Is Techno In A Holding Pattern?

Michaelangelo Matos | July 23, 2008 4:30 am

This 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]