Commercialisation: What's happening to London Clubbing? (Part 3)

Posted By: The Wild Times

Continuing our series on London's current club scene (following on from Licensing & Gentrification), we next take a look at the general ramifications of Commercialisation. Set across two articles, Peggy Whitfield talks with venue owners and promoters to discuss their experiences of the effects of commercial enterprise, the rising popularity of electronic music and cultural/generational change, before honing in (in the next article) on several consequences of electronic music culture being fully in the limelight...

Electronic music burst into the collective consciousness of the UK in 1980s. These fair isles raved on to the sounds of acid house via the burgeoning free party movement, before the Conservative government clamped down hard on people’s right to party, and these gatherings moved indoors. This marked the beginning of club culture as we know it, but hit the fast forward button to 2014 and things look very different. Electronic music is no longer something that is pumped out of a sound system in a field in Hertfordshire, it’s a multi-million pound industry. But just how much has the commercialisation of the music we love affected our scene? For many, something intrinsic has been lost through the pursuit of profit. Yarda Krampol, one time party promoter, and current boss of Red Gallery, the multi-media arts venue in Shoreditch puts it succinctly:

“At the beginning we all believed in some sort of techno legacy, possibly a movement. Nowadays, it’s business as usual… the dance music industry moves revelers all around the world from London to Berlin, through Ibiza to Nevada or the Mexican beaches. I see it almost as tourism nowadays. That reflects the money involved as well. From being part of a free spirited community, we are now part of the worldwide industry. Back in the days, it was always a spiritual thing that triggered the process of organising parties. I don’t want to do it as a business.”

Picture: Red Gallery
Picture: Red Gallery

It’s always desperately sad when something we love becomes tainted by money, but others argue that profit and commercial intent has always been present in electronic music culture and its influence has merely increased along with its popularity, as George Hull of Autumn Street Studios explains:

“What it actually is, the dance music industry, so contrary to what people think it is or would like it to be – and this is just my observation, I’m not saying whether I think it’s a good thing or a bad thing – but it’s a totally rampant, unbridled capitalist set up. That’s what it is, and it was like that actually in the ‘90s too, in the early days of rave. It’s easy to think these days that it’s gone really commercial, it’s lost its soul, but I actually think that in the ‘90s some people were making good money, and even if they weren’t making a lot of money, there was a lot of money changing hands.”

Picture: Autumn Street Studios
Picture: Autumn Street Studios

One thing that we can all agree on is that electronic music has been increasingly commercialised over the years. But what effect is this having, positive or negative on London’s scene? Bruno Cabral, part of team behind the Half Baked party and the popular Hackney Wick venue, Number 90, takes a balanced approach to the question:

“I’d say it has had both positive and negative impacts. Of course, commercialisation has bought a lot of money into the scene, which has led towards the development of new clubs and venues, for example, allowing us promoters to hold bigger and better events with great sound, comfortable loos, etc. However, if you look at warehouse spaces, we are definitely struggling to find the right venues and the right prices. Unfortunately, because of the massive demand from different promoters looking for warehouse spaces, venue owners are charging ridiculous amounts of money for one day events where it goes from £4,000 to £10,000 per event, with a huge risk of losing the venues last minute due to licensing issues.”

This echoes a common complaint amongst most promoters in London; it’s becoming more and more difficult to secure decent venues at a cost that doesn’t break the bank. Increasing gentrification of everywhere inside of Zone 3, landlords knowing that they can charge over the odds when dealing with promoters, as well as increasingly strict licensing requirements, means that it’s becoming more and more expensive to put on a decent party. This also vastly increases pressure on promoters and venues to make money to cover their costs, as Bruno explains:

“It means that everything seems to be a lot more motivated by money, when before a good event was solely about the music and your friends.  A lot of components in the scene are more and more profit motivated, starting with the line-ups, where we see plenty of really talented artists swimming into the unknown, while less talented but more PR orientated people are creating fortunes. It’s always nice, of course, to make some money from your party and to be able to pay your staff, but this should never be someone’s only motivation in throwing a party. Events are like gambling for me – we put a line-up together with musicians that we love and sometimes we win and sometimes you lose, but at least we are doing something that we love.”

Picture: Half Baked
Picture: Half Baked

So whilst commercialisation may have led to a greater variety of venues being available, thus attracting a wider pool of talent, ensuring London’s status as a global centre for electronic music, financial pressures can have a deleterious effect on promoters and venues’ ability to take the creative risks with the artists they book. Commercialisation has also had an impact on the one of the most important aspects of the electronic scene; the crowd, as the team behind Make Me elucidated:

“We think that more people going to clubs can only be a good thing. Granted, a lot of the music in the more commercial end of the scene is complete garbage, but if by going to Gorgon City raves or EDC means that a new generation of kids gets turned onto dance music, then we genuinely don’t see what the problem is. Having said that, it does seem that increased popularity can attract people who are more interested in the spectacle of these big parties than they are in listening to decent music and gaining an understanding of its culture and heritage. But at the end of the day, these people won’t last for too long as they’ll be straight onto the next fad whenever it arrives.”

Picture: Make Me
Picture: Make Me

However, it does seem that increasing commercialisation and a younger generation with different expectations of what a good night out entails has had a negative effect on community cohesion in the scene, and thus the atmosphere, as Dan Jury, promoter for CTRL SHIFT argues:

“I’ve noticed a change in attitudes, and not for the better, particularly in the larger clubs, which seems to have really divided people… I think the new wave of kids we’re seeing coming through now understandably have different values and beliefs to people on the underground, who have been clubbing for years, and it feels like there is a bit of a generational gap. There’s a lot of snobbery and class-fuelled nonsense spoken about on social media networks and forums – the shuffling debate a while back was a prime example, a kind of us and them mentality, and I’d urge people to be more open-minded and inclusive… it’s not all about musical education either at the end of the day, there needs to be a degree of patience and acceptance too.”

So maybe some of the old-timers of the electronic music scene need to embrace the original values of the free party scene and be a little more inclusive and embrace change?

Increased commercialisation of electronic music scene has also lead to the resurrection of the celebrity DJ as a popstar style commodity. Whilst DJs like Richie Hawtin and Seth Troxler have raised the profile of electronic music, most promoters, venues and DJs are scornful about the other end of the musical scale and the explosion of EDM in the US, as Anthony Campbell, part of the team behind the Open parties opines:

“It definitely leads to a lower end product as a whole. There is so much terrible music coming out as a result of this EDM thing. There is lots of quality too, but you need to look a lot harder to find it, especially on digital sites. With vinyl, the quality is a lot higher.”

Picture: Campbell Bros. / Open
Picture: Campbell Bros. / Open

This is certainly a sentiment echoed by many DJs, who are fed up of having to sift through reams of ‘music’ that makes their ears bleed on various websites, just to find one good track. Because costs of producing vinyl are so much higher than putting something on a site like Beatport, more DJs are finding better quality music on an older style format. Maybe this could be one of the reasons behind the recent global upsurge in vinyl sales?

But as with commercialisation, the DJ as a celebrity culture is not new, and doesn’t necessarily have a negative impact on the underground scene as Dan Jury explains:

“I don’t think the idea of a DJ being a brand or a popstar is a new development really, if you think about the superstar DJ culture of the ‘90s, and I don’t believe it has a negative impact on the output of quality electronic music either. There’s a lot of media exposure at the moment on the EDM DJs and their extravagant lifestyles, but for most people in the scene, this feels pretty far removed from normal club culture, certainly in Europe. There will always be an underground collective of people producing and playing innovative electronic music, pushing to be at the vanguard and distinguishing themselves from the mainstream.”

Victoria Seabrook, speaking on behalf of The Hydra parties has an interesting take on commercialisation and the popstar culture:

“Popstar DJs do seem to be the flavour of the month with certain names seeming to pop up all over the place on innumerable projects, labels, collaborations, magazine covers and so on. But I wouldn’t say the quality of the music has been dumbed down or reduced, it’s just that more and more commercial music is laying claim to a genre that it doesn’t deserve – the ‘deep house’ phenomenon, for example. Decent electronic music is alive and well, you just might have to look a little further off the beaten track to find it.”

Picture: The Hydra
Picture: The Hydra

This demonstrates commercialisation at its core; the ability for people or organisations with a corporate viewpoint to bandwagon onto a subculture that is deemed popular, bastardise it, whilst throwing vast amounts of money at it and then re-package it and sell it to the masses. People like Deadmau5 who play soulless, pre-recorded sets whilst wearing mouse ears, add nothing to the genre which they claim to belong to. And, of course, money is a great seducer. DJs and producers like Tiesto and Calvin Harris could arguably once have been called artists, depending on your musical taste, but both have merrily sold out all credibility (and some would say their souls) for millions of dollars, by joining the EDM carnival. Money, plus ego, can sometimes be a heady mix and can lead some people to a place very far away from the cultural roots of electronic music. The news that Steve Aoki is threatening to sue the satiricalelectronic music website, Wunderground, for damaging his reputation by repeatedly - and in a myriad of hilarious ways - calling him a shit DJ is a prime example of this. These EDM-bots, many of whom don’t know one end of a mixer from the other, help perpetuate the myth that everyone is a DJ, hence the flood of awful ‘music’ that currently floats around the internet, as well as the increasing numbers of Z-list celebrities being paid hundreds of pounds in West End clubs to press a button on an MP3 player.

One of the huge downsides of this type of commercialisation of the electronic music scene, and the large amounts of money now sloshing around, is the negative impact on smaller promoters, as Bruno Cabral states:

“Increased costs of producing parties means the party definitely has to be worth the effort, and in some cases promoters may think first before committing any money. It certainly stops smaller promoters putting on parties, as for them it becomes financially unfeasible. You see many parties pop up for one or two events that they cannot afford to continue, no matter how much they enjoy putting on these parties. The rising costs of venues, DJs, etc, means that the overall costs becomes way too expensive for the newcomer promoters.”

Aside from shattering the dreams of young music-lovers, the inability of smaller promoters to make a dent on the scene means that so much creativity and wonderful music is lost. It’s all very well and good saying that if a party is good, it will succeed, but it’s not that simple. If promoters don’t have the finances to rent out a space and a decent sound system, or have great contacts and a good grasp of PR, then the odds are stacked very much against them. Many people have become far more conservative in their party choices, and are unwilling to spend a tenner on an unknown quantity, particularly if DJs who are unfamiliar to them are manning the decks. This means that we all lose out; the scene becomes less diverse, creativity dies on the vine, brilliant DJs never get heard, and putting on parties in London increasingly only becomes available for the moneyed few.

Picture: Toi Toi by Daddy's Got Sweets
Picture: Toi Toi by Daddy's Got Sweets

Of course, commericialisation is mainly driven by money - the unedifying spectacle of Paris Hilton headlining at Amnesia, Ibiza, is certainly not an artistic decision – but aside from profit, what other factors are contributing the increasing commercialisation of the electronic music scene? Isis Salvaterra, promoter of the Toi Toi parties has a few ideas:

“There has indeed been a shift from more underground forms of music commercialising recently. It is a natural shift as everything born in the underground will eventually hit the surface. There are external forces which contribute to that majorly though: ruthless capitalism; media attention; accessibility of information; laws … “

It’s undeniable that all of these things have had an impact on the popularity of electronic music. The age of the internet has ensured that we are but a click away from finding out reams of information about anything we choose to explore, making everything so much more accessible. Changes in licensing laws in London have had a huge impact on how and where promoters put on parties, opening up new and exciting venues, but also making many owners of disused warehouses all across the city pretty wealthy, off the back of a culture that many have no interest in and consequently pricing out many parties in the process. The media has also cottoned on to the burgeoning popularity of electronic music, mainly from an EDM perspective, with newspaper articles and films about this ‘new’ genre. Did any of us ever think we would see the day where Channel 4 would do a series on the lives of Tiesto, Norman Cook and Seth Troxler? Well, they did so a few months back. Media coverage can quickly turn any underground subculture overground, and that seems to be the case with electronic music. But it probably all comes back to capitalism, as Victoria from The Hydra states:

“To an extent, commercialisation of any genre is inevitable. If you look at any big modern music genre from the past 70 or so years – swing, punk, disco – each genre and its fashion was initially regarded as subversive and unconventional in some way, until they permeate the mainstream and then businesses see a way to make money from them. This is more a testament to the nature of capitalism than to the quality of a genre. Music will always be a commodity.”

Picture: Studio Spaces E2
Picture: Studio Spaces E2

So maybe commercialisation was always going to be the end result? It certainly became so once EDM became popular in the US, probably the most hyper-capitalist country in the world. Whilst EDM may encourage people to become enamoured with electronic music and develop their musical tastes, it would be short-sighted to say that it does not pose a threat to underground electronic music culture. Things are tough enough in London for promoters to find venues and book DJs as it is, what would big money parties moving over the pond do to an already precarious and competitive market?

Of course, the irony is that electronic music partly originates from the US, a creative force that was born out of disco, heroin, African-American culture, the gay community and the mass unemployment in Detroit after the automobile industry collapsed. All of this was considered too dangerous for Reagan’s America, and it has only been allowed to thrive once it has been stripped of its subversive nature, cultural roots and history and repackaged as bland spectacle, raking in millions and losing all artistic merit in the process. As Isis Salvaterra says:

“Electronic music's... cultural relevance has not yet been explored fully. Commercialisation poses the risk of undermining the meaning of such cultural relevance by taking over, but it can also perhaps bring more attention to the analyses of the intrinsic differences from the commercialised side to the one that carries cultural relevance. I choose to believe the latter.”

Let’s hope she’s right.

In part two we explore several consequences of commercialisation (booking policies and artist fees amongst others), the rise of social media and new communications, and what actually (if at all) defines the notion of 'underground' in 2014.

Words: Peggy Whitfield blog / twitter
Main Image: The Hydra

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