The challenges that Black musicians experience are more or less built into the system. I often say that you can’t talk about techno, or Black music as a whole, without addressing the transatlantic slave trade. Regardless of how you look at it, Black people are a central point of labor extraction in the United States and the rest of the world mirrors this aesthetically and ideologically. From experience working in the music industry (and as a former East Coast Editor at Mixmag), I know that publications, labels, promoters and festivals are not inclusive in any way, nor are they interested in tangibly upholding a standard of diversity. Kevin Saunderson asserts in the aforementioned interview with Billboard that “the problem is that many of the people in power in these companies don’t really care.” He continues on to say that, “They’ve got a responsibility to correctly represent the culture they’re profiting from, but the responsibility in their mind is only to make money.”
The dance music culture industry as we know it has benefitted and is built from a cultural theft and estrangement starting with Neil Rushton’s compiling of Detroit tracks on the ‘Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit’ compilation with Derrick May on Virgin’s sub-label 10 Records in 1988. This release introduced the term techno to European listeners, but the recognition of the sound’s origins in middle class Black America did not spread as far or wide. In the liner notes for the compilation journalist Stuart Cosgrove named Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson the Belleville Three, but subsequently excluded the stories, lives and inspirations of the other musicians who contributed to the album such as Eddie Fowlkes, Anthony “Shake” Shakir, Blake Baxter and Members of House (whose members Mad Mike Banks and Jeff Mills would go on to found Underground Resistance). The innersleeve notes opens the inventors of techno’s origin story with: “Think of Detroit and you automatically think of Motown, but be careful not to think too loud because the new grandmasters of Detroit techno hate history.” Today in 2020, it is important that Black creatives stick together and discuss where and how we have been positioned amongst our white and European peers.
During this year’s Dweller Festival celebrating Black electronic musicians and culture, Make Techno Black Again hosted a panel with Frankie Hutchinson (founder of Dweller and co-founder of Discwoman), DJ/producer SYANIDE and cultural producer Camille Crain Drummand, discussing “who does techno belong to?” During that talk, I made a number of blanket statements in a heated “town hall” meeting that I would like to explain more clearly here. For 6 months in 2016 I was employed as Mixmag’s US East Coast Editor. At the time, the job for me was a big deal financially, and a clear advancement on my resume. Specifically, this position would allow for me to advance from being a freelance writer to a staff worker with a potential living wage and regular income. By outsourcing labor and expertise to third-party self-employed workers, publications are able to manage a seemingly endless pool of writers who exist as content generators with no rights, representation or protection against corporate entities. With this assumed job security, I found a new challenge in that I was the only Black person on the US editorial team despite the existing diversity among the wider American staff. My employment at Mixmag felt tokenistic and diminished almost immediately. Despite holding an editorial title, I often felt as if I was expected to be humble and accept a role of only writing news stories and the occasional album/single review as assigned by other staff members. Eventually, I was unceremoniously fired for “not being a fit,” though there are only two articles from my time at Mixmag that are representative of what I could have contributed to their platform: an interview with Fatima al Qadiri on the subject of police brutality and a profile of the underground Philly-based ATM collective (DJ Haram, SCRAAATCH).
Mixmag opened offices in Los Angeles and New York in 2015 in hopes of tapping into the burgeoning US dance music market. Despite the financial collapse in 2008, the EDM Boom and a flourishing music festival culture including brands like Coachella and RBMA (Red Bull Music Academy) created an entry point for European brands, artists and consumers who had mostly existed in an insular industry structure much smaller than that of the American pop music machine. In an article published earlier this year by Rhizome on EDM, speculation, and finance, writer Alexander Iadarola considered the connection between economics and dance music from a purely American perspective, writing: “The height of EDM’s popularity was carnivalesque in the extreme, and the EDM moment was characterized by unbridled big business, high-intensity partying, and escapism.” In the United States, dance music that doesn’t fall under mainstream EDM popularized by Skrillex has been largely non-existent aside from situations in which it has been absorbed into the mainstream subconscious through television programming like Adult Swim or subtle influences in popular music. American consumers through the 2000s were more likely to listen to pop and indie music precisely because publications like Mixmag tailored the narrative of dance music to the UK, and European labels subsequently wouldn’t distribute widely in the US out of fear of having to compete against America’s massive music industry. In a 2015 interview with the Independent, Mixmag Global Editorial Director Nick DeCosemo commented on how the magazine is very protective of what they consider to be “true” house music as Mixmag began to grow its presence in the US market, “LA without a doubt is having a moment; friends of mine say it feels like London in 1990, 1991 […] Every week, another tranche of European DJs arrives in LA.”
For a previous writing on “how platform capitalism devalued the music industry,” I presented two Google trends charts laying out the level of general interest that Americans have shown in electronic dance music from January 2008 to February 2020. A brief peak in interest can be seen around August of 2012; but when considering the subregional trend chart, dance music is mostly restricted to coastal states, often associated with being economic generators for the United States between Silicon Valley, Wall Street and their varying elite universities.
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