Collective Listening off the Dance Floor

M.F. Campbell

The cathartic experience of techno and its various subgenres is often attributed to the body collective of the dance floor. What the DJ Eris Drew calls the “positive goddess force of the motherbeat”, a space where “The only network you need is inside the club,” Bell writes of Berghain’s strict phone policy. The story of techno is one of sonic configurations—from Afrofuturism to Fordist repetitions—that inspire bodies to simultaneously move collectively and independently within the same space. Intertwined within this story is that of geography; techno’s history is also about the physical places in which these practices unfold, particularly warehouses and factories abandoned by later stage capitalism.

By mid-March, COVID19 brought all opportunities for collective listening on the dance floor to a halt with no certainty of return. To compensate, venues, labels, and musicians across the globe quickly responded with new, virtual platforms for playing/performing. Resident Advisor, the main repository for techno events, updated their calendar to reflect this new “streamland” reality. Elsewhere in Brooklyn transformed to Elsewither, throwing virtual parties with the assistance of Minecraft. Salon Zur Wilden Renate in Friedrichshain adapted the mantra “United we stream” promising that “If you can’t be at the party, we’ll bring the party to you!” Some venues simply sheltered in place, perhaps lacking the resources to deploy a virtual platform or out of “interest of our fellow human beings, followed by solidarity for BLM

As the virtual livestreamed techno party unfolded, the initial observation was that it was just one of countless tabs open in the browser. Like everything else on the internet, one could be as noncommittal to this screen content as one wished. Kenneth Goldsmith’s adaption of the Situationist International’s dérive to describe how we fade in and out of our virtual and physical surroundings while ‘wasting time on the internet’ no longer had aesthetic or theoretical cachet when applied to the online techno stream. The bodily listening so strongly associated with the genre felt, literally, virtually impossible.

On the other hand, the COVID19 induced techno livestream offered qualities that felt vaguely familiar to other ways in which we listen to and experience techno. Unlike podcasts, online radio, and preexisting forms of livestreaming techno, these parties weren’t inherently treated as content to be eventually uploaded and archived to the internet for anytime access. The new chat function gave some genuine feeling of partying with friends in a way that a Zoom happy hour could not.

As someone who grew up on Detroit techno with a frequent nostalgia for the glory days of the warehouse rave I started wondering how listening to and experiencing techno is happening in these new two-dimensional spaces. What is different and what is familiar?

To get a better sense of this change I reached out to the founders of two different techno labels/collectives, The Bunker and Interdimensional Transmissions, to learn about the motivation for and process of putting up a virtual livestream techno party in lockdown.

The techno community

When I asked Bryan Kasenic of The Bunker parties and label what he thought the chat function offered listeners he explained that in the Bunker chat room you mostly know who the people are. “And that’s what makes it so special. People want to reconnect with the people they dance with…The chat becomes the upper limit of how many people you can have where it still feels like family.”

The original motivation for The Bunker livestream was based purely on trying to keep that ‘family’ together despite lockdown. It’s worth saying that for many, going out to listen to techno can be a solitary affair; it’s the love of the music and dancing that drives the socialising rather than the desire to socialise with friends at the club. As a result, this ‘family’ inside the club can be composed of individuals you otherwise have no contact with. Creating a livestream with a chat function brought together this crowd in a new and intimate way.

During one livestream a chat participant suggested that people should tip their DJ and both Bryan and the DJs were shocked by how much money people gave. “They have honestly been lifesaving. A lot of Bunker DJs are living off unemployment or struggling to get it.” These donations, in turn, reiterate a solidarity of the times with many giving a share of their donations to BLM and local organisations impacted by COVID, fostering a sense of place-based support.

The livestream chat has a rave energy to it. It is goofy, intimate and welcoming. It has a similar feeling to queuing to get into a party or finding yourself on a night bus with the same people you’d been sweating with for the past eight hours. Unlike the permanence of the YouTube comment affixed below a recorded techno set, the chat lives only in real time. “Is this what the kids call world music?” muses one chat participant who many consider a human catalogue of all music genres. “8:08pm!!” exclaims another, a reference to the famous Roland drum machine of the 80s. This prompts others to share their respective time zones causing a general rippling awe among participants as we realise how widespread his Bunker ‘family’ has grown since Bryan’s Lower East Side Subtonic residency in the early 2000s. For many, myself included, Bryan’s decision to livestream Bunker parties is an opportunity to reconnect to a very specific, place-bound techno scene that I no longer have access to because of actual geographic distance.

Bounded listening

Broadcasting techno off the dance floor isn’t really a new thing. For many of us, techno was first heard through local radio programs of the late 80s and 90s. This contrasts with a younger generation whose access to techno is almost entirely mediated through the internet. While internet radio, YouTube livestreams, and FM radio are all technically off the dance floor, they represent very different listening experiences[1].

Local radio is bound both by time and space, fostering a certain sense of discovery and collective ownership. For example, the frequencies of WCBN, University of Michigan’s radio station, traveled further at night, allowing greater listenership at the very hours upon which Crush Collision was broadcasted. The program is where many second wave Detroit techno DJs got started, which is why it felt appropriate to reach out to Brendan Gillen and Erika Sherman. Both met through WCBN and have worked together for more than 25 years as Ectomorph and Interdimensional Transmissions, a label and artist collective.

“Every place and DJ had their own format,” Brendan explains of mixing for radio. “In Detroit, it starts with WDRQ, the wizard [Jeff Mills]. In 1983 I was exposed to the atom being split in the form of music.” It seems this listening experience was an explicit motivation for forming Crush Collision almost a decade later.

[I explained to the existing directors] There is a current new form of black music that you’re [the existing radio directors] rejecting and it’s like all music creates generation gaps and of course you’re offended by it but you should investigate it because it’s actually cutting-edge black music and this is where these conscious thoughts are going and let’s explore that and they were like whatever, go ahead, have a radio show.

“The illusion of radio is that you’re there”, Brendan states. His comment resonates on a deeper level. Local radio is predicated on an ability to pick up an actual frequency which, in turn, allows you to tune in. You become part of a collective listening audience who all share the same frequency; and techno is all about frequencies. Before the genre was mainstreamed under the innocuous EDM label (Electronic Dance Music), many dismissed techno tracks for all sounding the same. Clearly, these individuals neither listened for nor felt the sub frequencies, that low frequency oscillation that runs through each track, each set, sometimes living underground for several hours before surfacing into auditory levels and becoming part of the narrative of the evening’s sound.

While FM radio could not replicate the sound systems of the dance floor one might argue that this was supplemented by an implicit sense of community and commitment. Like the radio platform more generally, if you had a program you loved you made time for it. You tuned in at a specific time, committed to listening because a) this was often your only chance to hear the content b) you didn’t know what to expect c) you trusted your radio host to take you on a journey.

In his interview with Resident Advisor, Detroit-based DJ Carlos Souffront muses on how FM informed his DJing approach. “Yes, there are a bunch of ideas that come from my experiences around Detroit radio: play just the best part, fidelity comes second to content, vinyl records sound better even when they don’t, play like no one is listening, play like everyone is listening, eclecticism honours diversity.”

Listening while watching while streaming

As early as 1995, Paul Virillio anticipated the perspective of real time superseding that of real space, claiming that cyberspace is, will be, completely distinct from “the audio-visual perspective which we already know.” This new global time isn’t a product of globalization but rather virtualization. For Virillio, as physical distance is shortened to irrelevancy so also is our attention span. Virtualization brings simultaneous access to anything and everything.

2010 marked a tremendous change in how techno was absorbed. While the Boiler Room did not invent the techno livestream, it did transform it. Boiler Room claims to be an experiment in “opening a keyhole to the underground” when founder Blaise Bellville decided to livestream a London warehouse party. The platform quickly became what Boiler Room’s own music editor describes as the Uber of the music world—rapid expansion to everywhere. While most DJs would welcome the opportunity to play a set for Boiler Room due to the global exposure it generates, it is not without problems.

One knows what to expect while watching Boiler Room. Although it claims to be “DIY at its finest; raw, uncut, homemade”, it is a hyper-stylized projection of underground culture. Much like  MTV Spring Break, party participants are chosen through a careful, highly curated selection process. Their job is not to listen but to project an image of the underground ‘scene’ to the entire world. When I share this opinion with Erika and Brendan, they offer a more astute observation. Boiler Room sets are configured so that the audience is always behind the DJ, meaning a complete disconnect between the DJ and their audience. “It’s predatory, think about it, you never sit with your back to the door!” Boiler Room celebrates itself as the platform for “everyone regardless of where they live to enjoy the freedom it stands for” though the delivery arguably inspires more FOMO than collective listening.

For Erika, another aspect of virtualization is that people now have all the information, all the time. One can Shazam the track being played then immediately open Discogs in a new tab then head to YouTube in yet another tab to listen to other tracks by that artist. While this isn’t inherently bad, it makes “it super super fractured because what does the radio program give you? It gives you someone else’s curation and so that must be something people value enough to want to listen. Having the time span to actually listen in real time is an even greater challenge even though it arguably has a far greater reach and accessibility.” For Brendan the result is people experiencing the “entire culture of everything without curation. You have to search out curation and this is what makes DJs so important.”

Time, Duration

Many livestream parties happening under lockdown won’t live on the internet beyond the event, making them more temporally akin to the older days of FM radio. Like internet radio, anyone can tune in from their respective time zones. However, unlike either radio platform or the two-hour Boiler Room set, a techno party transpires for no less than six hours. Added to this durational element is techno’s associative time within the 24-hour cycle. Just as time of day becomes a fundamental quality to an Indian raag, live techno feels characteristically nighttime in structure. This makes the livestream party an interesting experience for those joining in from time zones distant from the actual location of the livestreamed party.

No Way Back is an iconic after party sharing the same name as Adonis’s iconic Chicago house track and a staple of Detroit’s annual Movement festival for the past 12 years. When festival organisers announced that Movement wouldn’t happen this year because of COVID19 there was no intention to try and recreate No Way Back online. Usually spanning about 15 hours, No Way Back is understood as a tactile experience, a safe place to lose yourself. Brendan and Erika’s original feeling was that streaming “sucks”, particularly under lockdown. “It’s too intimate for all the wrong reasons,” Erika explained, using the example of watching a well-respected DJ perform to the backdrop of an unmade bed and dirty socks.

But after more than a month of lockdown there was a needed outlet to focus energy. It was also an opportunity to experiment, to see if it was possible to get together virtually in a way that felt like community. There is a sense among those I spoke to that COVID19 has “reset” attention spans and this was one way to test that. The key question was how to make it subtle so that the experience would be what Brendan described as a “slow burn,” conveying a sense of timelessness akin to the actual event.

Timelessness is what you feel while listening on the dance floor, it is something I sometimes experience while listening to BBC’s Late Junction on a solitary Friday night. We might observe that timelessness is not necessarily foreign to being on line. This is perhaps the sensation that emerges from the dialectical weave between the physical and virtual as described by Goldsmith. However, reflecting on Virillo’s loss of ‘real time’ when describing virtualization, it’s easy to imagine positive and negative forms of timelessness when it comes to the internet. Even if the Boiler Room DJ is incredible, it remains all surface with no substance. I feel neither appreciation for the imagined club space nor sound projected through my speakers. I have no sense of awareness of presence, virtually or physically. I am distracted by everything and nothing.

I’d argue that the link between timelessness and listening comes from attention. Reflecting on Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening Practice, Mohamed Khaldi (2005: 63) writes: “if ‘attention’ is the act of using our senses, it begins with the ability to concentrate.” This gives way to appreciation, care, even affection for the experience of listening.

Martin Zebracki uses the term techno-space interchangeably with techno-scene to emphasize Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of ‘assemblage’ as applied to the configurations of bodies, sound, and matter while concluding: “There is still considerably little known about how the techno-space is experienced” (2016: 112). This last comment feels particularly acute in spring of 2020. While the academic and raver in me loathes the idea that that listening to techno requires the internet, I’m mindful that listening cannot be tainted by nostalgia. The virtual techno parties happening under lockdown are not the same as a Boiler Room pharmakon. They are not a supplement to the ‘original’ because the original—the physical party—no longer exists in the here and now.

“You have to adapt to the context your given” Brendan explains. In fact, that was how techno was first born. By adapting the mechanical repetition of the automotive factory and transforming it into subtle rhythmic pulsations, Detroit techno is an example of the way in which music can simultaneously embrace and reject any context thrust upon it.  

Although there is a genuine “sound system problem”, as explained by Bryan when describing listening under lockdown, deep listening isn’t entirely dependent on high-fidelity. Khaldi’s second level of attention is “the ability to process our external environment through our senses by taking an interest (2005: 63).” Under lockdown we no longer have an internal or external environment and time feels very slippery. As we listen to techno music projected across the internet while sheltering in place we are discovering how to listen in new spaces, under new conditions. While the bodily listening that occurs on the dance floor is harder to arrive at, necessity and desire reanimate how we exist in our small apartments and flats. We take interest in and awareness of new discoveries of bodily situatedness, all through the conduit of techno music.

To experience the sounds of No Way Back and the Bunker please go to:

https://interdimensionaltransmissions.com/podcast

https://thebunkerny.com/podcasts

Acknowledgements

This piece started as an auto-ethnography but thanks to the time given by Bryan Kasenic, Erika Sherman, and Brendan Gillen it became more historically contextual and focused on the people and process behind these new listening practices.

Morgan is a researcher fellow at the University of Leeds working across several projects, including Partnerships for Social Justice and place-based approaches to transport decarbonisation.  Coming from a transdisciplinary background, she focuses on public transport as a form of public space in motion; agency and negotiation in the context of everyday mobility of underrepresented populations. Email: m.f.campbell@leeds.ac.uk Twitter: @motionickness


[1] Although there are countless other examples of listening to techno off the dance floor my interest is not the quotidian act of listening to techno on headphones or at home but in a curated, temporally-bound delivery of techno.

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