Harold Heath takes in some of the most interesting conference sessions at ADE 2019
Already well known for its daytime schedule of panel discussions, tech showcases, interviews and so on, ADE's conference was organised slightly differently this year. Topics were arranged in vertical blocks, so you could go to a few talks on the same subject in the same building, rather than having to zap back and forth across the city.
Blessing or curse?
The Talent: Blessing Or Curse? sessions covered a few related areas, beginning with On The Spectrum. This was a fascinating delve into the links between musical talent and autism, OCD, ADD, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia etc (collectively known as neuro-diversity). There is now scientific evidence that neuro-diversity and musical talent are often linked, and this session dealt with this fact in the context of working in a highly stressful industry.
DJing can be a fabulously unhealthy lifestyle – the late nights, messed-up circadian rhythms and irregular eating habits soon take their toll, even before you factor in the alcohol and substance use that often go hand-in-hand with the lifestyle. Many on the panel said they found the relentless touring schedules and constant attention that comes with DJ fame extremely difficult to deal with, and this can easily lead to all sorts of physical and mental health issues.
Techno don Dave Clarke and French producer Florian Picasso both spoke movingly about dealing with sensitivities born from the way their minds work, and about how they cope with being in the spotlight while often being extremely isolated. “Loneliness is really severe for a lot of DJs," said Clarke. "You’re away most weekends, every single holiday period… after a couple of months people just give up because you’re not around.”
Picasso finds martial arts an effective way to help work through his anxiety, while Clarke always asks for bananas and coconut water on his rider – not because he’s a diva but because it’s part of a larger picture of trying to stay healthy in an extremely unhealthy job, to “remove yourself from everything that is potentially bad and just concentrate on the good”.
The social whirl
The second Talent: Blessing Or Curse? session, titled The Social Whirl, was very well-attended, and examined the effects of social media on DJ and dance music culture. The reality of working the contemporary scene is that producers now also need to be PRs, marketers and networkers, something that is often completely at odds with their personalities. This can present a real challenge in an industry in which scrutiny increases exponentially with success, and neatly continued the conversation from the previous panel while providing a link to the next.
That next session being For Fake’s Sake, in which a panel of industry luminaries looked at the nature of the current promotional side of the industry. In what was one of the most engaging panels of the week, the reality of contemporary marketing and promotion – and in particular fake likes and fake fans – was discussed at length, with two very different camps emerging.
Music marketing strategist Natascha van Dyk, who has worked with the likes of Major Lazer, Little Simz, Cardi B and Skrillex., was refreshingly honest on the subject of buying fake fans to kickstart an artists’ new career. "We do it. Being completely honest, I HAVE to do the fucking hype, I’m getting paid to do the hype," she admitted. "We buy substantial amounts of likes”.
The stark reality of the modern music industry, laid bare right in front of us! But this isn’t the whole music industry. Chicagoan artist Hiroko Yamamura pointed out that blatantly dishonest social media marketing has become so common that it’s even being satirised on mainstream TV, and that there’s a growing movement against it. “Anytime anything becomes normalised, there’s going to be a pushback, and I think we’re seeing that wave in the younger generation," she said. "Because fake likes have become the norm, they’re making jokes about this on Saturday Night Live now”.
There was a definite sense of tension in lots of the discussions at ADE this year: if not quite a battle for, then certainly an argument over, the soul of the scene, and the nature of it. In the red corner we have authenticity and the original spirit of acid house, born from disco. This is a world focused on the music, the dancers, the party and the DJ, in that order. Meanwhile, in the blue corner there is commerce, ruthlessly generating wealth, backed up by its coaching team of spectacle and narcissism.
Again, a single moment in a single conference session provided a good illustration of this. The agent for a legendary techno artist talked about the struggles of maintaining an authentic artist roster in the contemporary climate. She then passed the mic over to a DJ who spoke at length at how simply turning up and playing music wasn’t really the limit of the DJ's role any more, and that he’d been improving his ‘DJ show’ lately by introducing a life-size hologram.
It was a fascinating clash of entirely different expectations of what dance music is, and of what the role of the DJ might be. Some DJs and artists who’ve grown up under the yoke of constant social media surveillance – and indeed plenty of older DJs, too – now seem to see DJing as some kind of visual entertainment: instead of them helming a room of people to create their own communal magic, they feed a 'show' to passive consumers. And yes, I got all that from a single moment in a conference session.
And next year…?
So, all told it was another inspiring week at ADE, even though the weary, ongoing battle between art and commerce in DJ and dance music culture shows no signs of abating. As ever, the ADE statistics demonstrate the conference's scope: this year’s event had over 400,000 visitors from 146 countries of origin, who collectively attended a very large number of conference sessions, workshops, talks, networking events, pop-ups, gigs and parties.
And my favourite stat of the week? We learned that, on average, there are currently around 40,000 new releases on Spotify every day. Every. Single. Day. Quite what this means for dance music is another matter entirely, but one we’ll no doubt be discussing at ADE 2020. See you next year.
Words: Harold Heath Pics: (from top) Mark Richter, Laura Jacobs, Lieke Vermeulen, Tiffany Konings
For details of Amsterdam Dance Event 2020, keep an eye on ADE's own website