Nobody wants to read a boring article: Working within a systemic electronic music landscape

“Nobody wants to read a boring article”: It’s the best piece of advice I’ve ever received in a short, but intense career writing about music and it’s something that has stayed with me throughout all my endeavours. While I’ve long forgotten the editor’s name behind these words, this most salient insight has been imprinted on my frontal lobe since. The orator of this little vignette might not have been using it in the context of music writing specifically nor was it little more than passing thought at the time, but I put a lot of stock into the comment and it’s never failed me since. Whether I’m writing an entertaining little op-ed about the curiosities of the latest Dutch dance craze, or trying the uncover the subconscious working processes of a left-field sound artist, I’ve applied the mantra to my work and every outlet I’ve ever worked for including Jaeger.

While boring might be completely subjective depending on the reader, whether I’m trying to write a serious feature on a significant artist, or chasing a fleeting whim down a rabbit hole for the sake of entertainment, the purpose has always been not to be boring in the context of my audience. For the music nerd it needs to be informative, in depth and well-researched while for the weekend clubber looking for some level of escape from dirge of everyday life it needs to be entertaining, without really losing touch with those previous points either. 

With any job, profession or artistic endeavour (yes it takes a level of creativity to write these things) sometimes I am able to achieve this quite easily while other times it’s hard work and that’s why results can vary. While I’ll always strive not to bore the reader it can still happen and I’m ok with that, but lately I’ve encountered an obstacle that has stunted my endeavours. The music, and that is specifically the music I write about on these pages, electronic club music (however broadly you want to interpret it) offers me very little to no inspiration of late.

I’ve always been motivated by the music to write about music, but lately that motivation is becoming increasingly harder to find and harder to cultivate. A record here and there, a rare DJ set or a new artist are making sporadic, paltry impressions on my daily listening habits. Although that’s fairly inconsequential and like my own relationship with electronic music, it only takes one new release or artist to spark an infatuation, lately I’ve been struck with more resistance than ever. On the rare occasion I am inspired by a new piece of music, artist or DJ today, I’m usually faced by a system of gatekeepers that seem to want to maintain an elusive hierarchy that subjugates certain music and artists for the sake of a homogenised purview of the landscape.

It’s a system, an enclosed hamster wheel with no breaks and it includes a whole herd of frenetic facilitators running against a sisyphean incline, spurred on by their own individual endeavours.  These facilitators include PR agents, music magazines, journalists, club owners, promoters, social media and YOU! It’s a system so ingrained in post-internet society that we don’t even know that we’re all involuntarily participating in the mechanisms that perpetuate the autonomous music machine. There’s no megalomaniac behind a veiled curtain at the controls. It’s an intricate network of independent actors that unwittingly or purposefully influence each other in a system that’s self-perpetuating. 

I was initially spurred on this train of thought by an article that appeared in XLR8R. It suggested that music journalism was in “crisis,” and while it made some valid points on the influence of monetary powers on critical music journalism, it didn’t reveal anything we didn’t know already. Of course PR agents are paying for content on sites like XLR8R and RA… how do you propose those sites operate without some form of income. Even a fairly left field outlet like The Quietus is selling records for Norman Records. But this is nothing new; before the PR agencies, the record labels were doing exactly the same thing, the only difference was that it was printed media and radio jocks back then and there was a lot more money floating about for the excessive kind of bribes the record companies could afford when people were still buying music in a physical format.

Between eye-rolls, heavy sighs and some really laugh out loud moments – “who’s going to pay for a Pitchfork subscription to read some pretentious bullshit!,” my friend and writer Donovan Greeff so eloquently put it – what amazed me most is how the journalist was inadvertently acquiescing to the very system he was criticising. Quoting the likes of Steffi, Jeff Mills and Paul Woolford, established and entrenched actors in the system, he is recognizing a hierarchy in the spirit of Arsène Houssaye’s forty-first chair concept, if I’m allowed to borrow the analogy from DJ and artist Stefan Goldmann writing in Berghain’s programme column. The journalist, without any malintent, relegates a large swathe of a musical community to the forty first chair in favour of the “select few” that occupy the first forty (more entrenched) chairs, most likely for attracting more people to the article. 

It’s only one aspect of a system we’ve unconsciously adopted, and it’s not just something that appears in the upper most echelons of the music industry like Jeff Mills and XLR8R, but all the way through to the bedroom producer and indie label. Through my role here at Jaeger as editor (and pretty much only contributor to the blog) over the last few years years, I’ve seen this increase tenfold. I first experienced it about four years ago when I interviewed a new “underground” (how can anything be underground in the age of internet?) Techno artist called Jack France for a blog I ran called the Formant. I had been hesitant in interviewing him since the blog dealt mainly with experimental music and Techno even at that time had taken a most compliant form. I had however been a fan and an active participant in the London scene that Jack France arrived through and found the latex clad character behind the work intriguing. 

The music however, felt fairly formulaic, a barely functional four-four beat, doused in a heavy atmosphere of residual noise and existing in a very banal repetitive form that I forgot as soon as I heard it. Jack France (the character the artist had created) was the story and the music was little more than a byline to issues that revolved largely around 20th century art theory and identity. 

We hardly approached the subject of music in the interview, and I didn’t offer any particular insight into the record he was promoting. Music had taken a backseat to the artist and even Jack France himself admitted in the interview that music had only been the current “medium” for his particular form of artististic expression and it had been the character of Jack France that he was very masterfully marketing through music. Jack understood how to manipulate an interest in his music to his “art” that would otherwise be ignored and it’s something which has become commonplace today in the age of insta DJs and identity politics. 

DJs and artists like Peggy Gou have adopted the same model, but without the provocation or intrigue of Jack France and using it in exactly the opposite way where the character behind the music is employed to bring attention to the pretty conformist music. Stylised pictures with funny quips or more often some uninformed, opinionative comments doesn’t really promote the music, but the artist through which they are elevated to the status of social media deity by an unwitting audience. Socio-political issues or a “personal” slant bridges a gap that music previously covered. What is truly striking is how this model has become widely adopted in today’s musical society. Everyone from a new, unknown artists like Sassy009 (as an example off the top of my head) to the more established artists like Kink have embraced the model unequivocally. Do they even know they are doing it I wonder? There are some really interesting examples of this at work, and how each individual plays on some charuciature version of him/herself – Kenny Larkin dancing like nobody is watching on instagram is a case study in itself – but something that stands out is that it’s happening across the board, from the high-profile DJ to the “underground” artist everybody seems to understand they have to manipulate a system to get their music “out there,” and thus the music inevitably plays second fiddle to the personality. 

It’s getting increasingly frustrating when you interview a new artist and they answer questions in a very calculating and measured way in an attempt to reiterate the personality they’ve cultured over social media, often a cool, aloof persona playing on some mystery in an effort to appear interesting. I’ve even experienced this with artists that have never been interviewed before. It’s like they’ve been coached, and in a way they have by the internet, but it’s not merely contained in the way they speak anymore, it’s also there in the actual music. 

“How to” youtube videos on the blue prints of Techno, house et al; standardised equipment, and educational institutions like Point Blank have indoctrinated a whole generation of artists with the idea of good practises in a form of music that was originally modeled on exactly the opposite ideas. The productions are as slick and professional as ever, but the artistic agency has been largely negated for the technical skill and proficiency in the studio. Producers and artists aren’t pushing the envelope anymore they are simply trying to make the most “correct” or acceptable form of their music. That means they must utilize the tried and tested sounds of their genre, in the familiar forms of that style. The sounds of genres like House, Techno and Electro thus haven’t evolved much over the course of the existence of the genre and those sounds have been relegated to familiar tropes. 

Roland, releasing their entire range of synthesisers and drum machines from the era of House music’s origins as the boutique range today stands testament to that today. The same goes Pioneer attempting to make their CDJs the  industry standard in DJ booths. The BPM readout and the loop feature have become ubiquitous and it’s common practice to see DJs mixing with three or four CDJs where they impress an “artistic” voice on piecing loops together in a very slick, but increasingly undynamic style that sees very few of them testing the boundaries of the electronic music genre beyond the common denominator.  

Pioneer and Roland are attempting to standardise the sounds and forms of music and DJing like Stradivarius did for the violinist and Gibson did for the blues-rock guitarist, which is ironic since electronic music was built on a foundation of breaking with tradition, institutionalised forms and even the laws of physics as applied to music. Electronic music could be made in anyway by any person regardless of their skills. Roland, Point Blank and those You Tube “producers” are trying to force a script where there really shouldn’t be one.

As a result DJs think they’re being eclectic when they introduce a break-beat in a Tech-House set. These sets are getting increasingly generic as DJs focus all their efforts on the “mixing” aspects of their sets in an effort to relay some kind of artistic voice through the music of others. For the most part they dwell in a sonic aesthetic that varies very little between tracks and for the majority that has to have some relevance to the music they produce as artists. Recorded mixes have set that standard which has moved from soundcloud into the DJ booth of late. There are very few DJs that are pushing any kind of envelope when it comes to the music they play, and it’s in part expedited by the audiences on the dance floor. 

Every visit to Jaeger when a DJ is playing, I encounter at least one person approaching a DJ with a request. There’s always a kind of urgency to the request; wanting to hear the latest release; a specific song that only they have some personal connection with; or just something with an accelerated tempo – which I’ve seen happening more and more lately, especially with younger audiences. They are mostly respectful, and move on quickly when a DJ has declined their request, but the entitled brat also reared his ugly head in the booth on occasion, absolutely shocked when a DJ won’t simply subject an entire room to his/her musical tastes. I suspect it’s because the relationship they have with club music, was not initiated in a club, but rather through the kind of obscured view of a club that Soundcloud, Mixcloud and Boiler Room have established on the virtual world of the internet. 

On the two occasions we’ve had Boiler Room at Jaeger, for example the audience has been completely out of character for what we experience every other weekend. People arrive early, and they cheer, emphasising every little incidental change in the music.

People engaged with the music and DJs in a way that almost felt forced or coerced when Boiler Room was here; possibly by the presence of the camera, or even a code of social conduct that Boiler Room had inadvertently instilled through their content. Whenever they put up a new video of a club setting with people dancing and acting in this way, they are normalizing the behavior as a social norm and those more nuanced elements of club culture, the dancing misanthrope, the inquisitive music head, the escapist and the facilitator are slowly being eroded away into obscurity. What we’re left with is this hermetically sealed pristine version of club music and culture that distorts reality.

Exactly at the same time, but behind the cameras at the last Boiler Room, I’m engaged in conversation about the sudden allure of Bendik HK. I’m trying to decipher his sudden rise to prominence in Oslo and why he was such a sought-after performer today with only a few singles under his belt. The music was very unimposing, with amicable melodic phrasing tempered around a tonal centre that rarely tests the limits of basic pop music theory. While the rhythm structures were complex, not surprising considering he was drummer, the complexity didn’t quite challenge the kick drum, as familiar 4-4 beats indulged those most primal instincts in the dancer. It’s not bad music, in fact on a technical level it’s very good, but it leaves no impression beyond the superficial. 

Bendik HK however is a hot ticket item in Oslo and parts of Europe however, and this Boiler Room set came just after an appearance at Øya and preceded a critically well received new single, all on the presumption of him being a popular indie artist at the moment, aided perhaps by his relationship to Pantha du Prince. Popularity breeds popularity on the baseless presumption that it is “good” music in a perpetual system that will see a music artist rise to popularity with a merit merely assumed by the peer pressures exuded today on social media. 

People will adopt music, art or an opinion through purposeful or organic social media campaigns that will elevate an artist, individual or critical thought way beyond what any natural creative talent or artistic product deserves. And the more homogenous or unimposing the music, the bigger the audience and the chance of being propelled into this role. In a world that is dominated by an enduring, but unnecessary need for content, the adverse effect has been that music too has only become a form of content. Artists and DJs use it to become dominant fixtures within a mechanism that is fuelled by this art form. 

Music is no longer an art form, it’s a commodity. It’s a commodity that everybody from the artist to music media requires to exist in a persistent motion that has watered down the rich dynamic intricacies of this music into digestible and banal formulas  – a commodity.

And since the music makes no impression, you have to rely on external, inconsequential issues like identity politics to make an impression, the system loops again from a different direction…  You have to shout “offence” across the wire, because the generic nature of the music that you make, play, distribute and facilitate can’t do it – Yes electronic music too can make a statement without the use of lyrics and it can go from something objective like a song title to something more subliminal like the musical keys you operate in or even the labels you choose to play.  

But that kind of music won’t feed the system today, it’s too bold and too “alternative” to where it protrudes too far out from the majority of the music that  feeds the system, and thus throws it completely off it’s equilibrium. It’s why the music has done away with the versatility and eclecticism that early records from the likes of Rhythim is Rhythim or LA Synthesis proffered in favour for a far hackneyed version of the same music. 

In an era where people aren’t preoccupied with physical record sales much anymore, it comes down to the equity stake that a label, an artist, a distributor, club or a magazine can get within this system and that requires prominence and provenance above all else. If you’re making music you need to be constantly making music that will appeal to a large audience; if you’re writing about music, you need to be writing about the stuff that’s already garnered an audience, and if you’re booking an artist or a DJ, you need to be booking someone that’s already popular to have any hope of making the event or club fiscally responsible in an increasingly competitive industry. When’s the last time you’ve heard of a DJ or an artist making their debut on stage or in the booth?

For a new artist making left field club music and doesn’t have a social media account, or the promoter wanting to bring said artist or DJ to his/her clubnight, this is terminable.The obscure artists and alternative music is something that I’ve always gravitated towards and aimed to write about, and even though I’ve enjoyed popular music and still do, when I write about music these are the artists I’d like to give a voice to and these are the records that I’ll prefer to highlight. It’s a page I’ve taken out out Patti Smith’s book Just Kids too when she briefly wrote about her music reviews for Rolling Stone and how she selected it on the merit of the music and not what the magazine or record label pushed into her hand. And with so much music out there today you need to be selective, but that also doesn’t mean an artist with a good record two months ago, needs to be recognised for a new record, purely on the basis that they are “trending.” 

It’s the forty first chair all over again and what I’ve found is that it’s mostly people with no or very little interest in electronic music that are some of the biggest agents in this mechanism which has exponentially increased with the rise of popularity in electronic club music. 

While I don’t believe an artist like Bendik HK is objectively aware of it, I do find artists, producers and DJs that utilise this to their benefit, churning out music like Henry Ford did motor cars in the 1930’s as functional, simple and affordable modes of transport, that had no purpose beyond the obvious, and with an ever-increasing “woke” audience, they have to utilise things like identity politics to push it onto an increasingly disengaged consumer, drowning in a sea of monotony of music. Those hot-button issues are increasingly just a marketing mechanism to promote music that isn’t able to promote itself. 

Many labels and artists produce music purely for the sake of producing music in some possibly misguided attempt in trying to stay relevant, informed by the content driven nature of the internet today. Streaming services, social media platforms and online music magazine perpetuate this idea, with a constant dirge of information that hardly enlightens or informs, but just feeds the machine and saturates everything beyond those forty chairs, which although being passed around like their musical counterparts holds fast the tedium of an indeterminable hierarchy. It’s not the record labels or PR agencies necessarily pushing it, but a public opinion based on what… being the least inoffensive? Unless it can appeal to the broadest musical spectrum and makes no overly sensitive statement, it’s considered inconsequential, and those artists, DJs and music enthusiast find it increasingly more difficult to be heard over the din. 

This is supposedly where the journalist comes into it; letting you know what you’re listening to is not worth your while. This idea of the music journalist being the keepers at the gate, selflessly sifting through music with their unique critical eye is a complete fallacy. Music journalism is subjective and should always be considered in the context of the music. 

There definitely isn’t such a thing as bad review. A review whether it’s slating or praising the release or an artist, brings attention to the release or artist, that’s why even a review like this one Pitchfork wrote about the latest Tool LP, will do nothing more than assist in its efforts to beat Tailor Swift to the Billboard number one. The entertaining criticism (which really is more of the band than the album, in effort I suspect to buck the trend of praises showering down on the long-absent band) is just an angle and promotes the record regardless.

Just talking about a record on high-profile platform like Pitchfork is promoting a piece of music in the fortieth chair, and thus narrowing any opportunity for any other artist that has released a record during that period in that field to make any sort of impression in social media feeds and internet searches based on what’s trending. In electronic music it’s outlets like XLR8R and Mix Mag that conserve this. Even RA’s recent magnanimous decision to do away with a long outdated rating system is not only bullshit, because you’ll still be highlighting certain artists and music just because of your position in the electronic music industry, but also very calculating. Some clever clogs at RA read (or most likely scanned through) that XLR8R article and posted that very “selfless” statement to the world, in the hope of jumping on a trend.

While in popular music, this is nothing new, in electronic music it has taken on very sinister overtones, as they try to manipulate very serious topics like #metoo and LGBTQI politics to sell a record or bring more people to their pages, and there are some artists that are guilty of this too.  

While interviews with artists or an informed critical review can give you a perspective of the music that you might not have considered, it’s still just an opinion (especially considering the amateur music journalist that came through with blogs) and ultimately whether you, as someone that enjoys and appreciates music, is going to enjoy a song or an album is going to be completely up to you. Even the musician can’t sway your mind, once you’ve heard a piece of music.

I also strongly believe that’s why so few artists do interviews today; they are unable to put into words that which they’ve created, and stand a good chance of just turning people away from their music so refrain from talking about it altogether. Which is understandable since audiences frequently conflate the artist with the music too readily of late, and of course there are a lot of artists that do this intentionally too. 

It’s a self-perpetuating system that goes from music journalism to DJing, to increasing dominance of social media, record labels, distributors, club promoters and feeds back into the music itself. There’s no single cog that permeates grand control over the system nor has greater influence over the others, it’s completely autonomous and there is nobody at the reigns. How it came to be and what set it in motion is a bit like the chicken and the egg story and journalists, DJs and artists have waxed critically about streaming services and social media, when ironically it’s many of them that perpetuate the system.

It’s the social “influencer” DJ that is playing some piece of music pushed onto him by a PR firm, who in turn puts out his/her own music on a big label, with ties to that very same PR firm. The PR firms wades its influence and most likely money to buy this forgettable track some traction in the media and pushing it onto other DJs, garnering more influential control through social media, which the promoters acknowledge and book said DJ/artist to a venue half the world away, setting the catherine wheel in motion over and over again.

That’s why DJs like Sven Väth and Ben Klock still dominate the scene; festival lineups waiver little from the other; you’ll read or hear about the same tracks over many different music magazines and blogs; and DJ sets pander to familiar tropes and never test the boundaries of their increasingly disengaged audience, staring at them from under the harsh hue of a telephone screen. 

This is just some examples of how it works, or more correctly, how it just is, and the script can be flipped, or inverted, but it still maintains a system, that has very little to do with the actual music. Every single piece of the puzzle, from the bookers to the DJ set, is forced into its position by the one that preceded it, but instead of breaking the mould today, they’d much rather acquiesce to the system than try to revolutionise or reject it’s dogmatic nature, for fear of commercial failure and who can blame them. It’s uncanny that in a scene like electronic music, which was built on the idea of nonconformity (you didn’t even need to know how to play an instrument), we’ve slipped into a kind of mass conformist coma. 

There’s a famous interview with Frank Zappa, in which he explained the decline of the music business after his heyday in the 1980’s. He said “we were better off” with the old “cigar-chomping” record bosses than “we are now with the hip young executives that are making the decisions of what people should see and hear in the marketplace.” 

It’s something that can be applied to our current situation again. The executive has been replaced by the influencer and the marketplace is no longer a tangible thing like a record store, but rather an abstract idea like equity in a streaming service or social media prominence. Even in an industry saturated with music, it seems to have been whittled down to a fine point with a lot of music sounding indistinguishable from the rest and a lot of emphasis on the external, inconsequential factors that have very little or nothing to do with music.  

It’s even worse since those young hip executives are no longer the record execs, but every person with a mobile phone and a limited vocabulary who thinks their opinion matters. Having said that, I’ve read some great, informed and critical reviews on places like Discogs and Bandcamp too, so there is no need to get up in arms about music journalism, and certainly no reason to brandish the word of the day “crisis” around haphazardly. It’s certainly nothing on the scale of global warming, and I still don’t see or hear you trying to buck the system.

Music journalism is not in crisis, it’s just one crossover point on a network of institutionalised and entrenched factors that are currently, not just dictating trends, but electronic music itself. I don’t propose it’s going to end any time soon. There’s no silver lining here, that’s just the reality. There’s not going to be any Robespierrien rebel yell that will save us from banality, especially in the current landscape of conservatism that has staked its claim on contemporary politics, but that’s another essay altogether. All we can do is choose what music we listen to, write about, admire, facilitate and put in reach of other people. That’s why I’ll rather interview a couple of DJs like Ilay & Even and write about the kind the records I write about for the Cut with Filter Musikk.

There are those expectations of course, operating completely outside of the system, but as the industry keeps growing the system is slowly absorbing or casting them even further outside the gravitational bubble of its sphere of influence. It’s only really the labels, artists and DJs, that were working outside of the system before the event horizon of its existence, that maintain their position, but it’s getting almost impossible for new artists, DJs and labels to even operate on its fringes and they fall into obscurity before they even get a chance. 

You might not agree with my point of view or the music, and inspirations might be aloof and rare, but at least I can promise you it won’t be boring.