Category Archives: RANTS

SELL BY DAVE’S RANT: SMALL PARTIES ARE WHERE IT’S AT

Take 5 Cafe

As a self-proclaimed “disco Grinch”, it would be fair to say that I like a good moan. I also mutter to myself on a weekly basis when I’m sent a new batch of releases to review and realize that every single deep house, tech-house or nu-disco record sounds the same. In private, I spend far too much time whining about things that bug me about certain strands of electronic music and club culture. On the whole, though, I like to remain positive; after all, there is still much thrilling new music to discover, events to attend and inspiring musicians or producers to talk to (for the uninitiated, I’m a music journalist by trade).

I will, however, never lose my disdain for those who either base their musical opinions on fashion trends or, worse, use a platform in the national media to put forward fatuous arguments about the current state of electronic music.

I was driven to jump onto my laptop earlier today by an article on The Guardian website by a journalist called Joanna Fuertes-Knight. In it, she argues that small club nights have had their day, and that smaller parties are no longer where it’s at. I’m paraphrasing, but the gist of her argument seems to be that in the age of the Internet – and, in particular, Boiler Room – we don’t need to go to small nights to hear new music, hence the re-emergence of “megaraves” in 1,500+ capacity venues. She believes that we appreciate the shared experience more at such big events. As an aside, she also mentions that famous  “small” London parties such as YoYo and FFWD>>, which helped foster new styles of bass-heavy music, were great because it was nearly impossible to get in unless you were a regular or “on the inside”. There are many reasons to celebrate parties at small venues, but the fact that you’re “in” and others aren’t smacks of smug elitism. It was probably this part that riled me most.

That said, what really drove me to start penning this diatribe was the idea that small nights are no longer relevant and that clubbers/music heads do not need to attend them to hear “new music”. Strictly speaking, the latter is correct; you could, if you so wished, spend most of your days trawling through endless blogs, Soundcloud pages and so on to hear new music. Some people do just that. Most don’t have the time, though, and prefer to attend events where they can hear “new music” – ideally mixed in with some older records to put them in context – in the right environment.

Personally, I have always preferred smaller parties and events to gigantic raves. Sure, I’ve had some good nights losing myself (and my friends) in dance tents at music festivals, or in dingy warehouses. But given the choice, I would still much prefer to be in a sweaty little basement, back room, bar or art space, immersing myself in the music in the company of people drawn to the event either through a shared passion for a particular artist, or simply because it is where their mates and similarly-minded people are hanging out.

Take Bristol as an example. The city suffers a little, in my opinion, from a lack of decent club spaces that suit the needs of those wishing to put on small to mid-size events. The club scene is also dominated by events at Motion, a former indoor skating and BMX park that can accommodate up to 2,500 people. For the uninitiated, it is akin to Bristol’s answer to the Warehouse Project. It is hear that you will find huge line-ups of A-list talent, and crowds to match – despite the usual £20-plus ticket price. Some of the line-ups are astonishing, and certainly the promoters have the financial clout to be able to bring ‘names’ to the city that others can’t afford. It has been a rip-roaring success and has, predictably, proved popular with the city’s students.

Yet the atmosphere at times can be a little, well, odd. While a percentage of the crowd is there to appreciate the music and dance to sounds played by their heroes, most are just there for a “big night out”. There is nothing wrong with this, but it does lead to cavernous rooms full of excitable people jostling for position, or wasting valuable dancefloor space gurning to their mates, leaving the most enthusiastic at the periphery. The main room at Motion is serviced by an enormous Funktion 1 rig, but it barely sounds good unless you are in the 20 feet of space, 30 metres back, that functions (no pun intended) as the “sweet spot”. It is clubbing for those who judge their night by the experience, rather than the music itself. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it’s not where I’m coming from – or others like me.

Although Motion looms large over the Bristol scene, it has not killed it (as some promoters would argue in private). In fact, it has allowed those who cherish smaller parties and alternative events, those with more of a “special” feel, to thrive. Over the last 12 months, Stokes Croft, in particular, has become a hub for interesting events of every musical hue. Using unusual spaces such as Take 5 Café – a small, slightly odd curry café with a tiny basement space – and The Motorcycle Showrooms – a former motorcycle shop converted into a community art space, enthusiasts have been able to put on some thoroughly memorable events with guests deemed too small, insignificant or left-of-centre to appear on the Motion line-ups (or at other mid-sized local venues, for that matter).

Many of the promoters that use these venues do so because they prefer the intimacy, atmosphere and laidback vibe that generally comes with using them. They can book guests that excite them, whether international producers of note in more underground styles, or local DJs with deep record collections. They can put effort into décor, hire in small but wonderful-sounding soundsystems, and share their passion with less than 200 like-minded people.

A quick look at some of the regular parties, and their guests, should give you a clue as to what I’m on about. There’s the dubwise goodness of Peng Sound, the unfussy but cultured house of Housewerk, the out-there cosmic exotica and grimy release of Dirtytalk, the sound science of Tape Echo and the left-of-centre house, techno and disco of local record shop/label Idle Hands. I sadly can’t recall all the guests who have appeared in intimate spaces around Stokes Croft, but have personally attended nights featuring Young Marco, the 100% Silk crew, Mark Seven, West Norwood Cassette Library, Mudd, World Unknown (OK, I missed that one as I was at a christening, but I would have been there otherwise) and Leif. Soon, I’ll be attending a 100-capacity L.I.E.S label showcase at Take 5. I’ve also seen Ben UFO, one of the most inspiring DJs out there right now, in a pub.

Really, I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are many more attractions – a big shout-out to EFA and his regular events at the Bank of Stokes Croft – and a constant flow of new promoters putting on parties with fresh ideas, or different takes on familiar sounds. To me, this is the essence of club culture; not the idea that music is only of worth if it is new, left-of-centre and fashionable (God forbid), but rather intimate events, run by enthusiasts for the love, attended by people who genuinely want to hear great music, on a good soundsystem, in an intimate space. Ask yourself this: would you rather be in a 100-capacity cellar, surrounded by smiling faces, or in an enormous warehouse, trying not to loose your footing as another young, fresh-faced thing falls into you after a few too many sherberts?

Small nights and intimate parties have always been the lifeblood of the club scene. It is where new DJs and up-and-coming acts get their break, it is where local DJs perfect the art of working a dancefloor, and where local producers meet and exchange ideas. A lot has been written about the vibrancy of Bristol’s electronic music scene right now, and almost all of it is true. All those collaborations between Bristol producers and deals to release new tracks, have largely come about through the friendliness of the scene and open-minded attitude found at the city’s intimate parties. And, to a lesser extent, the hours spent in the back yard of The Bell on Jamaica Street, where producers, label bosses and DJs can often be found drinking real ale and sharing a spliff, enthusiastically discussing their next project or up-coming party.

When I got my first staff job on IDJ Magazine back in 2000, the club scene at large was thriving because of the much-derided “superclub” scene. By the time I left in 2008, it had long gone. Dance music didn’t die, though; in fact, in that time thrilling new sounds and scenes emerged, from tiny parties and small groups of people dotted around the World (whether in West London, East London, Cologne or Oslo). The current trend for massive “megaraves” is just a rehashing of the superclub thing, it’s just that this time round it seems a little less overblown. These, too, will die a death at some point as a new generation of students and young hedonistics are attracted to other pursuits. When that does happen, it will be the small parties that re-invigorate the scene, just like they’ve always done.

Sell By Dave is the DJ alter-ego of experienced music journalist Matt Anniss, former Editor of IDJ Magazine. He currently writes for Juno Plus and provides sleeve notes and press releases to a number of underground electronic music labels

Sell By Dave’s Rant: Cowell, you plonker!

In the first of a series of occasional rants, our resident “bearded grump”  SELL BY DAVE gets hot under the collar about Simon Cowell’s latest “shit-fest”…

Here at Bedmo Disco HQ, we’re not massive fans of X-Factor/Pop Idol-style reality TV shows. In fact, we can’t remember the last time we consciously watched one of those glitzy, Saturday night “star-making” borefests. As many have pointed out over the years, they’re little more than souped-up New Faces style talent contests played out for the financial gain of villain-in-chief and all-round cynic Simon Cowell (pictured above). They might not exactly be killing music (the underground is as healthy as ever, thankfully), but they’re probably not doing it much good, either.

Normally, we wouldn’t bother commenting on anything Simon Cowell or X-Factor-related, but something caught our eye yesterday that we couldn’t let pass by.

When loitering on Facebook, we noticed a link to a Music Week story posted by the chaps behind the fine House of Disco website and label. According to the story (see here), Cowell has turned his attention to one of the only strands of the music/entertainment industry he’s previously left alone: DJing.

Straight away, the blood began to boil here at North Street Sound. The basic gist of the story is this: Simon Cowell’s production company has developed a format for an “X Factor for DJs”, which will “capture the incredible rise of the DJ phenomena”. The story quotes Cowell as saying: “DJs are the new rock stars”.

Oh dear. For starters, the concept of the “superstar DJ” has largely been discredited over the last few years. As some of you may know, I worked for a dance music magazine called IDJ for the best part of a decade, during the period when “superclubs” and “superstar DJs” were at their peak. I left IDJ in 2008, by which point the commercial dance music boom of the late 90s/early 2000s had long since disappeared up its own overhyped backside.

So, Simon, you’re a bit late on this one. If you’d done this in 2001 you may have captured the zeitgeist – now you just look like someone’s dad stumbling around a club looking for inspiration. “Wow, DJs are cool, let’s see if we can rinse that scene for more cash!”

There’s also the tricky problem of how you judge whether a DJ is “great”. A bugbear of mine during the IDJ days was what I thought of as the erosion of DJing as a standalone artform. In the old days, top DJs earned their reputation through being masters of their craft. They were in tune with their dancefloors, fearless selectors, skilful craftsmen (and women) and knew exactly when to take risks. They got more bookings because they were brilliant DJs. These days, the argument continued, DJs are no longer booked on the strength of their DJ skills. Instead, promoters book “names” – producers who have made records that sell well on Beatport, or Juno, or wherever. Some of these producers will also be skilled and talent DJs; others, though, can barely beatmatch two records and play little more than obvious floorfillers. Thus, really great DJs without productions to their name are neglected by all but the most dedicated/nerdy promoters (and, obviously, other DJs). For proof, check out either Resident Advisor’s Top 100 DJs poll, or the consistently laughable DJ Magazine Top 100 DJs.

It is difficult to judge DJing without hearing someone play in a variety of environments, to different crowds. It’s this that makes traditional DJ competitions virtually pointless. The DMC World Championships and contests of that ilk are notable exceptions. It is far easier to judge a short set by a shit-hot turntablist than 15 or 20 minutes from someone who plays house, techno or drum and bass (for example). Besides, being a fantastic turntablist with skills for days doesn’t necessarily make someone a great DJ; put them in a club with three hours to fill, and they may struggle.

In my opinion, being a great DJ is about more than just rocking a party or having great technical skills, however important these may be. Personally, the best DJs I’ve heard – and the ones I respect the most – are those that really dig deep, are comfortable in almost any environment and will take the dancefloor in different directions over the course of two or three hours. The music they play is far more important than how they play it. I don’t care whether they use vinyl, CD, Serato, Ableton, Traktor or eight-track tape; formats are just a means to an end. It’s the music that matters.

I would also say that great DJs know how to play at different times, and can adjust their sets accordingly. Some of the best DJs I’ve heard over the years are residents – i.e those that do the “graveyard” slots at the beginning and end of a night. “Warming up” is an artform in itself, and one that many DJs – particularly those new to the game – simply don’t know how to do. If you’re on early doors, your job is to set the scene, soundtrack the socializing of punters and then gently coax them on to the dancefloor. If you treat the warm-up like a peaktime set, you shouldn’t be behind the decks – unless those decks are in your bedroom (or perhaps those in a trance/hard house club).

I’m also firmly of the opinion that many DJs get better with age – something that doesn’t neatly fit with the youthful make-up of club crowds. It doesn’t necessarily take all that long to get the basic skills to be able to perform an adequate DJ set, but it can take years to learn how to read a crowd, structure a set and get that distinctive flow and style associated with the very best. Older DJs – or, at least, those who’ve been doing it for a few years – also tend to have a broader and deeper knowledge of music, meaning that they can mix-up old and new records together in a way that puts both in context. I might be alone on this one, but a set of the 20 hottest new tunes is dull. Mix it up a little, please!

Taking all this into consideration, it’s hard to see how Cowell and his cronies could put together a TV format that does the artform any justice. For starters, DJing isn’t the sort of thing that makes for great television, unless DJs are being judged purely on short, turntablist style showcase sets. Turntablism, for all its merits, is something that does not appeal to the vast majority of DJs, let alone people sat at home watching on television.

Judging DJs on pure technical skills alone is also deeply flawed. There are some fantastically technically gifted DJs out there who cannot be considered “great”. They might be able to mix on four decks, or have a distinctive style that marks them out from the crowd, but if they play boring, mundane, obvious or lifeless music, they’re wasting their talents.

So how will Cowell and company judge DJs on their new reality shit-fest? Given his track record, probably with a panel of aging DJs or young wannabes whose names are well-known but whose talents are, for the want of a better word, lacking. Realistically, Cowell’s judging panel would almost certainly be a mix of zimmer-frame pedaling idiots who lost all passion for music 30 years ago and shiny-shirt wearing electrohouse numpties barely out of the womb. And Skrillex.

Unless the panel consists of Larry Levan’s ghost, the re-animated corpse of Sir Jimmy Saville, and a loudmouth American turntablist who can cut and scratch with his genitals, I’m not interested.

Given that this sort of contest will attract the most annoying and pointless type of wannabe DJ – i.e those whose obsession is not with music, or even helping people to have a good time, but rather climbing the slippery slope of international twatdom – perhaps they should be judged not as DJs, but whether they fit the “Superstar DJ” mould.

This would undoubtedly be the best way to judge them. Ignore the music and their supposed skills, instead focusing on the following categories:

• Quality of haircut

• Self-obsession

• Entertainment ability (e.g do they jump around behind the decks with their arms-raised skywards)

• Boy Racer factor (I.E do they play music that would be bought by townie idiots in souped-up Vauxhall Corsas)

• Personality (i.e are they an utter bell end?)

• Drug threshold (i.e how much nose candy can they hoover up while playing over-produced kiddie-friendly drivel)

• Wardrobe choices (do they look like any other tool out at terrible city centre bars on a Friday or Saturday night?)

Or, to put all of those into one question: do they cite the Swedish House Mafia as a major influence?

To be serious (slash boringly nerdy) again for a minute, I am actually as saddened as I am angry by this move from Simon Cowell. DJing is a valid and creative artform that has consistently struggled to be taken seriously. Most DJs don’t take themselves seriously, but they do take what they do seriously. Making people dance isn’t rocket science (obviously), but doing it brilliantly, with style, thought and knowledge, isn’t as easy as people make out. Or maybe it is, and I’ve spent far too many years thinking and writing about it.

Either way, none of this will worry Simon Cowell. As long as all the DJs have a juicy, tear-jerking back story and make good TV, he’ll be laughing all the way to the bank. Again.

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