Dance Floors of the Mind: Performing Nightlife Research During the Day
York University (Canada)
Over the last decade, electronic dance music (EDM) has become a pervasive musical and cultural phenomenon, extending far beyond the realm of the underground dance scene and becoming something of a fixture in contemporary popular culture. The use of EDM by non-club goers to accompany a variety of activities that take place off the dance floor is becoming increasingly common, as is the volume of electronic music consumed incidentally to more mundane daily activities such as shopping or watching television. As a result, there is a growing class of EDM fans who enjoy, or at least appreciate, this style of music but are also unlikely to listen to it in more traditional EDM consumption contexts, such as on the dance floor.
Leaving aside the question of whether or not such mainstreaming is beneficial for electronic music and culture, it is undeniable that the audience of EDM is both broader than before and also significantly understudied. The majority of scholarly work that studies audiences of EDM tends to focus on the perspectives and experiences of those who belong to club and festival cultures, ostensibly the main settings for the consumption of this music. However, new contexts for electronic music consumption and the corresponding broadening of the audience for EDM speak to the need for some discussion of how non-club goers experience and assign meaning to EDM. As such, I believe that it is instructive to investigate how the non-traditional consumer of EDM experiences this music by considering where and how listeners engage with electronic music and what impact these interactions have had on shaping the opinions of these listeners.
This essay will make a case for the benefits of performing EDM-based research off the dance floor. To make this point, I will refer to interviews conducted in support of my doctoral research on the subject of remixing, demonstrating that an approach to EDM fieldwork that includes the perspectives of those whose experiences take place outside of EDM’s normative consumption context can lead to conclusions about the uses and perceived value of EDM that are potentially more nuanced than those arrived at via nightclub fieldwork alone. While daytime inquiries will certainly never usurp dance floor-based participant-observer fieldwork as the primary locus for EDM research, I believe that expanding EDM research beyond the purview of the nightclub allows for more diversity in the sample population, making the conclusions drawn from the data much richer than those arrived at through nightlife fieldwork alone.
Approaching the study of EDM from outside the dance floor was a problem that puzzled me initially. I knew that I wanted my sample population to be as large as I could get it in a short period of time, and that I wanted to include as many different types of respondents as possible. In order to achieve this goal, I did two things: first, I delimited the parameters of the respondent pool into the four categories of DJ/Producer, record label representative, music blogger, and (for lack of a better term) non-musician audience member. Limiting the type of people I wanted to include in my study to just a few groups seems an obvious thing to do, but there was much to consider in making this decision. I wanted the music industry perspective to be present in my work, but the music industry is large and complex, with many different players. I was also constrained by the time limits associated with funding and degree completion, a reality of performing research under the aegis of the academic institution, so I chose not to approach people who were unlikely to speak to me, such as pop stars or executives from major record labels. This, in turn, led to my decision to focus on the underground and independent music industry and, on the whole, getting responses from local DJs and producers, small record labels and music bloggers proved to be quite easy, even when these people were only responding to decline my request for an interview. With respect to non-musician audience respondents, I decided that it was important for my study to reflect a broad swath of listening habits and music preferences. I didn’t want to hear only from people who enjoy and regularly consume electronic music, and I hoped to be able to add dissenting voices to my conversation about remixing in addition to the perspectives of die-hard fans and the people who only occasionally come into contact with remixed music. Therefore, I approached anyone and everyone irrespective of factors such as age, gender, geographic location or music preference, a tactic that yielded a large and very diverse sample population given the constraints of my study.
This brings me to the second point. In the implementation of my research, I used a method of non-probability sampling called “snowball sampling” in order to expand the pool of study respondents within a relatively short time frame. The snowball method of population sampling relies on study participants to reach out to the people in their own social networks and solicit their involvement in the study. Like most methods of ethnographic research, this method has both advantages and disadvantages. The major flaw of this method of source acquisition is well-known to researchers—namely that to secure the involvement of interview respondents in this way means that I risk drawing from a sample pool that is more homogenous than other randomized methods of collecting interview data. However, an advantage of using this method is that it allows for a greater depth of exploration into the social uses and meanings constructed by the group being surveyed. As Aram Sinnreich notes, “[the] result isn’t necessarily generalizable to the population as a whole, but it says more about the symbolic system of a given social network than would a random sampling technique” (2010: 6). Another advantage of the snowball method is that it is very compatible with today’s social networking websites because of the ease with which respondents who had already agreed to be a part of my research were able to pass along information about the study to potentially interested friends through a common media platform. The Internet was instrumental in facilitating my field research, and I made extensive use of SoundCloud, Facebook and The Hype Machine to contact potential study respondents in addition to using Skype, Google Phone and email to conduct interviews. Combining snowball sampling and the Internet proved to be a very successful strategy and, after 8 months, I ended up with a total of 81 study participants, exceeding my goal of 80 participants by a hair.
I first came to understand how broad the audience for EDM and remixes had become when I took a job as an indoor cycling, or spinning, instructor in early 2010. Ironically, this part-time job in addition to my full-time studies and teaching obligations was intended to supplement my income so that I could expand the number of nightclubs I performed fieldwork in—that is to say, I was looking to add club nights that charged a cover fee to my small roster of club nights where entry was free of charge—but it wasn’t long before I abandoned the idea of focusing the whole of my attention on dance floors. What I discovered shortly after becoming a spinning instructor was that, outside of the DJs and club goers I had met on the dance floor, indoor cycling instructors are among the most avid consumers of EDM remixes I’ve ever met. Moreover, much of this consumption occurs despite the instructor’s preference for other styles of music. In other words, instructors choose EDM for use in spin classes because of musical qualities such as tempo and pacing that help motivate participants during the workout and not necessarily because of the instructor’s preference for the remixed version of a song. This, naturally, led me to wonder why remixes are such an important part of group fitness, and what, specifically, made this style of music the ideal accompaniment for a really hard work out. Moreover, I began to wonder what other types of people might listen to remixed music primarily off the dance floor, and why.
The first group of people I interviewed as part of my dissertation research were my indoor cycling colleagues, whom I approached through email, and their responses regarding the perceived suitability of EDM remixes versus non-remixed and acoustic/non-electronic music revealed interesting perspectives about how and why remixes are considered ideal for use in spin classes. In the main, I learned that much of what draws a spin instructor to a remix is similar to what brings people back to the club: remixed songs are often longer than their original versions, for instance, making it much easier to coax a hard working effort out of group fitness participants. Such comments echo seminal disco producer Tom Moulton’s sentiments about the problems with the early disco dance floor, namely that the momentum gained while dancing to a good song can be lost quickly when the song ends almost as soon as it has begun (Moulton in Brewster and Broughton 2010: 137). Beginning my fieldwork by interviewing my indoor cycling colleagues opened my eyes to the fact that there are many contexts in which people make use of remixed songs in place of their original versions, and I decided to follow up on this idea with the rest of my non-musician audience respondents. This is where judicious use of the Internet comes in: the first thing I did was send mass messages to my friends and family via email and Facebook explaining my research project and asking them to participate. My plan was to secure the involvement of as many people as I could in this first request for participation, and then inquire as to whether they would feel comfortable asking any friends who might also be interested in my study to participate. In many instances, though, my respondents generously offered to spread the word about my search for participants for me regardless.
Up to this point, it may seem as though the study ran smoothly from start to finish, but this was hardly the case. I learned that I would need to contact hundreds of potential respondents in order to reach my goal of 80 participants because I could only expect a fraction of the people I emailed to return with their consent. And even when respondents consented (sometimes very enthusiastically) to participate in my study, I learned that I couldn’t count on their input until the interview was underway; many respondents who had agreed initially would forget about our scheduled interview, often more than once, or drop out later because they were too busy, they didn’t feel qualified to answer the questions, they misunderstood the purpose of the study and decided they were no longer interested, and so on. I also learned to follow up aggressively but without being too pushy. This was especially difficult for me because I am generally very shy around strangers in addition to being aware that I was asking my respondents for a huge favour without being able to offer much in return. To this end, I created a follow-up letter in which I politely reminded respondents who hadn’t been in touch for several weeks that I was looking forward to their insights, and to let me know as soon as possible if they had decided to withdraw from the study. In most cases, stragglers were apologetic about their tardiness and we were able to reach an agreement that suited us both, which included compromises such as giving respondents extra time to answer the questions or arranging a phone or Skype interview in place of the write-in response. For those who would decline to participate after a long period of silence, I learned to be gracious in defeat: I thanked them for their time, wished them well, and moved on to recruiting more participants.
The main reason I advocate an approach to EDM research that does not focus exclusively on the dance floor is because of the richness of the data that results when study parameters are broadened to include atypical use. When it came to discerning the effects of remixed music consumption on the listening habits of my non-musician audience respondents, this broad approach allowed me to gain insight on why it is that people listen to remixed music in a variety of different contexts. The responses of my indoor cycling colleagues discussed earlier, for example, are indicative of purposeful consumption of remixed music in a context outside the dance floor, and there were many other instances of such purposeful consumption mentioned by my respondents. Teachers, in particular, were very likely to extoll the virtues of using remixed music as a part of their educational practice. Take, for example, Lara, a music teacher from Edmonton, Canada, who mentioned making use of remixes of jazz standards as a way to provoke classroom discussion and student interest in learning about music from the past.
[Now that] I’m surrounded by young teenagers, looking up electronic music for me is more advantageous, actually, for my teaching practice. Because it’s something that will help me connect to my students a lot easier than if I said, “Hey, let’s listen to ‘April in Paris’”, and they’re going to go, “what the hell is this?”. But if I go, “Hey, let’s listen to ‘April in Paris’ remixed by LCD Soundsystem”, they would get that.
Another teacher named David, from Philadelphia, argued that remixing is an effective way to involve people in the process of music making who might otherwise be impeded by certain prejudices about what it means to make music:
I actually find [the remix] important as a pedagogy strategy. . . . Remix as a process is actually a really great, easy way to get younger people involved in music production without bringing some of the baggage of musical talent, of high end production value. You know, a lot of kids can make a lot of really good work that’s really inventive and creative by using materials that they’re already familiar with and the conventions they’re already familiar with. So I actually see a lot of potential for remix as an educational tool.
Besides making excellent points about the value of remixed music in teaching students about music history and creative practice, what both of these comments should demonstrate is that there is a healthy interest in using remixed music in ways that are not what one may think of as typical at first glance. Because many people understand EDM in general and remixing in particular to belong to a specific music culture, responses such as Lara’s and David’s offer new insight into the sociocultural importance of the EDM remix for people outside of EDM culture.
In addition to the types of purposeful consumption I’ve described above, there was a second category of consumption I was interested in studying. Though many non-club goers actively seek EDM and remixed music for use in myriad contexts, there is also a growing number of listeners whose consumption of remixed music happens most often by accident and with little, if any, input from the listener. I have called such instances “incidental music consumption”—that is, music listened to while in public spaces or while participating in activities where someone else has control over the music. The most commonly mentioned sites for incidental consumption of remixed music were public spaces such as coffee shops and clothing retailers, followed by film, television and the radio, and most respondents whose consumption of remixed music happens incidentally seemed to recognize that these transient encounters with remixed music had changed their attitudes about remixing and derivative expression for the better—that is to say, they were more likely to appreciate remixing as they encountered it more in their daily lives, even when their preferred styles of music falls squarely in the non-electronic milieu. Despite the generally optimistic tone of most respondents, it was not the case that everyone who participated in my study perceived remixing to be a uniformly positive contribution to contemporary music culture. On this subject, one person’s responses stand out. Fran, a 49-year-old mother from Western Canada, was especially vocal in her opposition to the very idea of remixed music, which she only listens to while driving in her car with her teenaged daughter, who assumes control of the radio dial. Fran makes it explicit that she perceives remixing to be nothing more than intellectual property theft of a sort that denies listeners the chance to properly contextualize their experiences of so-called original music. However, it soon became apparent that Fran’s intellectual preferences may be in conflict with what moves her emotionally when it comes to articulating what she dislikes about remixing.
I think [remixes are] trying to take over. And I don’t think that should be allowed to happen, but you can’t stop it.
Why do you think it shouldn’t be allowed to happen?
Because, like I said, is the original artist going to be forgotten so that young kids will never hear Johnny Cash, they’ll just hear all this jazzed up stuff that doesn’t even resemble Johnny Cash. . . . I just don’t think they should be forgotten. Without [the original artist], the remixes wouldn’t exist.
So if I asked you whether or not you think remixes are important, what would you say?
Well, since I don’t go to dance clubs, they’re not important at all, in my opinion. That’s based on my age and my lifestyle. But, here’s the funny thing. I don’t mind listening to them in the van, and I think, “what’s happening to me?”. If it wasn’t for my teenaged daughter playing these all the time, taking over the radio in the car, I wouldn’t have been exposed to them and I wouldn’t have kind of liked them. And so I don’t mind because I like faster music with a faster beat, they’ve grown on me, put it that way. But can I live without them? Absolutely.
Fran’s response is interesting for several reasons, not least because of the apparent conflict between her intellectual preference for original songs and her visceral appreciation for remixed music based on certain musical qualities that are typical to remixing. What is most striking about this particular response, in my view, is that it thoroughly debunks any preconceptions about who typically listens to EDM and why. Fran is obviously not a fan of EDM remixes, but such music does comprise a portion of her regular listening habits, unfortunate though it may be that such listening frequently happens against her will. One contrast between club-based EDM research and my off-the-floor approach, especially apparent in Fran’s response, is that club-based researchers are unlikely to encounter the voices of dissenters when they focus solely on the dance floor because a person who chooses to go to a club is probably doing so because of an appreciation for the music they expect to hear. By contrast, people who wouldn’t find themselves on the dance floor in a club, like Fran, are exposed to EDM on a regular basis by virtue of living in contemporary Western society. Moreover, these people have opinions about the place and value of this music that are overlooked and overshadowed by the perspectives of insiders. This is not to suggest that insider opinions are invalid, only that there is value in considering voices of dissent, especially as such voices can reveal complex and unexpected feelings that are not easily reducible to binaries such as good and bad, original and unoriginal, and so on. Fran’s response is an important reminder that electronic dance music has extended its sphere of influence from the underground to the mainstream, indicating a need for scholars to consider the broader effects of this music and its associated culture.
The purpose of this article has been to demonstrate that opening up the study of electronic dance music and culture to include what happens outside the dance floor can result in an unexpectedly rich data set. While I certainly don’t advocate neglecting the club as a site for EDM research, my experience interviewing those who wouldn’t likely find themselves on the dance floor has demonstrated two things: first, there are a wide variety of ways that people use, experience, and interpret EDM. Second, there is a large group of consumers whose perspectives about EDM and its place in contemporary culture have not yet been widely recognised. At present, the opinions of non-club goers seem to be most visible in newer research on the subject of remixing and musical derivativeness (e.g., Hyndman 2012; Sinnreich 2010). This is a great start, but there is much more work to be done. To overlook the perspectives of dance floor outliers, as is the case in so much of the existing literature on the subject of electronic music and culture, is to miss out on a golden opportunity to discover the full extent of EDM’s cultural impact.
I offer my sincerest thanks to Luis-Manuel Garcia for his thoughtful and insightful comments on early drafts of this article, and for starting this very important conversation with this special issue of Dancecult. I also thank Graham St John for founding Dancecult, a platform in which such a conversation between like-minded researchers can take place.
Sheena Hyndman is a recent graduate of the PhD programme in Ethnomusicology and Musicology at York University in Toronto, Canada. Her dissertation explores the remix as a mediator of changes in expected patterns of music production and consumption. Dr. Hyndman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brewster, Bill and Frank Broughton. 2010. The Record Players: DJ Revolutionaries. New York: Black Cat.
Hyndman, Sheena. 2012. “Mediating Musical Experience: Studying the Effects of the Remix on Patterns of Music Production and Consumption”. PhD Dissertation (Ethnomusicology and Musicology), York University.
Sinnreich, Aram. 2010. Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press.
 In my dissertation, I define the remix as “a form of derivative musical composition that combines recorded sound with newly composed musical material” (Hyndman 2012: 1). A more comprehensive discussion of remixing and remix analogues can be found in Chapter One of my dissertation.
 Indoor cycling is better known as “spinning”, a term trademarked by the program’s founder, Johnny G.
 Lara, interview with the author (telephone), 8 September 2011.
 David, interview with the author (online via Skype), 16 September 2011.
 Author’s emphasis. Fran, interview with the author (telephone), 19 September 2011.