NotBloc: How The Dance Community Rescued The Rave
, July 9th, 2012 11:19
The pragmatic and positive responses to Bloc's closure this weekend are reminders of the solidarity and community values that beat at the heart of dance music, argues Rory Gibb
This slot on the site was originally slated for a review of Bloc Weekend. Their inaugural edition in London - it was previously housed at ATP-style seaside holiday camps, most recently Butlin's in Minehead - it marked a real jump upward in ambition for the festival, taking place at a rather spectacular looking new venue in the Docklands, with a hike in capacity accompanied by an attendant rise in the profile of its headline acts. But despite a slick and wide-reaching press and social media campaign, it's to their credit that they retained strong connections to the underground, with a line-up displaying the sort of wide-ranging and adventurous booking that would put most big-league festival promoters to shame. So by all accounts, its spectacular collapse this weekend, due to concerns for crowd safety, marked a genuinely sad note for electronic music in the capital.
Inevitably, the following days have been largely marked by hyperbole, unproved accusations of greed and oversales, angry retweets and some excruciatingly bad journalism. Such will inevitably be the case when very few concrete details are immediately released by the parties responsible for the festival's safe management, and make no mistake, none of them - promoters, ticketing agency, security firm, venue - come out of this mess looking particularly good. At time of writing the full story is still to be revealed - it remains to be seen whether it will ever fully come to light - but undoubtedly more details will trickle from the various camps involved over the next few days.
The Bloc fiasco is far from the only recent event to turn the glare of the media lens onto large scale dance music experiences. First was the turn of electro-house goon Deadmau5, whose assertion via a troll-like blog post that all live performers of electronic music did was "press play" wound up UK luminary A Guy Called Gerald to the point that he lashed back with a swift (and, it must be said, unfortunately pretty dubious) retort. Around the same time we published an opinion piece about how EMI's Electrospective - and its current stadium dance roster - portray modern electronic music's vibrant diaspora as a conservative and knuckleheaded evolutionary dead end. Veteran journalist Philip Sherburne, writing for his regular column in SPIN, then highlighted a series of positive responses to the US 'EDM' phenomenon (and Deadmau5's statement), including a brilliant and impassioned piece by Billboard's Kerry Mason about the true value of DJ culture.
There was another item of bad news this weekend, too: nine people were reported to have been stabbed at a performance in Dublin by one of EMI's leading EDM crews, Swedish House Mafia, an event which will doubtless turn media and political attention back to the age old conundrum of safety at major rave events. (It should be noted at this point that I'm in no way suggesting a causal connection between the act in question and the behaviour of the perpetrator(s) here, merely highlighting an event which would be horrendous no matter where it took place).
None of these seem likely to generate anywhere near the column inches that Bloc's closure will (and, indeed, has already done). However, the torrent of negativity that's already flooded the web in the wake of the event - much of it justified, but also a great deal of troubling speculation - risks overshadowing the pragmatic and overwhelmingly positive action taken on Saturday by a number of London promoters, many artists due to perform at the festival that day, and many ticketholders due to attend. Within a few hours of the announcement that Saturday's event would not take place, Twitter was alight with people discussing potential spaces for last minute alternative parties, where Bloc acts could still make their scheduled appearances. Over the course of the day plans swiftly began to materialise as a host of London promoters, some involved with Bloc directly, some independent, sourced club spaces and began to piece together line-ups. By the early evening plans were fully forged for a whole series of parties across the capital.
Plex, who were due to host a showcase with Perc Trax at the festival that evening, set up camp in Peckham's Bussey Building for a techno all-nighter featuring Truss, Surgeon, Objekt and Perc. Streets of Beige, Oscillate Wildly and Hyperdub teamed up to take over the Rhythm Factory for what by accounts was a raucous, sweaty, good-time affair, featuring most of the label's London roster plus Flying Lotus (with a surprise turn from The Weeknd). The latter two, impressively, also put in an appearance at XOYO, alongside Oneohtrix Point Never, Factory Floor, Darkstar and more. And in Peckham Palais, Jacques Greene, Actress, Martyn and more put in appearances. All were put together thanks to the concerted work of the parties involved in only a few hours - and all, save XOYO, were specifically designated as free for Bloc ticketholders (the latter was still only a fiver in).
Witnessing events unfold from home via Twitter (any opportunities for fun this weekend were sadly marred by being ill) was a hugely pleasurable reminder of the passion, dedication to group action and solidarity that are cornerstones of the dance music community. Even above the music itself, they were the aspects that first drew me to it, and continue to inspire me to renew my vows every time I start feeling jaded. A few years ago, while living in Bristol for university, what struck me about the city's hugely vibrant and evolutionary electronic music scene was its openness and the sense of connectivity that ran through the vast majority of small scale events there. Away from the major raves at larger venues, here was a dedicated group of people - fans, artists, promoters, record shop staff - who put on events, made music, and would turn out in support of others; all provided a vital heartbeat to pump oxygen around the scene and keep it vibrant and energetic.
At the time dubstep was really starting to establish a firm hold on Bristol's underground, and the effect of this closeness on the quality of the music the city produced was as striking as the friendliness of the people involved. A recent article in New Scientist (The Goldilocks Network, Zella King, No. 2866) explored how creativity can be enhanced by connectivity. Research suggests that small networks of people, bolstered by individual connections to other hubs further afield, can allow new ideas to enter a community and flow from person to person, helping build on innovative ideas, and establish and solidify new ones. Over the years in Bristol, the bouncing of ideas and influences between local producers has generated (and continues to spawn) some stunning and incredibly inventive dance music. You need only look at similar groupings in London, Berlin, Detroit and countless other cities to see similar effects. Solidarity, community and collective action aren't just crucial to the health of a party scene - they're also drivers for innovation in the music that it creates.
As much as anything else, that's another convincing reason to be suspicious of the rockist approach taken by stadium dance performers, where a single star is the centre of attention and action, and the crowd are witnesses rather than participants. Ideas calcify and dry up when constant creative feedback is stemmed in favour of one-directional flow. A more impersonal crowd/performer dynamic is similarly inevitable when bringing underground dance music to large scale festival events such as Bloc 2012, and it's frequently easy as an attendee to become disillusioned by the sheer scale and detachment of a 15,000 person venue.
Before getting ill, I was planning to attend another revered house/techno festival this weekend, taking place at the same time as Bloc, but representing something ostensibly different. Freerotation remains - and will continue, thanks to its organisers' convictions, to remain - small scale, and rooted in community. At its heart lie simple and low key values: appreciation of shared experiences on the dancefloor, the creation and maintenance of strong bonds between people, the love of being played brand new music by trusted DJs, the feeling of being guided to new sounds, conversations and ideas by people that you might not necessarily know, but you implicitly trust. They're maintained thanks to its small size, loyal group of returning attendees, and a strong sense of continuity: a small pool of residents, including Move D, Shackleton, Tama Sumo, Lakuti, festival organiser Steevio and the Hessle Audio crew, play every year, and their sets are frequently the highlights of the weekend.
On the surface, Bloc, by contrast, seemed an increasingly monolithic beast - especially with this year's move to such a large venue. But look deeper: the majority of people involved in making Bloc happen, regardless of the catastrophic outcome of the event's management, are still passionately connected to these networks, and bound by their love of forward thinking music and a good party. Witnessing artists, promoters, fans and venues so swiftly rallying together in the wake of the festival's closure was a hugely gratifying reminder of these roots. Even from this detached, bed-ridden vantage point, it was exciting to follow these positive actions, even amongst a sea of ill-founded accusations as to the reasons for the festival's collapse. It was also a reminder that the people who have been running Bloc for several years are similarly passion driven. From here, it seems faintly absurd to suggest, as many have done, that veteran promoters who'd sunk a great deal of time, love and financial risk into such an ambitious event would have risked their reputation by intentionally selling a few thousand extra tickets for extra cash. However, the jury's still out on the truth of the matter, so I may yet eat my words. (It should also be noted that I'm in no way absolving Bloc's organisers of the responsibility for the catastrophe that unfolded this weekend. The buck stops with them, though I hope that these events don't prove to be their total undoing.)
Dance music is bound together by more than the kicks and snares that make up its spinal column, or the tracks used by DJs as building blocks for sets, or the MIDI clock in Ableton Live that keeps everything ticking to a steady 4/4 time signature. It's about more than drugs, staying up all night and getting royally blasted (though that's often an important aspect). More than anything, it draws its power from the people that co-operate to make it happen. To become involved at ground level - even just as a regular attendee, getting to know other fans and dancers at a trusted night - is a unique experience, one reason why many people become so hopelessly addicted to it. It's a chance to become a node within a grassroots creative network, and a driver - conscious or not - of innovation, a blast of energy to help spark the creation of new music. These values are something worth keeping in mind, even as accusations are rightly inevitably directed at the various parties involved in the weekend's Dockland fiasco.