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It's the year 2016: are house and techno developing further or are they stagnating?
Illustration by Che Saitta-Zelterman | All other photos courtesy of the artist
The world of electronic music is in constant flux. But 2015 was a particularly turbulent year. While sounds from house and techno continued to infiltrate mainstream pop and the most important spots on the festival line-ups, underground artists have given the genre challenging and exciting new facets. Sharp, synthetic production was combined with powerful statements on data protection, surveillance and the defense industry. These elastic, uncategorized productions by artists like Arca, Holly Herndon and Lotic may not be for everyone, but it cannot be denied that they and others have made dance and electro music more exciting than ever.
Between all these musical upheavals, one has to ask where house and techno - the historical cornerstones of dance music - fit in this landscape. On the one hand they dominate dance floors around the world and continue to influence everyone from underground artists to mainstream heavyweights like Calvin Harris, Adam Lambert and Kanye West, on the other hand, given all these innovations from other corners of electronic music, one could certainly argue that house and techno as genres are stagnating.
“The midfield of club music — not really mainstream, but not really underground either — is quite similar to indie rock right now: a self-sustaining community with relatively rigid aesthetics and social norms,” wrote music critic Philip Sherburne in his essay last year The Year in Electronic Music for pitchfork. Sure, there is still a lot of good stuff out there, but Sherburne's argument that "house music has been washed in and de-warped with the latest wave of mainstreaming" certainly needs to be considered — especially when you consider the bold underground ambition that is To represent the cultural communities and socio-political interests that led to the emergence of house and techno in the first place.
So we got in touch with a number of people from the dance community to catch up on the state of house and techno in 2016: where are the genres right now? In which direction are they developing? And in some cases: can they still be saved or are they lost? The responses we received — from people as diverse as techno legend Kevin Saunderson, FIT SOUND boss Aaron Siegel, and music journalist Ruth Saxelby — touched on a lot of issues, including identity politics, the potential death of DJing as an art form , the future of the music business, and whether there is even a need to talk about music in genre terms.
Waajeed / Jeedo, producer / founder of Bling47
I'm very worried about house and techno. In the same way, my fear for hip hop has already been confirmed over the past few years. Most of the new house and techno stuff makes my feet fall asleep. The genres have grown in popularity at the expense of the community that built them: black, urban people. There just aren't enough black people in dominant positions after making up this stuff. Why?
I am always disappointed with new releases that lack sharpness, originality and a clear point of view. Perhaps that's the side effect of this ghetto music having migrated to hip London bars that you can't go to without a cool haircut. I accuse both genres of having lost the spirit in which they were created: it was actually about shaking things up! These art forms were created to shake up the establishment and set off into a new future.
Can you imagine what it was like as a teenager in southern Chicago or eastern Detroit in the 80s? An 808 drum machine and two turntables were perhaps the only platform to show the world that you mattered. These DJs were shamans who called for war - a war for love. The future had to be better than the present, in which you had to live in bad conditions. This created a path — one that is now being tainted with dirt by some trending folk.
DJ Shiva, DJ / producer
Personally, I think techno is doing as good as ever in 2016. There is so much diversity in the music itself. While that means you'll have to dig through a ton of different stuff, if you don't enjoy looking for music then you probably shouldn't be a DJ either. You always had to put in some work to find the real pearls - and it still is today - but they exist and our accessibility has never been better. (Thanks internet!) That's fine with me.
Which brings us straight to an important point: access. The access of people who may not have had it before is especially important to me personally and that is something that all purists today frustrate. The price of vinyl, the price of musical equipment - those were things that once excluded people and are now disappearing. For some, this is frustrating because they feel like their control is disappearing. I say: good!
The sterile music industry version of the rich, (mainly) white guy who makes music in fully equipped studios and flies around the world with his expensive record boxes can fuck off. Right now collectives of women, queer and transgender people, non-white and non-western people or a combination of all of these are emerging who are building their own communities and networks alongside (or completely independent of) the “mainstream” music industry. Excluded people who built their own communities through music is exactly where it all started.
The lower entry-level costs for music production, the ability to run a music label without huge expense, the prices for music and DJ equipment ... these are the reasons why purists complain that "everyone" can now make music or DJ - but that's the point. "Everyone" means "the people who didn't have access to it before" and we're certainly open to hearing new voices from new places, from new people we haven't heard from before. Because if we don't— and things like expensive records or the intimidating need for expertise or musical virtuosity to shut people out — then we should all really look at what we think that music means, if only it's the soundtrack for wealthy white people in the west, um indulging in hedonism at the weekend is really just another form of pop music, I think techno can do more.
Steve Mizek, producer / DJ / founder of Argot and Tasteful Nudes
While that certainly applies to other genres as well, dance music seems to be particularly prone to cyclical trends. These regular changes are most obviously evident in the fact that sometimes house and sometimes techno is more popular. After the pendulum swung more towards house over the past five or six years - which made house popular outside of the underground as well - it is swinging back towards techno in the underground.
Over the past year, many producers have turned to more aggressive sounds and faster speeds where they previously played Rhodes sounds at a more leisurely pace. More DJs who have been praised for their house sets have broken free and expanded their techno collection. Maybe that's a reaction to the House reaching its apex at the EDM level. Perhaps it's a contemporary echo of the 90s, when house was first saturated with pop and techno from Detroit and Sweden made its rise. Both seem possible, given the underground's awe of its musical past and its rejection of commercial success.
Benjamin Myers, Benoit & Sergio
The world of dance music, like the world in general, is incredibly diverse, multifaceted and special. With general assertions one risks damaging this pluralism and the differences. That being said, techno seems to have run out of house recently in the never-ending race to see what audiences want to hear from a DJ. The fetishistic, demanding repetitions of production techniques and tricks seem immensely important to people right now - like guitar solos in the 80s. That is not to say that house is not well produced or that techno has not always dealt with the materiality and form of sound. But I just have the feeling that people want to hear techno right now.
The world is extremely complex (and at the moment also wealthy enough) and there is enough space for niche markets, fetish objects / genres, secret get-togethers of lovers of all shapes, big and small, fat and thin. Hence, it can be said that dance music, regardless of the genre, clearly thrives. She has a supremacy. Radio music sounds like dance music - it has taken over the beats, the tricks, the crescendos, the vibe. Even rap, the currently dominant cultural form, gets its ideas from dance music today — of course.
The underground house and techno scene has undoubtedly exploded in recent years, but I don't think that's a bad thing per se. The lesser-known offshoots of the sound find their audience and, conversely, are able to survive financially. I think this can only be conducive to the advancement of underground dance music as a whole. The broad parameters of house and techno are seductive and liberating for DJs, producers and listeners at the same time. There are few restrictions on tempo, groove or mood. This means that my approach to a particular sound is likely to be different from that of a colleague. That freedom allows people to expand the scene in any direction they want, and I'd say that's where the magic happens, too.
As for dance music entering the mainstream, that's nothing really new in my eyes: There was also jungle, garage and acid house on Top Of The Pops shortly after they came out. Nobody is surprised to see Disclosure at the top of the charts or Rihanna knee-deep in the mud at a freetekno event somewhere in England. As long as there are people willing to scratch the shiny surface, there will always be an audience for new underground music.
Max McFerren, DJ / producer
After the L.I.E.S. people, a new surge of talent is getting a little attention here in New York. They organize things in small groups around the Bossa Nova Civic Club. We all meet in front of each other, get to know each other and build trust in one another - but there needs to be more exchange away from the clubs and studios in real life. The scene has more to offer than just parties. Real church work can be done there, and it would help to have a meeting place where ideas about sustainability, resources, equality / inclusion, intentions and motivation play a bigger role. Now that more local DJs / producers are getting attention from the media, it will be interesting to watch the protagonists' motivations and intentions and how they react to the money.
More and more people are posting their stuff on their own, which I think is an essential form of education to keep this community healthy and financially viable. I want more people to consider the idea of growth — and of sharing your music with different audiences, including bigger clubs and media outlets. I still see people trying to isolate themselves and I can't blame them (the music industry sucks) but we can all achieve more if we learn how to do our own work to bigger audiences and bigger clubs to adjust. I think there is definitely a huge pool of talent out there and if a local distro were throwing out reasonable P&D deals the scene would explode.
Musically speaking, I'm really happy to see a playful, wacky and funky flow of track emerging from the gray area between raw house and techno. I think there is definitely a flood of extremely young producers playing live sets with hardware that is very much in line with the current consciousness. At the same time, I don't really see a lot of young DJs. Perhaps the hang-up is a less appealing form of expression these days because it is nerdy, takes a lot of time, is very rigid, and requires a lot of patience. Maybe house and techno aren't cool. Maybe DJing is something that comes with age - I didn't get it until I was 25. Maybe people just need access to equipment and someone who can tell them how to use it. I would love to see more young talent make the decks burn and I would love to show someone what I already know.
Brian Tappert, former member of Jazz-N-Groove and founder of Traxsource
Musically things are going better now than for a long time before. You can really hear and feel that people are going in depth and making music for the right reasons. House feels fresher than ever and we couldn't be happier about that.
I can't be so optimistic about business. In my opinion, the blame lies with the new streaming models, which are operated by gigantic companies with completely different intentions. These people have made music a lure to do something else - like sell hardware, get you a premium membership, or worse.
As an industry, we have consistently taken the wrong direction when it came down to it, and in my opinion we are in a critical phase right now. Streaming as it exists today is broken. (If you think I'm wrong - which I would like to - just show me one company that hasn't lost millions trying to build a streaming business with artist royalties).
Fixing this situation is so easy, and yet almost impossible, because a model is always expected that is completely free. The music business must learn from film and television to maximize profits. You can't find the latest movies that's showing in theaters just anywhere for free or on Netflix and we need to learn and apply the same approach that is used here. Then our beloved music business has a real chance to flourish again.
House and techno are the genres that feed all other types of electronic music for the dance floor and will likely never go away. The large number of high-paid techno DJs is probably a perfect example of this. It is very important to me that these styles continue to be successful, otherwise something would go very wrong in the scene. They serve not only as a source of inspiration for the development of new subgenres, but also as an anchor, a starting point, a reference for future generations of artists — and also for the public.
I'm interested in everything between house and techno, but I'm not particularly attached to any particular sub-genre or movement, that would limit me too much. Of course, techno is my biggest influence and I'm pretty sure he always will be. One thing I think is important is that the artists know the origins of techno and house, in other words: the pioneers and their sound. Otherwise we run around and call everything “techno” or “house”. I try of course to be innovative and incorporate new elements of these genres into my music, but the foundation is always there.
Claude VonStroke, producer / DJ / founder of Dirtybird Recordings
House and techno seem to be stronger than ever right now. When there's a lot of interest in something, so does competition, which sometimes means higher quality music. But right now I feel like the amount of possibilities is endless, whereas the amount of good music doesn't increase in the same proportion. I don't think anything I could say will affect the evolution of musical trends so I just do my own thing and hope for the best.
Aaron "FIT" Siegel, producer / DJ / distributor / founder of FIT SOUND
I was never one of those people who foresaw any trends. Most of the time I don't even know what's going on in general. It's hard to take that one step back when you're in the middle of it. As a producer, DJ, label operator and owner of a distributor, I am really deep in the middle and am primarily concerned with bringing original, unusual and funky music into the world.It is up to others to decide how that fits into the larger context in the end.
So if you ask me, “How's the underground going in 2016?” I can't really give you an answer. I would argue that it doesn't really look any different than 2015. I think it's ridiculous anyway to use years as a yardstick for things like this. Most people wait forever to finish an album, and accordingly “a year” in music is roughly equivalent to what was created in four to six months. The rest of the year was spent releasing the part while continuing to work on other music that will likely come out a year later.
As a record buyer, most years feel very similar, as my buying habits are guided by my tastes and interests, which are also constantly evolving. I buy new and old records, originals and reissues, 12 "s, 7" s and LPs of many different genres. There are good and shitty records in every genre, every year. I'm not assuming that this will change.
Above all, I hope to see more producers / DJs / promoters challenge themselves, challenge their audiences and keep things fancy. That is the only way to make our “underground” habitable.
The current state of house and techno is very good. There seem to be more and more festivals heading towards house and techno than there were years ago - especially in the US - and that's really great. It's great to see that Americans are slowly starting to learn more about house and techno.
After spending so much time in Europe and now being home for almost four months, I would say that we are slowly moving away from EDM. By EDM I mean all the confetti cannons, the fireworks and the mediocre music that is played to accompany these special effects. I expect house in the US will have a huge impact on music and live shows in the years to come. Since I love house, this move makes me happy. There is always room for improvement, but now that the internet has leveled the playing field for everyone more, I would say that it's easier to separate the good things from the less good things. There is always room for improvement in music, in live shows, in just about anything.
Now we have social media to express our feelings about what needs to be fixed, changed or improved. That said, money has always been a great way to express your opinion. If a festival doesn't treat its audience with respect, then people are no longer allowed to go there. If there is not enough water, food or washing facilities, or the production and sound are not good, then you vote with your money and stop buying tickets for the event. This message reaches the organizers quickly. Or, as in the case of Coachella, where there is everything from a varied music program, art installations, vegan food, incredible production to attentive and respectful treatment of the visitors, the support of the fans grows, which then results in the largest and most successful festivals develop in the world.
Kevin Saunderson, DJ / producer / founder of KMS
From Detroit, where I am, it all finally comes together. The techno sound is experiencing a breakthrough again and it is more contemporary and fresher than ever before. I think 2016 will just see the beginnings of the great return of techno. I can already see it in Europe, here in the USA I can feel it.
Culture is moving in a good direction where people can see the essence and purity of the music and know how to express themselves on the dance floor - and that's always a good thing. There are always certain aspects that could be improved — that's life. I don't know if the scene itself can fix whatever goes wrong, but anyone can start with themselves — we all need to find our spiritual balance and humanity so that we can be good and kind to one another. As soon as we start trying to improve that, everything else will fall into place too. There is no better place to find your inner center than to feel the rhythm and move to it on the dance floor. When you let yourself be carried away by the music, it is an incredibly pristine experience. It starts and ends with love.
Ruth Saxelby, Senior Editor, The FADER
When I was a young and enthusiastic clubber in the north of England in the late 90s and early 00s, Chicago house and Detroit techno were legends as much as dance music genres. I had never visited either city before, but I was impressed by their endless stream of talent: Chicago was home to Joe Smooth, Frankie Knuckles and DJ Sneak, while Detroit produced Derrick May, Underground Resistance and Carl Craig. I had no internet in my dorm in Leeds - I used Word to write my essays with a pile of books next to it - so I knew these artists and their peers because they flew over to play at the clubs I went to ; by asking the DJs about the tracks, or by reading magazines or listening to radio shows that deal with dance music. In Leeds, where there was a distinct working class but also a lot of students, everyone lived for the weekend. House and techno were what we were all hungry for: a soundtrack to sweat out our worries to.
Today most of the recognized and profitable music is made in London, Los Angeles, Berlin, and New York — and mostly by white producers. It is no coincidence that these cities are also media centers and tourist destinations. Much of dance music that makes headlines stems from house and techno, but takes away the original context: house as a safe place for a young, gay, black community to create a more open world themselves; Techno as an invention of the black working class youth as a means of deconstructing ideas about the future and exercising control over the present.
What was once the music of the marginalized became mainstream music. Technology played its part: synthesizers, samplers and software often have preset beats for easy imitation without ever having to set foot in a club. Sometimes it means lamenting the state of house and techno, but also overlooking the potential of this music in other directions. You can find traces of it in an incredible variety of regional dance styles including Baltimore and Jersey Club, Footwork, Trance, and UK Garage, to name a few. In these beautiful mutations, the legacy of house and techno should also be observed.
Music is dialogue: the only way to be meaningfully part of the conversation is to be aware of the story and respect it. Nonetheless, purism does the communities that created house and techno a disservice. Instead of closing doors, the most exciting representatives of these genres have always reached out their hands. When I see things like Discwomans Boiler Room Takeover with UNiiQU3, Juliana Huxtable, BEARCAT and SHYBOI, among other things, I can hear the spirit of the subversive descendants of house and techno. Today's club music is proud and necessary to evolve - it spans borders, embraces like-minded musical languages, and is drawn to new rhythms and speeds.
This article first appeared on THUMP.
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