Alive and kicking

Far from being dead, the dance-music scene is getting a major new festival
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The Independent Culture

At the London club Fabric this Saturday, you will see Craig Richards, a DJ many consider the doyen of electro-house, headline the main room. In Room 3, Headman, a Swiss DJ/producer named Rob Insinna who has also just put out an album as Manhead, will be playing his electro grooves. You will have heard the Swiss-Chilean electro-funkster Luciano doing his stuff before Richards, and at the start of the evening, a British DJ of Polish origin named Margaret Dygas will have opened proceedings. It is only her third set at Fabric, but she has been steadily building herself a profile on the London club scene.

Saturdays at Fabric are for future sounds; Fridays are for the sounds of now, such as the Fabric Loves Labels breaks night. Fabric also has plans for a Thursday night that will cross over more into the rock territory where The Bravery meet Mylo's remix of The Killers and the French artist Vitalic. His invigorating debut album, OK Cowboy, combines fierce electro beats and bass with a rock mentality and guitar-like riffs, gaining access to both constituencies. Many of the more forward-looking labels, such as PIAS, to which Vitalic is signed, and Novamute are putting their weight behind similar hybrids.

Fabric is on a roll, a concrete contradiction to claims that the dance-music scene is moribund. Nick Doherty, a Fabric spokesman, says: "When all that press stuff about the 'death of the dance scene' was being written last year, Fabric was neatly sidestepped. No matter how many e-mails I wrote to the journalists concerned, I couldn't get a response. And our takings have not been affected in the slightest. We've got The End a mile away; we've got Turnmills yards away; and we're all fine. Last year was our best ever in terms of numbers through the door, and this year has started even better. "People talked about Cream and conveniently forgot about Chibuku in Liverpool, which is a massive success story. Anyway, I think what Cream did was a fantastic achievement: it lasted for 10 years. Fabric has been around for five years now. If we are still as popular in five years' time, we'll all feel extremely happy with ourselves."

The vitality of the club scene is a story repeated up and down the country. Jamie Ball, an Edinburgh-based partner at the London distributor Just Music, enthuses about the nightlife in Scotland. "The attitude, the extent to which people go bananas in the clubs, is brilliant. It's a young crowd; everyone knows all the music; it's a tight-knit scene. Glasgow is good, but more of a house-music scene; in Edinburgh, it's techno. Here, at nights such as Jak-n, UTI, Reakt and Dogma, things seem to be getting faster and harder." If you are not at Fabric, Chibuku or Jak-n on Saturday night, you may instead be at Herbal, in east London, just outside the City, enjoying a rare visit by the Dutch techno don Speedy J, who is taking part in a showcase of the Novamute label. Since the release of his majestic Loudboxer album in 2002 and its attendant singles, Speedy J has been engaged in Collabs, a series of co-productions with luminaries of the techno scene such as Adam Beyer and Chris Liebing; each instalment has been of exceptional quality. Five east-London clubs are running label showcases over the bank-holiday weekend, under the aegis of Encompass, a festival of cutting-edge music and technology based in the old Truman Brewery, in Brick Lane, organised by the manager and promoter Jon Terry. As well as a trade fair - with distributors, equipment manufacturers, record shops and websites exhibiting their wares - there will be workshops and discussions, including a panel on "The press and the death of dance music". Radio 1 is broadcasting from the event.

This is the festival's inaugural year, and, given the "death of dance" notion, you might think the timing was deliberate. But Terry has been planning it for several years. "Travelling around the world," he says, "to the Sonar festival, in Barcelona, the Miami Winter Conference and so on, I came to the double realisation that there's all this stuff everywhere else, and at the same time, the UK market is hugely important for electronic music. So I thought I had to be able to do a similar thing in England. Musically, something has been happening for a while. You read a lot about anything with 'electro' in front of it - electro-house, electro-punk, electro-clash - and that's drawing together a lot of genres. The most exciting stuff is coming out of hybrid acts, with guitar and kick together. Tom Vek is one I'd pick out. Dance music has always been about hybrid, about sampling, taking something and recycling it, repackaging it. There's definitely something afoot. It's been a long time coming, but you need something like Encompass to bring people together. When people get together, things happen." A flexible approach to genres in dance music is second nature to the DJ and producer Luke Slater, who has just released Fear and Loathing 2, the follow-up to his definitive 2001 survey of the techno scene. Slater, who has recorded several albums' worth of serious techno as Planetary Assault Systems, turned the techno milieu on its head in 2002 when he released his production album Alright on Top, which took its lead from Eighties synth-pop. "No one really knew, was this dance music or was it pop? The album tour was interesting - but hard work."

Slater is sanguine about the ebb and flow of genres and styles. "Over the years, the up and down of dance-oriented music has happened quite a few times; those headlines have come my way a few times," he says. "I remember when my single 'Freek Funk' came out on Novamute in 1997. I was doing a lot of interviews, and one of the big mags came out with me on the cover and the headline 'The saviour of techno'. I remember seeing it and thinking, 'What's all this about? I didn't even know it was dead.'

"It may be healthy that things have tightened down again - it's a time to work, a time to get back to the music. The past year has been only-the-strong-survive time, but it makes for good music. Alex Smoke is a 25-year-old producer, whose excellent debut album, Incommunicado, out earlier this year, showed the large tracts of territory still unexplored in electronic music. Sales have been encouraging, and his Djing schedule has subsequently gone, he says, "bonkers". The surge in his career does not seem to square with media pessimism about the scene. "The death of dance music?" he says, and laughs. "You see it coming every so often, and it's just the way it is. It's partly the press. The bands became more in the forefront of people's minds; if you look at the charts, there are more bands than dance acts now. The money-chasers have cleared out, but dance music's never going to go away, because people like to go out and dance."

Soma, the Glasgow label with which he has a two-album deal, is going from strength to strength. As well as Smoke, it has the electro artist Vector Lovers on its roster, who recently scored a BMW ad. Smoke describes the mood at the label as "ebullient". He continues: "When they talk about death, it's only in the commercial sense. The smaller you are, the less you notice it. Also, it has given the more established producers more freedom. If the commercial imperative drops off, they can experiment. So, Moby can move toward a more commercial area, and Jeff Mills can move toward a more artistic area, where he can be more free. And it leaves more scope for young people to put out a few records and get noticed, get DJing work." The notion that the baton is being passed is shared by Charlie Hall, 45, a veteran of the techno scene, who, as a member of The Drum Club, was part of the legendary Midi Circus tour with Orbital, System 7 and others. He now occupies a back seat, running Victoria Music, a stable of labels such as the inimitable Pro-Jex, which specialises in "ghetto techno", a spiky blend of Chicago house and techno. At the moment, though, Hall is teaching history of art to 18-year-olds in Venice. He, too, acknowledges a change in the lie of the land: "World distribution has gone into decline. My labels are suddenly selling half the amount worldwide. But there's still lots of clubs and lots of people Djing and buying music. And chances are very strong that the Chinese are going to get into techno, because techno is a pure form, and not like electroclash or drum'n'bass, which could possibly be a hype-inspired music.

"I think the press is saying that the scene is in crisis, and I think that is true. I think there isn't a scene any more. Techno has become an underground type of music. A lot of the dance music magazines have gone to the wall because they subsisted on commercial dance music. There was a huge boom period, and people got too greedy; DJs were charging too much, and you still had 50-year-old DJs playing trance music. The scene became stagnant and got gangrene. People have got to make way for others.

"It's still the big guns who are headlining the clubs - Jeff Mills, Dave Clarke, Laurent Garnier, Richie Hawtin - people who were doing it 15 years ago. It seems crazy. Maybe it needs to grind itself down to zero for those people to call it a day. Having said that, there are a lot of people still producing interesting techno. The dance scene has not finished, but it's taking a nap."

Jamie Ball is equally critical of certain sectors of dance music. "I'm into all kinds of music," he says, "from Crosby, Stills and Nash to brain-damagingly hard techno, and I think musicality has died off in techno with the advent of computers. It's also the fault of people who've pushed techno into being about money. Up until about five years ago, there was a lot of money in it, and it was easy to sell anything to anybody. So now, across the world, as a result of this oversaturation, you're left with a lot of derivative product floating around and people who have been burnt by buying bad records.

"Our company is one of the only ones running in the UK now that distributes purely underground music. And the stuff we have on board does seem to be picking up, if you separate the wheat from the chaff. For us, if a project sells a few thousand copies it's made its money back; as long as something doesn't cost us money and it's furthering things, then it's worthwhile. But our sales have picked up, if anything."

"Many labels have mined the same sound for a long time. Trends change fast in popular music, and dance music has been essentially similar for a lot longer than most trends last in normal music. People say it was over quite quickly, but it's actually had a really good run."

Encompass, Truman Brewery, London E1, Friday to Sunday (www.encompass-london.com). Fabric, London EC1 (020-7336 8898; www.fabriclondon.com). Just Music: www.just-music.com. Victoria Music: www.victoria-music.com

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