Recently I've been doing some work on the politics of climate change. It is a very tricky situation, to put it mildly... Part of the problem is that it is not that people are actively trying to fuck up the environment. Indeed, much of it comes from people living their lives in certain ways, but when these individual actions are put collectively it is leading to global warming and other environmental problems. One version of this predicament was expressed by Gareth Hardin in the late 1960s using the metaphor of 'the tragedy of the commons'. It is not worth explaining the whole thing here, but the basic point is that what it tried to show was that: 'people face a dangerous situation created not by malicious outside forces but by the apparently appropriate and innocent behaviors of many individuals acting alone.'
What does that have to do with electronic music you might ask? For starters, a while ago PC wrote an excellent piece for RA about the relationship between DJing and environmental problems. Well what I am going to talk about is not actually the environment, but what I want to suggest is that the dynamics that shape the problem of climate change can also be partially found in the way electronic music is talked about and circulated online (and please note that i stress partially, this analogy is far from perfect). Let me give you some examples of individual action, which by themselves are not necessarily problematic, but when all are combined, it is a different story:
- Promo agency C requires feedback to be able to download a promo (which you need to do to listen to it properly or play it out if you are DJ). This feedback is then used to either promote it directly, regardless of how banal the feedback is: 'This is awesome. Will play for sure! DJ XX', 'Downloaded. DJ G' etc.
- Reviewer D writes reviews for big electronic music site A, big electronic music site B, electronic music review site C, and who knows where else.
- Up and coming DJ ZZ write reviews for their friends (without acknowledging the fact) and for labels they'd love to work with, or at least receiving promos from.
- When buying music digitally, people tend to buy more individual tracks and less full releases. To compensate, major digital retailer XX adds a $1 'handling charge' for .wav files. As a result, the digital version for the whole release actually costs the same amount as the vinyl.
- Reviewer EE does not like a certain release so much, but gives it a solid/positive review anyway, because it is from an artist or label that has a good reputation.
- New site/blog/label/promo agency wants to promote what they are doing, get more interest in their projects, so they start a podcast.
- MM reviews for a number of major music sites, but also writes for another website that is run by and closely linked to the biggest website for selling digital copies of electronic music.
- Rather than try to release on existing labels, new artist RR decides to start their own label.
- Promo agency P pushes for feedback on a release, when they receive negative feedback, they then challenge that feedback.
- Website RR is one of the major retailers of electronic music online. It strongly supports and positively reviews a release from label D. It does not mention that it owns label D.
- Mix 1 is from a much loved DJ but is tagged as anonymous, so it is only downloaded about 1/5 the amount of times compared to a normal mix by the same DJ.
- F promotes and supports a big techno festival on their site, gets a complimentary ticket for their efforts, then writes a report about the festival after.
- Techno lover QQ wants to become a DJ, so they download an illegal copy of Ableton and start making mixes.
- Someone reviews a release with artists P and Q on label A, but then promotes releases from these same artists on label B.
- WW reviews a release from artist O, but does not mention that they have booked O in the past, and have booked O for a future gig.
- Dance music site T has a competition, the prize is to go to a series of festivals and review the events for the website.
- Reviewer OO writes a review for the new release from artist PP, knowing that it is highly likely they will bump into them next week at Panorama Bar or at Hardwax.
- Mix 2 is on a big name podcast series and is from a very good DJ that people like and someone linked with strong labels. The mix itself is not very good, but everyone says 'awesome!'
- TT wants to be a producer, so they download some cracked software and start making tracks.
- Positive feedback is left when downloading a new promo, promo agency S then asks/pushes for the release to be reviewed based on that feedback. If the review is positive, it is used to promote the release.
- An EP is reviewed positively by a site, without it being mentioned that one of the staff members of the same site is involved in running the label.
But if instead of focusing on specific examples, you take all these actions and put them together, a much more problematic picture emerges. And this is where i think there is a partial similarity with the climate change situation - people legitimately pursuing their own interests and lives, but when these actions are combined, it has an overall effect that is damaging, even if that is not the intent of any one actor. In this case it is the electronic music scene as a whole, and in particular, the online manifestation of this (which is becoming more and more influential). This is a situation that encourages and rewards safe bets, it generates lots of stuff that is very good but not great, it puts too much emphasis on having the right name or label attached, it fosters judgments and reviews based not on the quality of the music or performance but on who/where it is coming from, and it encourages an ever expanding flood of releases, labels, mixes, recordings and podcast series. Quite simply, I think it pushes us towards a situation that encourages us not to critically engage with music, which encourages a situation where average music prevails.
To be clear, I am not attacking anyone. Hell, I know I am contributing to this situation. Does anyone honestly think there will be a post here saying Labyrinth is shit or that Dozzy is a terrible DJ? I doubt I will ever need to do this, but if I am honest, there have been situations where I have wanted to criticise certain releases or labels, but I have not said anything because of problems it would cause me. And this might make my life easier, but it is certainly not an ideal situation... So where to? I am not sure... but I think an important first step is talking about it, and as part of that, people being much more honest and upfront about their commitments, and how this may (or may not) bias what they are doing. Beyond that, I got no idea. But like climate change, the problem is not going to get any better just by ignoring it...