Have Things Really Changed, or Is It Just Me? Ageing and Dance Music Culture
Independent Author and DJ
The year is 2019, nearly 3 decades away from the emergence of dance music and underground electronic music culture. Twenty-three years ago, around the mid to late 90s was when I started going out. My outward ventures onto the scene started some time below the legal drinking age. The year 2000 finally arrived, and I could legitimately participate. Part of me feels that if I hadn’t experienced the dance movement when I did, I would have missed out. Looking back now I can’t believe I didn’t realise how good it was in comparison to how I personally see the scene today. I know the new party goers of today, when you ask them about how their night or weekend went, will convey to you that they felt like their weekend was amazing! I respect that, but for me, things are not the same.
I always considered myself fortunate enough to have experienced and been an active part of a scene so influential, that it has carved out a place of its own within the timeline of UK history. Venues were in abundance. It didn’t matter if you were in a town or a city, there was always somewhere to go. Venues, like people, came in all manner of shapes and sizes, ranging from the big room to a back room.... somewhere. Everything from the licensed, the D.I.Y invite-only parties, and the non-licensed parties in the countryside surrounding the city. Does anyone here remember trying to get hold of the “party line”? Cryptic scrawls of a number, or digits passed on by the muffled dialogue of clubbers looking for the next venue in which to continue the weekend. The task then was to go on a treasure hunt (this was well before having a satnav on your phone was standard), keep your ears open and eventually the rumble of the emitting bass-line would lead you to where you needed to be. You could pick and choose from a variety of events in any number of places. Weekends were to be lived for, choices were to be made, people were to be seen and new tracks to be heard. If you were inclined towards record collecting or DJing yourself, then seeking out vinyl copies of the tracks you heard at the weekend was also exciting. Record shops were prevalent and there was a very physical feel to the scene. You would even need to go to the record shops to buy tickets to events and festivals too. Communities formed in record shops and in the smaller event venues.
Clubs and franchises didn’t seem to be as much as a pairing as they are now. There were a lot more independently run establishments still actively operating. I always knew that if I was in a certain place at a specified time, I would be sure to see people I knew doing the rounds. This was the norm and after a year or so of tagging along with people I knew, I felt 110% comfortable going out on my own in my then home city of Sheffield. Events hosted DJs playing records of all manner of genres. At the time, examples of events that occurred regularly were Gatecrasher, Hed Kandi, NY Sushi, Urban Gorilla and Planet Zogg. At some events it was commonplace to make your own outfits. I will use Gatecrasher, the club event, as an example. This club event had its own unique culture. Back when I was living in Sheffield the club that hosted Gatecrasher, or “Crasher” as it was later known, was The Republic. The music policy was trance and house oriented. Residents included big names such as Judge Jules, and well-known staples like Scott Bond and Matt Hardwick. The entry policy seemed designed to keep the event only for dedicated clubbers. Pretty much like how Berghain in Berlin seems to operate. You may not even get in. Entry was never guaranteed, and the reasons for refusal that have been reported back to me have been a bit random. But then, that was part of the excitement. I luckily was never turned away from Gatecrasher. I fondly remember the journeys to Manchester to source brightly coloured fluffy material to make some fuzzy boot covers and furnish a top, which I lovingly called “my furry tit sling”. My costume paled in comparison to the pieces of luminous Sci-Fi-esque fashion that some people had made for themselves. If you didn’t fancy going on a fabric pilgrimage and cracking out your sewing machine, fear not, there were specialist clothing shops you could go to. The crowd was awash with all kinds of colours. Under blue light illumination you could see the designs that some had painted across their body and face. Glow in the dark and UV reactive beads rattled and glowed in the sea of arms that were reaching up to the lasers. The dynamism was amazing. I remember loving the fact that before going out I would wonder what I was going to see and hear and who I would meet, professionals, students, travellers, privileged young internationals hopping the party circuit so they could say they had been there and accumulate some social collateral. The movement felt free and exempt from the conventions of society, a place where you could be yourself and let go in appearance and in movement. An escape from my troubles, and a genuine pleasure to go out. People were polite and there was hardly any trouble. The one thing that united everyone was the same enthusiasm for music, which we all shared.
Over time this all faded into the background. The media provided coverage of events in magazines and in the news. Dance culture was going mainstream. To allow for growth and revenue I am sure a lot of these events and clubs underwent corporate re-structuring. I remember going to the Gatecrasher arena event in Nottingham in 2004. That was the last time I saw any semblance of the old “Crasher” culture. The week following this event, I went to the 10 years of Crasher tour in Sheffield. I mistakenly turned up with my friends in all our UV garb and were horrified when we arrived. The people already in attendance seemed put off by our appearance and whether real or perceived, it felt like there was a divide. I heard comments that likened us to people of a certain strata of life that deemed us to be undesirable. Sadly, there were aspects of the scene that had developed a less than favourable reputation. Even clubbers were divided. If you spoke to different groups of people you would notice that aspects of where people would go and who they would and would not be seen with would become apparent. It was not all unfairly based. The club down the road (which I shall not name) from what was then The Republic (which hosted Gatecrasher) had grown a reputation for knife and substance related incidents. I would not go there, but I would feel perfectly happy hanging around dressed as a canary in a somewhat ravey carnival type setting. I knew this was not for everyone. For myself, I was an energetic personality that liked to explore things that were outside of the mainstream. Originating from a conservative and somewhat socially restrictive background, I found I battled a lot in my everyday life to be allowed to just be myself. In another article I wrote (Bentley 2017) I also describe the trials I was having being a young female from a non-University background aspiring to break into a meaningful career in science as well as become a DJ. This is when convention back then said that wasn’t what young women should be doing. This was also without the support of having family members or friends who were connected in either community. That too was a challenge, and for me, a couple of days on the scene was enough to keep my spirits up, as the people around me seemed to be non-judgemental and share similar value systems. It reminded me that there were people like me out there. I wasn’t the only one. Going to events and meeting new people outside of the familiar social groups that orbited my everyday life, reminded me that there is a big world out there.
The Republic nightclub was now far from what I once recognised it to be. VIP booths lined the periphery. Champagne bottles propped up in ice, as sharply dressed people sat around. Don’t get me wrong, I too appreciate the value of dressing nicely. It does have a place, for me, I dressed up when I was going to a restaurant or on a bar culture type night out. I remember wondering if we were at the right event. I think I would have had similar feelings even if I had realised and adhered to the dress code. The music wasn’t the same either. A bit dejected we didn’t stay for the duration. For us, at this time, it felt stiff and manufactured. I realised that the event had, like many others, grown in popularity and had most likely been re-marketed to appeal to a wider market of people. More people, more drinks sales, more money and of course survival.
Another thing that I noticed in my latter years in Sheffield, and indeed, now in Nottingham, was that an abundance of venues were, and still are, closing due to inclement economic circumstances, raids, severe bad press following an incident, infrastructure ruin or licence refusal. Either that, or they were burning down to later emerge as a block of flats or some kind of retail or commerce-based establishment. This wasn’t just limited to the dance scene. Venues that hosted bands (which I also liked) were on the same path. Leading up to this last year, 2019, my current home city of Nottingham has lost many a venue. The latest losses include, the Maze, the Alley Café, and The Malt Cross. On a side note, as the clubs and venues closed over time, so did the record shops. Record shops did have a resurgence, when vinyl became fashionable again. In light of music download services, and the transition that DJs made as digital technology developed from playing vinyl, to CD, and then from CD to digital media, the record shops have dwindled away into the background again. Digital media has made dance music more accessible and more economically accessible. A digital track costs a lot less than a record, they can be duplicated and shared, and they are easier to move about as well.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Music streaming and download services have saved me a load of money, although as technology has played more a part of the scene there have been subtle changes in the behaviours of people going out, and also in the things you see. For example, you no longer get demo CDs of aspiring new DJs in clubs anymore. I remember looking back at events and seeing one of their friends handing out demo CDs to members of the crowd whilst they played. If I saw a CD promo person I would of course peruse, free new music and a tangible souvenir from the evening.
Another entity that has been an integral part of the scene for the last 10 years or so is social media, Facebook in particular. I knew that come Monday I may have to contact friends of friends to un-tag me from the background of photos. When I was younger, I didn’t realise it at the time because of course social media didn’t exist, but looking back, the absence of Facebook in my life back then, was, a blessing. What happened on a night out, stayed on a night out. If a mistake occurred, it would only lurk within the recesses of people’s minds. Eventually it, whatever “it” was, would be forgotten. That was the end of it. Where we are now, is a time where employers check your profile. Maybe bored acquaintances, or gossip fairing friends and family scan your newsfeed. Lurking in cyber space, perusing your digital self, waiting for the next thing to share and talk about. Trouble is just waiting to ensue.
Venues and event organisers are conscious of the difficulties social media can bring. I went to a party at XOYO in London. They issue cards before you go in and politely ask you to keep your phones away and off the dancefloor. The Northern approach is a tad more direct. At an event I went to at Hidden in Manchester, before we could go in, we were given a black sticker to put over our phone cameras. Of course, they couldn’t confiscate the punters’ phones, manage an amnesty, or insist that stickers were not removed, but at least the sentiment was there.
However, the flip side of social media is, that despite not living in Manchester, Leeds Brighton, Bristol or London, I can stay up to date with what is going on very easily. I can even buy tickets for events from the comfort of my own sofa.
Another aspect that I have not mentioned up until now is that I as a person have also changed and grown, as have my priorities. With the development of a career, earning the responsibility of a house, watching some friends as they become parents, and others as they move away. At 30 something I have a handful of people that I like to go out with. I know what I like, and with disposable funds being sparse these days I cannot always justify spending to go to events. Nowadays the music loving members of my circle plan for events around all of our commitments. When we can get together, tickets will be booked, accommodation sought and a weekend away in the making. I know I definitely appreciate going out more these days. Fortunately, the events we like seem to be frequented by a supportive older crowd, people in their mid-30s and older. I do like seeing older people other than the ones that I went out with at events. It reminds me that there is no age limit to enjoying music and that it is in effect for everyone to enjoy. Times have been economically difficult as well. When you have bills to pay and income is sparse, the first thing that goes is the social life. When I was a late teenager you would plan to head out about 9pm, and head to the club at 11pm after the pub called last orders. Now bars can get late licenses and stay open until 1/2am the next day. So, this also alleviates the necessity to make your way to a club towards the end of drinking hours. You don’t have to pay a door fee to get in anywhere or move from where you are camped out if you don’t feel inclined to.
When I have been in a crowd seemingly populated by people half my age, I was braced for the usual questions regarding how old I was and what I did. I have no doubt that the questions were well meaning and by no means have I taken offence in some of the reactions that I got to the answers that I gave. Interestingly reactions were polarised between what I call “good shock” and “bad shock”. The people that were in admiration were serious scene enthusiasts. They went to the festivals, listened to all the new tracks, and knew that to be still out an about, we too, were also still following the music and its producers strongly. The less favourable responses were received from folk who didn’t seem to be into any music following as much. Comments about my partner being old enough to be their Dad, (and to be fair, he was) were put out there because I felt that these people could not see how you would still be out on the approach to your 40s. Sometimes I feel that there is a bit of a stigma surrounding people who do still go out. Often, we were the token older couple, but not always. To be fair, I know, even if there was an abundance of events to choose from within my locality, I know I would not be able to be as prevalent as I was in my 20s. I have more responsibility now. My life experience so far has demonstrated that time combined with money, have an inverse relationship with age.
Festivals are where I now spend my free summer weekends. When compared to going out in town, I do prefer to go to a good festival. Again, except for Boom, a large international psychedelic trance festival in Portugal, my preference is, the smaller UK festivals. They are more reasonably priced; the acts are perfectly competent and there is less antisocial behaviour. The smaller festivals have a big community feel. There is more of the fun vibe that I like as well. I myself am not one to want to go out and take myself too seriously. I spend all week being serious, as do most people. Every tent within the festival arena was like a different room in a club. If you got bored at a festival, you could wander off into another arena for a change of sound or take a bimble around the site and find a willing person or people to pass the time with. The feeling of the small festival scene for me has echoes of the dance scene, back from around the early noughties. I noticed that the bigger a festival gets, the more barriers and restrictions come into place. I also know a lot of people who used to spend all their free time in night clubs are now relying on small grass roots festivals to access the scene whilst staying off the beaten path. Interestingly, I know some of the older (former) free party organisers that frequent the small festival scene. Back before the criminal justice act came into place, which was before my time, free parties, were more abundant. The people I know in this category (who I will not name out of respect for their privacy) have injunctions in place on them, such that if they ever organise a non-licensed event again, they will get prosecuted.
All in all, as the scene has changed so has the way in which I interact with and within it. I cannot speculate which direction dance music will go in, culturally or musically. I can say from my experience that I have seen a lot of change in attitude, music, location, fashion and social media.
Who knows, there may come a time again in the future where we see a resurgence in venues and independent and underground events? I hope so.
For now, I appreciate the events that I go to, the time I spend at them and the people I go with (the music comes as a given). As I have aged, I find that I appreciate my weekends out a lot more. I do miss having the spontaneity of meeting up with a familiar group and going on a music related mission that takes the entire weekend. I also miss not having to plan well in advance. However, I do know that the time I do have will be well spent. I will be a happy person if I can still carry on going to these events into my 60s, 70s and, even my 80s.
I would describe myself as a DJ hobbyist. I'm still DJing with vinyl, although I may have to make the transition to digital at some point, but for as long as I can get away with it, I'll keep on with the records for now. I’ve held various residencies and play a variety of genres depending on the venue and crowd.
Bentley, Donna. 2017. “Onwards and Upwards: Playing My Way Through the Gender Division”. Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture 9 (1). <https://doi.org/10.12801/1947-5403.2017.09.01.14>.