18 Sep 2013

Strange Bedfellows?

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“All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football.”
Albert Camus

At the start of each football season, there are a dirge of musings from those less-enamoured with the beautiful game about how this moral void, this den of iniquity, and all those who inhabit it, are a sub-class of society that should take a good long look at themselves and be ashamed of all that they see. These days, there’s a lot of truth in what they say, and yet…

A lot of these posts come from those who are of a more musical bent. They set themselves, and thus what they are most passionate about, apart from football, sneering at those on the other side of the fence as though they are some how beneath them, both intellectually and spiritually. To them, there is no common ground to be found between music and football. Of course, this is a nonsense. There are many examples of how the two can inhabit the same space, not least through the amount of musicians who also happen to be football fans. One of my personal favourites concerns Half Man Half Biscuit, the wonderfully satirical, sardonic and surreal Wirral band who gifted us such gems as ‘All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit’ and ‘The Referee’s Alphabet’. The band are huge Tranmere Rovers fans and turned down the opportunity to appear on The Tube back in the early 80s, as it clashed with a Rovers’ Friday night home game. This was when Tranmere were struggling in the old fourth division and attracting crowds of little more than 1,500 people and The Tube was a respected launchpad for up and coming musicians to make their breakthrough to a wider audience!

There is as much diversity amongst those who seek out Match of the Day on Saturday as there is amongst those who seek out basements and beats. To say all football fans are alike is akin to saying that all people who are into music are goths; it’s lazy stereotyping at best and the sentiment merely embodies an irrational bigotry that, if applied to other walks of life, would rightly be decried as such. However, what is becoming ever more apparent, and what renders these negative proclamations obsequious at best, is the startling similarities between music, specifically dance music, and football. Can’t see it? Fair enough, it does sound like a stupid claim, until you take the blinkers off.

First of all, the two have trod incredibly similar paths. Both started off as a playground in which working class adults could blow off a little steam and escape the drudgery of the daily grind. The success of each brought about a surge in popularity and, ultimately, with that surge came a wealthy elite who sought only to repackage what they saw as a sanitised, air-brushed, watered down commodity, to be sold at a cost that priced out those who had gone before them. At that point, it wasn’t long until the ad men and marketing companies got their hands on what, by now, was a product and you were as likely to see David Beckham advertise an aftershave as you were to have that same advert soundtracked by some form of 4/4 electronic beat. Even at this point, where you may think this comparison must end, we find an analogy between the underground scene in dance music, forever kicking against the mainstream and always surviving yet another premature proclamation announcing its death, and the formation of teams such as AFC Wimbledon and FC United, clubs whose very existence is a defiant two fingers held aloft to those who are supposed to serve the game’s best interests, but who merely conspire to hurry its demise.

One of the biggest criticisms levelled at modern football is that money has ripped the heart and soul out of it. As the years since the inception of the Premier League have ticked by, this is something that has become increasingly impossible to deny. It is outrageous that, in the Premier League, some clubs will charge fans £62 to watch twenty two men run around a piece of grass for 90 minutes kicking an inflated sack of leather, because that’s all it is at the end of the day. It’s disgusting that the average Premier League footballer in England pockets £1.1 million a year, before bonuses, with even the lowest paid professional in the top flight earning more than the national average annual wage of £26,000 in less than two weeks. After all, they are doing something that most of the people watching would gladly do for free, if asked. And the idea that their career being so short in some way justifies such obnoxious sums is ridiculous; the rest of us have to work jobs and live within our means, so why should footballers be exempt from the call centre for the rest of their days just because they happened to be quite good at kicking a ball around for a fraction of them?

Such figures become all the more repellent when you consider the current economic state many of us find ourselves in. It is galling that players in the top flight can in all seriousness bemoan a £100,000 a week contract and demand more for their services, when most of us are struggling to find enough money to simply get by. It is foolish that there are people out there who are actually prepared to pay it as well. And the fact that, at the very top level, they allow an army of agents, PR gurus, marketing teams and other such self-serving unnecessaries to surround players and leech a living off them at the expense of loyalty, respect and the clubs’ own wallets, is something I will never comprehend. I understand how it exists, but I will never understand why it is allowed to. For all that I love the game, it is going to hell in a handcart, and it thoroughly deserves to. Whilst I won’t dance on its grave, I’m also well past the stage where I would have shed any tears.

Is it any wonder music fans can be so dismissive of their footballing counterparts when you look at it in the cold light of day like that? Well, what if I told you that everything I’ve just said can equally be said of dance music?

Do you remember at the tail end of the nineties, crossing over into the fledgling start of the new millennia, there was such a creature referred to as ‘The Superstar DJ’? A select group, usually playing trance, though not exclusively, were earning thousands of pounds an hour to play other people’s records. They lived a millionaire’s life style (usually because they were millionaires) of sets, jets and no regrets. This peaked on New Years Eve, 1999, when some DJs were reported to be earning anything upwards of £20,000 for a mere two hours work. Indeed, there was one in particular that I remember bragging through the pages of Mixmag that he wouldn’t need to work again in 2000, such was the money he was going to make that night. Back then, that seemed both ludicrous and exceptional. After all, as Kenny Dixon Jr has said, the talents on the turntable. If you’re earning more in a couple of hours than the person whose tune your playing may earn in a year, then something’s gone wrong.

Fast forward to today, and we have a situation that is just as ludicrous but no longer exceptional. Such overly inflated figures seem to have become the norm… for a select few. A friend of mine who runs a successful and popular club recently enquired about booking a certain female DJ who is currently very popular. She plays a style of music that is currently fashionable and she’s done a few remixes and released an album of original material that all occupy the limited sonic sphere of this particular sound. To me, she’s boring; a one trick pony who knows that trick very well, but is limited in what else she has to offer. I’m in the minority though and plenty of people absolutely love her. Nothing wrong with that. Taste in music is a purely personal issue and if we all liked the same stuff it would become boring pretty much immediately. However, I do have a problem with how much this woman is charging for a two-hour DJ set. In much the same way as you’ve got to question whether Gareth Bale is worth £86 million and reach the conclusion that no footballer can ever be worth anywhere near that amount of money, you’ve got to question whether any DJ is ever worth £12,000 for a mere couple of hours and reach the same answer: No!

And we’re not talking about a turntabilist here. This person isn’t about to take two pieces of vinyl and reconstruct the different parts into an entirely different piece of music that exists as a separate entity from the source material from which it was pulled. They are simply mixing tunes, some her own productions, many more by other people, some mixes with the odd effect thrown into the mix, some mixes in which she’ll really work the EQs, but nothing jaw-dropping or out of the ordinary.

Why? How is this justifiable? You can book DJ Woody, a two time world champion and genuine innovator, for a fraction of that price and he’ll turn up and perform his eye-poppingly amazing live AV show (the current one of which celebrates the entire 40 year history of hip-hop), which he has crafted and created by himself. At least in football you are genuinely paying the top money for the top players. It may be at overly inflated prices, but there’s a reason behind clubs wayward finances that soon becomes apparent on the pitch and, usually, in the trophy cabinet. So how does it work in DJing that someone who’s simply competent can earn fifteen times more than a world champion for a couple of hours work?

One answer is the hype that surrounds them. There are so many DJs who are now armed with a team of leeches, in much the same way as I described for the footballers above. And that costs money. And those people want their slice, so fees go up to accommodate that. But these are just people who are playing records! Surely, if they are good enough at that then they only need to let the way they rock the dancefloor speak for itself? Yet the amount of ridiculously talented DJs I’m sure we all know out there who struggle to get regular gigs, let alone make a living from it, indicates that this is not the case. Add to that the whole furore recently of people buying ‘fans’ for their various social media outlets in order to seem more popular and thus secure more gigs, a trick that seems to work, as long as you can reconcile such an approach with your own ethics, and we can see that Chuck D’s words have gone unheeded; people always believe the hype.

In this, there is another a problem that I think has driven up the asking price for some DJs: the curse of the producer come DJ. There are so many people out there whose talents at the mixing desk don’t translate to the mixer; they make some great tunes, but they can’t play a half-decent set to save their lives. Yet because they released such-and-such a tune, and the masses all want to hear them play such-and-such a tune, then they can pocket a barrowful of money on the back of a sub-standard two hour set. In a different way, the same goes for all the celebrity DJs milking the circuit; people want to see their faces behind the booth, regardless of what shite is spilling out of the soundsystem.

That leaves us with the old, cold, hard truth that within dance music, it’s not a talent show, it’s a popularity contest. And, if you’re in it for the money, that has to be the way you approach it. If someone’s ‘of the moment’ and their name will pretty much guarantee your night sells out and you make a load of money, then why wouldn’t you put them on? Unfortunately, the flip side of that is, if you’re taking chances, whilst you might garner acclaim from your peers, you leave yourself open to economic failure. It is an almost impossibly fine line between underground credibility and financial success. At times it may even seem like the two are polar opposites.

And yet there are those who are doing it right, putting on nights that mix the best in the underground with those on the cusp of breaking through. Speakeasy, 100th Monkey and Abandon Silence in Liverpool; Content, Play Doubt and Xpansion in Manchester; Collect, Cargo and Party for the People in Sheffield. They are just a few amongst many. And it is at this point that there is a vast difference between football and dance music. In football, you put out the best team, they win you trophies, you become more successful, you make more money, you put out better teams, you win more trophies and so on; you get the picture. In dance music, this formula only works if you change ‘best’ to ‘most popular’. Putting out the best line-ups does not equate to success. The only way it does is if we support our local scene.

The behemoth that is The Warehouse Project unsurprisingly sold out of its opening weekend, as it no doubt will many of the other nights. Yet the majority of the people on those line-ups can be seen up and down the country at far smaller, more intimate and much cheaper nights throughout the year. But whilst the likes of WHP steam on, going from corporate strength to corporate strength, it is these smaller nights that could end up drowned in their wake. It’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen.

So, instead of sneering at football fans, I think it’s about time we took some lessons from them. Fans of those clubs in the lower leagues fight for the very survival of their teams each and every week. A lot live in the very real fear that they are but one low attendance away from administration and the slippery slope towards going out of existence. Portsmouth is one of the most recent examples. But because of the passion and determination of those supporters, they are still here. Despite having been ruined many times over by people whose only concern was to fleece the club for as much money as possible, the supporters would not let their club die. It’s about time we started doing the same. We should trust our promoters to bring us quality. We should go and see the names we’ve never heard of on the line-up. We need to support the smaller nights that are bringing us yet-to-be-heard-of-gems. History shows us quite clearly that, if we don’t, they will wither and die. If it’s all about the music, then we can’t let that happen.

Fuck going to ‘the place to be seen’. Go to the places that deserve to be heard.

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