Media Circus: Just Say Techno

Music industry writers are pounding the drums, announcing techno as the Next Big Thing. Get the coffin ready!

By Gavin McNett
March 21, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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when the news began filtering in that techno music was poised to conquer America, it seemed sensible to shrug it all off. It's something of a tradition after all, here in the late '90s, for music writers to whoop up a rain dance in their underwear about how the new electronic music is going to crush rock 'n' roll forever -- any day now and for real this time.

But it seems like it's finally time to start paying attention.


The music press is howling with techno talk. Rolling Stone puts it most bluntly in its March 20 issue: "Is techno the new alternative?" The online journal Rocknews puts it less succinctly by asking, "Is electronica the new alternative to alternative?" And even the hardly-hip Entertainment Weekly is in on the coming revolution. With "the bloom ... off the alternative-rock rose," the March 14 issue asks in an eight-page spread, "will a moribund music industry look to techno for an answer?"

Apparently so. The major record labels, the magazines say in chorus, are conjuring up multimillion-dollar deals for proven techno acts, like the new, retooled Prodigy -- who (with the addition of a peppy, spike-haired front man) have already scored a crossover hit with the radio- and video-friendly "Firestarter." L.A. rave clubs, it's reported, are thick with suits waving contracts, and established stars like David Bowie, U2 and even Eric Clapton (!) are hopping aboard the "electronica" train.

All of which is to say: Pity poor techno, 'cause the scene is about to get bulldozed.


Whenever this sort of marketing frenzy boils up around an insular, underground music scene (and, in America at least, that's what techno has been), the only real question left on the boards is whether to order lilies or dahlias for the memorial service. It's not vanguardism to say that success ruins underground music: It's a matter of pure statistics. Whenever any artist -- or any group of artists -- makes the jump from cult status into the mainstream, there are heavy compromises to be made if one is to be a "success." Indeed, the very nature of success changes drastically when big money enters the picture. Up until now, techno acts have been content to be cult icons, selling, say, 25,000 copies of CDs. In the underground, an artist's intentions or integrity matter far more than the number of records sold; it's the doing that's the thing -- not the fame that comes from it. In the mass market, of course, it's the other way around.

Nobody at the present time, for instance, would dispute that a high school kid from Minneapolis who works on remix tapes in his basement is a part of the techno scene. But when the labels start swooping down onto Minneapolis (and they will, if there's any reason to), if the kid can't climb on board with them, he'll turn from a techno scenester into a has-been -- suddenly finding himself a spectator in a scene he helped to build.

When the change comes, very few of the people now involved will be happy about where they'll land afterwards. Sure, Prodigy will sell a ton of records. But most techno artists -- in fact, the overwhelming majority of techno artists -- are going to be left stranded. No underground music scene in the history of Western pop music has ever weathered that change and remained intact.


That's not to say there isn't hope for techno. Punk has been blown out of its hole two or three times, depending on how one counts these things, and each time, after the crowds have had their chuckle and wandered off again, it's skulked right back underground and pulled the hatch closed over its head. No doubt, after all the Prodigies and DJ Spookies and weirdo Eric Clapton projects have done their business on the domestic charts, yielding finally to some Toni Braxton or another, there'll still be kids in Minneapolis making remix tapes in their basements, and techno imports flowing in from England (where punk never died either, FYI), and 25,000-copy indie CDs sweeping the dance-club floors if not the Billboard charts. But any ex-punk will tell you, as I'm telling you now, that you're never a virgin after your first time around.

Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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