Since acid house swept the UK 30 years ago and united a generation, British dance has proudly proclaimed its egalitarian credentials. Many believe that the loved up, misty-eyed utopianism that swept the country in 1988 has sustained down the decades. After all, when you’re lost in the music and blinking into the darkness, it doesn’t matter if the sweaty, smiling strangers around you are black or white; gay or straight; male, female, transgender or non-binary.
LESSONS FROM HISTORY
To understand where we are now and what can possibly be done to address it, we need to look at the roots of British dance music, how it developed, the kinds of people involved in the early years and the specifics of the era they lived in.
Despite the “get on your bike and find a job” rhetoric spouted by the governing Conservative Party, jobseekers were rarely sanctioned if they didn’t find work within a prescribed time frame. “I was unemployed for about 15 years in total,” says Lee Renacre, who released his first record as 100Hz (alongside then production partner James Chapman) in 1989. “I was blagging it, telling my dole officer I couldn’t find a job that week, but I got away with it. That help from benefits is the only reason I’ve managed to stick with music, and I thank the state for that.”
It’s true that club ticket prices have risen dramatically in the UK over the last few years. These days, it’s rare to be able to get into a venue with a top-tier line-up for less than £15. In some cases, prices are even higher, with big branded events such as Elrow often charging £30 or more for entry. Many club promoters try to keep ticket prices down, but it’s hard to do this and break even, given the increased costs for DJs and venue hire. The latter is a by-product of increased competition between promoters for a dwindling number of licensed venues.
“I just don’t see it,” he says. “It’s not so much that drum & bass has become middle-class, it’s just grown up a bit. You have drum & bass nights now that are run like corporate companies, with more expensive tickets and DJs who are paid a little bit more. But you never walk into any of these things and think, ‘It’s a bit middleclass in here’.
Priestley points out that much more could be done if available arts funding was pushed towards community electronic music projects. “In this age of austerity, one of the first things that gets cut is arts budgets, and the arts has traditionally been a great vehicle for social mobility,” he says. “This needs to be addressed. It will inevitably lead to patrimonial capitalism, where people are inheriting wealth rather than making it themselves. This goes completely against the ideals of entrepreneurialism, that have always been a part of dance music in the UK.”