until they are filtered into yet another model of a model. They are the last vestiges of hope I hold dear for electronic club music, but as they follow trends I’ve seen before in Techno, House, Tech- and Deep-House I am eager for another meltdown of apocalyptic proportions of the current musical zeitgeist.

The word dystopian comes to mind again, which in recent years, they completely misconstrue as some end-of-the-world barren landscape, where in fact dystopia as I know it and as literature has taught me is rather in the superficial. It’s an organised political system making the world a better place, a life-enhancing automated world free from random human behaviour and a gleaming shopping mall where “consumerism is honest, and teaches us that everything good has a barcode”. And that’s what music is today: it’s abundant thriving and accessible to all, but superficial, judged on popularity alone, and completely unsubstantial – a beige noise settling in.