Our disco progeny will, in all likelihood, look back on the two decades since '89 as the twenty-year explosion known as "dance music." It seems unnecessary to say any more to RA readers on this point—this is our era, after all. But if we plug the last twenty years back into the broader century (and more) of electronic music and its repeating preoccupations (experimentation, the future and the man/machine interface) then we'd have to say that the last twenty years have been dependent on the interaction of two sets of technologies: civil aviation and networked computing. The industry their interaction has produced in no small measure is electronic music as we've known it. This is not to say that the music wouldn't continue; but remove either one and you have a radically different situation.
At the beginning of the '90s, civil aviation remained far ahead of networked computing. The media landscape in the '90s that began known as "dance music" developed within the changing possibilities created by the creative deployment of both sets of technologies, as people adopted and recombined, and them with other capabilities—"sound system," "warehouse," "discotheque" and "rock star"—to produce the "super" era: the superstar DJ and the superclub. By 2000, the super era had reached its zenith, with superstar DJs living in transit between international appearances for which they were charging five, even six figure sums; bigger and bigger events attracted tens, even several hundreds of thousands of people.
There was no discernible immediate effect. Even in 2003 most people I knew were DJing with vinyl, listening to CDs and CD-Rs (with Discmans) and downloading the odd sly track at a measly 128kbps. Compressed audio files sounded so awful that the idea of DJing with them was ridiculous, while using CD-Js still usually meant you were a psy-trance DJ, a fool or both.
But two years later, in 2005, networked computing began to gather steam: Oink, Mininova, The Pirate Bay; one-click hosting sites like rapidshare and megaupload; USB hard drives, USB controllers, PowerMacs, Ableton Live 3 and the growing ubiquity of iPods. Within what seemed like the space of months, all of these elements were coalescing, becoming the everyday equipment of almost everyone with an interest in dance music. The hardware was becoming ridiculously cheap and incredibly powerful and portable. And the music, data and software? Well, fewer and fewer people were paying anything for that.
Meanwhile, in 2006 civil aviation began to be problematized by the liberal left mass media, who started asking its readership, (who had become utterly dependent on cheap flights): "Is it ethical to fly?" The popular answer, judging by the rise and rise and rise in flying, suggested an answer: "Maybe not, but boy is it cheap!" In 2009 it's still significantly cheaper to fly the 1000km from Melbourne to Sydney than it is to drive—and while you're waiting in the flight lounge, it's now possible to wirelessly download several key tracks for that night's set while reworking another you made yourself the day before.
Oh, and while you're doing that, why not upload last night's set—recorded at near-CD quality bitrates—to Soundcloud, or Fairtilizer (why not, it's free after all). When you arrive at your friend's house, she can capture the set—and all the other music you have—on her USB hard drive. The next day, after uploading it onto OneSwarm, she can Twitter her friends about it and let them (and everyone else who cares enough to click) know it's there.
as increasing numbers of ex-producers
compete for fewer, more costly, less
popular appearance slots."
The "distribution problem" has been solved: provided you have the internet, there is no scarcity of music—arguments about "value" based on supply and demand go out the window, and "owning" an "object" you "bought" in a "shop" suddenly sounds like a totally redundant notion, something you might cultivate as a quaint hobby. And, consequently, you'd think that this massive and almost ubiquitous transformation would also mean that flying to gigs—and importing superstar DJs—to do so would have lost its shine, its appeal, its profitability and its necessity. But you'd be wrong.
As of 2009, another of the key effects of this "solution" provided by networked computing means that most electronic music producers can no longer rely on production alone as a source of income. DJs treat mix CDs as a business card; music journalists treat mix CDs as placemats. Meanwhile, in the land of meat and materiality, more and more producers have become ever more reliant on appearances, forced to become touring DJs or put together a laptop-based live performance of their productions for nightclub audiences. That's why the producer I mentioned above is in the flight lounge—she has to be, if she wants to make a living doing what she loves and dreams.
Government-subsidized, gallery-based sound art aside, electronic music of many kinds is forced to "appear" at interstate and international nightclubs and festival gigs: and that makes anyone and everyone who needs to turn a dollar out of electronic music utterly dependent on cheap, readily available and virtually consequence-free civil aviation. The present situation is one of utter dependency and vulnerability. And meanwhile, the appearance pie is shrinking, as increasing numbers of ex-producers compete for fewer, more costly, less popular appearance slots. A perfect storm, a clusterfuck, call it what you will, but it's here.
Case study: big-box festivals
One of the key symptoms of the appearance pie shrinking has been the dramatic increase in big-box festivals. Ten years ago, large-scale 'super' events would have relied on one or two big name internationals, with the other slots filled by local DJs. But as the number of tour-dependent internationals has skyrocketed, greater and greater numbers of interstates and internationals are corralled into one event. Here, dance music has pulled a Walmart; everyone is sheltering under the umbrella of scale: promoters distribute risk by diversifying their portfolio and increasing their own profile by marketing the whole she-bang as a branded lifestyle event (and appear to be doing quite well, thank you very much); ex production-based artists receive the income they would formerly have received from producing; while audiences addicted to names, brands and spectacles increasingly reluctant to go out (but for the appearance of their favourite international producer/DJ) now happily fork over a three figure sum on the prospect of seeing him or her—and a few other artists they're kinda keen on.
Big box events like this have come to represent "good value" for punters, promoters and producers, and they've been very lucrative for the X Van Ys of this world, but they show in miniature how networked computing has destroyed the profitability of electronic music production, undermined the local DJ scene and forced dance music to become almost completely dependent on practices that are profitable because of affordable civil aviation; they're are also, for the same reasons, disproportionately environmentally destructive and ultimately unsustainable.
The dominance of this model as the profitable one, and the thorough un-profitability of electronic music that is exploratory, ambient, dissonant or in anyway incompatible with dancing (pushing it from a cottage industry to a closet industry) has meant that many producers who formerly could have scraped a measly living out of non-standard music have been forced to either adapt to the big box, surrender any hope of profit, or shelter in academia and government-subsidised sound art scenes—notice the evaporation of chill out rooms and the other small niches that supported those wee spaces for weird music. If you're a producer and you like both modes of music and are good at making 'em, this mightn't matter to you much. But if you are an electronica savant with dubious social skills, no interest in live appearances and a hatred of flying, sunglasses or VIP lanyards, you'll have some tough knobs to chew on, in your ample spare time.
Local DJs—those who don't produce—now find it more and more difficult to get high quality gigs, missing out on opportunities to build their profile without recourse to production. In all but a handful of cities (Berlin, London, New York), this has hollowed out the local scene, driven the over-production of mediocre tracks and labels, and forced a lot of talented people who are exclusively DJs to look for other work. These are sociological issues to ponder and questions of personal life choices for DJs and producers, but they pale in comparison to the third factor, the environmental question.
Airports also have a negative impact on the local environment that surrounds them: they cause increases in atmospheric carcinogens like formaldehyde, benzene, and 1,3 butiadene. People who live within 10km radius of airports are exposed to higher levels of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, and particulate matter, which have been linked with increased incidences of respiratory disease and cancer: a higher chance of a shorter, shittier life. Not only that, but they cause drastic increases in other carbon-intensive traffic, increase the amount of ground-level ozone and generate massive amounts of noise—which can be fun (in a Wayne's World kinda way), but has also been associated with mental health problems and decreased school performance.
If you fly a lot, you are a disproportionate contributor to all this. And few people fly more than international DJ/producers. More than that: they're more dependent than they've ever been on doing so, in order to make a living. Dance music culture, the currently dominant mode of electronic music, has turned its preoccupations with experimentation, the future, and the man/machine interface into a set of habits that are reducing the life prospects of the future.
It's a mess, and a crazy, senseless one at that. The early '90s case for importing 'Bob X [UK]' of a Saturday night was that—in the beginning—few people could even beat match, and even fewer had access to new records. Superstar-era DJ worship started out, in no small measure, 'cos most people didn't have a clue what Bob X was doing, or how they might do it themeselves. Networked computing (along with twenty years to get the hang of mixing) has totally destroyed this advantage: local DJs, who were often much more skilled, now have access to new sounds that only rich and connected jocks like Bob X once had. What can Bob X do that your local girl can't?
The increasing weight of evidence—otherwise known as recorded live sets, which most of us can and do access—suggests the following: Not much. Nonetheless, people love "appearances," festivals, massive media spectacles, branding, idol worship, hedonism, and conformist consumerism. And this isn't going anywhere fast—the Colosseum is a standing monument to that. But does it have to be quite so wasteful, so ridiculous, so absurd? Does this whole industry have to be about wearing an atmospheric hole in the flight path between London and Ibiza, New York and Berlin, Frankfurt and Tokyo? And if you were a person who was interested in electronic music, and were unhappy about being involved in perpetuating and encouraging such a wasteful, destructive and ultimately unsustainable situation, what could you do?
The answers thus far have been guilt, cynicism and carbon offset. The first two are totally useless, simply because the guilty cynic is the quintessential disengaged person—and also a proven eager consumer. Carbon offset, meanwhile, smacks of a hypermobile middle-class that's guilt ridden, but unwilling to change its habits: The only proven effect of offset is to silence cynics and assuage guilt. Especially if you or I are unwilling to actually fly less. Just tick the box in the online form, and trust that someone, somewhere, somehow, is "offsetting."
Far be it from me to tell intelligent and concerned readers what they should do about this situation—your exact response should be up to you. What I will say is that you can't pretend you're not involved, that you should be concerned, and your concern is better supplemented by active engagement than by passive disengagement.
Science fiction master H.G. Wells—who would have been amazed by the sheer diversity and creativity of electronic music that's been created—once wrote: "Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race." I think straight away of Kraftwerk's obsession with cycling, not only 'cos they're arch modernists with a penchant for lycra and industrial design, but because, for them, the bicycle represents something sublime, a perfect synthesis of man/machine. Think about it: Most internal combustion engines are 20-30% efficient. The jet engines on most planes are 30-40% efficient. The bicycle is 80-99% efficient. Clearly, I'm not saying that "all DJs should become cyclists" or that we should try for pedal powered-raving… though it is an idea. The challenge, rather, is to think with H.G. Wells and Kraftwerk about the model of the bicycle, and the extraordinary possibilities it represents. The challenge is to dream of a better future, then to start experimenting with ways to make that happen.