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With clubs and festivals shuttered around the world, Jemima Skala outlines how we can make electronic music work better for everyone. These are unprecedented times we’re living in. Efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus have canceled festivals, pushed back release dates, and clubs the world over have shut their doors for the foreseeable future. This has left countless artists suddenly adrift, as their main source of income has been cut off. Of course, long before coronavirus, many electronic music artists were already struggling, as revenue outside of touring had all but evaporated. And while it’s taken a global pandemic to expose the precariousness of the dance music industry, change is possible. So here are five steps the industry should take to improve the industry for everyone — because going back to “normal” is no longer an option.
PRIORITISE MENTAL HEALTH, ESPECIALLY ON TOUR Over the past few years, mental health has become a much bigger part of the conversation in dance music communities the world over. This is undoubtedly a good thing, as it acknowledges the unique strains that come with being involved in such a precarious industry. However, it hasn’t led to much concrete change in terms of touring practices and norms. Traveling is stressful, even more so when it’s an inherent part of your job. Travel often comes with very little sleep, bad diet, little-to-no exercise, and the constant strain of waking up in different time zones. With the added pressure of a tight tour schedule, where just one delayed flight disrupts everything, it’s easy to see why artists often experience mental health problems while touring. Touring needs to be fundamentally reimagined, both from an environmental perspective and a mental health one. Reducing air travel and reorganising schedules around buses and trains should be standard practice. Days off should be factored into touring schedules to allow artists time to decompress. Several artists could even travel on tour together by bus, as rock stars once did regularly. This would not only help keep spirits up when the grind gets going, but it would greatly reduce our overall carbon footprint. NURTURE LOCAL SCENES At the mere whisper of a lockdown, international gigs and festivals were postponed and canceled. This highlighted a few problems that have been bubbling below the surface in electronic music for years. The first is that club and festival behemoths dominate. Compare gigs in major cities around the world in the course of a month, and you’re likely to see the same names pop up again and again (fabric’s head of promotion, Andy Blackett, referred to this phenomenon as “headline culture.”) This heavily dilutes local scenes, making it difficult for local and younger talent to break through. Secondly, jet-setting each weekend to play multiple gigs in multiple different time zones is terrible for the environment, and as previously noted, artist mental health. Carbon offsetting has been suggested as a way to combat this, but since this has become a widespread practice, it’s been used more as guilt relief, rather than actually modifying tour schedules to reduce their environmental impact. A way to combat both of these is to return the focus to local scenes. If residents-only nights and festivals with locally-based talent and crew were the norm, it would not only foster homegrown talent, but an entirely different perception of the fast-paced touring schedules DJs are currently used to. This isn’t to say that international festivals or touring should be completely done away with, as they often help inspire interest in dance music in more conservative parts of the world where local scenes would have a hard time flourishing without international talent (think Bassiani club in Georgia or Unsound festival in Poland). But by taking a breath and slowing things down in terms of touring, we’d not only be sustaining the planet but the health and variety of local dance music scenes worldwide. INCREASE STREAMING REVENUE RATES, AND BUY MORE MUSIC Given how much the digital age has changed the music industry, streaming is now an indefatigable part of how we consume music. However, as artists are increasingly forced to rely on global streaming giants to get their music heard, it’s evident that revenue distribution on these platforms is fundamentally unsustainable and unfair. Broadly speaking, platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal distribute royalties based on the total listening time of all its users, meaning more popular artists get bigger payouts, while most artists earn fractions of a penny. Increased streaming revenues will not only have an impact while everyone is quarantined but also in the future. It will mean that artists can rely less on touring, which as we’ve seen would have a net positive impact. It would also aid chronically ill and disabled artists, as well as those with mental health issues, to generate a sustainable income from their music without touring. However, this feels like a far-off reality, as streaming companies are currently incredibly profitable for executives and artists at the top. The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that ultimately, fans must be ready to place a real monetary value on music again. Of course, this depends on everyone’s individual economic situation. But with download sales remaining steady and even growing during lockdown — a time when many music fans are in a worse financial position than they were a month ago — change is possible. Your individual EP purchase might seem like a drop in the ocean, but if fans make the move to buy music more, it could mean that your favourite underground artist is able to pay rent that month — and keep making more music. EASIER ROYALTY COLLECTION Musicians and songwriters are entitled to performance royalties every time their songs are played, whether live or in a DJ set. For the uninitiated, royalties are collected by performance rights organisations (PROs) like PRS For Music in the UK or GEMA in Germany. PROs get this money from venues and festivals through licenses paid to them. And while great work is being done by the likes of DJ Monitor or BMAT in reporting where and when tracks are played, it’s often up to artists to submit their own tracklists — which, as you might imagine, proves difficult for a three-hour, possibly-inebriated, improvised DJ set. This means many producers aren’t being paid their dues. Beatport LINK has the potential in the not-so-distant future to provide a serious solution. It automatically records what tracks are being played by who and when, and its payment system is fairer than most streaming giants, distributing royalties between labels and artists based on the precise number of plays rather than how popular they are with the market overall. Of course, not every DJ will want to use LINK, and that’s fine. But the current standard practice needs serious reconsideration, and with a one-size-fits-all solution at our fingertips, LINK is hard to ignore. COLLECTIVISE If we’ve learnt anything from coronavirus, it’s that community is more important now than ever. The NHS volunteer scheme saw over 750,000 people apply to help vulnerable people in their local area; apartment buildings across the US are banding together to organise rent strikes; and the nightlife community in Berlin started up its own grassroots funding scheme to give financial aid to its most vulnerable workers. Dance music collectives like Discwoman, No Shade, and Batekoo have been blazing trails for years, inspiring similar groups in local scenes around the world. Although the initial human instinct in troubled times like these is to look after yourself first, these groups are testament to the power behind banding together. The dance music industry has been undeniably endangered by the coronavirus pandemic. By working collectively, we have a real opportunity to create change — with touring, streaming, and everything else we’ve discussed here. But governments around the world have demonstrated that the nightlife and entertainment industries are low on their list of priorities. As well as providing a safe space to learn and create community, dance music collectives have the potential power to lobby politicians and governments for fairer legal protection, as well as providing extra-governmental support to those who need it. Dance music has never just been about having a party; it’s a political force for change that can be harnessed for collective good. By coming together, change is possible.
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