The Economics of Electronica

by: textwarez (2005/07/25) journal contents


Electronic pop has been with us since the late Sixties. From time to time it bubbbles up to the main stream, but usually resubmerges as quickly as it came up. Today's electronica boom-spearheaded by the chart successes of the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy - gains extra urgency from the fact that the major record labels are eyeing it as the successor to grunge, the next nexus of youth cult style. But that's happened before, too.

So if you're an artist interested in "breaking into" electronica, you've got a lot of homework to do. First, there's a daunting panaply of contemporary styles to assimilate : jungle, drum & bass, breakbeat, ambient, acid house, acid jazz, and trip-hop, just to scratch the surface. The nomenclature changes continually - as does the music, at a much faster pace than rock has in decades.

Still, most artist working in the medium can place themselves somewhere within this stylistic firmament; many can also trace how today's styles grew out of late-Eighties techno - the four-on-the-floor beat that propelled rave culture in Europe and some parts of the United States. The more history-minded among today's electronica artists will even tell you how techno evolved from Detroit house music and producers like Juan Atkinson, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson.

Present-day electronica has also been influenced by synth pop, industrial, hip-hop, dub reggae, disco, Seventies jazz-funk, and primordial electronic art rock from Can, Kraftwerk, Silver Apples, Eno, and others.

What current artists should you be listening to if you want to make this kind of music? A partial list would include Photek, Leftfield, Future Sound of London, Aphex Twin, Autechre, Orbital, Squarepusher, Loop Guru, Tricky, Atari Teenage Riot, Portishead, Boymerang, Goldie, the Orb, Morcheeba, Grooverider, the Sneaker Pimps, the Propellerheads, and Higher Intelligence Agency, as well as the artists quoted in this story. Yet important as each of these is to modern electronica, half will probably be forgotten in a year's time, with new names taking their places. The turnover rate in this genre is much quicker than in rock. And the electronic scene is much less based around the idea of stardom, with no Beatles, Dylans, Claptons, Springsteens, or U2s to follow into dotage.

In terms of production and dissemination - equipment, the DJ scene, 12"s, remixes, compilations, and the live scene - the rules of electronica are also very different from those of rock. In fact, they constitute a whole parallel movement - and, many would say, one more directed toward the future of music.


Perhaps even more than punk, electron-ica is DIY. Finished masters are routinely produced in modest home studios. "You can get a really high-quality recording with a very minimal amount of money and equipment," says L.A. rave promoter Gary Richards, who heads the ARM-distributed electronic label 1200 Records with Philip Blaine. "You don't have to take a four-member band into a good studio with a good board and a good engineer. If you have a sampler and a sequencer in your house, you can probably come up with a finished product that's just as good as the records that are out in the stores in this genre."

The minimum requirements for getting started may add up to about $2,000: In addition to the sampler and sequencer that Richards suggests, you'll also need a mixing console, speakers for monitoring, and a machine for recording your mixes (DAT, analog reel-to-reel, etc.). Of course, the major techno artists have much more than this, but many of them made their first singles on a more basic setup.

One tip: Even if your equipment budget is tight, don't skimp on the sampler; it's probably the most important piece of gear used in this style of music. Electronica is very much about the hypnotic power of looped samples and the textural possibilities of digital sound, radically manipulated via the sampler's edit facilities. Typically, a more powerful sampler is one of the first upgrades an artist in this genre will make. "We always used to run out of polyphony and outputs," laments John Coxon of Spring Heel Jack, a London duo whose angular, abstract, jungle-influenced style is setting new standards for electronic cool. One of their first moves after moving from Rough Trade to Island was to swap their Akai S1000 for an E-mu e-6400.

Sequencers, on the other hand, can be more modest in electronica applications. All of Spring Heel Jack's work was done on an old Atari 1040 ST running Steinberg Cubase. The same affordable setup was used by a slew of other artists from Britain, where Atari ST computers are only now starting to fall out of use. The venerable Alesis MMT-8 hardware sequencer is another standard on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as higher-end Mac systems running standard sequencer programs.

Most artists augment the sequencer/ sampler combination with one or more vintage analog synths, which are generally held in higher esteem than their digital counterparts. "Digital synths just sound like adverts to me," says Coxon, "all crisp and zingy. A Minimoog's much more interesting than something like a Roland D-50."

Real-time manipulations of analog synth filter parameters - such as sci-fi thwacks, undersea warbles, and stratos- pheric ululations produced by cutoff frequencies and contour amounts - are a key sound source in today's electronic dance and trance music. Old analog drum machines - particularly Roland TR-808s, - 606s, -303s, etc.- are also rated highly, but since these devices produce sounds of short duration, they're easily sampled, which means you can get most of their sounds from just about any sample library. Also, many people have begun using the new breed of synths, such as the Roland Jp-8000 and the Korg Prophecy, which use physical modeling to emulate vintage analog synth timbres.

The main point is to get gear with lots of knobs and sliders for maximum real-time control, rather than virtual controls on software pages that let you tweak only one parameter at a time. This is true not only for synths but all the way down the signal path: Contrary to popular belief, electroni-ca is very performance-oriented. It's just that the performance is based on what's usually thought of as the controls rather than the instrument.

"Part of our style of making music is that we play the mixing desk," says Coxon. "One problem we had when we upgraded our console is that you can't really do a dub on our new Yamaha 02R in the same way that you could on our old TAG Scorpion, because you have to call up parameters one at a time on the 02R. You can't have one person twisting an EQ knob while another is on a volume fader and another has got a big reverb on an echo return with all three things happening simultaneously."

Artists will often record their "non-MIDIable" real-time moves onto tape or hard disk, sample a few good one- or two-bar fragments of that recording, and then sequence those samples back into their track. To make this as easy as possible, electronic artists frequently invest in a hard-disk-based recording system with an integrated software sequencer.

Consider the Crystal Method, the L.A. duo who are currently the great white hope of American electronica. To make their latest album, Vers (Outpost Records), they added a Digidesign Pro Tools system to their arsenal, plus a more powerful Mac than the one they'd been using and a 24channel extension for their Mackie 32x8 console. Their label paid for the gear and "cost of living expenses": According to Method member Scott Kirkland, the whole thing came to about $25,000.

"Our lawyer described it to us as a fund," adds Kirkland's partner Ken Jordan. "Instead of having a budget like a rock record, a fund is set up, and we decide how the fund is allocated."

The advantages of this over the usual rock album scenario are decisive. Most of the recording budget goes for equipment that the artist gets to keep and use on subsequent projects, and this still comes out to a fraction of what it takes to make a rock record.

"Even with a rock band that's just starting out, it costs about $250,000 to make their record," Kirkland reckons. "And they end up making a record they don't want to make because the label sticks them with some producer. Our label liked what we were doing and wanted us to have total control. They weren't interested in changing our sound."


In rock and other established styles, home recordings are generally demos - music you put on cassettes and send around to labels in hopes that they'll sign you and send you into a big commercial studio to record the same music all over again. In electronica, your home recording is potentially a finished master for, say, a 12" vinyl single. That's what ambient strategist Jonah Sharp did with "Fluresence," the first single he recorded under the name Spacetime Continuum. Sharp formed his own small label, Reflexive; "Fluresence" was the imprint's first release. It launched a career that would ultimately lead to Spacetime Continuum's being signed to Astralwerks, the Virgin/ Caroline-distributed electronica powerhouse that's also home to the Chemical Brothers.

"We pressed just a thousand copies of 'Fluresence' at first," says Sharp, "and then re-pressed it a couple of times. A basic white-label [a vinyl disc with a generic white sleeve and center stickers] doesn't cost much more than $1.50 a unit to press, depending on where you go. If you press a thousand and sell them, you'll make your money back.

Distribution is the tricky part of putting out your own 12"s. "You're not going to sell as much as you can, or would hope to, unless you have a national independent or major distributor handling your stuff," says Forest, the head of San Francisco's Waveform lable, which specializes in ambient electronica.

So at some point it's probably best to hook up with a larger label. Fortunately, your self-pressed 12" can - and will - serve as a demo. "I do ARR straight out of my record box," says Jason Bentley, an influential L.A. DJ affiliated now with the Maverick label. "I get involved in the DJ network and pick up 12"s, white labels, and things like that. Honestly, I don't listen to many demo tapes. I'll go to clubs and listen for names that people are talking about, as far as who are the up-and-coming producers or artists. I don't get that if I'm popping in a demo tape from someone I've never really heard before."

"Twelve-inch singles are one way we find artists," says DJ Philip Blaine on behalf of himself and his 1200 Records partner, Gary Richards. "If you've got a good ear, you can hear somebody who has the potential to grow into an artist."

Which is to say, the DJ is king in this kind of music. Many label chiefs are Djs, and most artists go out and DJ in clubs often enough to stay in touch with what's happening on the dance floor. Some of the best electronica artists, such as the Chemical Brothers and the Propellerheads, are more DJs than musicians.

"That DJ mentality has a huge effect on our songwriting," says Karl Hyde of Underworld. Starting out as a standard-issue late-Eighties electro-pop act with guitars and hooky verse-chorus songs, Underworld made the transition to a more abstract, purely electronic style in the mid Nineties. Their 1996 LP Second Toughest in the Infants has been hailed as a milestone in electronica, and the ubiquitous "Born Slippy," Underworld's contribution to the Trainspotting soundtrack, became a youth anthem of sorts.

The evolution in Underworld's approach "came out of club culture," says Hyde, "the way a DJ will lay down a record, fly in another when it feels right, and then maybe come back to the original theme when that feels right. That might not be after sixteen bars; maybe after 47-and-a-half bars. That had a huge influence on us. A track becomes more like a classical piece, or even free jazz, where the music goes in the direction it needs to go, rather than fitting into a particular kind of format."


A savvy DJ can transform somebody else's record as well. And doing a remix of a rock or pop hit is another way for aspiring electronica artists to get attention. Mike Paradinas had done two albums under the name ?-Ziq (pronounced "music") on Aphex Twin's small Rephlex label. "But I got signed to Virgin [U.K.] through some radical remixes I did of the Auteurs," Paradinas explains. "The label released them as ?-Ziq vs. the Auteurs. They signed me up on the strengths of those remixes and the first two Rephlex albums I did. That's really the only reason I did the remixes. I figured, the Auteurs are on Virgin, so the project will give me quite a high profile. I knew I was basically giving them an album of my material for 53,000, which is a liter.le less than $5,000. h was a flat fee; there were no royalties, even though the record sold 25,000 copies. I thought it was worth it even though, businesswise, it wasn't strictly right. But doing the remix got me where I wanted."

Remixes are such a valuable source of exposure that people are even willing to do them for free. "If necessary, somehow get a remix on spec," advises Jason Bentley, "or just send in a remix to get the attention of an ARR or promotions person. That's how the Propellerheads did it: They put out three or four 12"s of their own, and did a whole bunch of remixes for Soul Coughing, 808 State, and other people. They also got a live show together and started performing at industry conferences, like MIDEM. Their strategy has been pretty effective. They're being hotly pursued by Dreamworks, Interscope, and all the major labels right now."


Because electronica is so singles-driven, multi-artist compilations play a huge role in the market, often outselling sin-gle-artist albums. This category includes traditionally sequenced compilations (with silences between the tracks) and mix CDs, on which a name DJ will crossfade the tracks, often varispeeding and otherwise manipulating them the way a DJ would do live in a club. As with remixes, the exposure an artist can gain from appearing on a compilation or mix CD is generally worth more than the actual money made from the deal.

"Usually the advances are about $1,000 to $2,000," says Bentley. (Prior to Maverick, Bentley was the head of ARR at the Island-distributed Quango imprint, which was set up specifically as a compilation label.) "Then the artist will get points on the record. It's a non-exclusive deal, so the artist can license the track to other people as well."

"You don't make a lot of money from compilations," says Paradinas. "Usually you just get ?500 to ?800 [about $800 to $1,300]. They give you an advance on royalties. But there are so many artists on there, and in England a lot of compilations are four-LP sets that they sell to the shops really cheap. They can sell a lot, but they make very little per record, so the advance is usually all
you get."

Electronica-heavy soundtrack albums like Trainspotting and The Saint are shap- ing up as an interesting - and lucrative - spinoff on the concept of the techno com- pilation. Instrumental and evocative, many of the new electronic sounds make ideal soundtrack material,. while the association with a major motion picture brings this music to a mainstream audience.

"Soundtracks are much more popular [than non-soundtrack compilations] by virtue of having a film and visual link," says Bentley. "People buy them to remember or re-experience a film they loved. I'm really surprised to see how much money Virgin put into The Saint. Their investment in things like television ads was incredible. It felt like that compilation encompassed a whole musical movement, but it's really just a bunch of Virgin bands."


It's no secret that major labels have been sniffing around electronic music in a big way over the past year or so. The prevailing model seems to be for a big label to form an alliance with a street-smart indie that's in touch with the electronic underground, or for the big label to provide seed money to start a small, street-hip indie. That's the strategy behind AR.M's pact with 1200, Island's deal with Quango, Columbia's arrangement with Ovum, and other deals.

"It's good because we get to do our thing as a small label," says 1200's Gary Richards. "But when we need the muscle, the money, the distribution, or the market- ing of a major label, we've got it."

The Crystal Method's situation is a little more complex. In 1994 their debut single, "Now Is the Time," was the first release from the L.A.-based indie label City of Angels. After a second single, "Keep Love Alive," came out on City of Angels, the group was signed to Outpost, which is distributed by Geffen.

"We're signed directly to Outpost under the condition that we still get to release vinyl on City of Angels," explains the Crystal Method's Ken Jordan. "Outpost has the support of Geffen, but then Outpost is using City of Angels for their expertise in knowing the whole street vibe. It's good for us, because we retain our street credibility by continuing to put out vinyl on City of Angels." "Smells like Sub Pop," Scott Kirkland chimes in.


Playing live is a good way to gain exposure on the electronic scene, although it's not as essential as it is for fledgling rock bands. While there have been a few major national package tours, the live scene is still in its infancy.

"Up until recently, there was no live touring infrastructure," says Brian Long. "You could do a party in Florida, one in L.A., and so on. But that's changing. The live avenue is becoming a legitimate way to develop an artist in this country."

Rather than wait for a national tour circuit to develop, the Crystal Method devised their own strategy. "We don't really go out on tour, from city to city," explains Ken Jordan. "Instead we go do a show, come back home, go do another show. It's pretty much weekends. But they're really big shows - generally 2,000 kids. The promoter charges fifteen or twenty bucks a pop, so we don't lose money. We never have. When we signed to Outpost, they asked us about touring, and we told them what we regularly do anyway. They were like,'Really? Wow!'"

Beyond the logistical problems of touring electronica in the States, there are a few aesthetic challenges. Mike Paradinas sums up the issue succinctly: "Rock R, roll is basically live music, which they try to recreate, on one level or another, in the studio. It's the opposite way with electronic music: You're trying to create what you do in the studio when you go play live."

Then there's the visual issue: One or two performers standing behind banks of keyboards doesn't usually make for much of a show. To solve this problem, artists have resorted to video projections, laser light shows, even dance troupes. Some of these ideas have made for entertaining spectacles, but a problem remains.

"There's usually no visual connection between any movement being made onstage and any sound that's coming out - that whole thing of seeing a guitar player hit his guitar and then hearing a power chord," observes Scott Kirkland of the Crystal Method. "So right from the start, our idea was to set up as close to the edge of the stage as possible and play as much as we could live. We play all the featured parts and all the chord progressions. The drums, of course, have to be sequenced. But at least when we move a mod wheel, the audience can see and hear what's happening."

Jonah Sharp, a.k.a. Spacetime Continuum, agrees: "Technology is getting so clever and reliable that there's no longer any excuse for not really playing. People should approach playing live as something completely different than making music in the studio. You can just have a starting point in your sequence and leave open possibilities for improvisation."

But live sets by techno bands were never meant to play the same central role in an evening's entertainment as a live set by a rock band. At rave-style events, the live performances happen between DJ sets. And most of the crowd turns out for the DJs. "It's not the old rock thing," says Sharp. "Nine o'clock: support band. Eleven o'clock: main band. Then everyone goes home. And in between bands you stand around drinking watered-down beer and breathing in cigarette smoke."

"Look at it this way," Jordan offers. "There's a million rock bands out there, and a million rock clubs in every city, and they have bands every single night of the week. And none of them is a big event. We're so lucky, because when we play these parties it's a big event, a thing that happens maybe once a month in that city. It's an incredible place to showcase because it's something the audience is really looking forward to. It's not like someone's dragged them down to a bar with bad lights, bad sound, and bad air conditioning."


Post-techno electronica is at more or less the same point where rock R roll was circa 1965. The innocence hasn't quite died yet. It's still about great singles and how kids move on dance floors. There's all kinds of utopian talk about giving the music away for free on the Internet. Live performances are makeshift events at art galleries and other alternative venues, where nobody's exactly sure what's supposed to happen. Lighting cues and guitar effects haven't been worked out in tedious detail over decades of turgid arena shows.

So enjoy it while you can. Take creative and financial advantage of the confusion that always reigns as the major labels try to get a grip on some new musical phenomenon. But you'd better move fast: The main-streaming process is well underway. The three-and-a-half-minute, radio-friendly remix has already become a fairly pat formula. Major labels have also figured out that electronic tracks with vocals sell far better than those without. A few majors are planning to crossbreed electronica with metal to rope in the Beavis and Butthead demographic.

"I'm worried that the industry, in its haste, will just look for the easy payoff and not develop anything here," Bentley cautions. "I hope the lessons we may have learned by going through 'alternative' - being able to mainstream punk or alternative culture - have taught us lessons that we'll value in the growth of electronica."

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