Energy Flash: Too Much Of A Good Thing?

New electronic-music releases are exploding in quantity and quality.

[Editor's Note: Simon Reynolds is the author of 1999's "Generation Ecstasy," an encyclopedic journey through the first decade of dance-music culture. This is the first installment of Energy Flash, a monthly column about electronic music. He can be contacted at members.aol.com/blissout.]

Contributing Editor Simon Reynolds writes:

There's a record store in downtown Manhattan that always strikes me as a kind of metaphor for the state of dance music.

The store is choked with vinyl, chockablock. The wall racks are so densely layered with overlapping 12-inch singles that you can only see a narrow strip of each sleeve's right side — the artist name and track titles are concealed, so you can't scan the walls to find what you want, forcing you to peer up close at the label, where the store has printed the artist, track and label info in tiny type.

The record bins, too, are so tightly crammed you can barely extract the discs from their sections; sleeves are torn and vinyl scuffed. Underneath the shelves there's an overflow of back stock extending so far out into the aisles that customers often have to put a foot on top of the vinyl sprawl just to reach the bins or the listening decks. And at every Technics station, there's a tense-looking, perspiring kid in headphones with a teetering stack of new tunes, skipping through the tracks with the stylus, trying to make to-buy-or-not-to-buy decisions based on four seconds of intro, four seconds of groove, four seconds of breakdown, all in the desperate attempt to keep up with dance culture's Niagaran torrent of product.

This record store is just about the only one left in New York that still tries to stock every kind of dance-floor-oriented music: all the myriad subgenres of house, techno, trance, drum & bass and breakbeat. (Its one concession to sanity: skimping on experimental electronic music and CDs). Other Manhattan stores have narrowed their focus to just hard techno, or just deep house, or just jungle. But precisely because of this particular store's valiant attempt to encompass all the tributaries of the post-rave delta, it's getting harder to use the place, so overcrowded is it with records and customers trying to get at them.

And that's what makes this place symbolic: It mirrors the increasingly challenging-to-navigate nature of electronic dance music, given its hyper-productivity and its bewildering profusion of styles.

Everything Under House Music's Roof

Ten years ago, when rave culture first started to take off in North America, it still was physically possible to monitor the best output of every subgenre — a full time job, sure, but feasible if you were dedicated and determined. There weren't that many scenes to check, after all — everything was under the umbrella of house music back then, even techno. Today, it would take most of your time and energy to stay on top of drum & bass, or minimal techno, or garage, or any single genre — such is the high turnover of releases and the vast number of independent labels and self-released records. This double whammy of stylistic splintering combined with an ever-increasing volume of releases is the reason why more and more people get on a narrow track and become obsessed with just one kind of music.

Take trance, for instance. Until a few years ago I'd always thought it was a homogenous and basically unified genre, but all of sudden, that same Manhattan store had an entire wall of trance divided into a bunch of microgenres.

Then I met this English psychedelic trance DJ and, curious whether she checked out stuff outside the psy-trance ghetto, asked what she thought of hard-trance warrior Commander Tom, progressive trance god Paul Oakenfold and others. She just looked blank. Clearly, to be on top of your game as a psy-trance DJ, you have to develop tunnel-vision focus.

Diagnosing the dance-vinyl glut, it's tempting to deploy terms like "cultural overproduction" or "excess of access." But it's not like the do-it-yourself boom is generating mountains of mediocrity that are snowcapped with 1 percent brilliance. If anything, there's too much good stuff out there — well made, intelligently conceived, tastefully executed and deserving of attention. The same cheap music-making technology that enables the do-it-yourself phenomenon to continue mushrooming also is allowing people to make studio-quality records at home. An unexpected side effect of all this abundance, though, is a sort of optical illusion: The landmark records don't stand out so starkly against the plains of lameness.

Producers Boost Profiles

It also means it's harder for producers to make money, with typical sales of a good 12-inch (i.e., not a huge anthem) in most genres hovering between 1,000 and 2,000 (and that's worldwide). Many producers only make tracks to boost their profile as DJs, which is where there's some good dough to be made.

As demanding as it is for consumers faced with dance-music overload, there's no turning back the clock — the DIY genie is out of the bottle. Ultimately, do-it-yourself and release-it-yourself, as ideals and as practices, have been fantastic for electronic music. It just means that you have to abandon the notion of keeping tabs on all the good stuff from across the entire genrescape and accept that you're inevitably going to miss some great records.

One aspect of the DJ's job, and a sort of justification for the fat fees these guys charge, is their processing function: sifting through the pretty-decent stuff and finding the nuggets of genius to string the pearls together into a stellar set or slamming mix-CD. Well, that's how it's supposed to work, anyway.

Meanwhile, last time I went to that downtown Manhattan store, the overstuffed racks were almost falling off the walls. I'm waiting to read about the first record retail catastrophe: Aspiring Disc Jockey Crushed By Vinyl.