Nite Trax: Is Beatport the new Wal-Mart of techno?

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Is this our new downloadable future?

When I heard that super-popular, infuriatingly designed dance music download site Beatport had partnered with Shazam earlier this month, I wanted to write something about how the valuable mystery of the underground might be compromised by anyone being able to hold a phone up to immediately identify and download a track. And then I wanted to contrast some of the fun measures DJs might take to prevent their tracklists (one of the few proprietary things left that can really distinguish a good DJ) from being exposed, with the simple joy of finally stumbling upon a song you'd been looking for for 22 years that instantly projects you into your gloriously wasted youth because yay Internet. The partnership might not be so bad, after all, if it leads to new discoveries and interesting subversions.

Beatport has a lot of crappy mainstream tracks on it, and the back catalogue is incredibly spotty, but it has some great stuff, too, and it's giant. (I go there once in a while to hear what a sizable audience is listening to and catch up on new releases.) And it does at least nominally reward musicmakers with some money and exposure, an opportunity to sell their handmade bedroom creations. It's kind of like Etsy for pimply boys. If Beatport-Shazam helps people find and buy some great new tracks, then fine. I also remember how cute the Denver-based Beatport was in the beginning, its candy-raver-like representatives handing me alien-looking free download credit cards at Pride and Love Parade and the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. Awww.  

But then I read this super-annoying but awesomely candid Billboard interview with Beatport CEO Matthew Adell about the partnership, and thought, "Hey, if they're gonna treat underground music as just a big business to be repackaged and monetized, (albeit one they seem to enjoy at least a little), then they can defend the Shazam partnership from angry DJs their own damn selves." 

Because of course, despite its catalogue of music independently made and emblemmatic of underground party vibes, Beatport, like all music distribution, IS a business -- a supervaluable one that considers itself in competition with iTunes and has exploded with the emergence of the boringly important pop-EDM phenomenon.

And now it has been bought by megacorp SFX Entertainment, part of "a plan to to build a $1 billion empire centered on the electronic dance music craze."

OK then: take all the Guetta and Swedish House Mafia imitators you want, SFX Entertainment -- but leave our Silent Servant and Donato Dozzy alone! SFX had already built an empire based on the live rock performance boom of the '90s and sold it to Clear Channel, which became the basis of Live Nation. Clear Channel was/is pretty damned evil. Will all the colorful characters of underground house and techno find themselves crushed by the wheels of industry? Will there be a rebel gospel house Pearl Jam, a UK dub-bass Prince in our future, fighting against the machine?

I'm merely a mindless consumer of all this music, though, dancing my heart out. Beatport is great, but when I (very rarely) DJ, I frantically run down to the Black Pancake record store in the Lower Haight, or purchase web-only tracks from Juno or Stompy or, gasp, record label sites themselves when Beatport surrenders no search returns. 

So I turned to outspoken longtime label and production honcho Chris Lum of Harlum Muziq and legendary Moulton Studios to see what he thought. He replied in the form of a Facebook note -- and as usual, he had plenty of thoughtful and passionate things to say about the general matter. I'm printing his response in full below, hoping to start a dialogue going about how the mainstream embrace of dance music, and just a particular type of dance music at that, is changing the industry and, quite possibly, the party. 

Chris Lum:

In a 2009 Rolling Stone article, the great writer Matt Taibbi said this about Goldman Sachs. "The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it's everywhere. The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money".

This quote read round the world was the 1st thing that popped into my mind. You see, a few interesting things in the world of dance music happened to me over the last several days. It starts with me, getting re-acquainted with my roots as pure fan of house by way of sweating on a dance floor for a few blissful hours this past Saturday at Mighty. Who was I dancing to? Just a young lad known as "The Godfather Of House." You know, the guy with a street named after him in Chicago. The brief moment of disconnecting myself from the man who's been working in the industry for 20 years and reconnecting with the young man who was turned on by the music was profound. During that evening a conversation with [local DJ] Franky Boissy lead to him sharing a film with me called "Keep On Dancing. The God Father Of Disco." This documentary is about a man very few of today's younger set have ever heard of. A man by the name of Mel Cheren.

Mel was the man behind a seminal label called West End, the early investor in a little NYC club called "Paradise Garage" and supporter of a wee popular DJ named Larry Levan. He's also the guy that worked with Tom Moulton on getting the first 12" record to the marketplace. Mel's place in the lineage of todays dance music industry can not be overstated. It is men like Mel Cheren and the David Mancusos of the 1970's that inspired the likes of Frankie Knuckles. Who in turn laid the foundation for what we call house for the last 30+ years. In fact, it may arguable that Mel and Westend is a vital part of hip hop/rap history. Think of this period as a star going supernova. A brilliant flash of light and energy that travels light years in it's reach and creates the building blocks for future stars that then give life on their own.

The documentary ought to be required viewing for anyone claiming to be in this industry. (See it here.)

Flash forward to last night when I started to see the links to the news about the purchase of Beatport. Mind you, my views to follow are less about Beatport as a single company and more about what this represents to the industry and more importantly the culture that it defines. As a label owner and artist I have ZERO issue with Beatport. I have a friend who works there and he's all about music. He's a lifer actually, everyone I have ever met from Beatport is nice, passionate, smart and deserving of respect. Try and hold off on the "Beatport sucks anyway" comments. They add nothing to the discussion and are not that smart. As a customer, I also spend my money there. Again, the views expressed herein are not about Beatport. They are about the pinnacle of a trend going for about 10-15 years now. What is that trend?

Let's put Taibbi's quite next to one from NYTimes music writer Ben Sisario's report on the Beatport sale:

Matt Taibbi - "The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money".

Ben Sisario - "SFX Entertainment, the company led by the media executive Robert F. X. Sillerman, has agreed to buy the music download site Beatport, part of the company’s plan to build a $1 billion empire centered on the electronic dance music craze."

Anything pop out to you there? It does to me. You see, what struck a chord to me in the Mel Cheren movie was contemplating a time where the leaders of a particular part of the industry were actually participants and creators in the culture. They were often the vanguard of creativity, taste, trend and style. They lived in it. They were it. Even in my early halcyon days of the early to mid '90s, you had the cultural leaders enjoying commercial success from their work. There were few "carpetbaggers."

Events like Wicked, Stompy, Funky Techno Tribe, Toon Town, etc, were created, run, nurtured and profited by those directly and deeply involved in the community. The same held true in the Mel Cheren era. These people lived and breathed the culture and their economic success was a result of the creative contributions they gave to the people.

What we have hear in this Beatport purchase is the reverse trend of the last decade +. That of pure economic exploitation of a counter-culture, the pasteurization of color, homosexuality, avant garde(ness), danger, edge. You know, all things that will scare average white americans and get in the way of higher ROI's. Those that seek to buy out these companies do so with the same mentality Bain Capital seeks "opportunities" to "capitalize" on "trends" (aka craze). Much like Taibbi's vampire squid, they will monopolize areas of the industry of highest return and devour the meat until only the carcass is left to fight over by the vultures in our culture. What we have now are MBAs making creative decisions. Carpetbaggers flying in on private jets to anoint the next big thing with the same techniques used to roll out a new soft drink product. Boardroom meetings and that special detachment to the history and culture of "their market" that only those in the elite class have.

Of course, it very well be that this is a uniquely American story. I'm not on the ground enough as a touring DJ playing in various sized venues and visiting local record stores to gauge the health of the dance music culture abroad. From the outside it appears as though it's vibrant and flourishing. With opportunities available to a "middle" "class" of innovative, creative, hard working people create something wonderful for their community. We have a few left here in SF and the states as well. But from a long view of 22 years experiencing this culture, it seems the trend has become: Every year we lose a few more of those who have earned a place at the table while replacing them with consolidation, media mergers,buyouts and exploitative practices.

Before you select few chime in with "Stop worry and do your own thing. This does not matter" (I already know who you are). Let me state that I have been having private conversations for almost two years now with people that you would "assume' are kicking ass. People that are making amazing modern music, running labels with great releases, great new artists. People that are working their asses off. Grinding, hustling, traveling, gigging, etc. All the things that you would tell someone to just "go do." Even those held up as "doing it" are barely holding onto something worth doing. Like America, there used to exists a solid middle class in this culture. People who could pursue a passion, do it well, hell even do it locally only (hello Larry Levan) and earn enough to not be broke, invest in their craft and provide people joy from the ability to do what they were put on earth to do. Now we don't. We have the 1% and the 99%. There are still different levels of the 99% but it ain't the 1%.

And guess what, unless you are connected and have a million + to give to the 1%, your talent will not give you that access.

Most of my concern over this trend has been on the demise of any culture of dance music in America. There are some who will argue the point that mass exposure leads to more opportunities for all or that the business practices of the elite have no bearing on others. I would argue however that same trends we've seen with the mom and pop business trying to compete with the Wallmarts is what we are seeing in dance music land. You, see, we love $ in america. It's our national religion. We love to have as much of it as we can. We love spend it we when we have and save it when we don't. Because C.R.E.A.M (look it up), the huge media companies get to dictate what the industry does if the industry wants some of their $. This effects everything from booking fee's for acts, access to artists, access to publishing rights, cost of entry for starting a business, access to promotional streams and local license and permit fees.

Over time it squeezes out the local businesses and leaves only the monolith. You ever travel through the states and pull into these little towns and all there is a Wal-mart, and a chain stores? The people in those towns are always sold a lie. Let us come here and "help" this town with tax revenue and jobs. Then the town gets no tax revenue and shitty low wage soul sucking jobs. It's the same thing here with Clear Channel buying beatport. With Ultra buying the Salsoul & Westend Catalogs. With livenation dominating the landscape with it's festivals. With local municipalities giving access and support to the large corporate entities while continuing to squeeze and pressure the small, local business.

Say what you will. I think this one little news item marks the official end the American dance music story. It's over folks. Anything you thought was left in a real way is merely a hologram of what once was. In the current climate, we will not see the rise of another Mel Cheren, Larry Levan, Ron Hardy, shit, even the next Frankie Knuckles. Todays EDM is sterile, straight, un-offensive, milquetoast, and conformist. No one representing a true revolutionary spirit will be allowed on the big stage. If you doubt me, ask the Dixie Chicks how Clear Channel dealt with them the year after 9/11.

 

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