Is Techno In A Holding Pattern?

Jul 23rd, 2008 // 12 Comments

1199199168_x.jpgThis may be super-last-week of me to mention, but I admired Philip Sherburne’s recent Pitchfork column about what he sees as a current malaise in dance music. For one thing, it’s a piece whose main body (the stuff Sherburne wrote, not the quotes beneath it) you can read and substitute your own proper nouns into: it’s apt about a lot more than just dance music right now. What’s most interesting, though, is the light it sheds on dance music as a business.

The piece hit the Web at an interesting time for me; the day before, prior to a weekly happy-hour DJ gig I do in Seattle (Havana, Pike between 10th and 11th, Wednesdays 7 to 9, stop by), I had decided to dive back into vinyl a little bit. God knows what prompted this: I have plenty of CDs and two fully loaded iPods to play off, and not much in the way of vinyl. Still, I put some money down for a needle (the bar has twin tables but you have to bring your own needles, standard operating procedure for many places) and picked up a couple of 12-inches. I was amazed at how expensive they were: one was a domestic (Lloyd’s “Girls Around the World”) and only $7, but the other, an import, was $13. As Sherburne explains,

[D]ance music is suffering from some very real maladies, many of them economic. Record sales are declining– labels that once could confidently move 1,000 copies of a 12″ single now struggle to sell 250– and legal downloads, while presumably growing, aren’t taking up the slack. In the U.S., a falling dollar and rising petrol prices have jacked the price of an import 12″ single to $12 or more– and that’s when you can find a record in shops (or, indeed, a record shop) at all. Recent high-profile closures of key dance-music distributors are both a symptom of a market in crisis and a cause of further problems: Unless you want to resort to mail-ordering from Europe or the UK, it’s all but impossible to get your hands on most overseas vinyl these days.

Even if you can get the stuff, and even if you decide that it’s worth shelling out $12 or more for two tracks you could purchase digitally for $3, playing vinyl is increasingly a pain in the ass for DJs, between carry-on limitations and rising fees for checked luggage. (I recently shelled out $80 to check a record bag I had carried into the UK on a flight out of Luton, owing to security restrictions that prohibit travelers from carrying aboard more than one bag. Forget about that “personal item.”) The airlines’ increasing behind-the-scenes disarray is translating into more lost luggage. (Remember Radio Slave’s CD-only performance at MUTEK, after the airline misplaced his record bag.) And foreign DJs who want to play the U.S. without going through the onerous and expensive process of applying for an artist’s performance visa are forced to forsake the black wax and perform only with a laptop, or risk being turned away at customs and immigration.

Tough times indeed–and that aspect of things, more than simply the music, is Sherburne’s real concern here. Most of the responses (a couple of them private e-mails from colleagues, as well as many blog and message-board posts that Sherburne links from his own blog) have focused on the idea that the music itself is in grave danger, usually dismissively: there are lots of good tracks, what is he talking about, etc. And I understand them: I’ve found loads of good techno this year so far thanks to sites like Resident Advisor and Little White Earbuds, which have their ears to the ground and regularly review new tracks I’ve wound up loving that I might not have known about otherwise. (I’m a dance-music patriot for sure, but I’ve never been a real DJ and the amount I seek out has varied wildly over the years.)

Nevertheless, the idea that little new ground is being broken is hard to ignore–as it has been for some time now. Again, that’s music-wide, not just in dance music. Maybe the innovations going on now are under the map–Sherburne’s column is called “The Month in Techno,” so you wouldn’t necessarily expect him to be tracking, say, bassline/4×4/niche or the “funky house” that Tim Finney wrote up here (and elsewhere) a little bit back. And maybe they’re happening too incrementally to reliably track on a record-by-record basis. But that sort of defines a style in stagnation, doesn’t it?

That said, the thing I liked best about the piece was the “manifestos” that make up its second half. The two that knocked me over come from Marco Freivogel, who runs Mobilee (which recently issued an excellent 2CD compilation, Back to Back Vol. Two). Not just “No more plicky-placky” (amen, and I say that as someone who often likes plicky-placky), but this: “Nobody owns music. It comes to you and it leaves you. Music has its own way.” Words to live by, I say.

The Month in Techno [Pitchfork]

  1. Chris N.

    Techno is in a holding pattern — I didn’t like it last year, and I still don’t.

  2. Anonymous

    With the exception of The Knife, techno hasn’t changed appreciably since about 1993. Dut-dut-dut-dutdutdut-dut-dut-dut-dut.
    [blog.newsok.com]

  3. Little White Earbuds

    Techno has changed a lot more than rock has in the last 10 years, IMO. You just have to look past the 4×4 rhythms, which most rock fans seem to have trouble doing.

    Thanks for the shout out, Matos!

  4. GhostOfDuane

    @Little White Earbuds: They would hear those polyrhythms, if they had robot ears.

  5. bernied

    Just wanted to comment quickly on the 12 Inch Market. While a there is a lot of movement towards digitization we still believe that there is demand for 12 Inch Vinyl and the number of singles released this year in this format has already doubled and we are working to really increase that content which I have available at http://www.vinyluniverse.com. We try to keep the prices reasonable and our shipping is reasonable especially if you order a few titles. We are pushing to get the digital download attached to the single itself to give you the best of both worlds.. regards

  6. philip sherburne

    Hey Matos, thanks for the post… one correction: Marco Freivogel runs Lan Muzic, not Mobilee (though his duo Exercise One does record for Mobilee). (And as a matter of full disclosure, I record for Lan.)

  7. spazandmojo

    @Norman: i second your knife comment… i
    like them to a degree as well, but they are pop. and even what they do
    with the influences of pop and dance can be traced into the eighties to
    folks like anne clark, 242, etc. it really isn’t as if they were
    inventing the wheel, just updating it.

    I also concur that there have certainly been many developments in
    the subgenres as you have suggested, and it is frightening to realize
    how many producers from 93 on still go unrecognized. this is of course
    why so many think nothing innovative had been happening since that
    time…

  8. Norman

    I haven’t read the Pitchfork article yet, but everything in this post has been the subject of conversation in the house/techno music business for years now. I worked at record stores in Chicago and San Francisco between 1998-2005 and ran a house label between 2000-2004 and watched the whole thing go from labels selling 5,000 copies of a release to 2,000 to 1,000 to struggling to sell 500.

    In 2005, when I folded my label, I had six U.S. distributors: Syntax, Nemesis, Watts, Downtown 161, TRC, and Unique. Of those, four have since gone out of business, one stopped selling house in favor of hip-hop and porno, and only Downtown 161 remains. (Let’s not forget Amato and the other phenomenal UK distros lost, as well as Universal and all of the vinyl pressing plants that went under.) This trickled down to the labels, who lost product and didn’t get paid by many of them, which trickled down to the producers who had to take advance paycuts they weren’t ready for. And so on and so forth.

    The price of vinyl, however, is the biggest concern in the industry. I know that in our store, we still sold imports for $10.99 — even when we knew the mark-up should have been up to $13.99 in some cases. I think we were just trying to keep it alive, hoping the incline in prices were a temporary aberration. They weren’t — and perhaps unsurprisingly, the shop closed a few years ago.

    As for the weird Knife comment: I can’t even count the number of innovations and unique subgenres born from house and techno since 1993. I mean, I like the Knife too, but they are arguably a pop band. You probably need to buy more records.

  9. Anonymous

    imports were marked at $10.99, $11.99, $12.99 here in kansas city for years – i’ve never wondered why the local stores here went out of business. i’ve seen the wholesale price difference between the imports and domestic releases. as a business, you bank on the cultural explosion of electronic music in the late 90′s here in the states – but then you effectively price your market audience right out the door?

    my collection – and this is coming from a person who’s only ever played out a single night in his life – is stuffed full of $6.99 domestic label releases. give me the earthtones/seasons, underground resistance, driftwood, wave, naked, or any of the dozens of other worthwhile domestic labels of the past two decades over the thicker, better pressed, but twice as expensive imports any day.

    furthermore, give me a pristine, dusty thriftstore/flea market, let me search through it for the $1 prescriptions, transmats, mood II swing, strictly rhythms, the discarded releases of the myriad of european labels that sprung up over the course of the late 80′s and 90′s and then disappeared just as quickly who were releasing the vanguard of both american and european producers. let me squint in the bad fluorescent lighting to try to read the engineered/produced-by in fine print.

    i’ve got over 1500 records and have only ever paid more than $10 for a single 12″ twice – the one-sided original release of music sounds better and the junior boys own re-issue of rez/why why why. give me the 2×12, the label compilation, or give me the cut-out bin. make it worth my while to give you my money – it’s no different than any other business.

    in the end, it comes down to this: techno was never about being clean! techno is about using what you have, at 5am, covered in sweat and filth, exhausted in the sunday morning sunrise. this is, to me, exactly why dubstep has maintained its foothold and is quickly eclipsing the movements it grew out of – it’s revitalizing the gritty urban freedom of what is quickly becoming a bygone era.

    to me, dj’ing – whether for an audience, a few friends, or just for yourself, whether techno, indie, jazz, hiphop – is about perserverance and knowledge, not reading charts. let me reward myself – and in extension, you – for knowing what i’m looking for, and being willing to risk a couple of bucks and a few minutes of our time to try something maybe not necessarily new, but instead maybe just different. trying to stay afloat in a saturated market, no matter which side of it you’re on, is a losing proposition for all involved.

  10. Anonymous

    @Norman:
    @benmighty:

    Collectively, right on.

  11. chaircrusher

    Philip Sherburne gets paid to write, and this particular think-piece came down to his subjective taste, a slight frisson of ennui floating around his pied-a-terre, and the need to pull something out of his butt on deadline.

    The fact is, great records keep getting made, in the face of a down-swing in the economy, a downswing in the American consumer’s acceptance of underground dance music, and a rapidly shifting economic model. It’s increasingly difficult to even stock dance music vinyl, because there aren’t many distributors left; mom and pop stores that stocked dance vinyl are every bit as susceptible to the death of physical media as a product.

    But producers keep producing, DJs keep playing — even if they are using Serato or Tractor Scratch — and people keep dancing. Beatport.com, Boomkat.com, and a slug of other digital download vendors are booming.

    My pics for techno’s saviors — UR keeps putting great records, and getting ignored by everyone in the US. Burial may not be strictly techno, but his track ‘Raver’ is devestating. 2652 from Holland has put out an album that is at the crossroads between Dubstep, Detroit Techno, and Berlin-style Dub. Tolga Fidan makes incredibly rocking techno incorporating all sorts of eastern european sounds and influences. Kontext has put out 2 fantastic Dubstep-esque EPs, and I expect great things in the future from him.

    There’s always going to be something rather static and glacial about dance music; just as streamlining makes all cars regress towards the same shape, dance music is trapped in a certain uniformity by its function. But that doesn’t mean innovation and new sounds don’t happen.

  12. philip sherburne

    Hey Chaircrusher, I’m generally in agreement with you; nowhere did I say that innovation and new sounds don’t happen, or can’t happen. My point was rather to chronicle the malaise that seems to be infecting certain quarters of the scene. That doesn’t mean that I pulled it out of my ass (in fact, I worked on the piece, off-and-on, over more than a month – far longer than for 99% of my articles). The fact that “great records keep getting made” (agreed!) doesn’t negate the anxieties that I highlighted in my introduction (a few of which you echoed in your own post).

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