Another year, another Brighton Music Conference, this time in a new location on the city’s iconic seafront. The “British Airways i360” seems to provide a perfect home for the UK’s own dance music meet-up, especially its 531 foot high moving tower, which dominates both the city skyline and the conference itself (David Morales‘ DJ set in the sky was an undoubted highlight).
Every industry conference seems to have its own character, so I’m starting to realize that in order to really “take the temperature” of the business, one must attend the same ones each and every year. Luckily, the BMC is right on my doorstep, so with my massive 5 Mag laminate dangling around my neck (they seem to get bigger each time), I made it my mission to try to figure out what’s happening.
Shazam Metrics › Talent.
What I saw this year, perhaps for the first time, was much more engaging than the same slick PR patter and tired, repeated panel subjects of previous conferences. What I saw appeared to be an industry suffering from something of an identity crisis. The cracks began to show almost immediately, in a panel titled “Ultra Records Presents – A&R in Electronic Music Today.” The panelists (from pile-em-high digital juggernauts Ultra and Armada, plus major label Colombia) proudly talked up their “strategies,” which included releasing up to 30 products per week and scouring the line-up of the Coachella dance stage to find the next top act (yes, really). This vapid cynicism coupled with the statement that “each generation discovers new versions of the same track, so a small number of records actually cycle around” made it seem like generic techno-pop, sound-a-likes, throwback tracks and cover versions might be the only way to make a go of it in the current climate.
The panelists proudly talked up their “strategies,” which included releasing up to 30 products per week and scouring the line-up of the Coachella dance stage to find the next top act (yes, really).
Confidently dismissing radio as no longer relevant and lauding Spotify and Shazam metrics as the best way to find and sign new “talent,” the corporate glad-handing continued until the Q&A.
Then things got interesting.
What Happened To The Golden Ears?
First, a radio professional stepped forward and asked a polite but pointed question about his sector’s relevance (or lack of it). Squirming and back-pedaling followed, as well as an admission that “curation will always be valuable” and that perhaps playlists and algorithms might be somewhat “faceless” to consumers. Then UK House hero DJ Paulette asked what many people in the room were now thinking: “What hope is there for a new artist to break through?” The panelist who responded was dismissive to the point of “mansplaining” that an artist must have already built a significant brand to even be considered by his label. “Make more music, or start your own event,” he flailed in response to follow-up questioning.
I emailed Paulette after the panel to discuss her odd exchange with the “experts,” and her reply is so perfectly put that it deserves to be reproduced in full here:
As someone who has now started to make original music with the dreams of having it released on a respected and respectable label, I found the A&R panel depressing, defeatist and demoralizing. There was no positive advice there other than: if you don’t fit this model, do it yourself.
If A&R is reduced to looking at only the top tier of festivals line-ups then the music released becomes instantly:
c) A&R by social networking numbers and streams (which can be falsified and bought)
d) A&R by festival plays – which, since most artists play their own music or music from their bespoke labels means the A&R process also becomes exclusive
e) stagnant (which is why all the new singers sound the same)
f) geared towards those under 18 who use the internet the most. This leaves absolutely no room for people who make music outside of that demographic.
Also, if A&Rs no longer listen to music that lands on spec in their inbox and don’t listen to anything outside of the precious remit, then a lot of good artists (who with a bit of nurturing/guidance could become great) will be lost in/relegated to the trash. Saying “come and see us” is also a fallacy, as unknowns making appointments on spec to play music that the A&Rs haven’t already heard or seen is working is unlikely to happen. This presents a no-hope/no-win scenario that is a death sentence to natural creativity. It forces people to follow a template of creative behavior that is counterproductive and counter-originality.
A&Rs used to be renowned for having golden ears – what happened to trusting their own instinct instead of trusting the ears of 12 year olds and a flawed algorithm?”
Is Greed Killing The Dancefloor?
The other panel worth discussing in detail was titled “DJ Mag & WDMC presents The Big Debate – Is Greed Killing The Dancefloor?” This one was interesting, mainly because Andy Blackett of London’s famous Fabric nightclub spoke candidly about the pressures on nightlife right now.
Massively inflated DJ fees are killing off the “middle classes,” so we are now seeing line-ups dominated by one huge headliner, supporter by a group of nobodies playing for free or almost nothing.
The speakers discussed what we already know: massively inflated DJ fees are killing off the “middle classes,” so we are now seeing line-ups dominated by one huge headliner, supporter by a group of nobodies playing for free or almost nothing. This means that DJs caught in the middle tier – in between zero and tens of thousands of dollars – are either pressured to hike up their prices (and fast) in hopes of reaching “headliner” status quickly, or drop out of the race completely. Essentially the days of the $500-$5000 mid-billing, journeyman pro DJ are probably numbered, which is a great shame for those who enjoy a proper musical program from the start of the night right through to the end.
A clear and present threat to clubs, especially in the UK, is the proliferation of music festivals, which are enabling those unfeasible fees demanded by DJs and their agents – fees that smaller clubs and promoters can never hope to meet. Another big issue is embargoes: the practice whereby an artist is prevented from playing anywhere near a festival or super-club to ensure exclusivity, stacking the cards further against small venues and promoters. Despite some discussions about an informal union between venues and promoters to safeguard their interests, the future looks bleak for nightlife in its traditional sense.
As the issues were laid out and blame attributed, I have to say I felt completely unmoved. A couple of years ago, Gavin Hardkiss said to me that “Perhaps the whole concept of a nightclub is outmoded.” Those words echoed around in my head throughout this panel. Which brings me to my big takeaway from this year’s conference, as illustrated by the two conversations detailed above:
Things have changed and the industry hasn’t noticed.
Nostalgia vs Spreadsheets.
The way people (especially young people) consume our music has changed. Electronic music has spread out from the nightclub and arrived on rooftops, coffee roasters, hipster ale-houses and shops. It’s everywhere, and while the traditional nightclub event has remained largely stuck in the past, pop-up events in temporary spaces are vibrant and thriving.
The week after Record Store Day 2019 was the single biggest selling week for vinyl internationally since 1991, yet not one person on an industry panel over the two days I attended even mentioned the format. On the outdoor DJ stage (populated by a gaggle of influential UK DJs), I didn’t hear one new tune played. Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” and Pepe Bradock’s “Deep Burnt” were in heavy rotation, and whilst I’m a fan of both records, they felt weirdly out of place at an industry event that surely should be showing us all what’s coming next.
For the first (and only) time during the conference, the audience was engaged; laughing, groaning, applauding, soaking it all up.
But maybe that’s the thing. Often during the weekend I felt like I was witnessing a divided industry: one half caught up in reverie about its “glory days” and the other obsessed with metrics. A granddad telling stories by the fireside, while the kids play with their phones and blindly follow the algorithm.
Both camps seem out-of-step with what’s really happening, which brings me neatly to the keynote, an interview with David Morales, which nicely summed it all up. The questions were often about his past, while he clearly wanted to talk about his present and future.
On the subject of the current state of club events and festival programming he wondered: “How can you express yourself musically in a 55 minute set?”
On his past hits: “I don’t wanna go out and play old records. If I never played ‘Needin’ You’ again, I’d be fine.”
On making music and production: “I’m not a producer ’cause I’m forced to, like a lot of guys today.”
For the first (and only) time during the conference, the audience was engaged; laughing, groaning, applauding, soaking it all up. It seemed for a moment that an industry that has rejected, then attempted to artificially synthesize heart and authenticity is slowly, gradually creeping its way to the realization that unless it begins to nurture originality and creativity, there will be nothing left to sustain it.
Will Sumsuch is an editor for 5 Mag.
View this post on Instagram
At @brightonmusicconference with these lovely gents, @haroldheath and @earnshawmusic . This picture was taken right after the recording of a new Station H episode for @5.magazine (coming soon) in which we discuss how really needing to poop might just be the key to playing a truly great DJ set.