OMFG IT’S EDM (‘The Great EDM Debate’) – my full Mixmag article

Mixmag - The Great EDM Debate

My full piece on the ‘Great EDM Debate’ for Mixmag… without the added Tommie Sunshine

I wrote a piece about the EDM explosion for Mixmag following Ed Simons of The Chemical Brothers’ Twitter spat with Tommie Sunshine. They had to cut some of my article off – chiefly the last 3 paragraphs – to fit it in – so here’s the full thing.

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“Why is everyone from the roots of this music so fucking salty about the ones who are going mainstream”? American DJ and producer Tommie Sunshine asked FIVE TIME UK NUMBER ONE ALBUM ARTIST Ed Simmons of The Chemical Brothers on Twitter this week, seemingly without a hint of irony. He and others have totally missed the point. Ed – and people like myself – don’t have a problem with artists “going mainstream” if they continue to make good, heartfelt, sophisticated, challenging music. Daft Punk, The Prodigy and Basement Jaxx all did it successfully and maintained both a degree of underground dance music cool plus global chart and mega-festival headlining success. Alas, in these super-manufactured, low-rent days of X-Factor and laptop producers, it’s a balance that is struck less often.

What ‘we’ have a problem with is the current raft of identikit drivel that soaks up the chart; anaemic facsimiles of music we love. We have a problem with the music not being the focal point (cake and rubber dinghy ahoy). We have a problem with dance music being used as a template for pop music if it has everything that made it so good for dancing to sucked right out of it.

Dance music was born in the USA. R&B, Motown, disco, hip-hop, house. acid, techno, minimal and garage were all American inventions. But, hip-hop offshoots aside, the USA ceased to be the electronic pioneer that once was come the mid-’90s. England and Germany proliferated, while the US continued to have an underground electronic music scene that helped to nurture and shape the current generation of American underground electronica stars. From Dirtybird to Visionquest to Brainfeeder, many of the world’s most exciting and innovative stars continue to emerge from the USA. While dance music was has certainly been under-provided in many areas, there’s a whole generation of incredible talents who have managed to rise in the absence of dance music having any notable presence in the US Top 40 Singles Chart.

There has been major money in dance music before – in the UK. The reason I believe so much ‘commercial’ dance music from the mid-’90s to early ’00s stands the test of time is that in most cases, these were tracks that crossed over from the clubs into the charts unintentionally. Armand Van Helden wasn’t thinking about the UK Number 1 spot when he remixed Tori Amos’ Professional Widow in revolutionary fashion. Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and his Stardust cohorts can’t have anticipated what would have happened to their vinyl-only pressing of Music Sounds Better With You. Josh Wink’s Higher State Of Consciousness in the Top 10 of the UK chart? A track with acid squeals so shrill it’s almost painful to listen to and the smallest hint of a vocal? Can you even imagine an instrumental track of any kind making it into the charts these days? And this was before tracks could gain popularity through the internet.

Major labels were investing tons of money in that era to scout and sign dancefloor fillers with crossover appeal. As a result, dozens of quality, credible classics remain in the collective consciousness of people who grew up in those years – whether they were listening to their siblings’ Now compilations or clubbing themselves. This bubble burst not long after the major labels decided to exploit the sounds they had found so much success with and attempt to reverse engineer chart hits with supposed club sensibility. These chart dance hits became contrived and increasingly tacky, and experiments in applying electronic cool to pop stars’ careers only seldom yielded positive results (The good: Madonna’s Mirwaïs-produced Music; the bad: anything by Sophie Ellis-Bextor).

In the USA mainstream, dance music is once again being exploited. By that I’m not trying to be dramatic; I simply mean that I don’t believe that many of its most commercial protagonists give a flying fuck about it or its long-term future. As we’ve seen with hip-hop, the American music mainstream has a way of taking something incredible that it originally created and bastardising it almost beyond recognition.

If it’s done well, dance-meets-pop can be interesting and exciting while maintaining widespread appeal. Much of Madonna’s best work rooted its feet in the dancefloors of New York, for one notable example. In terms of contemporary success, Chase & Status have injected new energy into Roc Nation’s biggest names, bass and garage-minded producers are helping the likes of Jessie Ware proliferate, and dubstep had moments of genius via La Roux and others before it become just another pop beat template with none of the vigour and bite that made it so exciting in the first place. But since Calvin Harris started injecting vapid trance synths into urban artists, globally successful pop music has found itself at a serious nadir.

If you’d played Ludacris and Busta Rhymes some trance a decade ago and told them they’d be rapping over a watered-down version of it in ten years from now aimed at people half their age or less to wave their alcopops around in naff clubs with no sensuality, sexiness, blackness, soul, rhythm or groove involved, they would have laughed in your face and told you to do one. Shock horror I know: pop artists may not believe in their music – but surely there’s never been quite this level of seeming insincerity in many artists’ musical choices.

The most exciting thing about electronic music is its lack of limitations, and how it has lead the way in musical innovation since the 1970s. From the dance scene being the first to adopt digital downloads en masse to being the only area of music to truly evolve in the last 40 years in terms of technology, composition and texture, it’s something we dance lovers should always remember, promote and cherish. I implore producers in the USA to be inspired by the countless electronic innovators it can claim: the Dres, the Timbalands, the Saunderson, Atkins and Mays, the Hawtins, the Hoods, the Jeffersons, the Terrys, the Levans, the Pierres…

The potential is there for commercial dance pop to sound a lot better than it does now, but few are daring to tap it up. If this is the beginning of a brave new world that sees electronic pop take more risks and become more sophisticated, then great. If it provides a gateway into less commercially-minded, more underground dance music to millions of young Americans, then even better. But at this point, I don’t feel hugely sanguine about the situation. I see an increasing polarisation, with ‘EDM’ continuing to become a increasingly OTT MTV caricature of itself until it implodes into nothingness. When the music is this disposable, I can see the bubble bursting quicker than it ever inflated. DJ Shadow-Mansion-gate provided a potent example of how vile dance music culture has become in certain pockets of US nightclub society (see also Dennis Ferrer and that man Tommie Sunshine also getting thrown off the decks at his own release party established US clubs in the past six months).

As many commentators have said – Sunshine included – the underground will always be there, and hopefully it may even be stronger as a result of this current wave of hyper-success, both through a potentially greater audience being available to recruit and also by way of a reaffirmation of it being about everything that the mainstream is not. Key proponents of the underground are certainly concerned enough with the situation to be actively trying to preserve their culture – Richie Hawtin’s CTRL tour of the US a prime example of one such stalwart trying to show this emerging audience the other side of the coin, for instance.

Kudos to the ones making interesting music and finding huge success in the US. To the bandwagon jumpers, hypocrites and dance-pop-by-numbers contingent – enjoy the charade while it lasts. And remember, just like Trancesetters’ Roaches told us back in 1999: “Underground will live forever baby… we’re just like roaches… never dying… always living”.

Ghostwriting article in Mixmag

Mixmag - ghostwriting article

Read my article in Mixmag about ghostwriting in dance music – featuring quotes from Maceo Plex

If you didn’t spot it already, have written an article for Mixmag about ghostwriting in underground electronic music. If you’re not sure what that is, it’s when DJs pay producers to create a track in its entirety for them to put their name to with zero input from themselves.

I speak to ghostwriters past and present, Maceo Plex, Alex Jones and Timo Garcia in this piece. Click the link to read it in full – it’s created quite the discussion online, which was all I was hoping for.

Mixmag – Ghostwriting: who really writes the tracks?

8 types of DJ I hate

There are a hell of a lot of shit DJs out there. And many with poor boothside etiquette. Following extensive research, I have identified several archetypes of the very shittest and least deserving of a privileged position in a booth. These are they.

1. DJs who can’t beatmatch. Especially ‘legacy’ DJs who somehow still clang mixes on a frequent basis despite decades in the game. It’s really not that fucking hard. And yes, it does matter. Watch even a barely-educated punter on the dancefloor scratch their head in confusion as the beats begin to gallop like Bishop’s Cock in the 4.20 at Aintree. They know that something ain’t right. You feel it in your bones. It’s like a natural instinct. We’ve all had tricky gigs where we’ve got no monitor, or the needle’s fucked – but for a ‘name’ DJ to fuck up a mix in an established club with a good setup and a prime sound system… that’s just fucking lame. And I don’t buy the “DJing is not about beatmatching” line that some people bandy around when talking about certain jocks who are good selectors but apparently haven’t figured out how to count to four yet. Of course, there’s no denying that the most important thing in DJing is choosing the music and choosing when to play it – but it’s all part of the package. And I just can’t get my head around why some of these apparently technically gifted musicians can’t master the most basic element therein. DITCH YOUR VINYL AND PRESS THE SYNC BUTTON 😉 Richie Hawtin did OK out of it.

2. DJs who go over their allocated time / cut your last record off short even though you’ve got 3 minutes left. Two sides of the same coin here, both marked ‘twat’. No it’s not alright to play one or two more tracks, I’ve only got an hour-long set and I’m not having it eaten into with more of your drivel thanks mate. And don’t cut off my very carefully chosen last track unless it begins eating into your time. Every second counts when you’re playing a short set (short sets being another personal bugbear). Don’t snaffle my time, bitch!

3. DJs who don’t know how to use the equipment. If you’ve been playing out a for a few years, you should know your way around most mixers and most technical problems. You should also be able to hear when you are riding the levels so high that you’re distorting the music. If you’re a relative newcomer, OK, you learn by experience and will have to get through a few hairy moments over the years. But having the knowledge of the ins and outs of a DJ booth seems to be a lost art, given that many DJs have grown up with nothing more than a laptop and beat-syncing. I once played a student night at fabric, and witnessed a young DJ duo produce a cheat sheet on how to operate a CDJ out of their handbags. Seriously. Needless to say they were playing in the same room as Peaches Geldof. OK, so was I, but I had to take over from the notorious (sh)it girl when she realised that she had burnt MP3 data CDs and for some reason fabric only had CDJ-1000 MK IIs in Room 3 which wouldn’t play them… which to be fair, wasn’t really her fault. She still sucks though. On that note…

4. Celebrity DJs. I don’t think this one needs any explanation.

5. DJs who don’t how to warm up. A few years ago, I played an early afternoon slot on the outdoor terrace at Cargo on a Saturday afternoon. The DJ playing before me – who was finishing around 2 or 3 PM – finished with Dubfire’s remix of Plastikman – Spastik. at full 128 BPM tempo. What the fuck is that? Do you literally have no consideration for the people who you are playing for and the DJs playing after you? There’s a subtle art and a satisfying pleasure to be had from a good warm-up set, and people often say it’s the hardest set to do. I’ve seen far, far too many DJs who have absolutely no clue how to ease the floor into submission and set the tone for the night ahead, starting off house nights at 126-128 BPM (coronary-inducing in these chuggy days). There’s no rush. Stop tonking it out at 10 PM, fools.

6. DJs with no sense of space and time. There’s a balance to be struck between playing your vision of music and playing what the crowd want to hear, but if you’re a DJ, you’re supposed to be able to adapt to different situations and put your own ego to one side to make people happy. If you’ve been booked for the wrong place at the wrong time, perhaps it’s not your fault – but I can’t stand single-minded self-indulgence with no regard for the dancefloor. I saw one of the names on everyone’s lips play a mid-afternoon, sun-drenched set under the shade of a beautiful tree at one of the UK’s best boutiquey sort of festivals this summer, and he played an hour of cold, hard, inaccessible, emotion-less techno that was more suited to a dark, moody warehouse at 4 AM rather than his 4 PM set time. That’s just not what you do at fun-fuelled festival in the sun in a beautiful, sociable setting. Don’t be so inelastic.

7. Wasted DJs. Annoying, dribbling, sweaty, deluded messes. Wait ’til your set is over. DJs are best when they have all their wits about them and are focused on the job at hand. I think its hideous when you go and see a DJ and they are off their tits and clearly not about their wits (tits ‘n’ wits: very important). If you are a professional DJ, by definition – act like one. Save the hedonism for the afterparty, BRO.

8. DJs who illegally download and share music they play. The bottom has fallen out of the sales market and left distributors, labels and artists going bust, and while legal, consensual alternatives exist for the pure listener, anyone who is profiting financially from the use of other people’s music – i.e. DJing and getting paid for it – should at least have the decency to pay for the original file or procure it legitimately. I’ve lost count of the number of times friends an acquaintances have asked me to send them a promo I’ve received. A few stock phrases: “The label will never know!” – I don’t give a shit, they didn’t give me permission to send the track out to any whingey twat who wants it, and I’m not violating the privilege they have given me and the trust imbued in that agreement just so you can rinse the track and shorten its shelf-life in the process. “I’m not going to buy it anyway!” – OK, then you can’t care that much about it, so I’m sure you can live without it. Etc, repeat to fade. Then there was the time that I young guy I know who works in PR and also DJs sent me a link to a site full of illegal downloads of the latest promos. I told him he was a complete dick if he was trying to make his living from the dance music industry while simultaneously devaluing its product and helping destroy it in the process, and he felt chastised enough to change his ways (or so he said anyway). Then there are those who think that if they have bought a track, it gives them the right to share it with mates and vice versa, like some sort of Panini swapshop for MP3s and WAVs. It’s fucking depressing. We are the ones who are supposed to keep sales alive in this industry. A bit of integrity wouldn’t go amiss.

9. I think that’s enough whinging for one day, don’t you? Here’s a picture of a cat DJing to redress the balance: 

Radio 1 and Chris Moyles: missing the target

Just two days before Chris Moyles announced that he will be leaving Radio 1 after the best part of a decade hosting their flagship breakfast show (with a few awards on the way), I was listening to his show while getting ready for work. I couldn’t work out why a station whose remit is to have an average listener age of 15-29 could allow its biggest show to spend a chunk of time covering the previous weekend’s Formula One – something it does regularly. The two audiences didn’t really seem to match up in my head, and indeed after a little research I spewed forth the following tweet:

OK, so I got Radio 1’s target age range wrong, but prescient still. My Spidey sense was tingling, evidently. Nick Grimshaw was announced this morning to take over; a younger, savvier, trendier model who actually operates and circulates in a scene relevant to the station’s target audience. A good move in terms of fulfilling the remit set out by the BBC Trust and their stipulations for provision of Radio 1’s portion of the license fee budget. Many people think the show and station will lose a lot of listeners as a result, in a year when former Radio 1 breakfast DJ Chris Evans’ breakfast show on Radio 2 jumped two million listeners ahead of Moyles’ show.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing for Radio 1, though, if it means that their audience gets younger in the process. But could it be the case that 15-29 year olds are actually listening to radio less on aggregate? Youngsters aren’t growing up with radio in the same way that my generation and generations before them grew up.

Options are manifold, analogue is dying, iPods are standard issue, Mixcloud’s booming and so on. The fact that most smartphones don’t have radios built in hasn’t helped radio’s cause, with the option to listen to free FM broadcasts on the go replaced with the option to stream (often unstably) via a potentially costly 3G data connection. Given that we’re a few years away from FM being switched off, I can’t see why it hasn’t been included in all of the latest phones of recent years.

According to figures published last November the average age of a Radio 1 listener is 32 years old, and has risen in the past few years from 29. People have blamed deadwood and the age of many of its DJs. So what about a station like Kiss FM, which exudes a younger, more energetic approach? Kiss’ average listener age is 31. See a pattern forming here?

It proves quite difficult to find any information about the average age of a radio listener in the UK across all stations and how this has changed – but this blog post by Grant Goddard spells things out quite neatly, picking apart some rather dubious RAJAR (the UK radio statistical analysis body) figures:

“Radio broadcasters have been progressively losing usage over most of the last decade. Initially, it was 15-24 year olds that were spending less time with radio. Increasingly, it is also 25-34 year olds. For a decade, the UK radio industry has desperately needed a coherent strategy to reverse this loss of listening. The decline in young adult listening to broadcast radio does not merely impact the NOW. If these consumers do not find anything in their youth worth listening to on the radio, they will grow old without the radio habit. Their radio listening patterns NOW are likely to influence radio listening for the next half-century.” 

Radio 1 might be in with a chance of getting their average listener age back into the 15-29 bracket with their line-up changes, but I doubt they’re going to bring that figure down much lower given current trends. Pete Tong is surely next in line to go, and Annie Nightingale, amazing long-serving broadcaster that she is, can surely only survive so long the way things are going. There is a real danger of losing quality just for the sake of youth here – and its perhaps somewhat patronising to presume that Gilles Peterson doesn’t appeal to a huge swathe of 15-29 year olds, for example.

Given that the average age of Chris Moyles listeners is 33 and that the breakfast show is the station’s most popular show, getting a younger audience into this slot should bring them back towards the all important remit bracket, but I suggest that the BBC Trust actually needs to bisect Radio 1’s purpose. For years, it has produced some of the finest specialist programming in the world – after the hours of 7 PM. From 4 AM until then, it focuses on rigid playlists, the charts, the mainstreams, humour, gossip, celebrity and light entertainment. As long as it reaches a younger audience with these shows, there’s no reason that potentially older listenership in their specialist programming – which may be poorly catered for elsewhere – is a bad thing. They should allow it to be the multi-faceted, many-things-to-many-people-and-ages that so many people know and love it for, and be careful not to suffocate it.

Moyles, I can live without – but sacking off experienced broadcasters with wide knowledge and serious talent just because they are 30 or above is a potentially dangerous tactic.

(P.S. When one day we actually get accurate listener demographics rather than survey / proportional assumptions from RAJAR, the story might be somewhat different)