View From The Side: Dance Music, Cash & Fake Diy
Authenticity and dance music have a convoluted history. On the surface the scene is obsessed with ‘keeping it real’. In modern times, this manifests itself in the occasional online hate mob. Witness the outraged techno faithful descending on Hannah Wants when she released a track that shamelessly rinsed a Joy Orbison tune, or David Guetta (who can definitely DJ) catching endless shit for being filmed faking multiple DJ sets, or the cries of ghost producer that are used to discredit EDM DJs. In a scene that was birthed in opposition to mainstream culture, a premium is placed on the idea of struggling artists making it from the underground under their own steam. Showbiz artifice is frowned on by a dour, trigger-fingered online chorus always ready to call out the criminals- although it's interesting to see just who and what are considered fake: no one seems to mind that Space Dimension Controller uses voice modulation software to sound like a black rapper from 1982, or that both the Joy O and the Hannah Wants tunes were themselves regurgitations of techno motifs that were first developed in the Video Crash era… But I digress. The fact is dance music prides itself – or likes to appear to pride itself – on keeping it real.
This is why the latest argument about authenticity which emerged last weekend on (where else) twitter was such an interesting phenomenon. DJ and Circadian Rhythms label owner Blackwax took to social media to vent some feelings over the corporate involvement in London’s underground. It's a topic that usually earns approving retweets and righteous head-nodding from all and sundry, and his tweets would most likely been lauded by his fellow DJs if they’d remained vague platitudes of the ‘isn’t capitalism bad’ type. Instead Blackwax got extremely specific.
If you're on Radar and about the life – here's the solution. Strike in solidarity with workers. Demand it be turned into a non profit. pic.twitter.com/z9Z7bYk8tq
— Blackwax (@Blackwax_CR) February 24, 2017
For those not in the know, Radar is an internet station based in Old Street. It has been featured in profiles on the Guardian and Thump. The general press consent has been that Radar is a leading light in the new wave of internet stations, taking on the role once occupied by pirates. “Radar’s rise,” wrote Ryan Bassil in the glowing Guardian profile “puts it at the centre of a DIY online radio revival”.
Over on Thump, Josh Baines – in a similarly positive article– noted that Radar have “recognized that while no station of their kind can operate successfully without having the right DJs, it'd also fold if the people involved weren't right, if the atmosphere wasn't right.” What Bassil and Baines didn’t mention was that there was something else no station can operate successfully without – especially when that station operates from a multi-story building in Shoreditch complete with three lavishly stocked studios.
Radar was set up by Ollie Ashley, who is, by all accounts, a decent lad. According to a couple of profiles, Ashley has paid his dues. He learned the craft of radio at Rinse then NTS, and the programming at Radar has done a sterling job of reflecting London’s cutting edge; grime shows from Spooky and Jack Dat, UK rap from Kenny Allstar and New Gen, house from Stamp the Wax, techno from DMX Krew, afrobeats from Afro B and P. Montana, bashment from Heatwave… the list goes on and on. Full disclosure; we’ve even dropped in to record a Ransom Note Records guest mix on a Moscoman show.
This bio of Ollie, however, misses out one fairly crucial component of the Radar success story; he’s the son of Mike ‘Sports Direct’ Ashley. Despite a DIY reputation (and whether this has been cultivated by Radar or the journalists who write about it is debatable), the station has been funded with a deep well of cash that every other internet station in London could only dream of. According to the writer Josh Hall in a recently published blog post:
“On 1 February, Companies House published Radar’s latest accounts. As has been the case since May 2016, their company secretary is a firm called Eacotts, also the secretary for MASH Holdings, the company through which Mike Ashley holds his stakes in Sports Direct and Newcastle…
“In the year to April 2016, Radar Radio Ltd made a pre-tax loss of £826,337. At the end of April 2015, Radar had £1.2 million in debts coming due within the year. By April 2016, that figure had risen to £2.2 million.
“The accounts state that Radar Radio “has financed its operations via loans from its parent company, MASH Holdings Limited.”
This takes us back to Blackwax kicking off on twitter. Whilst mega brands have been pumping money into underground culture with greater visibility over recent years (can I get a Red Bull?), Sports Direct’s involvement is made more problematic by the less-than-sexy exposes of their work practices that have come to light over recent years. Union officials describe working conditions in their warehouses as like ‘a gulag’ or ‘a Victorian workhouse’, there are tales of workers stuck on zero hours contracts and taking home less than minimum wage. There is a notorious story of one worker giving birth in a toilet because she feared she’d be fired if she took a break. These are all points raised by Blackwax on his twitter feed. His thrust being, by and large, that the few who benefitted from Radar’s well equipped, state of the art studio were doing so at the expense of the many people working for the company. In fairness to Sports Direct, these tweets didn’t acknowledge that since the controversies of 2015-16, they have responded by dropping the zero hours contracts, improving warehouse conditions and appointing workers to sit on the company board.
When Blackwax started firing out tweets, he quickly found himself embroiled in an argument with a host of DJs – Night Slugs’ Bok Bok stepping up to defend the opportunities that Radar provided for DJs from disenfranchised backgrounds, and Radar affiliates including 2Shin and Amy Becker joined in the chorus of disapproval. It’s fairly certain that these DJs weren’t press ganged into defending Radar so publically (it’s unlikely the station were about to fire every DJ that wasn’t white knighting for them on twitter), so we’ll have to assume they did so through a genuine loyalty towards the station. This was a case of a DJ calling out the seemingly inauthentic situation of Radar portraying itself as an underground, grassroots movement, whilst behind it there was actually a large, dubious money factory – but then getting slapped by other members of the community for daring to speak out.
So what to think? Should Radar be boycotted for being funded by money that is drawn from an unsavoury source? Should it be pressured to change itself into a non-profit to show it really is in it for the music rather than the ££££s? This is all a complex issue. If we’re completely honest, the thing that we find most problematic is less about money and more about authenticity. Speaking from a very personal perspective, the Ransom Note website was started from a money pot of fuck all. As with numerous other members of London’s online underground, we’ve been buoyed by the tireless enthusiasm of people scraping out a living from state benefits and dead end jobs. If there’s any authenticity to be gained from this DIY approach it’s been earned over long, lean years and no small amount of risk. Frankly it's a pisstake to suggest that Radar’s ascent is comparable to anyone who's had to really grind on the way up, and we're fairly certain that if you asked any of London's other well known DIY start ups – from radio stations Balamii and NTS, to online mags like Stamp the Wax, to live streamers such as Just Jam, you'd get much the same response.
But at the same time, we doubt that anyone who works on Radar works any less passionately than we have, or wants their site to succeed any less than we want for ours. They have had the luxury or finance to turbo boost their work – it doesn't mean the work is any less dilligent, or that they should be treated as some sort of cartoon baddie. Yeah, the money behind it is grimy, but until the revolution comes, this is a reality of the system we operate within. It’s all dirty. Look at the iconic Rawkus Records – it’s a little known fact that that bastion of backpack hip hop was bankrolled by James Murdoch, son of leather-faced hatelord Rupert. All those Talib Kweli conscious bangers were literally pouring money into the Murdoch family coffers.
More examples? For a deeper, nastier bit of reality about how our world works, consider this; until 2011 Warner Music Group was owned by Time Warner. While the group was owned by Time Warner, any single record that the group released – and this includes tracks on indie stalwarts such as Domino, the Beggars Group, Strictly Rhythm, Mute, Nervous, FFRR etc etc- made money for Time Warner share holders. The third biggest share holder was Vanguard, who are also the largest shareholder in Corporate Corrections America. CCA are the main force driving the global culture of monetising incarcaration – ie imprisoning people for profit. This means that by a long but not too circuitous route, buying, say, Deep Inside by Hard Drive, was- in it's own small way- funding the prison industrial complex, a complex that has ensured more African Americans are in prison today than were enslaved in 1850. Who knew? Who even wanted to? When you start peering down these tunnels of money it gets very dark very fast.
So as we say, it’s all dirty. The mobile phone you use to tweet outrage is packed with coltan mined from the Congo in horrific conditions. The tech goods you chuck out each year end up in bubbling slag piles of black poison lurking on the edges of forgotten Ghanian villages and rancid waste lakes in China. While we live in this system unchecked, this is the reality, like it or not. The problem only becomes terminal when there are no alternatives inside that reality, and this appears to be where we’re heading.
Perusing the support for Radar that unfolded on twitter, it became apparent that the various DJs defending the station pointed out that it offered opportunities and top end equipment for kids who would never otherwise get the chance to use them. This is both true, commendable and the tragedy of the situation. The DJs pointing this out come from a generation that can only imagine a well kitted out studio as being possible if funded by private capital. Free market liberalism has well and truly taken over. Thatcher is cackling in victory from whatever inferno she's burning in. George Osborne’s vicious austerity is looking like the final blow. The idea that our tax money could easily be ploughed into youth services has been crushed by years of dwindling funding and punitive economic policy. There was a time in this country- in living memory no less- when a decent set of decks and a sound system was the kind of thing you’d get in the local council funded youth club. A whole swathe of the jungle scene, including Rob Playford, owner of the Moving Shadow record label, and possibly one of the most musically influential people of the last 30 years, cut their teeth hosting raves in a government funded Stevenage youth club called Bowes. The fact that this seems unimaginable now is truly fucked. This is one story of many in the evolution of techno, hardcore, jungle, garage and grime, all of which emerged from a combination of grass roots government funded youth initiatives, slick private capital investment and chaotic illegal activity. Now we’re heading to a point where government money is dwindling to a trickle, illegal activity is cracked down on harder than ever before, and we're only left with slick private capital.
Radar, or indeed anywhere, being funded by this private capital – as unsavoury as this may seem- is only an issue if it becomes the only avenue for expression. If it is part of a healthy eco-system (or as healthy as late stage capitalism can ever be) of various movement parts, it’s a useful addition to our cultural landscape – albeit one that could do with being a bit more honest about its roots. And instead of kicking off at a station that has been started with honourable intentions we should be happy that there is one more outlet for some young artists, whilst always acknowledging what was required to put it there, how uneven the playing field is, and how crucial it is we agitate for proper investment in youth facilities. If you really want to get into it, this could easily be paid for by pursuing giants such as Amazon and Vodafone for the tax they’re evading, or cutting back on pointless military spending, or removing charitable status from private schools (they’re currently coining £700 million a year off the state) or – admittedly a more radical solution – legalising and taxing weed.
So what started as a column on authenticity in dance music has somehow metamorphed into a vaguely leftist manifesto. Lol- that’s Ransom Note for ya kids! The creative industries bring in a shit ton of money to this country, and they’re being strangled to death. We're heading for a future where the arts become a preserve of the hereditary rich– never a group traditionally known for driving the cutting edge of culture. And whilst it’s all good when a wealthy patron comes along with a good idea, we can’t be reduced to sitting on our arses waiting to snatch lucky crumbs from well laid tables. We deserve more and we demand more.