Harold Heath spent this year's Brighton Music Conference canvassing opinions on some of dance music's hottest topics
April 2019 saw the sixth Brighton Music Conference (BMC), three days of conference sessions, a tech exhibition and plenty of nighttime networking drinks and club nights. We thought that this year, rather than simply reviewing the event, we would chat with some speakers and try to get a sense of what the industry is feeling most strongly about at the moment. So we asked: what should dance music do differently this year?
Let’s talk about line-ups!
Many responses to our question paint a picture of an industry continuing to grapple with the changing character of the club scene, and in particular the impact of festival culture on clubland.
DJ Danny Rampling mentioned a subject close to a lot of DJs' hearts, and a topic that was discussed at length at BMC: line-ups. "DJ sets are shorter, particularly for big events. Some of them you have DJs playing for an hour – what can you do in an hour? But that’s how the market is, just squeeze more headliners onto the bill…"
DJ Paulette: "Where DJing is concerned, promoters need to take more risks with talent, not just replicate every line-up and hide it by featuring artists names in a different order. Punters aren’t stupid."
DJ Rae: "I would like to see more festivals embracing diverse line-ups, bringing all the dance genres together, and allowing talent of different levels a decent platform, helping talent to grow and come through the circles and ranks."
The issues of line-ups, DJ fees and the complicated relationships that exist between DJs, managers, promoters and agents provided plenty of debate at BMC. There are huge sums being earned by some DJs and some brands, but there’s also a constant push-and-pull between that commercial success, its equitable distribution, and the ability of the scene to actually sustain it.
Promotors and clubs are faced with ever-increasing DJ fees, particularly when a DJ has recently had a big hit, and DJs sometimes pressure their management for increases based on what they see other DJs earning. Then again, there are clearly some managers and agents who are driven solely by profit, and are looking to rinse their artists out for as much as possible before their either burn out or are no longer flavour of the month.
From the agent’s point of view, Luke Passmore from NGE Booking argued for a realistic and sustainable approach to DJ fees: "We need to find a level of understanding between the expectations of managers, artists and agents and also promoters because obviously there is commercial value in everybody, but there's got to be a realistic and fair way of gauging that commercial value and giving everyone value. There’s no point in just the artists, the manager and the agent making lots of money if the club promoters are suffering because without those guys, we don’t have a scene."
This idea of sustainability was a theme that cropped up again and again in different contexts. There’s plenty of profit to be made from the dance music industry, but there’s always going to be discussion around its distribution.
Richard Earnshaw (Spirit Chaser): "There should be a lot more acknowledgement and respect for music makers – not songwriters or sampling, but the people who are making the product that is making a lot of DJs and a lot of brands very, very wealthy. The music makers that are providing the very content that has made this DJ or that brand famous are not being fairly remunerated."
Looking after each other
It’s just over a year since Avicii died, so it’s no surprise that a large number of people at BMC mentioned the mental health and wellbeing of our community.
Tom Coulling, from Believe Distribution Services, painted a disturbing picture: "The UK general population stats suggest that 25% of folks will suffer from some form of mental health issue at some point in their life.... in the music industry, that's increased to 70%."
Nina Condron from digital distribution and label services company Horus Music echoed the general mood: "Avicii's death quite rightly shook the industry and got people talking about this issue. Let’s not let his death be in vain, and let's take steps to ensure that we as an industry aren't letting these things happen again."
With its hedonistic roots, club culture has always been tolerant toward excess, and that includes the use of alcohol and drugs. The problem is that for most clubbers, this excess takes place occasionally, and in the context of a life outside of dance music. Some folk might come to the same club night regularly for a couple of years, others might only go clubbing twice a year, but all of them have a life outside of the culture.
For those working in the industry, however, all the temptations of the night are on offer, all the time. There are other industries that have punishing work schedules, that require substantial travel, that have tight deadlines and so on, but none in which drug use is so rife, so extreme, so celebrated and so normalised. This is the tough unspoken truth at the very heart of the mental health problem in dance music culture.
Dave Golder, Cr2 label manager: "The industry we work in is very labour-intensive and I think DJs and artists have access to various different ‘things’ when they’re DJing and on tour, which together with a busy tour schedule is a killer combination. I’m really happy that mental health and well-being are being talked about and recognised."
This recognition and growing awareness of mental health issues is taking place in the wider culture, too, and there’s a sense that dance music is at least headed in the right direction, even if this discussion has really only just begun.
Roxy Roberts from Brighton Sound Social: "We need to focus more on the health and well-being of artists. Luckily the discourse is growing but I still think it’s an issue that needs tackling. The industry as a whole needs to be more accountable and artists do, too."
While this subject may seem like it’s all doom and gloom, it’s not. At BMC there were numerous initiatives being discussed, both in terms of bringing the subject out into the open, and also practical strategies to support the mental health and general well being of people working in dance music.
Claire Cordeaux, Director, British Association for Performing Arts Medicine: "What is a ‘healthy’ scene, socially and creatively? Let’s talk about ways to enjoy sustainable careers instead of burning out, and creating inclusive, shared spaces of mutual support. Let’s make sure that people know where to go when they need help, and better still, that people are empowered to look after themselves and each other to avoid health problems as much as possible."
Here comes the future…
There was also a constant low-level hum of, if not quite discontent, then impatience from many we spoke to. A longing for something new and exciting to happen musically, a collective wish from the industry for more risk-taking from music makers, DJs, promoters and agents. It’s almost as though we are at some kind of tipping point, where the increasing presence of previously unheard voices are enriching the culture, and perhaps starting to push it in different directions, away from large brands and familiar clubbing experiences. It’s like everyone’s waiting to be blown away by something brand new, or by some revolutionary way of doing things.
Sarah Foote, Favouritizm: "Dance music needs to move out of its comfort zone and start using the boundaries a bit more. There's too many people following trends and trends don’t stay the same forever, we want some new blood with some new ideas please!"
Risk-taking can mean producing a piece of music in an entirely new genre, or being the local promoter who ensures a gender-balanced line-up or who gets young local talent on the decks. It can also mean finding value in our culture's inherent quality, rather than necessarily in its ability to earn us money.
Pete Gooding, Artist Management Consultant: "So many producers and DJs simply try to fit in and make and play music just like everyone else. I think it would be way more interesting, innovative, fun and exciting if people tried to stand out, be bold and take a chance, as the majority of parties play music that sounds so similar from start to finish and so many labels just put out formulated music."
DJ Rae: "Looking ahead, I feel dance music should be more open-minded and diverse, take more risks, take music on its merits rather than its association."
And was it just the heady mix of salty sea air and fish and chips, or was there a whiff of change in the breeze on Brighton seafront? The larger political picture outside of record labels, studios and nightclubs was a concern for many.
DJ Paulette: "Dance music should also get a lot more political. It’s starting to happen – anti-Brexit parties in London, notably – but back in the day there were out-and-out celebrities who were active spokespeople, not just DJs at outdoor raves that were good to be seen at. We need every single one of those people who played to mobilise their massive networks when it comes to persuading people to get out and vote."
Likewise Fleur Woolford, Soul Heaven agent, promoter and label boss: "I think we need to get more political, whether it's coming together on climate change, stopping this madness in Europe now that several million youths are of age to vote since the last referendum, or supporting something already within our scene like Lastnightadjsavedmylife.org. We fought for our right to party inthe 80/90s, let's get this scene mobilised again."
Last Night A DJ Saved My Life is a charity that fundraises in the electronic music industry in support of children in crisis. Dominic Sunderland from LNADJ: "I think that dance music needs to be more socially conscious. We heard a number of times today that it's now a seven billion dollar industry – imagine if just one per cent of that was used to do good, whatever that means: supporting projects, making people more socially aware. Other industries have corporate responsibility, why don’t we have it in dance music?"
Another subject that was mentioned several times was club closures.
Tammy Tinawi, Cavendish Music: "Bring back independent nightclubs! In the last 15 years there’s been a massive decline in venues… tons of independent venues around the country closed their doors, mostly due to gentrification or investors turning them into blocks of flats!"
So what should we do differently this year?
Clearly we need to look after ourselves and each other, and this might also mean taking a long hard look at alcohol and drug use in club culture. Many in the industry are concerned at spiralling DJ fees and samey line-ups, a phenomenon with complex causes and effects, and the debate over artist remuneration continues. Nightclubs and DJ culture are also facing external threats from licensing laws, poor relations between clubs and local authorities and club closures.
If we’re serious at tackling any of these issues, then it may well require engagement with mainstream politics – something that historically dance music culture isn’t great at, underground rave warriors and techno outsiders that we all are.
Reading through all the comments and quotes from this year's event, the single theme that shines through above everything else is the love for and commitment to our scene that all these people share. Perhaps that’s the best thing about getting them all together by the seaside; the collective expertise is great, but it’s the community, positivity and support that comes from people who are utterly dedicated to this scene, some of whom have literally devoted their entire lives to electronic dance music, that really makes an event like this.
Thanks very much to all who contributed, and apologies to those whose comments we couldn’t fit in – your contribution was very much appreciated too!
Words: Harold Heath Pics: Brighton Music Conference/Holographicz
Tags: Brighton Music Conference, BMC 2019, Danny Rampling, DJ Paulette, DJ Rae, Richard Earnshaw, Believe Distribution, Horus Music, Favouritizm, Last Night A DJ Saved My Life, Cr2, NGE Booking, Brighton Sound Social, British Association for Performing Arts Medicine, Avicii, mental health, well-being, Pete Gooding, Soul Heaven, Cavendish Music