Music Festivals, the Media and the Underground
Watching the coverage of the Glastonbury Festival on the BBC, one had to wonder from the tenor of the anchors, how we had ever reached a point where a seminal music event could be presented in such a generic, bland and quite frankly condescending fashion. How did an event that had such deep roots in counter culture become so utterly bourgeois and infantile? Was it the event itself that had changed beyond recognition or was it the way it was presented to the viewing public that had skewed perspectives?
The answer certainly embodies elements of both, but it got us thinking here at DJB; what is the role of the mass media in shaping how huge music events are seen, and critically, what effect is the media’s ever increasing embrace of dance music having on underground currents?
Genuinely emotive, groundbreaking music has forever been rooted in struggle and social change. From former slaves rebuilding a core identity through jazz and blues to the lyrical liberation of the 1960s, the balance between rebellion and proactive subculture has always been at the heart of a generation’s soundtrack. The ‘establishment’ has long dealt with new waves of music through an uncertain mixture of bemusement, moral outrage and grudging acceptance, but as the media grows increasingly sophisticated and corporate agendas drive trends, how is the public perception of ‘underground’ music being shaped today?
Three letters leap to mind; E, D and M. For Americans, EDM is a simple acronym to define the genre of electronic dance music, yet in Europe the outpouring of frustration, bitterness and even betrayal over what EDM represents is palpable. There is an element of smug Europeanism in play, but ultimately, the visceral reaction against the ‘EDM’ explosion comes from the sinking feeling that a movement that changed the lives of millions and was critically built from the ground up is being co-opted and exploited by corporations and the mass media.
The interesting point though, is that while Europeans and people steeped in acid house, rave and dance music culture are fulminating about the Americans selling it all down river, their very perceptions of what constitutes the ‘American scene’ are defined by the mass media. We watch events like the Electric Daisy Carnival from Las Vegas and despair over the shameless DJ antics on stage at Miami Ultra.
We watch producers who should never have been let near a live performance outstretch their arms like the Second Coming, plaster an ejaculatory look on their faces and furiously fake some theatric knob twiddling. We stare out over stadiums full of white middle class youth that would have been listening to commercial rock 20 years ago and await a formulaic headbanging drop. But have we learned anything at all about what is really going on within American dance music culture, or are we merely falling into a trap set by the media and our own cynicism?
Commercialisation is an infinitely more pernicious force than suppression. What is happening to dance music today is arguably far more destructive than the iconic Criminal Justice Act. Repression breeds rebellion and keeps the flame of identity burning bright while commercialisation slowly sterilises and strips subcultures of their power; but only if we allow the media to define our own understanding.
The problem with the mass media covering any large scale music event is that they are inherently guided by two principles; mass appeal and lowest common denominators. They will always take Tiesto or Avicii over a lockdown set by someone genuinely pushing barriers on a small stage somewhere. In doing so they create a self fulfilling prophecy of perception that makes those events seem like they are only about the most commercial acts, whereas anyone who has actually been to a big festival well knows that some of the most memorable experiences are to be found on the fringes. Just because the media implies that the American EDM scene is all glitz, razzmatazz and pre recorded sets doesn’t make it objectively true.
Who is to say that in the back streets of Vegas, there aren’t basements throbbing to the sound of raw authenticity until we’ve actually been there to check it out? Therein lies the problem, someone who has only ever heard of David Guetta won’t know to look beyond the main stages and someone who considers themselves a die-hard member of the underground won’t go near the event as they have judged it on how it is presented.
This is a key issue, people from within niche scenes are allowing themselves to write off whole swathes of dance music culture without ever having set foot in the places in question and in doing so, are permitting the media’s stamp on truth to prevail. It is a surrender to assumption and the very forces of corporate illusion that we claim to so cannily oppose.
Now I don’t know if there really is a thriving underground in Las Vegas, a fringe EDC if you will, but take Glastonbury for example, if you allowed your perception of Glastonbury to be defined by the extensive and quite mind bogglingly abysmal BBC coverage of the event you would instantly dismiss it as a bland pop festival. But the reality is that Glastonbury is brimming with spectacular underground creativity, eccentricity and eclecticism ranging from acoustic paganism to electronic euphorics.
Michael Eavis has walked the tightrope of expansion vs integrity with admirable success, and while Mumford and Sons may not exactly be your cup of tea, areas like the spellbinding Arcadia, Block 9, The Common, Shangri La and the Unfairground are seductively reminiscent of an old school free festival, just with the budgets and set up times that only a commercially successful festival can offer.
Giant fire breathing mechanical spiders tearing out slamming drum ‘n bass as gothic lampposts explode in a primal ring of flame, five storey frontages with tube trains hanging out of them vibrating with sub bass menace, transvestite disco venues, primal temples, dancehall caves; the sheer scale of next level creativity both on performance and production is breathtaking. Yet when you switch on the television to simpering presenters trying desperately to gush in a credible manner, there is no sign of any of this.
Consequently, people who have never actually been there, already have their minds firmly made up about the festival and permit themselves to dismiss it as corporate sold out rubbish when in fact, the mainstream side of it is subsidising the underground side and allowing roots creativity to flourish with investment.
So forget the BBC, how about Mixmag or other commercial publications that grew alongside the scene? Well, they are hit and miss. You will see an interesting take on the scene, side by side with a puff piece about some god awful ‘star’ as the magazines struggle to stay in business and keep as wide an audience as possible engaged. Vice is another that regularly has penetrating moments, though they are so often aimed at our insatiable love of laughing at others.
There seems to be a general nervousness about engaging on deeper levels across dance music media and so many interviews are reduced to either PR questions about the new single or Smash Hits style questions about ‘most embarrassing moments.’ In many ways, that reflects an identity crisis within the scene itself which could never quite figure out if it was the tribal frequency that revolutionised consciousness or beer soaked hedonism.
What about niche blogs and websites? Surely they are reflecting genuine currents within their scenes? Well yes, but rather like the musical landscape, democratisation often equals saturation. Just like anyone can make a track and release it digitally now with no investment to ensure filtering, so too can anyone start up a blog or a website. Quality may eventually shine through, but ease of access breeds indolence and the ease of production breeds so much content that it is virtually impossible to wade through it all. No matter how much the new digital reality has diluted the overwhelming power of the mass media, the mass media still holds extraordinary sway.
The media loves superstars and all the adulation, gossip and merchandising that goes with them. Electronic music was founded on unity rather than hierarchy, the attempt by the media to turn DJs into worshipped pop stars leaves a very sour taste. The media used to reflect popular currents (often reluctantly,) now it helps manufacture them. We are now dealing with a world where dance music is corporate, and consequently, a litany of pernicious, profiteering agendas are in play. The media will always tailor its version to its demographic and its paymasters, and as they turn their sanitising gaze to dance music and sell our culture back to us in packaging we barely recognise; the realities have become increasingly elusive.
Once upon a time it was easy. We all shared a subculture, the tabloids dismissed us all with shrill hysterics, the police cracked down on us, the politicians actually legislated against us, but that subculture always remained ours. Money was a limited consideration, not least because alcohol consumption plummeted with the rise of acid house and rave and no external forces saw much advantage in their involvement and so we were pretty much left to our own creative, open source devices. Today, everyone wants a piece of electronic music. It is pop music, it is going the same way as hip hop which went from Public Enemy to perfume ranges in a decade, and its cultural charge is being neutralised as the mainstream smothers it.
But only if we play the media’s game, why judge an event until we have been to it? How can we possibly expect an event to be accurately represented through the prism of a mass media that fundamentally doesn’t understand the core vibe? If we don’t believe the television when it tells us about politics why do we believe it when it tells us about the current state of musical culture?
Finding ‘truth’ or anything resembling it involves first-hand experience, a sort of Heisenberg principle of observation through the strobes. We have to witness it to believe it or the marketed version of events will slowly morph into truth and we will have missed out on some seminal good times just because we assumed something must be rubbish from what we saw on TV.
Ultimately, forget witnessing, observation and all the other passive acts – dance music has always been about the open source building of creative, underground networks. If the media is gorging itself on the self fulfilling prophecy of pop EDM, maybe we should just leave them to it and concentrate on what we know, what we feel and what we can create. Same as it ever was.
Arcadia Lasers shot by Phlex Media
Arcadia eyes photos – Sarah Ginn
Block 9 photo – Bridey Watson