Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Energy Flash Column #1, SonicNet, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

There's a record store in downtown Manhattan* that always strikes me as some kind of metaphor for the state of dance music. The store is choked with vinyl, chock-a-block. The wall-racks are so densely layered with 12 inch singles, the records overlap so you can only see a narrow strip of each sleeve's right side--the artist name and track titles are concealed, you can't just scan the walls to find what you want, you have to peer up close at the price label, where the store has helpfully printed the information in tiny type. The record bins are so tightly crammed you can barely extract the discs from their sections; sleeves are torn and vinyl scuffed. Underneath the shelves, there's an overflow of back stock extending so far out into the aisles that customers have to put a foot up on top of the vinyl sprawl just to get near the bins or the listening decks. And at every deck, there's a tense-looking, sweaty kid in headphones with a fat stack of new tunes, skipping through the tracks with the stylus and trying to make judgement calls based on four seconds of intro/four seconds of groove/four seconds of breakdown, all in the desperate attempt to keep up with dance culture's Niagaran torrent of product.

This record store is just about the only one left in New York that still tries to stock every kind of dance-floor oriented music, all the myriad subgenres of house, techno, trance, drum and bass, and breakbeat. (Its one concession to sanity: skimping on experimental electronica and CDs). Others Manhattan stores have narrowed their focus to just hard techno, or just deep house, or just jungle. But precisely because of this particular store's valiant attempt to encompass all the tributaries of the post-rave delta, it's getting harder to use the place, so overcrowded is it with records and customers trying to get at them. And that's where the metaphor bit comes in, because this mirrors the increasingly challenging nature of navigating the electronic dance music universe, with its bewildering profusion of styles and its hyper-productivity.

Ten years ago, when rave first started to take off in North America, it was still physically possible to monitor the best output of every subgenre--a full time job, sure, but do-able if you were dedicated and determined. There weren't that many scenes to check, after all--everything was under the umbrella of house music back then, even techno. Today, it would take all your time and energy to stay on top of drum & bass, or minimal techno, or garage, or any single genre--such is the high turnover of releases, the vast number of independent labels and self-released records. This double whammy of stylistic splintering combined with ever-increasing volume of releases is the reason why people increasingly get on a narrowcast track and become obsessed with just one kind of music. Take trance, for instance. Until a few years ago I'd always thought it was a homogenous and basically unified genre, but all of sudden, that same Manhattan store had an entire wall of trance divided up into a myriad micro-genres. Then I met this English psychedelic trance DJ and, curious whether she checked out stuff outside the psy-trance ghetto, asked what she thought of hardtrance warrior Commander Tom, progressive trance god Paul Oakenfold, and others. She just looked blank. Clearly, to be on top of your shit as a psy-trance DJ, you have to have tunnel vision focus.

Diagnosing the dance vinyl glut, it's tempting to bandy around phrases like "cultural overproduction" or "excess of access." But it's not like the do-it-yourself boom is generating mountains of mediocrity that are snowcapped with one percent brilliance. No, the problem is there's too much good stuff out there--well-made, intelligently conceived, tastefully executed, and pretty deserving of your attention. The same cheap music-making technology that causes the do-it-yourself phenomenon to keep on mushrooming is also allowing people to make studio-quality records at home. An unexpected side effect of all this abundance, though, is a sort of optical illusion--the landmark records don't stand out so starkly against the plains of lameness. It also means it's harder for producers to make money, with average sales of a good (i.e. not a huge anthem) 12 inch in most genres hovering between 1000 and 2000 (and that's globally). Many producers only make tracks to boost their profile as DJs (which is where you can actually make some dough).

As demanding as it is for consumers faced with dance music overload, there's no turning back the clock--the DIY genie is out of the bottle. Ultimately, do-it-yourself/release-it-yourself, both as ideal and as practice, has been fantastic for music. It just means that you have to abandon the notion of keeping tabs on all the good stuff from across the genrescape, accept that you're going to miss great records. One aspect of the DJ's job--and almost a justification for the fat fees these guys charge--is their processing function: sifting through the pretty-decent stuff and finding the nuggets of genius, stringing the pearls together as a stellar set or slamming mix-CD. Well, that's how it's supposed to work anyway.

Meanwhile, the last time I went to that store, the over-stuffed-racks were almost falling off the walls. I'm waiting to read about the first record retail catastrophe: Aspiring Disc Jockey Crushed By Vinyl.

* Satellite Records on Bowery. About a year later it moved to much larger premises further down Bowery below Houston St. Now it's closed.

1 comment:

SoG said...

According to the accountants winding up the distributor who went bust with 800 copies of one of our singles, the average shelf life of a dance record was 4 hours.

This was in 1992.

Sad that the shops gone bust though.