Matthias London

Turning tables & turning identity:
Thoughts on artistic self in the shifting EDM economy

Culturala published this article in their print publication. Embedded at the end of this post is a .pdf of the sample magazine that features my article on pp. 36 – 41

The character Laren used narratively in this piece is an Istanbul-based DJ and producer. She gave me permission to use her name in the article and suggested her track “Dystopian Desires” as a musical piece accompanying the writing.  

Turning tables & turning identity:
Thoughts on artistic self in the shifting EDM economy

You’re in my dream now. Where beat dictates my personal rhythm and production is my daily loaf. Where the solitude of night becomes my funnel of creativity. Where I venture into the depths of myself and translate them into sound. Where I disappear for weeks into my studio and find shelter in my music. Where I heal myself instead of selling myself. Laren pouches her journal, turns, and trips over her packed luggage in the studio apartment of Paris’ outskirts she can no longer afford. Beaten, she continues making her way to the door for her ultimate nightly trip to the Seine.

With her hood hanging deep in her face, Laren dwells in her memories. As an established DJ in Istanbul, she was tired of corporate club owners dictating the music she was supposed to play. She was tired of the patriarchal structures interwoven into DJing. She was tired of authoritarian police presence in Istanbul’s nightlife culture. Scenes are embedded into the socio-political context of the nation-state in which they are located, after all. Then, as an aspiring producer of soaring BPM techno music, she gazed toward the banlieues of Paris, where she knew a node of industrial, high-energetic techno was breeding. And France seemed more promising than Turkey, more likely to embrace her extraordinary music (read: extension of her personalities); or at least not to oppress it to the same extent. So: Channel the demons inside of you. Press them into beats. Liberate yourself in the creative process. Let the music speak for you. Prepare for reincarnation. Well, the reality in Paris looked somewhat different than what Laren had pictured. Although her tracks were well-received in the scene and featured on streaming channels of multiple labels, revenue flows from her production were virtually non-existent. Using music production as an artistic tool to make sense of herself did not seem to provide her with the financial basis for making a living. How is this possible when everyone seems to be listening to more music now than ever before, and the EDM market is steadily growing?1

Like a plethora of independent electronic dance music (EDM) producers, Laren is troubled by the various dilemmas associated with the ‘platformisation’2 of the music industry. As if it wasn’t enough to keep pace with the abnormal velocity in which our global society speeds past us. Finer, faster, further, fresher, more efficient, less wasteful: Everything is expected to be at our fingertips within an eye blink, including our music. These societal dynamics and its recent technological innovations undoubtedly also impacted the logic of the entire music industry. Since the ascent of streaming platforms, economic capital is concentrated in the hands of a few tech giants, such as Spotify or Apple Music.3 As an additional intermediary between musician and audience, these platforms maintain a dual disappearance of artistic ownership: First of all, one-size-fits-all subscription models are now depriving producers of revenues from vinyl, CD, or download. Second, they heighten the age-old imperialist practice of Western artists taking material from people of color as an ‘inspiration’ with no remuneration or in some cases no credit to the materials’ originators.

Before streaming, the EDM field was driven by somewhat ‘friendly’ competition, where labels and artists cooperated and collaborated, if only sometimes. In contrast to conventional musicians, DJs like Laren do not exclusively play their own music on live gigs. So: DJs can be producers and vice versa, but you can also play at an event without having ever produced a song. Before, when witnessing a moving melody at a performance, audiences would storm the next record store for the purchase the day after a live show. Say, even if Laren did not play her own music at gigs, some other DJ eventually would do, and the gig audience would then buy her music. The dialectic relationship between producing and touring made the EDM field of cultural production more economically self-sufficient while moving the sharing of state-of-the-art electronic music into focus.

The advent of streaming services disrupted this cycle by monopolizing revenues, increasing competition, and therefore pushing the industry toward a gig-economy. Algorithm-driven playlisting of streaming services remains quite a conundrum to the public. Actually, the only tangible certainty is that they disproportionately disadvantage those who create the electronic music we so love and desire: producers.4 You might say that Spotify playlists like ‘Discover Weekly’ expose audiences to a wider spectrum of artists. You might also argue that they facilitate the transformation from previously friendly competition into unhealthy competition. See, uploading music to Spotify and other streaming platforms is relatively affordable for producers (resulting in more suppliers), compensation per stream is low (resulting in less revenue). Meanwhile, playlists significantly boost streams but the playlisting selection process is something of a black box. That means: more competitors quarreling over less money while personal bonds that used to characterize the EDM field are fading.

This disappearance of artistic ownership logically precedes the disappearance of artist identity. Due to the technological infrastructures that provide information to everyone at lightspeed, artists from every discipline have been experiencing a shift in their everyday conduct. In the EDM milieu, streaming platforms force independent EDM producers to engage in more non-creative labor, such as the employment of marketing mix strategies, branding, or public relations.5 Labels used to take on the task of manufacturing, distributing, and marketing records for artists that were signed by them. Regardless of the power dynamics at play between artists and labels, most of the non-creative tasks were outsourced to the labels. See, now Laren and others must focus on social media management, merchandising and promotion, applying for grant money, or working under precarious conditions in the service industry to stay afloat – instead of developing their creative abilities. This transformation of labor undoubtedly affects their livelihood in requiring them to somewhat self-conceptualize as cultural entrepreneurs, whether they like it or not. The consequence: Laren’s self-identification as an artist disintegrates, as the possibilities to translate cultural capital into economic resources fade.

If we take this thought even further, it becomes clear that EDM producers are globally interconnected through a shared lifeworld that sprouts from similar experiences of artistic alienation. Postmodern identity is forged reflexively amid an increasingly complex interplay of local and global influences viz-à-viz structural factors of class, ethnicity, race, and gender. Nevertheless, the developments in the EDM field can, to some extent, be generalized. Since the universal model of Spotify and Co. spans over the entire globe, it is secondary whether Laren originated from Turkey, Thailand, Mexico, Nigeria, Georgia, or Germany. Reduced revenues and increased competition push artists toward non-creative tasks everywhere. Consequently, Laren is not isolated in the alienation from her artistic self but globally connected to other artists who share her struggle of identity loss.

In such a globalized capitalist system, we can no longer distinguish between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art, although for many producers the profit motive conflicts with their artistic aims. Laren can find jungle tunes at the Caribbean coast of Colombia and hear psytrance whiplashing through the silence of the Himalayas. She follows gabber sounds to an abandoned train station of the Siberian railway, and house tunes provide refuge in a decrepit house of God overlooking Johannesburg. Warehouses remain the prime venue for queer techno raves in London, while Australia’s Byron Bay keeps spawning hippies bouncing to Goa. Regardless of Laren’s origin, size, shape, or color, if she wiggles her path to any such underground event mushrooming in any of the corners of the earth, she is slurped into their participatory nature. When you are part of a scene, you understand that the scene is the value, not the economy. And it is precisely this value that nourishes electronic music: a celebration of music that resonates beyond language, beyond borders, heals us, and connects us through rhythm and beat – that’s the aim of Laren’s electronic music.

Yes, the gig-economy has been rendered gig-less due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and left a myriad of destinies depending on live shows in the EDM industry in ruins.6 However, the pandemic also forced upon us the necessary stillness to reflect on our foundations, which accelerated the process of unearthing what we have in common and the cosmic potentials for egalitarian change concealed in them.

If we want to do justice to the requirements of the looming cultural renaissance, we need to shift our self-identification as hollow isolated individuals toward understanding ourselves as part of a colorful and interdependent whole. For the EDM scene, this means emphasizing collective identity as a global community that is connected in the most unexpected of ways – let it be a dream, or a normative value system, or a shared experience. Only then can centralized power hierarchies be resisted and a truly democratic environment be achieved. Only then can Laren engulf herself in creative labor, secure fair remuneration for her music production, and reclaim her lost artistic identity.

Laren is hurled out of her thoughts and sucked back into her material self that leans against a weeping willow by the Seine. She digs for her pen in the fanny pack to give her journal entry its finish, rips out the page, and buries it under the majestic tree. It’s a new moon, and she seeks to plant it as an intention. The final words read selflessness, safety, & strength.

Footnotes

1 International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. “IFPI Global Reports & Resources.”
International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. Accessed December 31, 2020.
https://www.ifpi.org/resources/.

2 Prey, Robert. “Locating Power in Platformization: Music Streaming Playlists and Curatorial
Power.” Social Media + Society 6, no. 2 (April 2020): 205630512093329. https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305120933291.

3 Excluded from the term ‘streaming services’ are those with producer-oriented business models that attempt to promote a democratization of the cultural industry, such as Bandcamp, Mixcloud, or SoundCloud.

4 Aru, Helena. “The 73% Report.” The 73 Percent, April 2019. https://the73percent.com/.

5 Mühlbach, Saskia, and Payal Arora. “Behind the Music: How Labor Changed for Musicians
through the Subscription Economy.” First Monday, March 23, 2020.
https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v25i4.10382.

6Herndon, Holly, and Mat Dryhurst. “A New Club Economy w/ Richie Hawtin.” Interdependence, October 2020. https://interdependence.fm/episodes/a-new-club-economy-w-richie-hawtin.

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