It’s 3 O’clock in the morning – Are we saving a scene or an industry?

It’s 3 o’clock on a Friday morning and I’m still on the dance floor at Jaeger. I’m stepping my way through a heady onslaught of 909 kick drums and toms in what seems to be a perpetual state of motion. This is unusual for me. It’s just before the pandemic would shut us down, and  I rarely come out for the visiting DJs at Jaeger at this point, and if I do, I don’t stay beyond the first hour of a set. Something told me I had to be here. This is Jeff Mills of course, a bonafide legend, playing to an intimate crowd in what is arguably one of the best sounding rooms in the world at the moment.   

I have seen and heard Jeff Mills before, but it was a truncated festival set, barely an hour long, through a sound system unable to cope with a light breeze, let alone the relentless pressure of Mills’ brand of Techno. I don’t remember the festival, or even which country it was in, and as I write  this, I feel that it might even be an amalgamation of two completely different experiences. It’s one of many experiences since I started working in music that has been facilitated by an industry that has been homogenising the electronic music scene for the better part of a decade. Where something like Jeff Mills should be a rarefied experience, it’s become so ubiquitous, dictated by social media trends and an increasingly institutionalised music industry, It not only undermines the significance of the event, but has completely killed any possibility of a virile, localised scene to exist.

Where something should be an occasion it’s become an expectation, and this expectation has come to dominate an international industry where agents, record distributors, and the music media have dictated the sounds of the dance floor rather than your local DJ. Festivals and club nights, focussing on booking the same headlining DJs, have gentrified European dance floors and eradicated any claim for a sub- or counterculture to exist. Any remnants of a scene has been co-opted by industry in a universal definition that has whitewashed any chance for regional eccentricities to mature in the microcosms of the local community. With dancers and enthusiasts flocking to DJs, as dictated by mainstream media outlets, proliferated by PR and booking agents, it has left no room for anything close to a “scene” to survive unless they adapt to the same universal sonic approach.

It’s this predisposition in the belief that a ”scene” is a universal community, with its roots in one or two, remote origins like Berlin, that have taken the agency away from isolated, nuanced musical communities; free from the influence of a contemporary zeitgeist as proliferated by the extensive reach of the internet. In this culture, DJ bookings determine club nights rather than the residencies providing the platform for these visiting DJs to perform and exist.

Earlier that evening, before Jeff Mills quietly assumed his position in the booth, Daniel Gude was in our lounge, playing a heady mix of Jeff Mills classics; those tracks tame enough to facilitate a crowd just stepping into the evening. Daniel is aware of his audience as one of the longest serving residents at Jaeger and a dab hand at Thursdays. He gently eases the crowd into the event, playing those archetypal Detroit sounds, where elements of soul and funk channel reluctant machines beyond perfunctory demands. It’s the type of music that you would have heard any Thursday night at Jaeger, but Daniel wrestles the dynamic sounds toward temperate tempos and restrained volumes, accommodating the nascent crowd and encouraging them to move to the lower level, where local Techno stalwart, Jokke is currently playing through a determinable vinyl collection. The needle seems to saw its way through the pliable shellac, unearthing jack-hammer rhythms and sneering bass-lines. Jokke is keeping the beats per minute in the high 130s, greeting people to the floor, with waves and high-fives, people I recognise from other local Techno gatherings, but who I hardly ever see at Jaeger. 

There’s an unlikely bonhomie in the air for such an event. The cooler-than-thou Techno brigade, spending weekends in Berlin and weekdays trolling through Resident’s Advisor’s self righteous dribblings about music. The foundation is vibrating with low murmur to Jokke’s records, playing music from a collection that grew out of a savant-like enthusiasm for all things Techno. Jokke was an early adopter of this latest wave of popularity for the genre, as one of the people behind the Void club nights and for a while, Jaeger’s go-to Techno DJ. He’s played alongside the likes of Funktion, Sterac and now Jeff Mills; the vinyl enthusiast and DJ often out-shining some of the more expensive bookings. For the occasion he’s picked his way through the Detroit corner of his record shelf, fortified with rarities from the Underground Resistance catalogue. There’s some sympathy with his audience, giving them enough room to move, while slowly increasing the energy for his successor.

We’re all here for the main event, Jeff Mills, but without Jokke, and Daniel’s residency there would be no night to facilitate it. It can’t exactly exist in a vacuum, with the infrastructure of a local scene required to stage an event like this. In the background, Jaeger booker and owner, Ola Smith-Simonsen is aware of the risk of putting on an event like this, but he’s grinning. Jeff Mills is an expensive booking and even with a packed crowd, Jaeger is losing money. As a resident DJ with his own Friday night residency, Ola could have booked Mills for Frædag and have made a much more profitable night, but Retro and it’s weekly thematic pursuit in shining a light on the original vanguard in the electronic music community, made more sense. His instincts paid off. The night lives on in infamy for those who were there, and I still hear people echoing my thoughts as they conjure the night in their words; “when would you ever get the chance to hear Jeff Mills in a small club like this.”

Before the pandemic struck, Jaeger’s calendar was filled with more bookings than usual, because of that expectation of a “headlining” DJ. It was at a point where it seemed that bookings determined the quality of the night for audiences rather than the night and the space.  DJs playing loops from three decks or more in an endless reaffirmation of the 4-4 beat, forge flatlining soundtracks for perfunctory dance floors, with audiences either hanging over their shoulder in search track titles or completely disengaged as they stagger towards the next hangover or sexual conquest… whichever comes first. They are only here because the DJ has gained some notoriety of late; a track or online-set, together with some backing from notable label or media outlet pitching the scales in their favour. 

These DJs have become like the reality TV stars; fame is only a picture away and technology has democratised the skill-set to something like paint-by-numbers for adults. Whatever happened to the art of DJing? I was never truly convinced it was an artform and especially in the age of the CDJ, but some individuals have been more adept at programming a night of music for an enthusiastic dance floor than others. With a focussed, at times obsessive appreciation for music, they’ve managed to hone it into a unique craft. Many of these DJs are, or have been residents. They cut their teeth playing to the same audiences week in and week out, unlike the next generation who are coming to the fore, already “touring” before they’ve even seen the inside of a booth . Even the term resident has now become conflated as one of these DJs coming to the same venue three or four times a year. Those aren’t residencies, those are just sheer hubris from DJs believing their own hype. People didn’t go to Paradise Garage for instance to see David Morales, they came to see Larry Levan, because of his inherent knowledge of music, his relationship to his audience and the hands-on approach to the club and its soundsystem. Larry Levan was a pioneer in many of those aspects and that’s why his reputation still precedes him today. In Oslo DJs like Daniel Gude, Jokke, g-HA, André Bravo and Øyvind Morken are cut from that same cloth, even though they might bring different moods and sounds to their nights. n lieu of manufactured celebrity they had to graft at their work, garnering an innate bond between the music they play, the audience and the atmosphere. 

That skill is still there amongst some, but it’s been saturated by a virtual scene predetermined by social media and industry, where every middle class kid with a USB stick and a successful instagram account is a DJ today. The music has become mere surface noise to the celebrity of the DJ and as a result the music has suffered. I am rarely able to distinguish these DJs and their sets, as the music gets diluted down to its simplest forms so as to not supersede the ego of the DJ. There is no defining characteristic in music subjugated by their sense of artistic identity, imposing the culture of the DJ on the dance floor rather than the music. 

With DJ fees before the pandemic reaching an average of around €3000, not including the flight, the hotel and the 15% he agent asks on top of that, the industry has ensured to install the idea of the DJ as celebrity at all levels for the sake of their over-inflated economy, that makes a few key individuals richer on the back of the people sweating it out at the lower levels of club culture. Intentionally or not, this takes the necessary economy away from a local scene to thrive. It takes the job and the money away from an equally skilled, often better local DJ, who is forced into doing support or opening slots at a fraction of those fees, because they might not have the same social-media driven pull of their more expensive counterparts. How did we get here?

A status quo has been installed, calling the shots from Berlin, London et al. Perpetuating the idea that an artist/DJ with a release on a high-profile label, a featured article in an on-line magazine and a recent set at Panorama bar is somehow better than the resident DJ with years of experience and intimate knowledge of his/her crowd and club, the industry has forced the idea of the “booking” on smaller scenes in order to compete in an increasingly saturated economy. All over the world clones of Berghain and imitations of archetypal DJs (Harvey, Villalobos, Väth, Mills)  are increasingly narrowing the talent pool to familiar DJ rosters in the hands of a select few agencies. High-profile DJs dominate these rosters, garnering their position through irrelevant factors. While some of them, like the aforementioned in parenthesis, got to those positions through talent and as elder statesmen of the original scene, it’s become increasingly dictated by what a PR or booking agency deems their next big payday. A lot of the time the celebrity of a DJ is predetermined by agents, managers and labels who have a vested interest in creating a lot of hype around their DJs to get bookings, by buying their way in. 

This holds the position of power with a universal industry rather than a local scene and as younger audiences and new promoters and DJs come into music, this is the only model they know, and adapt accordingly, even in remote places like Norway. Those nuanced, focussed conditions that made it possible for a genre like Space Disco to exist, is no longer possible, since people are working within complete isolation of the internet, following a model of a club night and its music, which is not always that transferable in a different region and very rarely as good. For example, while those big-room Techno sounds that shake the cavernous rooms of communist-era factories every weekend might work there, they don’t work in a smaller room with fewer people and an early curfew. Those things that make Oslo unique and created the perfect conditions for Space Disco to exist are largely ignored for a universal approach, relayed down from the mountain of some indeterminable consortium of media outlets, labels and agents. 

DJs like the residents that graft every week at Jaeger, are of a dying breed and even DJs established in an international circuit like Øyvind Morken don’t find any room to operate within their own community, as younger DJs buck to trends directed by an increasingly institutionalised industry, where conformity to the most recent “hype” dictates their bookings and the music on the dance floor. Everything has become incredibly entrenched, and as the pandemic seems to ease out of its restrictions it seems that they’ve only fortified their ranks. Even the DJs, clubs and club nights operating on the fringes, are operating on the fringes of an extended universal scene with any idea of a community, barely existing in the superficial vacuum of social media. I simply can’t see a way out of this current situation. How did we get here?

It’s 3 0’clock in the morning and I’m on the dance floor. It’s 2008 and I’m in London’s east-end  at On the Rocks, a former working men’s club, which is the host for this week’s Trailer Trash event. One of the speakers on the left side has just blown, rattling in its enclosure like a klaxon in a plastic bag while the DJ, Hannah Holland is playing a blend of classic acid House and a new UK-based Ghetto tech sound she’ll later coin Batty-Bass. The lysergic 303 bass is trying to punch a hole through the noisy speaker, but the packed dance floor and the DJ seem unphased, pushing triumphantly through the noise as some promotor-cum-technician sets about replacing the speaker.   

It’s the recession, and yet I’m going out every weekend. Even though I’m already older than median age at the nights I attend, it’s one of the most exciting times in terms of clubbing for me as I’m catching the last intense flicker of a real scene before it’s almost completely eradicated by gentrified apartment blocks with pretentious names like “vanguard” and a street of “Urban Outfitters”  selling dubstep records. Plastic People is still there, but not for long as Shoreditch is already filling in the cracks with boutique clothing stores and gastropubs cropping up on a daily basis. On the outskirts however, Hackney Road, Dalston and Hackney Wick is brimming with a new young energy and something interesting is happening at the intersection of fashion-, DJ- and queer culture. The fashionable kids, having just read/seen Party Monster, are co-opting New York’s early party-kids aesthetic and together with a rolling roulette of local DJs are appropriating old man’s pubs, strip clubs, empty warehouses and squats to throw parties. All around London’s east-end music, performances and fashion converge every weekend for the students and new art-school emergés currently renting cheaply in council estates.

The recession is in effect, but everybody at these events is broke anyway. I have £20 a weekend, and I’m not spending £15 of it on the door at Fabric, to hear some over-paid DJ ego-tripping through a tone-deaf Tech-House set. I’d rather spend my weekends listening to over-taxed PA systems straining under the weight of ghetto tech, acid house and electro, playing in impromptu venues around my local area for a procession of ”freaks” moving on the dance floor like a catwalk, at the more affordable rate of a fiver (or free if you know somebody) on the door and £3 a drink. 

After a decade of clubbing being the sole domain of super clubs and superstar DJs this is clubbing and club-music going back to the bare-boned, white-knuckled roots of the scene. There is no headlining DJ, or specific musical theme, but everything from the flyer to the covergirl is imbuing the spirit of the party. Resident DJs, often playing extensive all-night sets cloaked in the darkness, do their due diligence, playing bass-heavy constructions while forging a sense of trust with their weekly/monthly audiences. The recession has levelled the playing field, killing off most of the big clubs in the space of a year, with only places like Ministry of Sound luring uninformed tourists every weekend; their prominence based on an ancient, hyperbolic reputation born before most of their punters. It’s broken club culture down to fundamentals again with a DIY attitude and people creating club nights for a community rather than platforms for headline-grabbing guest DJs.

It was an intense two-year period, where I don’t think I ever left the E2 postal marker, and it was its own little contained world and counterculture. Leafing through MixMag and DJ Mag at that time, it’s the fall out of the summer of new rave and Deadmau5 and Calvin Harris are grabbing headlines for their bastardisation of Filter House, while in the more serious “clubs” that innervisions Tech House sound is staking its claim. Dubstep has already been co-opted by the middle class elite at this point, and is facing a commercialisation that would see characters like Skrillex reaching billboard charts. On the margins however, avoiding the mainstream and completely disengaged with pop culture, while forging the next movement in popular culture, this period in London’s east end seems to exist in complete isolation. It’s uninhibited by the larger trends sweeping across the dance floor and it’s attracting people, who are living an alternative lifestyle.The naked reveller, the salacious sex fiends and the fashion kids, wearing American football garb as a defence against the conservatism taking a foothold in the UK, have created a verile counterculture and an actual scene for a short time in London’s east end, and unless you were there and part of it you wouldn’t have known about it. 

It’s almost impossible for a microcosm of a scene like this to exist today, even within a large population like that of London’s, because of the internet. With information being so readily available today, it leaves no room for a counterculture to exist. People will be writing about it before it even gestates, often with the fixed objective in creating a scene where none actually exists beyond a self-involved DJ. It’s why the term “underground” vexes me today. Nothing can truly be underground in the age of the internet, and if you’re using that term to describe your music or your night, it’s usually in some pretentious way that appropriates some original ideology, long-since unrealistic. What was originally underground culture is now popular culture… it has been for a while, and it’s been milked for the sake of an economy, and the only way we can get back to the community is for the industry’s demise. The only issue however is that there are too many invested in it for it to fail now. 

Those two years in London, Space Disco, the M25 raves, Detroit Techno, Chicago House and Paradise Garage, these were fleeting moments of brilliance in a history of electronic music that went to define cultures. They were never meant to last beyond the generation that installed them in their time of adolescence. Today however an increasingly profitable industry has commodified what should be a culture, with clubs, DJs and festivals lasting way longer than their expiration date. It has left no room for subculture to exist without paying its dues to the industry and the entrenched status quo of club music. 

It’s 3 0’clock and the dance floor is empty and the soundsystem is off. It’s the time of the pandemic, there was a lot of talk about saving a scene. But is it really a scene or simply an industry we’re saving at this point? Nothing seems to have changed and it seems that any promise of a pandemic changing this perspective is moot. Any delusions that we might have about some great cultural development should be realised for what it is. Everything from the music DJs make to their instagram profile is there simply to perpetuate the industry and I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we’re all complacent in it. There are some trying to use this time to reflect on these aspects, but I fear at this point it’s a fool’s errand. Already prominent Berlin DJ’s are packing carryáll bags with 20 records and a USB stick to take a flight to their next overpaid DJ gig. 

The industry is too big to fail now, and any hope of a new local scene flourishing in the wake is going to be reduced when those high profile DJs are back at it, propped up by the “cultural” institutions big enough to secure their hand-outs. These established clubs, magazines, DJ booking agents and promoters have the resources and the prominence to ensure they’ll survive. They’ll continue to put DJs front and center that they believe should be in the limelight, and it’s these DJs that will be running the “main” room again when things open again, and the local resident that had grafted all year to keep the place open and operating. The things that are going to suffer are not the big clubs with huge investors, it’s the smaller DIY communities that barely stayed afloat before all this. 

Perhaps the problem is the idea of a “scene,” a word that has been used perhaps too liberally in association with club culture, with its origins in something very specific. The Oxford dictionary still defines a scene as “a social environment frequented by homosexuals.” By that definition, the few places that can lay claim to a scene are nights like Horse Meat Disco or Honey Soundsystem, and like everything else, the industry has merely co-opted the term for the association. This culture might have been born from a bonafide scene with the likes of Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan as the founders, but it’s long since been appropriated by an industry, using counterculture language and themes for the sake of commercial success, commodifying the term “scene” to where it can mean anything related to electronic club music.  

This isn’t a scene any longer, it’s a business, and like all business it is predicated on the economy of the music and its culture. For all its aspirations of being a truly independent culture, it now operates very much like any major record label with its subsidiary agencies, PR companies and management consortiums all working towards the same model. There’s still this glimmer of hope that rests with the next generation, the people coming of age during the pandemic who will have a completely different perspective on a scene. Perhaps out of the ashes of the pandemic, they can strive to build an actual scene again, a scene that will eschew the importance of the celebrity DJ and the commodity of club music, and will get back to the dance floor and that sense of community. 

I’ve seen flickers of brilliance from them just before the pandemic, and it seems to be growing from a few, but determined actors in Norway at least. I have a lot of faith that the next generation will start to negate the industry for individuality again. With a DIY attitude and a passion for music, they’ve taken to the forests, with an emphatic admiration for the music, bringing people together that share that passion. They’re doing it on their own terms, making stars of local heroes again, finding some sympathy with today’s sounds, bolstered by their own individuality and the voices of their generation. They’ve taken some cues from the last generation, but carting funktion one systems to undisclosed locations and with a community of DJs that extend beyond national boundaries they are also bringing a sense of professionalism that had sorely been lacking in the past.  

If anybody is going to stop the wheels of industry churning up what’s left of this culture and spitting it out for the sake of commodity, it’s this next generation. They’re the ones that will save a scene.


Words by Mischa Mathys