Nobody Listens to Techno
When I first visited the US during my graduate studies I was surprised to learn that among my fellow students - in the words of Eminem -- "nobody listened to techno". One of the dominant youth cultures in Europe, especially in the UK and the Netherlands, was quite peripheral and unknown in the United States. This was unexpected as most conventional music histories identified the United States - and cities like Chicago and Detroit - as the birthplace of house and techno music. So I became intrigued by the question how it happened that a musical genre that emerged in the US was quite slow to develop in its country of birth but became so widely adopted in European countries?
The graduate courses I was taking during my visit to the US on the sociology of culture provided some clues to solving this problem. In texts on cultural globalization I learned about "Americanization" and how US culture could spread across the world. But the examples were mostly of Hollywood movies and other mainstream US commercial culture that could become global culture because of the "deep pockets" of the US cultural industries. The idea was that cultural products became "globalized" because of the strength of their domestic US industry. However, the fact that a musical form -- like house or techno -- that was actually not successful in the US could also spread to other countries was not explained by these theories.
Another set of theories also gave a partial answer. I learned how musical forms can be studied as "art worlds" -- as collective social worlds that similar to social movements can grow in size and become more widely diffused as the networks of people who participate in these artistic worlds grow and become more widespread. New cultural innovations, like a music style, can emerge from the seeds of only a few people -- a group of friends who experiment with new instruments or musical idioms -- and while initially considered to be strange and unfamiliar can become more widely adopted when more and more people become "recruited" into this world. But this is a relatively slow process -- one that takes time and effort by people who can bring others and the necessary resources together to create clubs, record labels, venues, and a whole range of organizations and institutions, etc.
When I started to actually study the emergence of the dance music field in the UK I was struck by two things that these theories indeed could not explain.
First, I found that the house and techno acts that were adopted in the UK were not the most successful acts in the US. Actually, the less successful, the more likely an act would attract the attention of the UK adopters. The UK adopters had a distinct preference, it seemed, for underground, peripheral dance music from the US -- paying more attention to, for example, a commercially unsuccessful Chicago based act rather than an act based in New York that already had a modicum of success in the US.
Second, the adoption of US-based house and techno acts was almost immediate. Not only were most house and techno acts released in the US and UK within a very short time period from each other. But also the "genres" themselves -- the idea that these musical acts could be grouped under a similar category -- were in some cases actually almost immediately or even earlier established in the UK than in the US.
For example, the genre of Techno gained recognition in the UK when Neil Rushton discovered records from Detroit by Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins in a crate of records that normally only contained soul records. Rushton saw a commercial possibility and convinced the record label 10 Records to release a compilation album. The working title was in first instance: The House Sound of Detroit (named after an already existing house music compilation). The marketing department of 10 Records, however, decided it was necessary to differentiate the album from House and to give it a separate and clear genre identity. Juan Atkins had used the term Techno before so they settled on that term as a way to market their music. So the title became - Techno: The New Dance Sound of Detroit. And by releasing this compilation album in the UK they had invented the "techno" genre in the UK before it even gained ground in the US.
This quick adoption in the UK of unsuccessful US culture led me to reframe my original question. Perhaps it was not the right question why house and techno were unsuccessful in the US yet successful in the UK. Perhaps it made more sense to see these as two sides of the same coin: that the successful adoption in the UK was predicated on the unsuccessful development of these genres in the US. Because of economic and cultural reasons, the peripheral, non-commercial status of these genres in the US would actually make these interesting for adoption in the UK. Economically, the lack of domestic success made these acts cheaper to license on the UK market. Culturally, UK audiences, journalists and label owners could claim the music as a form of - what cultural sociologists call - "cultural capital": a form of prestigious culture because of its rarity and noncommercial character. They, in other words, actively sought out the obscure, the rare, the non-commercial in other national contexts and adopted it to enhance their status and position within their own national contexts. And thus it could happen that while in the US nobody listened to techno, it became the basis of a new cultural field in other contexts far removed from Chicago and Detroit.
Alex van Venrooij
(Current) favorite beer: Lowlander IPA
University: Universiteit van Amsterdam
Department: Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences
Programme: Cultural sociology
Want to know more? Find Alex's research profile here.