The death of dance

Could it be the end for superstar DJs and ecstasy-fuelled all-night clubs? Ian Burrell investigates the plummeting popularity of the sound that was spawned by the rave generation
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Fashionably dishevelled and happily preparing to submit itself to an evening of brutal aural assault, the Friday night crowd shuffles into London's best-known student venue.

Fashionably dishevelled and happily preparing to submit itself to an evening of brutal aural assault, the Friday night crowd shuffles into London's best-known student venue. The musical diet is garage rock from The Dirty Switches and The Illegal Movers, mixed in with video images of skateboarders. Only two or three years ago, the University of London Union would have been offering the students entirely different Friday fare: cheesy house music.

"We have a whole new strategy - to increase the amount of live gigs," says Natalie Baker, the union's venue manager. "There's a resurgence in interest in live and guitar-based music. We are not concentrating on dance music at all." After a decade and a half as the sound of British youth culture, the music spawned by underground warehouse parties of the late Eighties is returning to the shadows, as the rave generation enters middle age.

Dance music (encompassing house, trance, techno, breaks and drum'n'bass) has seen its share of the singles market fall from a high of 34 per cent in 1991 to 15.4 per cent in 2002. Album sales of 9.5 per cent last year represented the lowest market share for a decade. And even the compilation sector, seen as a godsend for a genre that has produced few big-name artists, has seen dance's share slip for 11 successive quarter-years.

Sales of record decks have reportedly fallen behind those of guitars, a pattern attributed to American bands like the White Stripes and the Kings of Leon replacing superstar DJs like Paul Oakenfold and Norman Cook as role models for British youth.

The superclub phenomenon has stalled, with Liverpool's Cream and Sheffield's Gatecrasher both forced to downsize drastically due to falling attendance levels. In the magazine sector, the London superclub Ministry of Sound closed its Ministry title last year and the publisher IPC axed Muzik last July, complaining that "nothing was going to turn around this sector of the music market".

Tim Brooks, the managing director of IPC ignite! says: "Dance music was a trend, and like all trends it has gone away. The dance craze was a lifestyle craze, it was about what you did in your fun time; music was woven through it but it was also the clothes, the drugs and the dance venues themselves. That was a passing phase and it has gone. People have moved on."

Malik Meer was editor of Muzik when it folded and now finds himself deputy editor of New Musical Express. He says: "The dance culture as a whole got lazy. It came to be perceived as one thing: this cheesy, superclub, larging-it lifestyle, and the magazines ended up representing just the girls, the drugs and Ibiza."

To Meer this tunnel vision failed to recognise that "the history of dance music came from an underground culture and was about being edgy and anti-establishment. At the height of superclub-dom, a club would be £25 to get in and full of slightly-older people, glammed up and wearing crap labels," he says. "If you are young and want to be cool, you are not going to buy into that. The next generation thought 'That's a bit naff, I wouldn't mind skate-punk metal. That's a better means with which to menace.'"

When Steve Janes recently launched the Newcastle-based music magazine Bullit, he placed the emphasis firmly on rock rather than dance. The sight of racks of Ministry of Sound compilations in his Asda supermarket had convinced him that dance had moved too far from its underground roots. "It was clear it was the mainstream and as soon as something is mainstream it's got the clock ticking on it," he says.

Dance is being further marginalised on music television as the notion takes hold that it has had its day. Earlier this year, BSkyB launched three youth music channels. One was based on hard rock (Scuzz), a second on alternative rock (The Amp) and a third on pop and R&B (Flaunt). Ian Greaves, programming manager for Sky's music channels, said: "My personal take on dance music is that it has run out of steam. It hasn't been as inventive in the last few years as it was previously."

Greaves said that his views were compounded when he attended the Brit Awards earlier this year and watched The Sugababes crowned as "Best Dance Act". "That used to be one of the most important categories at the Brits and was won by a lot of good artists like Fat Boy Slim, the Chemical Brothers and Faithless. I thought The Sugababes were not a proper dance act and the fact that they won was symbolic of where dance music is at."

Sally Habbershaw, general manager of VH1 branded channels, part of MTV, agrees: "The interest in dance music has shifted across to the rock music. Dance as a music genre has been explored in all its variants and it is difficult to find anything innovative. Go to a Basement Jaxx concert and most of the people are 25-plus. The young kids aren't interested in it."

The pattern seems to be further confirmed by recently released findings from the Home Office showing that ecstasy, the drug of choice of the dance generation, is becoming less popular in spite of its tumbling price.

Gareth Perry, head of rock, pop and chart at Virgin Retail, says that the big dance acts of the Nineties (he cites The Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, Daft Punk, Groove Armada, Basement Jaxx and Air) "have either moved on or are inactive". They have been replaced by icons from the world of what the music industry calls the "urban" market, primarily R&B, hip hop and dancehall of America and the Caribbean, stars like Beyoncé Knowles, 50 Cent, Outkast and Justin Timberlake.

The traditional purchasers of dance music are now settling down to listen to down-tempo artists such as Coldplay and Dido or buying compilations of old-skool tunes to look back misty-eyed on their clubbing years, he says.

Adam Woods, special projects editor of Music Week, says that the growth in popularity of post-clubbing chill-out music was an indication that the rave generation was growing up and slowing down.

"From the late Eighties, all through the Nineties, it was the prevailing pop culture in musical terms," he says. "A lot of those people have gone through it and got kids. They don't go out clubbing anymore. That's why chill-out compilations are so popular. They have a dance-y quality, but it's reminiscing more than anything else."

So that's it then, the end of the dance revolution. Pack away the white gloves, the dummies and the Lycra (unless of course it's a catsuit in the style worn by Justin Hawkins, the lead singer of the all-conquering Suffolk rockers The Darkness)...

Well, not just yet. In smaller clubs across the country, the decks are still turning. Clubs like Chibuku Shake Shake, set up by a group of former students in Liverpool, Good Grief in Manchester and Club Class in Maidstone are thriving. Cream has downshifted to a smaller "boutique" venue called Baby Cream, also in Liverpool, and The Neighbourhood is a new West London club with an eye on comfort, cleanliness and cocktails as well as good music.

Lesley Wright, editor of DJ magazine, says: "There are so many clubs that are run by people who have an absolute passion for the music. The people who are into it aren't going to drop it because it's not the flavour of the month with the style magazines."

Matt Priest, executive producer for dance music at BBC Radio One, said there were now so many clubs and bars playing dance music that there was less incentive to go out and actually buy records. "Every single High Street bar in every town and city in this country has DJs these days," he says. "It is so readily available now that the requirement for people to go and buy it is not as strong as it used to be."

On Boxing Day Radio One sent its dance DJ Fergie to Belfast's King's Hall to perform at an event for 8,000 people, staged in association with the Birmingham superclub God's Kitchen.

Northern Ireland has become one of the United Kingdom's strongest regions for dance music, with award-winning nights like Lush in Portrush and trance clubs like The Met in Armagh and Coach in Banbridge. Belfast-born Fergie says: "This year is already looking likely to be the busiest year of my career. The clubs are still full everywhere I play and I don't think the scaling-down of two big clubs is reflective of the rest of the scene."

In the past month, he has taken 26 flights to 10 countries, which is indicative of the role of British artists and clubs in nourishing a global dance movement.

Carl Cox, a DJ who has been at the forefront of the dance scene since the acid house days of 1988, spent Christmas Eve playing in Singapore and New Year's Eve performing in Seoul.

The reputations of British clubs overseas are phenomenal. Cream has just staged its Creamfields festival in Buenos Aires for more than 35,000. God's Kitchen has just completed a tour of Indonesia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Philippines and has put on more than 400 events in America this year.

James Algate, a director of God's Kitchen, says the internet is an important driver in spreading the reputation of British clubs. "Dance is changing and is probably bigger than ever. The UK is just one market," he says.

The international growth of dance, with huge scenes emerging in South America and Eastern Europe, means that the names of the biggest DJs (and the biggest stars such as Testio and Armin Van Buuren are from outside Britain) are appearing less frequently on British club flyers. Algate says: "The DJs that have become big have wanted to experience other markets. Once you have played somewhere 10 or 15 times you want to change."

God's Kitchen, known as a trance club, was recently redesigned for a broader range of dance music with rooms for techno and breaks. British dance artists, too, have had to think laterally. Andy Spence, who records as Organic Audio, has diversified into film and television, providing the soundtrack to a party scene in Sex and the City and music for the Hollywood movies Swordfish and The Fast and the Furious.

He says: "Album and 12-inch sales may be going down but people still like to listen to dance music, and it has the energy that works best in film and television."

Ministry of Sound has also recognised the need to diversify, and having championed house & garage, drum'n'bass, trance and UK garage, it has embraced urban music with its hugely-popular night, Smoove.

"Dance music has always morphed, changed and moved on," says Lohan Presencer, managing director of the Ministry of Sound Music Group. "Club culture is still there. This weekend, the majority of 15-25 year olds will be going somewhere where they can drink and listen to music. And dance."

Dance may no longer be all-powerful, but the pared-down scene is both passionate and intense. Certainly, Matt Priest has no plans to take dance off the Radio One schedules. "People in dance are having to work harder but the results are better," he says. "What you have left is the clubbers who know exactly who they want and who they want to get it from. It's got back to more of a party."