In the last seven years, the number of nightclub attendees has plummeted by over 23%. Experts predict that number will likely fall another 16% by 2020. Since 2003, there are approximately 8,000 fewer nightclubs in the United States. In the U.K., that number is far worse; since 2005, the number of U.K. nightclubs has been sliced in half. At its worst, Britain was losing a nightclub a day.
In the wake of my city’s most popular nightclub, Beta – the one that basically put Denver on the map on the national scale, at one point seeing itself ranked as the #1 nightclub in the United States by Rolling Stone – closing its doors after over a decade of operation, this is a topic that has been weighing heavily on me lately, leaving me wondering what’s in store for electronic music as a whole in the coming years.
Some of the reasons former and potential club-goers are opting to stay at home are obvious. Rather than having a set curated for them by a DJ, Millennials are turning to Spotify playlists and other online streaming services. This correlates with a 25% decline in CD sales between 2017 and 2018, according to a recent report by the Recording Industry Association of America, or RIAA. Rather than exchanging small talk at the bar while sipping obscenely overpriced G&T’s and Martinis, single young adults are using Tinder and Grindr to hook up. It’s no mystery why things are changing. To quote BT (who quoted Heraclitus), “the only constant is change.”
However, I have reason to believe that there is another factor contributing to the demise of the club scene that is being overlooked by many Club Kids turned Op-Ed writers; the fact that Millennials overwhelmingly crave authenticity when it comes to basically everything, and the ‘corporatization’ of electronic music has robbed many of them of any sense that they are experiencing something special and memorable when they go out. Why return night-after-night to hear some local DJ play music, when you can just Shazam their entire playlist and put the best songs on repeat in the privacy of your own home?
And let’s not pretend that the general public perception of DJs hasn’t changed since the Golden Age of “Techno.” Well before the supremely talented but deeply tormented Avicii took his own life in April of 2018, Saturday Night Live mercilessly parodied him and other megastar DJs like David Guetta in a skit called, “When Will the Bass Drop?” The skit features an obnoxious, banal melody, an excessive use of anti-climactic rises, and a crowd mindlessly fawning over “Da Vinci” as he Jesus poses on stage and taunts them by pretending he is about to press a giant red button that reads, “bass.” Even deadmau5, arguably one of the most famous electronic music producers and performers in the world, referred to DJs as “over-glorified button-pushers” in 2012. There are thousands more examples of DJs being lampooned, mocked and otherwise insulted – whether rightfully in some cases or not – and to pretend that these attitudes haven’t had a measurable effect on club culture and electronic music (now referred to as “EDM:” a term that, for many, carries its own negative connotations) in general would, to me, be pretty ignorant.
Speaking of banality, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that popular music is not only getting worse as a result of the “loudness war,” which has forced audio engineers to reduce dynamic range (in laymen’s terms, the “rising and falling” of volume) in an attempt to make their music louder than their competitors and thus more attention-grabbing, but that timbre (tonality of sounds) and pitch are actually narrowing. This means instruments are starting to “blend” together in a sense, and melodies and chords are becoming simpler. In other words, popular music is literally all starting to sound the same, and “EDM” is certainly no exception to this – in fact, it might be one of the biggest culprits. SNL made fun of it back in 2012; it’s probably too low-hanging of fruit at this point, even for them. Hell, some sub-genres of electronic music have opted to pretty much abandon melody altogether – the justification for which being something about the “tribal” nature of rhythm, despite most of it not even having any real instrumentation whatsoever. I guess a kick drum and a hi-hat are “tribal” now. I’d be interested to see how anyone still physically banging on any kind of drum anywhere in the world would feel about that assessment.
When I think about the degradation of the music, I can’t help but think about the elephant in the room: the drugs, and that age-old conundrum, “which came first: the chicken, or the egg?” Study after study has shown that MDMA – the “love” drug – has dramatic effects on empathy in the user. But since the 90s, the drugs being used by clubgoers and the like are increasingly being cut with – or comprised entirely of – designer drugs with unknown effects and unknown consequences, and hawked off as something else. This could be having an effect on the music being sought out by listeners, and the music being created by artists. Whereas audiences were once seeking out empathic, spiritual experiences, they could now be more-often-than-not seeking out different forms of stimulation, which would partly explain the steering away from emotive music to more simplistic, repetitive subgenres. It might also partly explain why many who no longer feel at “home” or “welcome” in the club scene often blame it on a sense that negativity/bad attitudes and a sort of “bro hierarchy” have taken over.
Which begs the questions: are those on the outside looking in right about what it has all become? Were they right all along? Or did they themselves ruin it when they came into it after its popularization? Some say the generations just “aged out.” Was that part of Disco’s demise? Why, then, did the ‘club revolution’ follow? Are we simply in a transitional period right now?
Rhetorical questions aside, let’s delve into the debate dreaded the most by ‘performers’ and patrons alike: “old school” DJing versus “new school” DJing. There is no denying that DJ technology has come a long way since the ’90s. Before the Pioneer CDJ-500 was introduced back in 1994, most DJs were lugging around massive, heavy crates full of vinyl records that had to be cleaned of dust and grime with a microfiber cloth regularly, and kept out of the sun to prevent warping. Even as vinyl turntable technology improved, it still wasn’t (and isn’t) an exact science; because it’s a physical, analog medium, tempo and pitch drifting in the hundredth and thousandth of a second occur, meaning if a DJ wants to seamlessly mix two vinyl records together, they have to “ride” the record the entire time, using their fingers to nudge the pitch fader and platter constantly, ensuring the beats don’t drift apart. With CDJs and other digital DJing tools like laptops and USB controllers, once a tempo is established (which can now literally be done with the press of a “sync” button), it will stay there for the duration of the track (assuming there are no disc/hardware issues). This means that anyone who wants to be a DJ can drop a couple thousand bucks, and before they know it, they’ll be pressing play and fading between two tracks in their bedroom with little to no practice.
Now, this topic of “what makes a real DJ” tends to result in ceaseless arguing every single time it is broached, so I’m just going to say this: of course there are exceptionally talented people out there who use every new piece of technology that comes out in new, innovative ways. I’ve seen DJs link four CDJs together and implement scratching and sampling flawlessly, which of course takes practice and skills. I’ve seen and heard creative uses of built-in effects modulations like syncopated stuttering, reversing and stretching. I’ve seen artists like Beardyman use multiple laptops, controllers and microphones to produce an entire track from the ground up in front of a packed audience. But I’ve also seen a thousand self-proclaimed “DJs” stand on stage, get drunk, stare at their phone and occasionally lift a finger to push a fader up. And any “performance” that involves being bored in front of a crowd is no “performance” at all.
Deny it or not, but DJs are a dime-a-dozen now; sometimes even less than that. And to a crowd of people who have never heard of the person standing on stage, it makes no difference to them who it is. So now, even acquiring gigs involves a tremendous amount of nepotism. Why book the DJ who has been honing his craft for 20 years, when the promoter can just book their best friend, or their drug dealer? The audience is usually never the wiser anyway. It’s not like they’re playing a guitar up there.
If club owners and promoters want to see these declining numbers – and this declining attitude – change, they need to start making efforts to understand that their target demographic has changed dramatically, and is continuing to change dramatically, all the time. An old acronym coined for raves is “Radical Audio-Visual Experience.” The glow of a smartphone on the face of some cocky little prick who sold blow to get onstage a raving audience does not make. Then again, neither does a fully-automated LED rig controlled entirely by timecode. Unless everyone wants to see this whole fucking thing go the way of the Dodo (assuming we don’t all die from climate change or a nuclear war anyway), it’s time to push the envelope, and push it hard. No one is going to dish out their hard-earned money from their underpaid jobs forever, and it won’t survive off of the remaining 10% of rich kids who couldn’t care less where their money goes.
So cue the montage music, and get to work.