Music Industry

When Genres Go Bust (Reprise)

WHEN GENRES GO BUST (THE CHANGING MUSICAL TIDES)

This piece was originally published a year ago today in October 2014.

2003 - 2007. This was a formative era for me as a DJ, if less so as a musician. Let me explain why.

I’d already been DJ'ing for 13 years by the time 2003 came round, and from the first time I picked up a piece of black plastic (just as the first time I picked up a musical instrument). I didn’t see genres as a limitation, as a border, as a confine. I saw music - good, bad, indifferent.

During that period, there were four primary sounds that interested me as a DJ, and they were four separate sounds that converged to meet in a supremely happy melting pot of styles, known by some as Tech-Funk.

There was the world of Electro House, back then a nascent scene epitomised for me by the likes of D Ramirezand his fully beefed up chunky drums, and stone cold epic funky buzzsaw basses.

There was the world of Techno, epitomised by the likes ofDusty Kid … fast-paced and at times furious, but a maelstrom of peaks, of builds, of intensity.

There was the world of House Music, impeccably and unceremoniously destroyed and re-constituted by the likes of Switch into new, shape-defying and logic-defying forms.

Finally there was Breaks and a healthy output of music that had House Music as it’s beating heart as opposed to the super-heavy tearout and funky sounds that prevailed in other areas of the genre.

The upshot was convergence. All four genres bought something different to a beautiful melting pot, a rich and varied smorgasbord for any DJ willing to ignore the confines of genre stereo-typing … and for me, it was a perfect and open-minded era. I remember opening my sets at a number of festivals in Australia with Dusty Kid's epic ‘Adyra’ and absolutely destroying people’s pre-conceptions in doing so. These different styles dove-tailed beautifully as they variously shared sound palettes, tempo, groove and perhaps most importantly of all, energy.

Here’s one of my many Strongarm Sessions from the era to demonstrate this blend of styles …..

STRONGARM SESSIONS XMAS SPECIAL 10 JAN 2006

So … fast forward 2014, and the complete eradication of that convergence. Since probably 2008 all of the aforementioned genres have undergone a fairly rapid and radical divergence from one another. (You may choose to disagree with these opinions. That’s fine by me.)

With exceptions of course, Techno has largely become more groove-infused, slower, more compulsive and with fewer seismic drops. Layers rather than impact moments have become the order of the day, but as ever it remains a broad, diverse, challenging world of sound and rhythm.

House Music has diversified (as it always has done), taking on board garage-tinged basslines in some quarters, but becoming a less radicalised & high energy form than in the almost punky subversions of the Switch era.

Electro House has seen the most seismic shifts, adopting a ferocious post-Wolfgang Gartner sound palette and adopting a gonzoid approach to it’s new stadium-sized audiences. The music has undergone an almost complete commercialisation, an extreme dumbing down to it’s most soulless and abrasive form.

Breaks has become dominated on the one hand by booty bass, accelerated tempos, misogynist lyircs and the sound of car alarms mating. On the other hand Psy-Trance has become an unlikely bedfellow with a whole subculture of super-fast and overly programmed noodling. On the third hand, the hard & heavy dubstep-electro palette has become a staple of many breaks tunes. 

In short, that beautiful convergent eclecticism that played ball so damned nicely, has become a wildly flailing octopus having a panic attack in a crowded retail park whilst wearing rubber gloves embedded with razor blades.It’s carnage out there people.

So … when people occasionally ask and wonder why I no longer draw down from the rich and diverse range of styles in the way I was once able to do, the answer is simple … it is no longer possible to FLUIDLY blend those different genres (assuming that I actually liked them all in 2014, which I clearly don’t).

I want my dancefloors to be carried along the ceiling on a wave of euphoria .. I want my dancefloors to be enraptured by range and depth and hypnotised by the blend … I want people to feel the music, to touch it’s soul. I want to reach deep inside myself when I play. I want people to lose themselves in it and I want to feel that emotional connection.

Why good ideas still matter

In 2015 we can all be DJs, producers, superstars. 

At our disposal, we have hugely powerful production machines at our fingertips. We have free access to boosted software, to thousands upon thousands of plug-ins capable of creating any sound, replicating any piece of vintage hardware. We have modern-day superstars making hit singles with several months experience behind them from their parent's houses, and the open-source internet has created a world that eliminates the need to learn and hone a craft into one 5-minute YouTube clip that demystifies the art in an instant.

We have a culture of newcomers entering the world of the music industry wanting instant gratification, wanting to learn how to produce their musical masterworks in under an hour or two. The online matrix of tutorials feeds the new generation's impatient and accelerated charge towards the honeypot, so expertly spoofed in this recent video I found from Mr. Belt & Wezol by Nacho Punch. This open source approach to knowledge is to be lauded in many ways, as it emancipates knowledge from the preserve of the educated elite and into the hands of the masses, but it also removes much of the detail, subtlety, experimentation and the investigative enquiry that comes with playing the long-form of the game.

In the era of the analogue synth, nothing was saved. To create a patch, a sound, the artist would start from a blank template and gradually build the sound from the ground upwards - and in order to save that sound, it was pen & paper time, using a photocopied template of the keyboard's schematic that came with the instrument. Now in many ways I see that as being just as awkward and clunky as the current state of everything-you-want-from-any-instrument-right-now, but what it did do was it  focused the mind on the quality of the idea. The vast majority of the musical elements that you now hear are identikit sounds culled from the same generic toolkits that everyone has access to. These 'sample packs' form a sector of the industry that I suspect have a lot more value to it than the sales revenues from the artists using the samples to feed their generic compositions.

BUT, for all that access to the tools, the equipment, the software, the sound-packs and for all those YouTube videos .... a good idea is a good idea. And they are as hard to come by as they've ever been.

Don't accept anything less, my friends, or we risk creating superstar mythologies around the mediocre output of those who shout the loudest to be heard.

Measuring Success as Happiness (and the decision to move on)

In business I don’t believe in eternal growth, it is a myth that capitalist idealists sell us. At some point, things have to either get smaller or go sideways. There will come a point in every successful artist’s career where they can’t go grow bigger as such, *but we can always grow musically*. I think accepting that fact is important for an artist’s personal happiness in this industry. In the business of music we are not going to be on top of our game forever, but somehow knowing that allows us to enjoy the journey that much more. Happiness is the best measure of success.”
[Jono Grant, Above & Beyond]

This comment completely resonates with me this morning. For years as artists we find it all too easy to become trapped, and ensnared in the notion of a linear progression. We grind through the gears, year after year, in pursuit of a 'pinnacle' of achievement. Once we meet one achievement, another comes into focus, and another, and another ... and in actual fact it turns out that the pinnacle we were chasing is just a shifting illusion. The goalposts have silently changed as we've clicked through each objective, and still we move relentlessly 'forward' towards the beacon that's forever shrouded in smoke, and mirrors.

If we used to track our progress and judge our successes by a combination of record sales, press coverage, and DJ Sales, the picture now has become much more chaotic with the advent of Social Media. Wolfgang Gartner wrote an articulate and sensible piece this week describing Social Media as an 'unfortunate side hustle', and he has a genuine point. Whereas Facebook, Instagram, Twitter et al are, at their most essential, an opportunity to communicate and bring together your fan base in one common place, they are now used as part of a cynical (and clinical) marketing ploy.

As part of this entrenched concept of 'linear progression', in the past year or two I have witnessed a slew of artists latch onto a simple formula of boosting their Likes and their profile when their music continually fails to engage. These artists have set themselves up as tabloid content regurgitators, re-posting videos as their own in a mass scramble to amass Likes, Post Reach, Market Share and other random measurements of 'success'. The online community readily buys into this, because as we all know too well the internet is a great source of raw material, but pretty much terrible at creating reliable filter mechanisms.

People are intrinsically lazy. Only 1% of the internet's consumers are actual content creators, whilst a further 9% will interact with existing content. That leaves nine in every ten people happy to be spoon fed their daily dribble of shareable content, which is what these music producers are providing - setting themselves up as the new content aggregators. It is inertia from the public at large that allows for this vacuum to exist, and there is a familiarity for both the audience and producers alike in maintaining their respective roles as passive recipients and content providers.

I had a promoter the other day approach me to do a show and part of the negotiation on both my DJ fee, and my place on the bill, revolved entirely around the number of Likes each artist had on their Facebook pages. I had another promoter friend insisting that a certain DJ was now a surefire bet because his 'Social Media Profile' had sky-rocketed. Does this super-charged Social Media presence bring more bodies through the door? Does it expose more people to your music? Are you still doing what you are doing for the right reasons, or are you maintaining the same myopic charge towards that shifting pyramid?

In the past year or two, I've become increasingly aware of the need to measure my success in a very different currency. Happiness. At the point that you realise and understand that the sands have shifted and you are in danger of no longer making music from your heart and with your soul, there is a newfound liberation. When you realise you are not interested in playing the petty, self-serving games of click-bait empire building, collecting Likes like your parents collected stamps, you are liberated, and your music will follow. In doing so you are allowing the heart to flow back into your work, and in doing that you are giving voice to your soul. The bottom line is that you begin to feel again, you stop coveting what others have and you relocate your creativity ... because you are being true to yourself.

This is what is behind my decision to park the bus (Long Stay) on my Elite Force career and to focus on other avenues that inspire and drive me forwards.  When I listened back recently to music I made as far back as '97, there is a musicality and common thread that runs throughout it, and as it stands in 2015, my creative output as Simon Shackleton is affording me that voice to join some of the dots to my past, whilst keeping both eyes on the future. I don't want to exist in a world where I am chasing a shifting set of goals and competing alongside a musical canon that I feel increasingly disenfranchised from. Life is too short.

So with that in mind, my closing set at this year's Breakspoll will be my last Elite Force show for the foreseeable future. I can look back on 18 years with a great deal of pride and satisfaction and look forward to the future with a HUGE smile on my face.

There will come a point in every successful artist’s career where they can’t go grow bigger as such, but we can always grow musically.

Amen Brother.