Sunday, December 11, 2011

From Melbourne to Berlin...

In this post, Sanjay (pictured) offers us a direct and personal reflection on his trajectory through the music. I met Sanjay when he was giving a lecture on Detroit techno to a room full of would-be poetry PhDs (true story). Since then, our paths have kept criss-crossing through the music; thus we both ended up in the labyrinth, and became friends. This piece builds inter-actively on conversations we've had, with points from Chris' piece over a year ago on the Climate of Electronic Music, and my own ramblings, like the soufflé post. For me, what Sanjay says resonates, it rings true - not tinnitus from too long near the speaker stack, more the sting from caring about something that purports to be carefree but also carries so much that might be careless or uncaring, 'in the wrong hands'. Not that we don't all also have a bit of tinnitus, or occasionally ask ourselves 'whose bad hands are these?!'... Anyway, no more cryptic preamblin'; here's Sanjay's story, one of many to come. - PC

Partying hard in Melbourne for the last three years has left me exhausted. And so, in some confusing logic I’ve chosen to tread that all-too-familiar and clichéd path to Berlin. A fresh start. An escape. A junket. All of the above?

I spent the last few years in Melbourne befriending punters, promoters and producers who have a stake in the city’s house and techno culture. I’d like to think it happened organically, but it’s more likely because I had a few articles on Resident Advisor. The deeper I immersed myself in the culture that accompanied electronic music, it became more and more difficult to be honest and critical. I got proud.

I’m thankful that the move (along with an incredible trip to Labyrinth in September) has given me a lot to think about. For many people electronic music is a refuge, as are the scenes that surround it. As a punter your first inclination is to be part of it, to build it, grow it and love it. As a writer, however, the scene tests your allegiances and loyalties. Between criticism and culture is an extremely fraught tightrope.

There are those who can easily engage with music on its own terms – those hardheaded music critics whose words are bombs. These are writers who have outgrown the scene, or have fallen out of love with it. As a 23- year-old, aspiring writer I am neither too old, or out of love.

A few months ago, PC wrote a ssgs post taking a swipe at mundane music writing. His words on ‘peer acceptance, boot lickers and boosters’ were spot on and he might as well have been writing my biography. I don’t think he quite got to the heart of it, however. When it comes to being involved in a small, local and tight-knit scene like Melbourne there’s another perspective to consider.

It’s a safe and sad assumption that some music critics will err, or compromise their integrity for all free drinks on offer. The ‘scene’, however, is also caught up in a completely confused relationship with its scribes. Promoters and musicians have inordinate expectations of writers, who always bear the brunt of not living up to these ‘standards’. I myself lost a job with a prominent Melbourne touring agent when I refused to write him into my profile of Melbourne’s club scene for RA. When a friend of mine wrote a scathing and honest review of a gig in Melbourne for a national, online music press the promoter not only emailed her abusive messages, but also complained to the publication and they took the piece down! Imagine that – a music publication beholden to the very people it aims to critique. In Melbourne, and perhaps the rest of the world, ‘critique’ (or honesty, for that matter) is not seen as the positive service it actually is. It’s fair to say that no promoter, producer or DJ likes to be criticized. No one takes criticism as feedback. In a cliquey subculture, criticism equals betrayal. There is undoubtedly bad, ill-informed, biased criticism, but in Melbourne I see less of this than I do weak criticism (my own work included).

For me, a task of critical music writing is to recognize and reveal the potential of music and parties. It’s really heartbreaking when the potential continues to be wasted, but worse still is when this ‘waste’ passes with little reportage or consequence. In Melbourne, with a handful of exceptions, what has resulted is backslapping and stagnation.

Before I left for Berlin I worked for a bush festival where the line-up was as good as any I’d seen in Australia. Fred P, Donato Dozzy, Minilogue, Move D, Trus’ Me, Max Cooper and Pantha Du Prince. What you think about these artists is really beside the point. To get them all playing at one festival in the bush was a task in itself, and perhaps I should have known it was a little too good to be true. The shit storm that was the festival organization was quite incredible.

Whether it was equipment fuck-ups - like Pantha du Prince only being given a two-channel mixer for his live show - or power cuts, or scheduling issues, the festival not only compromised its ticket-holders, but disrespected the artists who it had paid so much money to bring out to Australia.

At the end of a long drive to the middle of nowhere and on one hour’s sleep, Move D arrived at the site without being told where or when he was going to play. Taking things into his own hands, he set up shop in a small, independent stage and began playing to a handful of people who had realized what was going on. Unfortunately the stage was home to two blown amplifiers, which meant the bassless sound was carried away in the wind. With punters and Move D barely able to tolerate the impotent kick-drum, the performance stopped half an hour in and caravanned to a main stage. This was where Move D was originally billed to play, so you can imagine the confusion when he arrived and there were no turntables in sight. Fifteen minutes later, with the technics finally set up by everyone but the festival organisers, Move D blew the audience away in a most typical fashion (albeit for the 25 minutes left on his allotted time).

The festival had been scheduled to end with a much-publicised Dozzy marathon. A four-hour delay meant that he finally began to play half an hour AFTER the festival was scheduled to finish. Soon enough the cops arrived and Dozzy, the nicest, most well-meaning person on the planet, was left fuming after his sound was cut TWICE after playing little more than two 25-minute sets. After the shit settled, Minilogue (armed with their live equipment) and Dozzy were left stranded at 11pm without a ride back to their hotel, which was nearly half an hour away. Similarly, a French psytrance duo, who had been billed for 10am, had been wandering the festival all day and night and had still not played. Behind the scenes the festival came to an excruciating end.

I have no doubt that the whole event would have been a logistical nightmare BUT as promoters you have to know your limits. The big bill may have been nothing more than a ploy to woo punters. The artists’ performance certainly seemed secondary.

And still these festival promoters provided condescending explanations that dismissed any criticism as whining. And when I think about how this post mortem (on a forum like mnml ssgs) will be received by the promoters of the festival I suspect they’ll be incredulous as though I was somehow damaging Melbourne’s reputation with unnecessary cynicism. The festival did more damage to its own (and Melbourne’s) reputation in its treatment of these DJs than this post will ever do.

A year ago I was watching Bill Maher’s Real Time on HBO. He’s as close to an anarchist as you’d have on network television, and I remember he said something about loyalty that has really stuck with me. ‘Loyalty,’ he remarked, ‘should feel like a lover’s quarrel’. The logic is simple and beautiful - I always love, but not without heartfelt reflection. Of course, few people can take criticism humbly and so critics are beaten into submission. Few people appreciate that my words, as critical or as positive as they may be, are written because I care. (I almost vomited over my keyboard typing that, but clichés are true for a reason.)

There’s been nothing dishonest about my writing in Melbourne, but the ‘responsibility’ to be consistently positive about the city’s club scene has become a little too heavy to bear. I’m forever a censor of my own honesty and I’m finding more and more that it’s a censor that’s become internalised.

There are local promoters and producers that I love and respect to whom these ramblings don’t apply. And for those who think I’m ‘burning bridges’, it is not the case. The people who really need to read this probably won’t, but I’m hopeful at some point down the track they’ll treat criticism (from punters and writers alike) as something to be considered rather than dismissed.

Arriving in Berlin and not knowing or being connected to anyone has been cathartic. Moving here and extricating myself from Melbourne has crystalised my thoughts, and I hope this post from afar will leave my hometown better for it. Maybe it’s the case (though I hope it’s not) that small scenes can’t accommodate music writers. Writers and critics have a role to play and it does not involve being the lackeys of promoters and producers. Similarly, the role should not exclude writers from involvement in electronic music scenes. I’ve learnt a lot hanging with promoters and producers – about music, taste and fun. I firmly believe it’s impossible to separate the music from the social culture that courts it and treating music as an asocial phenomenon leads to sterile chin-stroking. Scenes and sounds need to search out honest criticism. Music writing and local club cultures will benefit from this, but it will take some brave people on both sides to make it happen.

- Sanjay the 2nd wave ssg


  1. Good stuff. But missing the point somewhat I think.

    The big effort here seems to be to explain that the criticism offered is well intentioned and, because it is well intentioned, should be accepted. It feels as though you are reacting to the dismay you feel when your criticism is not well received (or does not have the effect you desired) by seeking to clarify the under-pinnings in the hope that by conveying the next level of meaning your original ambition will be realised.

    In my experience clarifying rarely makes progress. I've been through that feedback loop many times for little benefit. Two things worked for me. Firstly, I toughened up. I realised that if I expected universally positive feedback from honestly delivered criticism I would live in a state of never-ending disappointment (over-stating the case to make the point). Secondly I worked on my technique. You get one shot to convey the message. Give it your best shot and move on. Improving your craft never stops.

    I think that there are many positive traits in the sub-culture that serve to raise expectations. Surely if we're all in this together and all love the music and the community surely that will facilitate a more open reception for criticism?

    While this is true it is also true that the sub-culture is a flourishing example of free-market capitalism. I'd argue that free-market capitalism is an uneasy bedfellow with the many of the positive aspects of the sub-culture and that the abrasion between the two is not uncommon.

    And the final thing I'd say is that changing the mind of a producer/promoter may not be your main objective. Earning the respect of readers is more important. If your words carry weight with the readers they (the readers) will convey your meaning to the promoters etc by voting with their feet.

    Good luck in Berlin. I make an annual pilgrimage and LOVE the place.

  2. What was the festival in question.

    If you are striving for open journalism, shouldn't they be named?

  3. Luke, the festival in question was Strawberry Fields.

  4. > Original post: I'm having trouble squaring the writer's alleged age with the photograph. For goodness sakes, is that a Commodore 64 he's sitting in front of?! Remember- cognitive dissonance kills, guys. Ha ha.

    > The Rhythm Method: Personally I had a very different take on the piece. Particularly with regards to his friend who was fired for writing a negative review of a show. It seems to me that it is impossible to have a healthy scene if promoters and artist only look at music journalism as a source of free publicity and boosterism. Sure, criticism is one person's opinion, but if a lover of the music went to a show, thought the show was bad and then said so in an outlet for expression that was available to him (her?) should they not say so? The fact that the publication fired that writer for offering their opinion, when pressured by promoters to do so, is very troubling. I don't even mean from a free speech perspective (I realize that speech is free but publishing a review, online or not, isn't) but also considering the health of the scene.
    Is it not true that healthy criticism helps the whole EDM community? If someone thinks a show was bad it's because they care enough to have an opinion. And it means that there is a segment of those who attended the show that were dissatisfied, and therefore are less likely to frequent such shows in the future. Having someone who cares enough to offer honest feedback on a show helps the scene, helps the music and helps the artists who may feel like they were not given an opportunity to demonstrate their craft.
    From what Sanjay said, the only reason why Dozzy, Move D, Fred P et al. would ever return to play shows (especially somewhere as out of the way as Australia) is if they are convinced that there are fans out there who understand why a show failed, realize that the artists were not able to play what they wanted to, and wish to give them the opportunity to do so should they ever return.

  5. Very happy to clarify that I was trying to convey that critics should criticise and moreover fine tune the message so that it hits as hard as it should both positively and negatively.

    If the criticism is rejected at the first pass it's highly unlikely to hit home when clarified, the barriers are already up.

    I hate puff pieces dressed as reviews.

  6. Let's sum up:

    The love is there. Our attachment to the scene gained through so many soul-shaking mornings is special and powerful.

    Awesome music abounds. The quality in the underground, which reveals itself on those rare occasions, never seizes to amaze me.

    New grounds are broken all the time. There's simply no stopping people's creativity (another cliché). However, these things happen in places untold.

    The individuals embodying the above statements are spread out over the planet. People who appreciate and commit to quality - not least in terms of setting - are far apart.


    In a way I feel like Berlin - incredible as the city is - is not the right place to start anew.

    I've gotten the feeling recent years that the city has more promoters than people prepared to listen and come together around something special (not counting the techno tourists).

    No doubt, Berlin will always stand for me as the ultimate example of a creative hub - but things move on.

    I could mention a few places that might be able to support a viable community (Tokyo?) and I'm sure there are many places where electronic music has true relevance to the people there.

    But I'm not there - at least not right now. And things are not created for me to simply enjoy.

    So I must create a community myself? An obvious pseudo-paradox.

    This is where it ends for me. With this and with the knowledge that it takes either money or dire necessity to build something truly great.


Say something constructive, bitte. Or if you're gonna take a swipe, at least sharpen your nails.

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