Something is stirring in the loins of America’s music scene and it ain’t grunge, Britpop or, for that matter, electronica. Dance music, for years ghettoised and demeaned in the US, is seeping through the porous defences of the music industry and forcing its way into the mainstream. The perceived wisdom (at least in the UK) has always been that ‘they’ just don’t get ‘it’ and they never will (neatly overlooking the small fact that they invented ‘it’ in the first place). Electronica, that loose American industry term for anything not made by hairy men with hygiene issues and guitars, came and – with a few exceptions – went.
Some are even daring to call it America’s Summer of Love (well they would, wouldn’t they?). Whatever it is, there is a palpable sense of something happening, whether it’s the use of dance music in ads (DKNY, Calvin Klein, VW), rock magazines like Spin running multiple-page features on trance, the launch of a major new dance publication (Revolution) or that inarguable measure of success: record sales.
“Our Paul Oakenfold Tranceport record came out a year and a half ago,” says Steve Lau, of Kinetic Records, an offshoot of major label Reprise. “We spent a ton of money and we had to beg, borrow or steal just to ship 8,000 records. In our first week we sold 1,500, and that was our fastest selling record at that point. Now, we’re selling double that per week and we’ve shipped 180,000 with no end in sight.”
Were you to believe the myopic little imperialists of the British dance press, you could be forgiven for thinking that Paul Oakenfold and company were alone in their mission to save the lost souls of America and deliver them from evil (or Marilyn Manson, as they’re more commonly known). The truth is more complex. While it’s undeniable that DJs like Oakenfold, Carl Cox, Sasha and Digweed do have strong bases of support, there are American DJs who are fast gaining ground, some of them scarcely known in Europe: Terry Mullen, DJ Dan, Sandra Collins, Jimmmy Van Malleghan, Christopher Lawrence, Keoki and Micro.
Jonathan Levy, an expatriate Englishman based in Los Angeles, has been in involved in rave scene since its inception, and now heads Moonshine, a leading independent record company whose turnover will exceed $10m. this year. “If you look at Sasha or Oakenfold in the UK, they’re basically fucking rock stars,” he says. “There are various DJs out there who this might happen to, but I don’t think it will be an English DJ. By the same token, a lot of American DJs aren’t interested in going over to Europe. The smart ones don’t give a fuck about Europe because they want to make a name out here.”
Despite all this, outside of a few notable exceptions on the Billboard charts (Fatboy Slim, Prodigy, Moby, Eiffel 65 (ahem)), there are precious few mainstream indicators that this is so. Commercial radio, driven as it is by advertisers, has largely ignored dance music, while MTV’s idea of dance music is an endless and mind-numbing series of corporate hop hop and R&B videos. (This may be partially due to the long-held belief in the States that resistance to dance music stems from the horrific crash the industry experienced after the demise of disco.)
Even here, however, things are changing. A recent annual competition run by MTV, Wanna Be A DJ, resulted in a (phone-poll) win for a baggy-panted raver called Raymond, who beat off the predictable array of Britney clones and Will Smith-alikes. And the internet, that bulwark against corporate musical culture, has been embraced by this nascent scene with the overwhelming majority of internet radio stations and MP3 downloads being dance-based.
Jonathan Simpson-Bint, the publisher of newly launched dance magazine Revolution, is convinced that it is now an unstoppable force in the States. “In pitching Revolution to people it’s very easy to say, ‘what is the image of a rebellious young man today? Is it someone with a guitar or someone with a sampler and a laptop computer?’,” he asks. “Rolling Stone put Backstreet Boys on the cover which is a terrible thing for them to have done, and it’s because rock has lost all its danger and its energy right now.”
Simpson-Bint launched with a 250,000 print-run. Technics also a report a 20% rise in turntable sales (up to 40,000 in 1999), while Sasha and John Digweed’s ‘Communicate’ sold 9,000 CDs in its first week on sale last month. Even Maytag washing machines have got in ono the act by using a Goldie tune on their latest ad campaign.
However, don’t expect to see Guidance records in the charts or Mr. Scruff on MTV any time soon. The predominant sound, as in Europe, is still trance and it’s these records that are selling the fastest (and mostest). Planet E’s Peter Wohelski, who helped nurture the Chemical Brothers to mainstream success, believes it’s still a good thing. “Trance has been really helpful in opening people up to different types of dance music, because it has more to do with standing in the middle of the dancefloor, with big sound and lights; which is proper club culture, rather than bouncing around with your mates to Rockefeller Skank. It’s brought people back to the core of what dance music is about which is the dancefloor and the DJ.”
Although some commentators claim that the arrival of the new Madonna album will open the floodgates, what will probably change dance music in the States is when they finally realise there (as they eventually did here) that the easiest way to sell dance music to a rock audience is to pretend that it’s rock music with computers. Hence the success already of The Prodigy and Chemical Brothers. As Norman Cook says, “There’s a little element of rock’n’roll in all of us, I think. We’re not just studio boffins, we’re kind of caning rock’n’roll animals that Rolling Stone and Spin can write stories about.” Does this mean it’s only a matter of time before Sasha appears on the David Letterman Show? Don’t hold your breath.