On music as a barometer of social change

The baseline thunders through your body, primeval, uplifting, manifestations of Gaia’s energy of life. You’re dancing around a fire to the rhythm of the pounding drums. The sparks fly upwards into the sky and you’re lost in the meditation of the moment. Ten thousand years later and you’re in a dark club in the early hours, arms uplifted to the ceiling, lights pulsating, illuminating your tribe as though in a flick book. The experience is collective, visceral and impossible to define. More than the sum of its individual parts – you, the music, the people, the DJ, the setting, the mindset. Perhaps you know that feeling.  

It’s a while since we’ve had such fundamental experiences. The pandemic has rendered impossible one of the most human of human acts – gathering. Sure, we are finding technological ways of connecting, but these remain poor imitations of the real. If the degree to which we trust someone is largely governed by their pheromones, if we can’t subconsciously pick up the micro expressions that communicate so much, if we can’t feel that intangible collective energy, we have only a limited experience of what it is to be human.  

Time will tell the extent to which these deprivations impact us as individuals and as a society. Covid-19 will precipitate many such changes, of course, some predictable and others as yet unknown, as is the case with every period of disruptive change. Innovation doesn’t emerge out of stability and order, for these offer no pressure to change and the hegemony of the status quo holds things in equilibrium. Novel practice, products and cultural change emerge in the wake of disruptions to the norm; music is a great case in point.  

New musical genres and sounds are both a product of, and reflect, the socio-political conditions of the time: “place-specific forms of music, whether the rap music of America’s inner-city ghettos or California surfer rock, can only be created by the influence of one’s social and physical surroundings. The autobiographical nature of music delivers an understanding of the communities from where it was initially created.” 1 

One of the five pillars of hip-hop, rap emerged in community centres as part of a counter-point to the searing deprivation of the Bronx in New York City. Motown⁠2 emerged in Detroit as a coalescence of factors, including the unexpected – musicians and singers all had pianos in their homes, largely because they lived not in high-rise blocks but in two-story homes, meaning delivery wasn’t an issue. Techno also emerged in Detroit and in 1990s Berlin in the wake of the fall of the Berlin wall, in no small part because of the sudden availability of warehouse space and the raw industrial nature of the clubs in which the music was played (the concrete walls of Tresor were 1m thick).  

Tadeo Kikumoto invented one of the most iconic instruments of a burgeoning dance music scene, the Roland TB-303 Bass Line. Yet it was a commercial disaster. Introduced in 1981 into a music scene experimenting with synths and electronic sounds, it was intended to simulate the sound of the bass guitar, failed, and went out of production in 1984 with fewer than 10,000 units made. However, a few pioneering music producers picked up cheap 303s and started to experiment with the sounds it produced. Phuture’s 1987 classic Acid Trax, Hardfloor’s Acperience (1991) and Josh Wink’s Higher State of Consciousness (1995) all utilised the unmistakable squelchy acid sound of the 303. 

Thanks – in part – to Kikumoto, acid house, techno and other forms of electronic music were born, rising to popularity through 1989s second Sumer of Love and into the early 1990s. In turn the music it helped create offered a counterpoint to the intensifying right-wing political ideology of the 1980s, the soundtrack to illicit raves and gatherings at the turn of the decade leading to Michael Howard’s infamous ‘repetitive beats’ law⁠3.   

The 303 is an example of exaptive innovation – the repurposing of something from its original intent to create or achieve something new – which is also embedded in the culture of the time. As Peter Drucker reflects, “I’d say that the majority of successful new inventions or products don’t succeed in the market for which they were originally designed“. The 303 didn’t just create a new product in terms of a musical instrument, it helped spark an entirely new global industry, one that by 2016⁠4 was worth $7.1bn.  

DJs, it turns out, illustrate in microcosm the challenges we all face, not only in coping with the pandemic but also in how they do their work. Test and learn and fail fast are phrases used to the point of cliche. Yet at their heart is the idea that in many circumstances the best thing to do isn’t to perfectly plan a product or process but to put stuff out in the world and watch what happens, using the power of fast feedback loops and iterating according to what is learned.  

The best DJs read the room. They understand their audience, they sense the energy and the vibe and they curate a musical journey with tracks that respond to that intuition, a journey that is different every time because the clubbers and the context are different every time. They might play familiar tracks and unknown IDs, reading the response and adjusting accordingly. IDs are new productions yet to be released and playing them offers immediate feedback as to how much people like them, where they need to be tweaked more, whether they might be worth a full release or not. Often different versions of tracks are tested to see which lands better. It’s pure experimentation and iteration.  

It’s that audience (or ‘user’) feedback loop that is vital and yet is missing while the clubs are shut. Online streams, great though they are for ensuring your music is heard and your name remembered, simply don’t offer the same purpose as live testing. The proximity of feedback to the event being fed back on is crucial in any setting (especially the office, where annual approaches to 360-degree feedback embed bias in already flawed processes). There are few such mechanisms more immediate than for any performer to watch the audience’s reaction to a line, a joke or a trick; perhaps few more delayed than those working in town planning or education. I sometimes wonder whether primary school teachers, for example, ever find out what happens academically or socially to the children they teach. How do you know the efficacy of what and how you are teaching without long-term feedback? How do you know whether a new development creates a liveable and social community when people start moving in, or whether the housing is ultimately isolating and the roads creating more congestion?    

Consumption is context specific, which is why there is limited appeal in eating a Michelin-starred meal at home. It’s not just the food, it’s the whole curated experience that matters, including the anticipation, the act of getting ready and the treatment you receive when you get there. The DJs customer consumes the product in the club, just as the theatre-goer does so from their seat in the stalls or the sports fan in the stadium. Lockdowns and the closure of venues robbed many of access to their market. Part of the reason why DJs couldn’t simply pivot to producing music for airplay on radio or streaming services is that the context is different. Music played on the radio or streamed is music designed inoffensively for commercial airplay with mass appeal. It is the lowest common denominator. How often do you ever listen back to that soundtrack your bought? Rarely, I’d guess, because you are absent the theatrical visual context and experience. Hamilton is genius on the stage; less so on the way to Tesco.  

A core challenge in coming months and years will be to respond to the opportunities for change that emerge in the wake of Covid-19’s disruptive forces. Might we see the early signals and symbols that suggest things are beginning to shift? Perhaps in our shared values, our collective behaviours, our ways of organising, our emerging priorities? Perhaps in how we support the most vulnerable, invest in our communities, tend to the environment, look after our elders, prepare our children for the world, adjust our patterns of work, consume resources, think about the long-term…  

Whilst not immediately obvious, we can spot the signals of such changes; often the early signs emerge through grassroots action and movements and are illuminated through the arts. Music is one such marker of innovation and change. During lockdown some DJs found a new outlet in gaming platform Twitch, playing sets from their homes and engaging their audience in a different way through chat functions. Like creative workshops hosted via Zoom, though, they fall short of in-person human interaction. At the end of day, you can’t feel collective energy through a screen in the corner of your living room. Only in person can you feel that collective emotional moment when you’re all in the same place, physically and metaphorically. Whether you are collaborating towards a breakthrough moment in a workshop or are captured by a soaring melody and a returning baseline in the club, these are the moments that connect.   

We all know that feeling. It’s at the heart of what it is to be human.  


Bercasio, Eliezer, “Coming From Sounds of Blackness: Exploring the Effects of Hip-Hop on Views of Race” (2012). Master’s Theses. 4186.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.31979/etd.zeg7-kn3f  https://scholarworks.sjsu.edu/etd_theses/4186

https://amp.theguardian.com/cities/2016/feb/03/music-scenes-berlin-london-seattle-new-york

https://theperfectprescriptionmusic.wordpress.com/2016/05/03/no-repetitive-beats-allowed-the-criminalisation-of-rave-culture/

https://idmmag.com/news/dance-music-industry-worth/


Playlist  

Playlist of some iconic dance tracks – those mentioned in the article* supplemented with some personal favourites that chart the development of the genre (mostly from the 1990s). All links to Spotify:

Stream playlist from

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