INTERVIEW

Resident Advisor founders Nick Sabine and Paul Clement discuss the new age of dance music that they’ve been so instrumental in promoting, and why EDM, despite what everyone else thinks, is no bad thing

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The Royal Academy of the Arts was founded in 1768 with the mission of promoting artists, both emerging and established, through a programme of education and exhibition. According to its founding document, it was to achieve this through “the establishment of a sound system of expert judgement in the arts and to arrange the exhibition of contemporary works of art attaining an appropriate standard of excellence.” Although commissioned by George III, it was entirely independently funded, and to this day its famously open-to-all Summer Exhibition will receive and review submissions from anyone, regardless of training or stature.

Search online for the Royal Academy by its common abbreviation of RA, though, and a different organisation is now top hit – one far younger, sure, but like the Royal Academy, one that’s also self-funded and dedicated to openness, independence and the exposure of forward-thinking artistic endeavour. That organisation is Resident Advisor, founded in 2001 by a couple of clubbers from Sydney, Nick Sabine and Paul Clement, to document the news and views of their local dance music scene. Since getting it going with the equivalent of £300 thirteen years ago, Sabine and Clement have slowly grown their site to become a global hub for all things electronic music, with offices in London, Berlin, Tokyo and Ibiza. It caters for 2.3 million readers a month and runs the ticketing for 10,000 club nights a year. The chances are if you’ve been clubbing in the last five years, RA has had a man down there, sold you your ticket and written pieces about every DJ on the bill.

“Personally speaking,” says Sabine, from the sofas on the mezzanine of their effortlessly hip Haggerston warehouse office, “there just isn’t another genre of music where I have the same level of knowledge or passion.” Clement nods: “Or interest!” It shows. After an hour and a half of picking apart everything from what makes interesting dance music to what makes interesting dance music websites, RA’s authority on the global scene – from internationally renowned super clubs to backstreet basements – appears to be backed up to the top of the organisation.

That said, perhaps the most striking thing to happen to dance music in the last five years has received scant coverage from RA. The stratospheric rise of EDM – electronic dance music, a genre whose very name is simplistic and bland – across the world has brought the concept of outdoor raves and synthesised beats to the kind of rockist American heartland that hitherto was untouched by Chicago’s, Detroit’s or New York’s endlessly pioneering dance music tentacles, and to the sort of people for whom the idea of going to a dimly lit underground room on a Friday night to dance in the dark wasn’t just socially unacceptable, but downright terrifying.

“EDM and dance music are two different beasts,” Sabine wrote in the Huffington Post last month. “EDM is [dance music’s] mainstream, big-money cousin, amplifying electronic music’s more theatrical side without the subtlety or depth that endears so many electronic music fans in the first place.” As both an explanation for RA’s lack of inclination to write about EDM, and a primer on it, Sabine’s piece is ruthlessly efficient. But although the music itself is of little interest to Resident Advisor, what it means for dance music as a whole, and indirectly therefore RA, is crucial. Perhaps surprisingly, however, Sabine can only see EDM’s success as a good thing: “Here’s my point,” he begins, “in time, 95% of people who are listening to the EDM in the pop charts will go in whatever direction pop does, and pop will evolve. But that 5% that do want to dig deeper, that use EDM as their jump-off point, is a hugely significant number – probably more than our entire readership put together – and they’re the people who will provide our scene with fresh energy and excitement.

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“I don’t think EDM has sold Carl Craig any more records,” he continues, “but when those 5% are digging deeper and discovering more, then potentially they’ll discover Carl Craig and dive into his back catalogue. It might reinvigorate artists who are making music in our world.”

Clement agrees: “There’s no reason that someone who finds house music through David Guetta can’t go deeper and end up in a little party in Berlin with Mr Ties,” he explains. “They can start at Calvin Harris, and then it’s Disclosure, and a few years later it’s Levon Vincent. I do think it’s a natural progression.”

Sabine and Clement’s positivity towards the rapidly changing face of their beloved genre is rather refreshing. After all, the stadiumisation of electronic music via EDM, coupled with the ever-mutating effects of the worldwide web on production, promotion and consumption of dance music, means that a movement that began in the bedrooms and warehouses of Detroit and Berlin 35 years ago now finds itself at a commercial and artistic crossroads, with plenty of commentators fearing for its future. The doom-sayers posit that the current generation of producers, confronted with the most risk-averse, cash-strapped A&R policies the industry’s ever known, are resorting to imitation over originality, using the one thing their predecessors never had – instant access to all music of all time – to imitate old records rather than innovate. When Guy Lawrence from Disclosure told Loud And Quiet last year that they got into producing music by “just trying to copy things like the first wave of UK Garage from the nineties”, the cynics will hear it as the death knell for a musical force that has been more consistently ground-breaking than any other since punk. The same critics will argue that the internationalisation of dance music, via global streaming of festivals like the EDM-heavy Ultra last month in Croatia, has created a global homogenous goop and stripped dance music of its local idiosyncratic communities and sense of geographic diversity; they argue that the ever-growing trend for eclecticism, and the rise of the dilettante encouraged by the likes of Spotify, has encouraged people to go wide rather than deep in their musical exploration, the knock-on effect being a lack of substance across an increasingly broad board.

To précis every article discussing the current state of any given cultural phenomenon, then: the Internet’s got a lot to answer for. In that context, though, Sabine and Clement’s optimism shouldn’t be a surprise: after all, here is a pair of dance music devotees who have consumed most of their favourite music in the past decade – not to mention made their living – through the Internet itself. But not only do they argue that the popularity of EDM can give dance music its future pioneers, but that dance music itself is in rude health, and that the encroachment of the web on its day-to-day existence has helped, not hindered. For every web-enforced shift, they see reasons for enthusiasm: “Now, an artist or a night or label based anywhere can, without a huge amount of effort, build a network or a fan base internationally,” argues Sabine in favour of the web-enabled internationalisation of the scene. “And equally, an artist in all of those places can access music from all those alternative points. Alongside that, though, the great fundamentals underpinning dance music haven’t changed – people still love going out and listening to music and getting excited about it, and the social aspect of that is really important to dance music, with people spending time at raves and clubs and so on. And that will always be around.”

Not only will that always be around, argues Clement further, but also the feared global homogeneity of dance music will never permeate the specific communities who consume it: “There are still big differences between, say, London and Tokyo and Sydney and New York – cultural differences,” he insists. “The way the Spanish go out is different to the Germans, so the way they consume music and go to parties is different: maybe two techno DJs can now end up playing the same sort of records simultaneously in two different continents, which might not have happened twenty years ago, but those two sets are still a different experience to the listener.”

Clement’s point is perhaps the most enduring: for all the fetishisation of the producer and DJ in recent dance culture, and the increasing ease with which the media can make a celebrity of a faceless man behind the decks, it’s always been the clubbers themselves who have been the beating heart of any given local scene. And that geographically specific critical mass of bodies is something that the Internet is a long way from compromising, even with the increased prevalence of streaming-friendly high bandwidths and low-cost flights.

But even with the DJ/producer in mind, what of the supply side of the coin? Technology costs in 2014 are approaching zero, after all – a record can now be made on a producer’s free phone using a free app, uploaded to a free Soundcloud account and then played across the world, and the sheer quantity of available music is commensurately skyrocketing. “It will naturally take a lot more to be heard from the mess of content, sure,” concedes Clement of the new paradigm, acknowledging a signal-to-noise ratio that’s suggestive of a million monkeys at a million laptops all clacking away until one of them comes up with ‘Needin’ U’. “But with undoubtedly more people making and listening to music, there will be more talented, unique and interesting artists taking it up.”

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“And I think here’s where we’re playing an increasingly important part,” adds Sabine, bringing it back to the role of Resident Advisor (the clue’s in the name, after all): “We’re a filter. Hopefully we’re signposting people towards stuff that we think deserves recognition, regardless of where it’s from. And it’s worth remembering the good aspects of that: ten years ago, a DJ in South Africa would never have played anywhere other than in South Africa. Now, websites like RA have allowed them to build a profile and therefore a career that’s sustainable off international gigs – that’s a positive thing.”

“It still needs to be good in order for that to work,” Clement points out, curatorially, “but therefore the quality is increased along with the accessibility of it.”

This sense of increased convenience, paired with more careful cherry-picking, is Sabine and Clement’s mantra. Their acceptance that the Internet has left its mark on dance music is clear (“fundamentally I don’t think we need to rate whether things are better now versus ten years ago  – they’re just different,” points out Clement during a long discussion about the relative merits of Shazam in a club environment), but looking forward with enthusiasm, rather than backward with nostalgia, is the way that the scene as a whole is going to progress, they suggest. Far from being exclusivists or record-shop snob caricatures, Resident Advisor’s co-founders essentially seem excited that more people than ever are coming to their party.

“I think underground culture is becoming easier to get to and to understand, just by dint of information accessibility, which is great,” says Sabine. “Five years ago, if I’d have tried to predict it, I wouldn’t have got anywhere near what has happened, but I think that these days maybe it’s more socially acceptable to go clubbing, and people are starting to realise that it’s not just about taking drugs and being off your face. I would say there are more people than ever listening to dance music now purely for the music.”

Clement agrees: “I think the current trend is that better music is finding a bigger audience because there are more people making music, more people consuming music, and more people able to dissect and discover music,” he explains, almost scientifically. “If that trend continues and even more people are able to produce even more music, then the people who are good at it naturally will realise that and hone their craft, and eventually we’ll have hundreds of Todd Terjes producing hundreds of amazing albums.”

And put like that, dance music’s future looks bright; all-encompassing Internet, earth-rattling EDM bass drops and all. The key, it would seem – and, perhaps fittingly, also the frequently envisaged hippie utopia at the dawn of house in the early ’80s – is inclusivity, accessibility and basically one big global rave: “At the end of the day,” says Clement, “whether it’s still underground or subversive or whatever, and whether we’ve sacrificed anything to be here, if we’re still able to write about stuff that we feel is good, then where’s the problem in exposing an artist to a wider audience? I don’t see there being a problem with 100,000 people, or 100 million, liking it. It’s not about some sort of exclusive club.”

Quite how all this scales up in the future – and surely it will – with the inevitable financial, artistic and physical demands that will accompany it, is some challenge. The sense that there will be a future, though, rather than some half-heartedly rehashed version of dance music’s past, is enough. That it will be curated, at least in part, by the likes of RA as a cultural guardian not unlike its centuries-old namesake, is a welcome relief further still.

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