Notes on disappearing (virtual) spaces


When MNML SSGS finished a few years ago, it really felt like it was time. That project had run its course. Closing it when we did is certainly not a decision PC or I regret at all. It was definitely the right one. But the core ethos that underpinned it – the desire to create a critical, alternative space free of (direct) monetary and other influences motivated by a genuine care for the music we love – this thinking remains very relevant and important. I have been reflecting on this with the recent announcement that LWE is scaling down its operations (presumably a prelude to its eventual closure, you would have to think), and ISM also coming to an end. While we certainly had a differences with both Infinite State Machine (ISM) and Little White Earbuds (LWE), it struck me that for the most part we were operating in a roughly similar space and contributing to a broadly similar project (Test Industries and Random Circuits were other important blogs working in a similar vein). This kind of alternative, blog-based space that we were operating in is for the most part disappearing. This is not to deny that there are some similar sites which remain – Tea And Techno and Teshno – are two ones that come to mind, but the authors of these sites – like many others – distribute their time and writing between paid gigs for the bigger sites and their personal projects. Indeed, it strikes me that one reason this kind of blog space is disappearing is that the big sites – RA, FACT, Pitchfork, Junoplus, Quietus – are taking most of the writers. If you want to pursue a ‘career’ in music journalism (if such a thing is still possible), this inevitably means finding a way into working for the big sites. This means blogs and other smaller sites become stepping stones. Useful to build profile and a name until you can get a foot in with the bigger platforms. LWE seemed to really suffer from this – after a while it seemed like it became a place for new writers to earn their stripes before moving onto gigs at these larger entities. To be clear, this is an observation, not a criticism. For example, Will Lynch is someone who used to write for LWE who has moved onto becoming one of the few consistently high quality writers at RA.

Of course, it is not that simple, there are other factors at play. In the case of SSGS, we just got tired. It takes a lot of time and energy to do one of these projects. I am sure some of the people at these other sites must have felt similar fatigue. This is my first time doing a think piece like this in ages, because for the most part, I don’t have much I want to say these days, and if I do, Twitter tends to be a much easier forum to say it. And then you’ve got people from LWE and ISM who are running labels and producing music. So quite a few of these people have moved on to other stuff. Fair enough, but when you’ve got some people getting tired, others choosing to focus their energies elsewhere, and others aiming for moving to the big sites, it means that you don’t have many people left to keep this alternate space going and active.

Another important factor in all of this is that the paradigm for providing content related to electronic music has effectively run its course. Reviews are becoming increasingly meaningless – sites do them because they provide quick and easy content, writers tend to do them because they have to (to develop their profile or earn a paltry wage), most artists and labels just want them for promo, and most people read them to validate existing opinions. Writing a good review takes time and effort, but rarely is it a rewarding and worthwhile exercise. On a similar tip, podcasts as a creative medium are basically finished. There can still be great mixes, but there is not much new to be done with them as a format. We’ve had long mixes, short mixes, live recordings, dancefloor mixes, ambient mixes, introspective mixes, influences mixes, the works… Simply put, there is not much that hasn’t been done with mixes. So we still listen to mixes, some of them are still good / great, but a certain excitement / spark that used to be there is perhaps gone. Even with the big series, it seems like it is much harder today for people to get excited about mixes. They have simply have become too common. And unfortunately we are returning to a situation where the quality of most mixes series is pretty crap too.

So it seems that there are a bunch of forces pushing us in a direction that is closing this kind of critical, alternative space that existed… We are moving towards a situation in which there are the big platforms and a very splintered ‘rest’, with not much in between. Over the last few years quite a lot of people have asked / suggested why we don’t start up MNML SSGS again. Well, beyond the fact that we are totally done with it, that space and that moment is gone. We need something different now. And we need new voices… Surely not everyone has to be motivated by chasing an internship at RA…

A new paradigm is needed, but what could this be? I don’t know. But what I am sure about is that the online discourse surrounding electronic music is becoming increasingly homogenous and conservative. And what makes it difficult is that a lot of the forces and pressures bringing this situation about are structural and hard to counteract. I wrote about this phenomenon a few years ago in a post called ‘the climate of electronic music’. I think a lot of the issues I talked about there have only been amplified in the last few years. One important trend that has become much more significant since I wrote that piece is the role of social media. While this brings us all closer together, it also makes the vast majority self-censor to avoid the inevitable blowback from saying anything that differs with the “critical” consensus. On this, I find it rather amusing that Tonka and his WEEKLY REVIEW OF DANCE MUSIC, which began partly as a reaction to places like SSGS sometimes taking everything a bit too seriously, has actually slowly morphed into one of the few genuinely critical and independent voices left in this disappearing blog space. Discussing an online spat with Mixmag, Tonka beautifully summed up a lot of what concerns me:

Thank fuck I don’t rely on traffic or ads to make a living. Thank fuck I make more money in three months than an online electro/bass editor makes in a year. Thank fuck I don’t have to care about the influence of Mixmag to stop me from piping up online about how shit SOME of their output is. Thank fuck that I’m Tonka. Thank fuck that I can write freely and am not obliged to copy and paste and share all of the PR shit that gets emailed to me every fucking day. Thank fuck that I can use discretion. Thank fuck that my job is not to hype hype hype the fuck out of whoever my boss has told me to hype hype hype. So, fuck Seb Wheeler. Fuck Chubby Funster. Fuck all the PR people who send me impersonal, badly written emails with spelling mistakes all over the shop and fuck Mixmag. Fuck anyone who hasn’t got the confidence to say what they want to say about dance music because it might compromise a future job. Fuck you, learn some balls and then be nice about it.

You may simply say “fuck what anybody says or writes, the music is all that matters”. Well that music does not exist in a vacuum, and neither do the artists making it. For better and worse, online media does influence this music directly and indirectly by helping to make certain artists, labels and sounds popular or trendy, while ignoring other ones, which helps determine who is getting gigs and releases and so on. And, of course, many artists – especially up and comers – are reading and following a lot of this too. So to simply say none of what is written matters is a very limited and shallow understanding of some of the social context that helps give shape to the music.

So where does this leave us? I am not sure… But it seems like one imperfect space is disappearing, and I am not sure much of alternative has appeared yet. This increasingly flat, safe and blando take on electronic music that is filling up most online media is a problem, and I hope we find new ways of supporting the music we love in a genuine and critical fashion.


  1. JackyApreal said:

    Totally on point. As someone who likes to read about “underground” electronic music and discover new music thru blogs, I find I have less selection then I did two years ago. Beyond the two mentioned (tea and teshno), I like “secret thirteen” site. Anyone have any other suggestions?

    • Chris J. said:

      i find quite nice

  2. Pa_ said:

    You have vocalised something that I had observed myself without consciously realising it. Resident advisor feels like an overly polished promotional product now and I completely lost interest and stopped reading it in the last few years. Meanwhile there has been an increased availability of music on sites like youtube and sound cloud. I find myself being linked to this stuff myself via social networking sites. So while I am not stuck for music to dig through, social networking sites have too small an attention span. Even when thought out posts are (rarely) made it is difficult to search and organise. Wading through a news feed every day is tedious and distracting.

    I wasn’t up to date on the blogs mentioned. Will check them out, thanks.

  3. worm said:

    the Weekly Review of Dance Music (wrdm) is brilliant

  4. Tonka said:

    Thank you very much for your kind words. The amount of shit I read on and offline disturbs me, and I mean shit in every sense. Just down to the basic level of English in almost all of the PR I receive. Lazy.

    This is the full post:

    To be honest, I couldn’t really give a fuck what Mixmag do. It was just an excuse to have an extended pop at two of their staffers who don’t like WRDM.

  5. Sam Mee said:

    Perhaps the online world is increasingly reflecting the real?

    Many of the larger cities I’m familiar with are deep in a process of gentrification as their authorities seek income maximisation via commercial development and/or the reification of traditional structures (The The Open Air Museum Effect), facilitating high rents and increasing the number of residents who inhabit the upper echelons of the socio-economic scale.

    As a result there are apparently fewer spaces for genuine innovation, reaction and general anarchy: values on which our music has traditionally thrived and which has encouraged processes of (almost) constant renewal and reinvigoration.

    It would appear that outside of the meat market (with some few notable exceptions), we generally have the ‘traditional’ clubs appealing to the lowest common denominator ‘house’ music, (and you can be lucky if you get that), and ‘warehouses’ and bars designed to look like squats ran by businessmen selling hyper-realities, all licensed and legal and profitable.

    We all need to make money to live, it’s the system we’re a part of, but the overt and ever-increasing commercialisation of our societies is obviously having an effect on the spaces we live in physically and inhabit via the WWW.

    The effect appears to be that alternative spaces off-line and on, and the values such spaces thrived on and simultaneously represented are slowly being eradicated from within (via complicit participants in the scene held ultimately hostage by the wider-system and the need to be commercially viable), and without via the usual laws, bureaucracy and financial pressures.

    It’s like the wider-system is reaching critical mass, with the last remaining spaces exempt from the cold logic of post-industrial capitalism being slowly but surely bent and distorted and brought kicking and squealing into the arena of profit.

    It would therefore appear that we are now within reach of the penultimate scenes concerning the commodification of everything; I would argue that the developments witnessed within our own particular cultural niche are a direct manifestation of that process and the socio-cultural reality it correspondingly creates.

  6. Chris a really interesting post, and I agree with you – there is a need for an independent space free of the relentless hype of the release schedule and PR machine. Personally speaking, there are releases I reviewed this year that I would love to have had more time to digest. Especially for albums, we should be given a few months’ lead-in time!

    The only problem is this; to create something like that, you need to invest a lot of time, which indirectly is going to cost a lot of money. So unless you are being bankrolled by someone or something, it’s really difficult to dedicate the time required to create/update an alternative space – and if you are receiving assistance, then you are still going to be in someone/something’s pay, so never entirely free.

    Just a point I wanted to make about the Test Industries blog; I set this up after I had spent 10 years working as a music journalist for print magazines, so I wasn’t trying to get a foothold as a journalist, but I set it up with the express desire to create an alternative space for topics, issues and opinions that couldn’t be covered in print format. I gave it up because my life got too busy and there was no point in doing a half-assed version of it.

    I often think that there would be great value in doing a long-form blog/website but keep it subscriber based, which would keep out any of the casual, superficial users. They already have enough options!

  7. Thanks for putting all that in writing, Chris, and sharing reliable resources. Maybe a good future format is plain silence. Before I started engaging in more music related work I used to listen non-stop, without much context or point to the affair. The more involved I got, and I suspect this is similar to where you’re coming from, I learned a deeper appreciation for tradition and what became regarded as “music of the people” or “folk music.” Honestly, I recommend picking up “A Very Short Introduction to Folk Music” from Oxford University, and relax for a moment with the notion that electronic music can be folk music too. What I don’t care for about it is how vacuous the culture around it can be. I look more kindly on longer standing traditions, where music is not pure entertainment, but facilitates a network of people’s growth and engaged education in different age groups simultaneously and over generations. Not much else matters. Opinions wax and wane and we forget about how ruffled we get over them over time. So why harbour them?

    I advocate the silent approach as a means of reconsidering what the world really needs. Not a total ascetic silence without consumption, but less words and sounds to fill a room or people’s heads so each of us individually can find ourselves in the world of music around us and in those nodes we seek out, such as intersticessg.

    Hope this adds something to your thread and isn’t just another weighty opinion. M.

  8. jojo said:

    i find most of my leads to new music via the people i follow on twitter (mostly musicians and DJs-not journalists), in my non-virtual world i am increasingly surrounded by people and their music that is force fed (streamed) based on some math formula and no one bats an eye or could ever be bothered to think critically about it as there will always be a next song and so not much is demanded of it (let alone a discussion about it)–it mostly just fills the void of silence and that it does. It fits in perfectly with the gentrified city (see above post).

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