By Katia Mullova-Brind
Everyone’s familiar with that age-old character, the self-proclaimed audiophile. You spot them sitting in the corner of your mate’s kitchen at Friday night pre-drinks, hunched over a laptop like an edgy gargoyle with that look in their eyes that says “I dare you to ask for the next track. Go on.” Assuming the role of YouTube DJ, he breaks into a self-satisfied grin as yet another obscurity is faded clumsily into something that nobody knows, or likes. Said audiophile is replaced pretty quickly. Alternatively, sound after sound of beaming newness – untarnished by overkill in terrible clubs or drunken chants – emanates from the speakers, and at least one person asks what’s playing every time the next track comes on. You don’t know which one it’s going to be, but the result can have a major effect on the quality of the evening.
There’s a fine line between unearthing treasure and flashing gold leaf; to put it another way, attitudes towards the exclusivity of music can be as much a demonstration of commitment and passion as they can epitomise pretentiousness, and it’s difficult to pursue the former without coming up against the latter. Historically, some might even consider this contradiction a necessary yin-yang of music culture. Jamaica marked its independence with the genesis of reggae, and the genre owes its development, in part, to the competitiveness of sparring sound systems which would use new and exclusive sounds to outplay each other. Alongside this, DJs sometimes used track pseudonyms for their most cherished finds to prevent other selectors from acquiring the same records. This practice, commonly enacted by steaming off or covering up the label, was also seen in the early UK clubbing scene. The entire genre of northern soul stems from an obsession with hidden gems from the 1950s – and it is this same fixation which killed the movement when these unloved, forgotten soul numbers had all been loved enough. Seeing as you can’t mass-produce rarity, the culture of northern soul lived and died for its dedication to the undiscovered, and many of its members argue to this day that it was consequently the ‘purest’ movement of underground music.
Vinyl has become tokenistic of this obsession, especially in the context of digital expansion. The culture of crate digging (or record hunting) centres on finding obscure vinyl – hopefully at a low price. There is then, of course, the more known and coveted wax which warrants huge prices from resellers on sites like Discogs, partly due to its pressing, partly to its attainability. These sellers have become notorious in the record-collecting community. Users like tanmushimushi (who buy several copies of records and then resell them far above the market price), are discussed on social media forums and featured in cult banter: they are certainly not deemed an asset to collecting culture. It seems that where people have endless passion for ownership and knowledge, money has no place. Promoting the medium of vinyl as the only way to listen to music creates a potential barrier for those who can’t afford it. But it has to be said that a desire to unearth what can only be played – and then stored – as a physical record can lead to a greater consideration in what’s being purchased. Similarly, the economics of vinyl production lead to more careful consideration of sound, whether it be the record’s timelessness or its demographic. Vinyl primes itself for an accidental date with curious DJs and substandard record store headphones. Digital deals in chart-climbing and excessive air play. Of course these are generalisations and the two mediums are not wholly mutually exclusive. Yet, the psychology of exploring vinyl remains influential upon the quality and kind of music it produces.
I asked Jules Venturini, an employee at Berlin’s ‘Record Loft’, about his thoughts on crate digging: “Modern dance music being inherently very self referential, crate digging seems like a logical step to find more music that fits within your aesthetic as a DJ. Working in a record shop, the number of records I find produced in the ’90s that might as well have come out yesterday (and vice-versa) is insane. This has subsequently created a culture of certain labels coming back to light or into fashion and therefore going up in price. It’s really become about being ahead of the curve in trends or paying the price.”
As for resellers and limited edition vinyl, Venturini scoffs: “This new culture of artificially limiting the run of records (which seems to be on its way out, hopefully) seems like an extremely cheap hype generator to me. Many labels try and disguise this blatant marketing tactic as if it was some sort of extension of their misguided ideal of ‘underground culture’. This is the kind of unwarranted exclusivity that dance music definitely needs less of.”
We should not forget about radio, which lies on the other end of the spectrum in terms of exposure. Accessible, repetitive, and unapologetically ubiquitous, radio was once a figurehead of musical progressivism, integral to the early days of seminal genres such as rock ’n’ roll and blues. Nowadays many radio stations represent aspects of capitalism in sheep’s clothing. All it seems to take to blacklist a song from many a person’s iPod is a couple of weeks in the Top 40. This is a shame, because the result is self-perpetuating: those who care about the quality and innovation of music slip off radio’s audience demographic.
But what about club exclusivity? Berlin, a clubbing mecca in the eyes of many, simultaneously embodies a reverence for dance music culture alongside what some call Berghain bravado. A couple of German phrases epitomise this reverence: feierngehen, ‘to go celebrating’, and Party machen, translated literally, ‘to make a party’. Berliners live for the sleepless weekends, and nightlife is a celebrational activity to be tactfully constructed and protected. With this in mind, it is perhaps easier to understand the coolness with which many get refused at the entrance of Berghain. It comes from a sixth sense, honed to weed out voyeurism in favour of those most likely to form an audience worthy of the talent behind the decks. In short, Berghain’s seemingly random favouritism is, in fact, an expression of Berlin’s passionate and protective club culture. Does it work? Ask the 1500 odd people in there every Sunday morning.
Berghain isn’t the first of its kind, by any means. 1970s New York generated several clubs with exclusivity as part of their ethos. David Mancuso hosted late night parties in his own apartment, starting with 36 attendees. ‘The Loft’ came to represent something akin to status, as even though there was no official membership the emphasis landed on carefully-cultivated privacy to aid its die-hard focus on showcasing exciting music. Soon it was one of the most iconic venues in New York. What is interesting about ‘The Loft’ and other disco clubs at the time is that, at least in terms of the diversity of those invited, they set a precedent for inclusivity and social harmony in the dance world. Racial and sexual minorities – still relatively discriminated against in public life – were welcome within these venues. According to journalist Vince Aletti, the DJ community of 1971 New York was “an active and great network, and it was all about sharing”. Less than a decade later, the infamous Studio 54 created a bad taste in the mouths of many disco lovers due to its placing of value in celebrity and sex above its actual music. In fact, the refrain of Chic’s iconic ‘Freak Out’ originally sang ‘fuck off’, written in response to Studio 54’s rejection of Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards despite the airplay that their own music was getting inside.
A generation on and we can note that half of London’s clubs have closed down in the last decade. Different people credit this development to varying factors. Some argue that a recent climate of austerity has made people gravitate toward saturated, singular experiences like summer festivals, rather than spending steadily and regularly on Friday nights at Fabric. Others suggest that it reflects a cultural shift in the general public’s music taste, although this view wouldn’t explain the diversity of clubs that have been shut down, or the rise of electronic music in the mainstream. But when you boil it down, this decade really isn’t any different from its predecessors: the underground always finds a way to resurface, just as it is in its nature to then dissolve again into the shadow.
It appears that neither the underground nor the mainstream can ever concede to one another. Perhaps we can regard the tension between both ends of the spectrum as a positive symbiosis that keeps us searching for originality when we find none, whilst embracing and spreading infectious, pervasive sound when we do. In the words of DJ Tim Sheridan: “Underground is easy. It’s not about being cooler-than-thou or better than other people or even really about being in the know. It’s an unwavering standard. It’s a benchmark of a degree of quality and care that says what is going on is the pursuit of art before money.”