India's Magnetic Fields, 2017.
Is the dance music bubble in danger of bursting? For the first in a two-part series of think-pieces, examining the challenges faced by electronic music today, we debate the culture of big events which are strangling club culture.
It seems everyone in my pool of contacts is struggling at the minute. As a producer and writer, my friend-base is mostly industry people. Either bookers, managers, promoters, DJs or label owners. And across the board everyone is feeling the pinch. The gigs are drying up. The competition for tickets and places on lineups is ever increasing. The hype machine that propels success, is moving much too fast, faster than anyone can hope to maintain a long career in dance music. From the perspective of the dancefloor, it looks like business as usual. Scan the lineups and listings and there seems to be bigger and better events in greater numbers than ever before.
But sadly bigger is not always better. Missing from our regular diet of big names and flyers, are the local parties. The small clubs. The weekly raves that are now monthly parties that have all but fizzled out. The DIY sessions put on by a group of mates in their local club. The clubbing institutions that made every town an outpost on the great map of clubland that are now closed, ran out of business by dwindling dancefloors.
Local councils and complaining neighbours often get the blame for killing club culture. But an equally deadly culprit is the rise in the number of festivals and big events which have strangled their market. For the best part of a decade, small clubs have been stamped out of existence by the big events and the habits of the ravers are changing accordingly. People go out less and spend their money on bigger shows, festivals and holidays.
The millennials aren’t the reckless ravers of their parents generation who went out on a Friday and crawled to work or University on a Monday. They’re calculating and health conscious. Armed by an online media and social media promotion culture that means they are better informed than ever before about dance music, in not just their own local areas, but around the globe. When the world is your raving oyster, why settle for the smaller party down the road?
Choice defines this generation’s honeymoon ravers but small clubs are also the lifeblood of the scene. As the global clubbing marketplace has been monetised by bigger players and the needs of the ravers has changed, they have been increasingly squeezed out by a disappearing dancefloor, as clubbers choose to spend their money on bigger experiences. On the other end of the scale, with more big events and festivals than ever, the stakes have become increasingly higher. Promoters often lay the blame on the exorbitant fees being charged by DJs. But, in reality, they share the blame for this culture of crazy fees.
Houghton Festival, 2017.
Basic economics dictate that a rise in price is always created by a rise in demand. And the dominance of festivals and big events has lead to the hegemony of a small group of DJs who are considered by DJ bookers as safe bets to sell tickets. Acts like The Martinez Brothers, Jamie Jones, Jackmaster, The Black Madonna and Nina Kraviz are almost a prerequisite on big lineups. And these same lineups are now a global phenomenon.
Can the DJs really be blamed for saying yes to bigger fees? Would you really lower your asking price, if there was a worldwide demand for your services by promoters who are willing to pay it? None of us have ever turned down a payrise at work have we? Why would we?
Those headliners - deemed necessary to keep a big party in profit - are becoming too expensive to make parties profitable. The stakes are impossibly high. The parties bigger and bigger, the glass ceiling seemingly ever closer. Dance music is eating itself.
The answer to this problem, I believe, lies in history. In the 70s, 80s and 90s, the DJs weren’t the star of the parties. The parties themselves, were the stars and the crowds that went were just a unique a part of the club’s selling point as the music. In 2018 we have plenty of outposts for this kind of club culture. Berlin’s Heideglühen, Glastonbury Festival and London’s Block 9, spring to mind (Editor's note - elrow also falls into this category too). But we just don’t have enough of them.
Part of the attraction for those early clubs was of course, the music itself. In their early days disco, and later electro, acid house, hardcore or techno were not part of mainstream culture. They were musical oddities that could only be experienced in clubs that served as outposts for the scene. Now music is available everywhere and to anyone with an internet connection, clubs needs to redefine how they stand out from the crowd.
In a scene dominated by destination festivals, venues need to see themselves as destinations, not just empty rooms awaiting a soundsystem, a lineup and a crowd. Promoters of small clubs need to tear up the rule books of clubbing and reinvent themselves as providers of unique experiences.
London's immersive theatre company, Punchdrunk.
Berghain is still the most famous club in the world because it provides a unique experience, from the monotone, grumpy greeting of its infamous tattoo-clad doorman, Sven Marquardt, to its cavernous 'Blade' like venue and predominantly gay social scene on the dancefloor. It stands out and there is nowhere else like it in the world.
The worlds of restaurants and theatre can teach clubs a lot about providing unique experiences. Thanks to groups like London’s Punchdrunk, immersive theatre, where the audience is a part of the story, grabbed theatre culture out of the past and thrust it into a brave new world that reimagined the very essence of the artform. Restaurants like Sao Paolo’s ‘D.O.M’ have been romanticised in TV series’ like Netflix’s Chef’s Table for providing an eating experience unavailable anywhere else in the world.
Brazil's leading chef describing the moment that inspired one of the world's most revolutionary restaurants.
In dance music, a small but growing group of festivals are leading the way for providing unique experiences. Houghton blew the doors of festival culture off in 2017, by proving that the experience was more important than booking the same lineup as everyone else. Destination festivals like Vietnam’s Epizode, Morocco’s Oasis and Atlas and India’s Magnetic Fields are prioritising the adventure of the trip, over the lineup.
These are the kind of events we intend to bring to you on Ibiza Voice.
The settings play as much, if not more, of a part in attracting the crowds as the lineup. It seems clear from these parties that stand out furthest from the crowd, that what we need from promoters are more unique experiences, not the same experience everywhere you go.
Check in next week for the second part of our examination of the challenges faced by dance music where we look at the situation from the perspective of the artists.