Ravers Meet the Big Time
As electronica continues its quest for the mainstream, it's been interesting to watch the reactions of the media, fans and the music industry behind the push. The latter's motivations shouldn't be too much of a mystery. After all, according to a recent report in 'Forbes', sales of rock releases in the U.S. are down from 46 percent of the total market in 1987 to 33 percent last year, while sales of tried-and-true catalog titles, from Sinatra to the Stones, have dried up.Electronica, the latest untapped thing, seemed like the perfect antidote to a slumping industry. Certainly the cultural zeitgeist is moving in that direction; when Nike shot a recent series of sneaker commercials, it wasn't the familiar crunching guitar chords of hard rock they chose as the soundtrack, but the breakbeats of drum and bass. Rock and roll may not be dead (and it has certainly shown an uncanny ability to reinvent itself decade after decade, just when things look bleakest) but it does smell funny, and it no longer automatically has the youthful, cutting-edge aura that corporations like Nike are looking to wrap around their products.Moreover, record companies couldn't just sense money in electronica, they could actually see it. Across the country, from New York to L.A., from Tampa to Cleveland, independent promoters were regularly grossing upwards of $80,000 in cash from raves, and all without any radio or press support. Of course, the industry assumed that ticket sales to raves were an accurate barometer to potential sales of CDs -- which hasn't been borne out yet. Ravers still seem to be devoting the bulk of their disposable income to fashion and chemicals, not the 'Billboard' charts. The artists too, have proved problematic. It's hard to sell instrumental pieces created by faceless DJs on 12" records to a mass audience, especially if they take a good three or four minutes to really get rolling. This has meant that the record companies have tended to set aside many of the truly innovative techno artists for groups that sound like, well, rock and roll bands. Hence, the blitz behind the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy -- who not only have choruses you can sing along to, but a tattooed and pierced frontman willing to lip-synch for the video camera and jump around on stage, just like a proper rock star.Once you've got your artists signed, industry wisdom dictates you send them out on the road, which has given us two competing rave package tours criss-crossing the country, the Electric Highway and the Big Top.The Big Top lineup (on this tour) is something of a motley crew, taking in many acts whose relevance to the scene seems dictated more by agents and managers than by a desire to round up the cream of international electronica. One of the exceptions is the Headrillaz, a British outfit whose debut, 'Coldharbour Rocks', is a satisfying fusion of hiphop, fuzzed-out beats and -- rock and roll. By phone from London, Darius Kedros, one third of the Headrillaz along with his brother Caspar and step-brother Saul, explained his newfound flirtation with the dreaded rock beast."When we used to play out, it would have everybody nodding their heads and swaying their hips, but it never really whipped the crowd up. It just pissed us off! Me and Caspar grew up playing in punk bands and we missed making a real racket and having the audience go ballistic."The main attraction of the show, however, is undoubtedly Detroit techno producer Derrick May, whose late '80s' work, alongside contemporaries Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, is considered one of the defining blueprints of the genre. Indeed, that recorded output could be seen as having a similar relation to Detroit that Motown had almost 25 years earlier, and the stark aural landscape of singles like "Strings of Life" and "Beyond the Dance" seems much more suited to evoking the spirit of the post-riot city than Smokey Robinson.Speaking to the British press, May angrily reflected on the newfound attention the varied strains of techno have been receiving. "The commercial motherfuckers are still as clueless as they were six months before they ever heard of this music. They are already talking about when it is going to die." One of the Big Top's main architects, Marcie Weber of MCT Management, explained her operating philosophy for taking electronica out of the warehouses with their outlaw vibe and into the light -- a delicate balancing act between maintaining underground credibility, placating corporate interests eager to associate with the world of electronica, all the while attempting to hold onto fans wary of the scent of big business."Traditionally, the people that promote concerts -- their normal medium is radio and print. But there is no supporting medium [for raves]. There's no infrastructure."So how does the Big Top reach the grass-roots? "We're using all the local kids to do it for us... for instance, Rob Sherwood, who is the closest thing to the underground that I know (in Cleveland). He knows how to do street promotion."As for the traditional promoters like Belkin (who are handling the Cleveland Big Top date), venue owners, and local law enforcement more comfortable with the practices of the rock world, Weber explains, "I come from that world of touring and concert promotion. They're talking to somebody they know.... Our motivation was to have a facility that had bathrooms, was accessible, wasn't going to be shut down, has all the necessary insurance, all the amenities that I think are important when you're charging someone to get in somewhere. I don't want people walking through an ocean of unknown liquid to get to a toilet."Another indicator of the corporate muscle involved is revealed in the tour's co-manager, the William Morris Agency -- about as old-school Hollywood as you can get -- and its main sponsor, Budweiser. The beer manufacturer has already been sponsoring rave package tours in Europe with some of America's most esteemed talent, but this initial foray into the American market is a far cry from their more familiar local beneficiaries -- which this week includes Bryan Adams and Boston. Consider it a bellwether for the future.