In 2018, dance music began to tackle a few issues that had gone untreated for far too long, most notably the gender balance and inappropriate sexual conduct at events. In 2019, I’d like to see the British dance music industry, in particular, turn its attention to another issue within electronic music culture: wealth, class and privilege.
In the new issue of DJ Magazine (Issue 589, January 2019), you’ll find an in-depth exploration of that very topic by yours truly. It was a tricky one to write, if I’m honest, because of the (justifiable) need for balance when discussing an issue in which many have strong opinions. I wasn’t in a position to pass comment as you would in an opinion piece; instead, my brief was to explore the topics of wealth, class and privilege – and any effects they’re having on different aspects of electronic music culture – and present an even-handed account using research, statistics and quotes from those within the industry.
For the record, it’s an issue I feel very strongly about, not because I want to present myself as some kind of working class hero (I’m not), but because I genuinely think that an influx of DJs, producers, musicians and promoters from fairly comfortable and wealthy backgrounds is damaging British dance music in many different ways. I also think that if steps aren’t taken to address the issue, it will only get worse.
Of course, perspective is needed here. My complaint isn’t that people have money and use it, but rather how they use it. If you are sitting on a colossal trust fund and use that cash to support the underground in some way, or to help people from less affluent backgrounds get involved in the scene, fair enough. Props, too, to anyone who invests that wealth into a label that actually pays artists properly, uses it to do charity work or who throws money into iconic or important club spaces in order to save them for future generations. At a stretch, I’ll also give a free pass to anyone who takes a huge risk and runs events (be that club nights or festivals) that book interesting artists and/or primarily exist to champion underground DJs, producers and record labels.
Sadly, finding examples of people like this is quite hard – especially when they’re so reticent to open up on tape about their good fortune. I found one or two examples while researching the article, and all power to these people, but sadly none wanted to admit that they’ve had a helping hand to get where they are today.
Unfortunately, it is more common to come across those who use their privileged background and easy access to “the bank of Mum and Dad” in order to buy their way into the scene. This can manifest itself in many different ways. The most common example can be found in event promotion, which by anyone’s standards is a costly business. In the last few years, I’ve come across plenty of affluent, well-spoken promoters who got hooked on house, techno, disco or DJ Harvey style Balearic eclecticism while at private school. Helped by inheritance or a trust fund, these types enthusiastically start their own club nights, often paying over the odds for headline DJs in order to beat their rivals. Sometimes their nights are packed, helped by their ability to drop thousands on marketing. Other times, they’re completely dead for months, meaning a loss of thousands or, in some cases, tens of thousands. Occasionally, they’ll get it right eventually, becoming successful promoters and, as resident DJs, first call for agents desperate to find the hottest young property blessed with a big social media following, a marketable club “brand” and enough disposable income to pay a bitter, experienced older producer to make a hot club anthem in their name. Also, be wary of any 22 year-old who owns a rotary mixer and a lot of rare, very expensive records; your average Millennial can barely afford to live, let alone hoard dusty Balearic gems played by Harvey, the Music From Memory crew or Young Marco.
At this point you’re probably thinking: “He’s a bitter old cynic whining about something that doesn’t matter.” But it does matter. For starters, British dance music’s roots lie in white working class men (and some women) dancing to obscure old records, and enthusiastic black working class men and women throwing shapes to the hottest new American-made records. When E hit and club culture exploded in the UK, the scene naturally became far more egalitarian, boasting key players from all sorts of different backgrounds. However, if you look at British dance music’s most revolutionary home-grown musical movements – think bleep, hardcore, jungle, UK garage, dubstep and bassline, for starters – they were sparked by records made not by middle class suburbanites, but council estate kids. Great musical movements generally emerge from the margins, and that’s largely been the case in dance music (though, somewhat curiously, many of the producers who made early house and techno records in Chicago and Detroit respectively were from the upwardly mobile black middle class). Put it this way: I’d be very surprised if a hot new style emerged from the Home Counties, spear-headed by people with names like Tarquin, Barclay or Peregrine.
Living to make art, or to put on arts events, is not a cheap pastime. There was a time, around the turn of the ‘90s, when it was possible to do this even if you were skint. Unemployment and housing benefit was enough for most to live on, and job centre staff didn’t cut off your payments if you didn’t get a job within a very short space of time. Coupled with other government grants and schemes, this relatively kindly “dole culture” genuinely allowed working class people to be bohemian for the first time. It made a massive difference during the punk, post-punk and acid house eras.
Today, no such as helpful safety net exists. Disposable income for the poorest in society is minimal, to say the least. If you were living a hand to mouth existence, would you be willing to spend £20 or £30 to get into a hyped club and see a top-tier underground DJ ply their trade? It’s unlikely. How about if you were in the same situation but wanted to put on an event because you passionately love an underground form of electronic club music? You might just about be able to do a small event in a pub with your mates, but using a known venue and booking guest performers would pretty much be impossible.
Something else that assisted those from poorer backgrounds “back in the day”, especially in post-industrial cities in the North, Scotland and the Midlands, was local authority-funded arts venues, music studios and training programmes. There are now very few remaining examples, and electronic music projects struggle to get funding from the arts council. For proof, check the statistics; suffice to say, opera gets rather a lot of money while potentially life-changing projects such as Hull’s Beats Bus (which was the subject of Sean McAllister’s brilliant documentary, A Northern Soul) get diddly squat.
Plenty of people within British dance music can see these issues; more often than not, they talk to their friends about them. Very few influential figures or “tastemakers” are willing to raise them in public, though. Sometimes this is because they don’t want to be seen to be rocking the boat, other times it’s merely a protective measure (if half the people who employed you to play records were from affluent backgrounds, you would also think twice about having a Twitter rant about it). Either way, these are issues that we should be addressing now before it’s too late.
If you’re interested in grabbing a copy of the issue of DJ Magazine that contains the feature (which, I assure you, is a much more expansive article than this punchy but slightly rambling rant), you can find the digital edition in their online shop, or pick up a physical copy from your local newsagent/WHSmiths.
Before I sign off on this one, a quick “thank you” to all those who helped with the feature, agreed to be interviewed or entered into discussion about it. Big thanks, in particular, to Josh from Posthuman, James Priestley from Secretsundaze (someone who could be classed at privileged, but feels passionately enough to be doing something about the issues), Richard “DJ Parrot” Barratt, Steve Cobby, Steve Arnott of Beats Bus fame (a nicer fella you will struggle to meet), Roisin Murphy (whose rant about this in an unrelated interview got me fired up) and jungle/drum and bass pioneer Fabio, who was by far and away the most entertaining interviewee of the lot.