Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How electronica lived and died

Michaelangelo Matos has written a nice overview of the electronica scene in the US in the 1990's for NPR. His retelling of the story, enhanced via interviews with a number of record company execs who were involved at the time, is pretty much how I remember it, and naturally I learned a few factoids that were new to me (Rick Rubin passed on signing the Prodigy!)

As more time passes and the past becomes easier to contextualize, stories like these stand out as perfect examples of how stodgy and conservative the major label music business is. They tried to market electronica just like they'd been marketing every other music fad and trend for the previous thirty years -- find a hot new thing, give it a catchy name, sign everyone even remotely associated with the scene, plug the hell out of it on radio, sit back and sell millions of records. It's no wonder that people got bored of the same old boom/bust music discovery routine and starting discovering and plugging music themselves once the right tools became available for doing so via the internet.

The electronic music scene -- the clubs, the raves, vinyl and remix culture -- was never conducive to being packaged and sold in the same formulaic way just like every other type of pop music. Matos tells the story of five thousand people coming to see a Chemical Brothers concert in Orlando (not exactly a mecca of American dance music culture like Detroit or NYC or LA or Chicago) before their debut album had even been released. The reaction of the record companies? "Damn, we'd better get their album out fast." Somehow they weren't yet seeing the dollar signs when thousands of people were coming to a gig by a supposedly unknown band. In the mid-90's, revenue from touring, concerts, and merchandise all meant nothing unless there was an album to be sold. It wasn't until people stopped handing money to the record companies in the form of overpriced CDs that they realized they needed to diversify and sign artists to more wide ranging deals that included recorded music + concert tours + merch. The record companies needed to be dragged into the 21st century kicking and screaming before they accepted that the era of profiting from $20 CDs that cost pennies to make was over, but not before they threatened (and acted) to sue software companies, ISP providers, and individual customers into little bits for the rights to continue with their outdated business model.

The Prodigy were an exception because their look and their videos were very much of the time. Maxim and Keith Flint looked like maniacal, disturbed individuals and their videos were full of shlocky horror, all slamming dungeon doors and flashing lights all the time. They fit in nicely into a world dominated by Marilyn Manson and nu-metal, which is not to say that they shared a fanbase with those bands, but theirs was a style that made perfect sense in that era.

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