What's happening to London's Club Scene (Part 4) - Commercialisation: social media & underground authenticity

Posted By: The Wild Times

We conclude our commentary concerning the effects of commercialisation on London's clubbing scene. Peggy Whitfield investigates...

Another week, another Twitter row about the merits of proper electronic music versus EDM. Recently it was DJ Sneak lashing out at one of the ‘DJs’ from the Swedish House Mafia about the latter’s love of taking the money and playing pre-recorded sets. There is a certain amount of irony in social media being used to attack commercial EDM acts, as the internet has been one of the main drivers of the mainstream success of commercial electronic music, as well as radically changing the way the electronic music scene operates on a profound level. Hard though it may be for some of us to remember (or in many cases, imagine) a time where information about the best parties this weekend or the latest set from our favourite DJ was instantly accessible at a click of a button or swipe of a touch screen, underground parties early on the electronic music scene, where DJ Sneak learned his trade – and where pre-recorded sets just didn’t exist - were a strictly word of mouth affair, with flyers and then text messages for those in the know. Social media and digital platforms have more than anything else helped to bring electronic music and underground parties kicking and screaming to a wider more mainstream audience. Shealan Forshaw, creator of new music promotion platform Beatnode.com who also DJs as Phatplastic explains just how the internet has revolutionised the electronic music scene:

“It wasn’t that long ago that the flyers shoved into your hands when exiting a club was the only real way of knowing exactly what the coming month had on offer. Out of 20 flyers in a pack there was usually at least a couple that excited us. As internet speeds increased and it became a more friendly home for music websites and messages boards became the place to find this out. These days there is so much information that it can be hard to separate the signal from the noise, which is why services like Facebook and Twitter work so well, as they bring it to us. Like walking out of the club only being handed flyers you care about, which let’s face it was kind of the dream! With information now travelling at the speed of light it’s possible to reach almost everyone. The perfect illustration of this was a fan email I received recently from someone in broken English complimenting my latest mix. From Nepal!”

Toi Toi
TOI TOI - photo by daddys got sweets

These days finding out about new music, great parties and the best clubs to go all over the world has never been easier. The global reach provided by the internet has revolutionised the electronic music industry. Smaller parties can cut costs and compete with the big boys by eschewing flyers and solely promoting online. It’s never been easier for DJs to share their latest set with the world. Social media pages, such as Superfreq, get huge amounts of traffic and help build and maintain party communities within an already vibrant scene. But the ubiquity of social media has its downsides. In many respects, it has forced the underground to the overground. The underground scene has a far wider reach than ever before, and ultimately many DJs and promoters who become successful face walking the very fine line between commercial success and selling out the original meaning of the event, and if a party becomes too well known, it can be a struggle to maintain the underground ethos, as Isis Salvaterra, promoter at Toi Toi explains:

“It depends on how say a promoter allows for that commercialisation to have an impact on the event and what they stand for, that is done through programming, bookings, type of crowd - tight control on members, guestlist), communication and exchange between all involved (crowd, artist, venue owner, bouncers, staff, the community, et cetera) – and philosophy (if there is one and not simply a money driven one). “

We have all had parties we know and love morph into something less beautiful than they started out as, and that’s why many underground promoters, who are in it for the love, are very savvy about the publicity they put out there. There can be such a thing as too popular. Some people choose not to advertise their parties online at all, often due to the fact that their parties are not considered legal. Difficulties with increasingly draconian licensing restrictions and venue hire costs force some smaller promoters into operating below the radar. Warehouses and woods in east London and disused urban spaces down in Deptford have provided many a crazy day/night in the last few years. And these people know that the beady eye of the authorities is firmly fixed on Facebook and the like, monitoring the activities of promoters and parties, a situation that resulted in more than one party being shut down last year, due to the fact that more people said they were attending on Facebook than the venue had capacity for. The police didn’t seem to care that the venue was under capacity when they turned up. Sometimes we forget that it’s more than just us online…

DAMAGED - image by Nick Ensing

As the party scene in Hackney Wick shows us, one way to avoid trouble with the authorities, save money, as well as keeping an underground ethos, is to use your own space as a venue, as Matteo Manzini, resident DJ and promoter at Damaged observes:

“Owning a potential party space makes a big difference nowadays, and if you are up for turning your house into a club, at least every once in a while, this also helps in paying the rent, plus you can have fun on top of it: more than an innovative way to party, I’d call it an original way for getting money (renting the space to a promoter) or for saving money (not going to parties and staying where you are already are, so saving on entrance fees and drinks prices and cabs).”

One of the biggest effects that increased commercialisation of the electronic music scene has had is the so-called London booking bubble that has been slowly expanded to sometimes quite ridiculous levels in recent years, as the team behind Make Me explain:

“We’ve spoken about this quite a bit recently as it’s a constant challenge for us to put on even some of the better known underground artists that we would like to. There is definitely a bubble in booking fees at the moment and I hope that it will burst at some point in the future, because if it doesn’t then a lot of very good promoters who are genuinely passionate about the music will have to stop doing what they do. Good booking agents understand that promoters are partners – they could be working with them for many years and it’s in their interests to work with good people that they know and trust. Setting DJ fees at a reasonable level is a key part of this… as far as whether high fees are justified, if people want to pay to see the artist and the event is up to scratch then, yes, they probably are, but this needs to be considered in the context of developing a sustainable club scene rather than milking things in the short term.”

Sometimes people forget that a good party consists of more than a big name DJ, and often the huge crowds this attracts can detract from the atmosphere of an event, as well as comfort levels when you are actually there. There isn’t the money these days, for most promoters or punters, to book massive names week in, week out, and that can be a positive thing for London based parties as Bruno Cabral, promoter at Half Baked and part of the team behind Number 90 explains:

“You might see commercial DJs charging extortionate amounts of money, but quality still exists without them, and we may need to educate the crowds to appreciate music with quality. That is a difficult task, but we are attempting to do it every two weeks at Half Baked. Nobody must get tricked into the idea of thinking that the only way to have the best DJs is to pay the most money.”

HALF BAKED - image by Deividas Buivydas

The increasing recognition that some of the best DJs can be found a mere stone’s throw away has led to more emphasis on London based quality in recent years. An example of this can be seen with Jane Fitz, who has a well deserved buzz around her over the last 12 months, after years of putting in great sets at various parties around the capital, but without all the hype and attitude of other well-known DJs, flown in from Berghain and beyond. It’s great that DJs like this are getting deserved recognition for their brilliant music, and can only be healthy for the scene.

But of course while we are often regaled with stories of diva like behaviour from DJs requiring huge personal entourages, including nutritionists and personal trainers, for most DJs in London, life isn’t that Hollywood, as George Hull, promoter for Bloc / Autumn Street Studio lays out:

“Then there is talent, which of course is hugely inflated. There is lots of talent that isn’t very expensive, but that’s not necessarily the kind of talent that is going to translate into high box office gross. The big DJs that are definitely going to fill up the club are really expensive. It is a bit like Premier League football, 2% of the talent pool dominate or control 90 per cent of the revenues. That’s the way it is. Most DJs don’t get paid very much, but 2 per cent of them get paid extraordinary sums. “

All of this is a direct result of commercialisation of the scene, and ultimately the power lies in the hands of all of us, the paying customers. If we broaden our tastes a little, and are more experimental in our party choices, and refuse to pay ridiculous sums of money for entry to certain parties, then we burst the bubble.  Thankfully, many promoters also have a more sensible attitude to bookings theses days, as Anthony Campbell, promoter and resident at the Open parties bluntly states:

“These types of DJs are playing the worst commercial EDM and Trance. The money involved is just crazy to see someone who is syncing most of their pre-defined set – I’d rather book real DJs who play great music and take care of their own nutrition.”

Quite. It’s also worth remembering that for every DJ commanding huge fees, there are thousands of DJs getting paid very little at all. Thanks to the internet and commercialisation of the scene, more and more people are beginning to learn to DJ. This is great if they are in it for the love of music, but not so fantastic if it’s to be ‘cool’ or ‘famous’, as this merely devalues the skill involved mixing records and makes it harder for genuine artists to make an impact. The current glut of DJs in London may also help to explain why so many are leaving to seek their fortunes elsewhere in Europe and beyond. Whilst fees for up and coming DJs don’t vary wildly between the main music capitals, the cost of living is certainly far cheaper in Barcelona that it is in London. A couple of gigs a month in the capital for someone relatively new on the scene simply won’t even make half the rent. It’s certainly far easier to live creatively elsewhere.

SVEN VATH - image by KIDKUTSMEDIA l Photography

One of the ways that club culture has changed in recent years is it’s become increasingly common to see DJs playing at more commercial clubs on a Saturday night and then a grimy warehouse in E9 the following evening. You can see both Sven Vath and Paris Hilton behind the decks at Amnesia in Ibiza these days. Recently in London, Four Tet and the much derided (and also celebrated) Skrillex played a back to back set which received rave reviews. So are the lines becoming more blurred? And in these days of increasing regulation and sanitisation, can an underground scene be said to truly exist in London anymore? And if it does, what defines it? Georgio Oniano, resident DJ and promoter for Damage thinks it does:

“Electronic music is an extremely broad term and it would be difficult to make grand statements about it without falling into generalisation. In my opinion, commercialisation of dance music is nothing less than a money making business strategy that also falls into the realms of EDM … by creating the framework that is mainly based on profit; I never personally looked too far into that side as it spoils my idea of what electronic music ‘should’ be representing. As for the underground scene, I think some things have changed like venues, generations, style of partying, music, organisation, but essentially it is still about the same things it was about in the mid and late ‘80s as well as the ‘90s, which is good music, sharing of the space/dancefloor, overstepping the barriers that a conditioned society creates, community and freeing the body of its limitations.”

Underground electronic music culture is threatened on two fronts. On the one hand you have the rising tide of EDM, which has been slowly seeping its way into London from the US, backed by wealthy promoters that the underground scene can’t hope to match in terms of financial backing, but perhaps the more immediate danger is what has been happening to London itself. It’s difficult to fight back against the rising tide of commercialisation when the cost of living in London is rising so rapidly and big business is given free reign to shape the city to maximise profit. Culture is too often seen as impediment to the pursuit of cold hard cash and crushed under the corporate juggernaut. In the last 18 months, an unprecedented amount of underground and subversive venues have been forced to close to make way for luxury flats, chain stores and office blocks, under the figleaf of licensing problems.  As the scene that we love is forced to become more monetised to deal with heavy-handed licensing issues, it can have a knock on effect of pushing promoters down a more commercialised route as paying the bills becomes paramount for survival.

FABRIC - photo by Nick Ensing

The increased popularity of electronic music has meant that the police and the authorities have much more knowledge about the parties and the culture we love and they don’t seem overly fond of it. They also have a whole new arsenal of weapons with which to regulate the industry into creative blandness. Rumours are rife that ID scanners are intended to be rolled out London-wide in the coming months and there is talk of clubs being forced to close at 6am, with last entry at 2am. When fabric (sorry, Fabrics, according to the well-briefed Metropolitan police) is being threatened with license revocation unless it pays for its own sniffer dogs, you know shit just got serious. This is not a one-off, random act on behalf of the authorities, it’s a statement of intent which music lovers and those in the industry would do well to listen to. If fabric is forced to have ID scanners and dogs on the door, how long do you think it will take for this to become mandatory in every underground club in London (ED - as the weeks go by we are seeing more clubs & venues adopting the scanners)?

It’s arguable that there should be space in the electronic music scene for commercial handbag house, posing and profit, but there needs to be space for a subversive, creative underground scene as well. The underground electronic music scene in London seems to be finally waking up the fact that as great as our parties are, the freedom to put them on in spaces inside of zone 4 is seriously coming under threat. If 2014 was the year that the authorities clamped down, we should hopefully expect to see 2015 to be the year where DJs, venues, promoters and electronic music lovers fight back, whether that’s through legal channels, or through people power, by petitioning against venue closures, or through putting on more unlicensed parties in warehouses across the capital, (ED - a new body, The Night Time Industries Association, has recently launched to a voice for the sector). Internet and social media can be a vital tool in helping people to get organised in this respect – the tens of thousands of signatures garnered in support of fabric within hours of their licensing meeting is a testament to power that the internet can give us. The creative spirit of electronic music in London has always been one of its greatest strengths, so maybe it’s time to use that pioneering, quirky nous to reclaim our dancefloors and the beats that we get down to.

ED. So where next for club culture in the Capital? Will new legislation continue to clampdown on licences and restrict gatherings with the newly elected government? Are the emerging event subscription companies going to take off? Will the costs of putting on events continue to escalate? Watch this space...

Words: Peggy Whitfield - blog / twitter
Cover image - Bloc/Autumn Street Studio

You can read the first three London clubbing commentaries here:
Part i / Part ii / Part iii

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