Introduction, Part 2: Fieldwork Sites and Methods
his is the third installment in my series of posts summarizing my dissertation, chapter by chapter (first post here). Today’s post completes the second half of the introductory chapter (first half here), which introduces and describes my main fieldwork sites (i.e., Paris, Chicago, and Berlin), and outlines my methods for conducting research.
(Note: The image for today’s post has nothing to do with my dissertation project and everything to do with the fact that I’m in Lima, Peru, right now. But the image has a cute graffiti tag, spanish-colonial architecture, and pretty flowers, so quit yer whinin’)
Cities and Scenes
My fieldwork took place in urban music sub-scenes that were mostly oriented towards “minimal” sub-styles of house and techno. The precise labels and combinations of sub-styles vary from city to city, but these scenes mostly cover a range of styles from minimal techno to microhouse to deep house, with a more recent turn to classic and classic-sounding house. The scenes are populated predominantly by white, middle-class, hetero folks, but there’s usually a fair bit of visible diversity in these crowds, even if they remain in the minority.
I use the term “scene” a lot in this dissertation, so I should probably clarify what I mean—especially since the term has already been used a fair bit in academic writing about popular music (and about EDM in particular). On the one hand, some scholars have defined music scenes as geographically bounded sites of musical activity, supported by face-to-face gatherings and relatively stable membership (e.g., Barry Shank’s Dissonant Identities, 1994); on the other hand, others have approached music scenes as global formations affiliated with a particular style or genre of music (e.g., a lot of work on “global” rap, hip-hop, and heavy metal). In his seminal essay on the concept, Will Straw (“Systems of Articulation, Logics of Change,” 1991) mediates between these two scales by defining scenes as particular geographic sites of musical activity that take in (i.e., articulate) processes of change in global music culture. But when you’re writing about music scenes, it’s hard to always maintain this inter-articulation between specific geographic places and transnational flows (a successful example might be Holly Kruse’s Site and Sound, 2003), and so David Hesmondhalgh (2005) has justly criticized a lot of popular music scholarship for using the term “music scene” in a sloppy way that covers over a lot of important (and troublesome) details. Since I am working across three sites, I manage the articulation between local and global by approaching these scenes as translocal scenes, that is: geographically specific spaces of musical activity articulated through circuits (of music, people, information) to similar translocal scenes in other locales. In other words, these kinds of music scenes are ones that have important geographic differences, but are connected enough through trade and travel that a “scenester” from one city’s techno scene can drop into another city’s scene and find a lot of similarities. A lot of this will surface throughout my dissertation in the interviews I conducted with scenesters in each city, as they compare their scenes to other scenes.
Histories and ethnographies of EDM scenes mostly began to appear in the mid-1990s, with a spike around the turn of the twenty-first century. Most of these don’t focus on a particular city, instead tracking the expansion of EDM styles from one location to another; in other words, most writings about EDM scenes place them in a vaguely-defined urban environment, without really anchoring it to a specific geographic place. Out of 29 book-length publications on EDM in the past two decades, only 8 focus on a particular city. None of my fieldwork sites have had a book exclusively dedicated to their EDM scenes—which is kind of surprising, considering their important roles in house and techno music—but nearly every book mentions them briefly as an important site for the development of one style or music or another. My dissertation project isn’t exclusively dedicated to any one city, but I do ground my ethnographic work in three specific places while also paying attention to how these “local” scenes participate in a larger trans-local network of shared ideas, aesthetics, and practices. After all, most of the people I’ve interviewed have visited at least one of my other two fieldwork sites…
And now, for the very-very-brief sketches of my fieldwork sites. These already felt terrifyingly brief when I wrote them for the dissertation, so these versions are going to be even more sketchy. In the dissertation, I gave a history of EDM in each city, described the EDM scenes during the time of my fieldwork, included maps, and gave a sort of topography of the venues that were important to each city’s EDM scenes (mostly inspired by the lovely work of one Sean Nye). Here, you’re going to get a legend-less map (although you can click on each place-marker), a brief historical sketch, and a pile of Wikipedia links. I know it’s not enough, but look at how long this thing is already!
The funny thing about Chicago is that nobody has written an authoritative history of the Chicago scene, even though the city is part of a trio of US cities (Chicago, NYC, Detroit) that are usually considered the birthplaces (or incubators) of most of the post-disco dance music that falls under the heading of EDM. Despite that, nearly every history of EDM makes at least brief reference to Chicago, due to the historical importance of The Warehouse. The Warehouse opened in 1977 with Frankie Knuckles as the resident DJ (coming from the Continental Baths in NYC, where he worked with disco legend Larry Levan). The style of EDM known as “house music” developed in The Warehouse (and, later, The Power Plant and The Music Box under Ron Hardy), although there are conflicting stories about whether the label “house” was directly related to the name of the club. At the time, this music scene was mostly associated with Black and Latino gay men from relatively poor backgrounds, and as such it didn’t garner much attention from local media, major record labels, or broadcasters. Sometime in the late 1980s, however, an audience of middle-class, predominantly-hetero White British kids became interested in “Chicago house” and developed a vibrant party scene around house music, which morphed into the more psychedelic “acid house” that fueled the “second summer of love” of 1989 in England, which in turn laid the groundwork for the global EDM phenomenon of the 1990s: rave parties.
One detail that is often passed over by histories of EDM is the demographic shifts that took place in the transition from “house music” to “raves”: when the rave phenomenon crossed the Atlantic and brought a transformed version of house music back to Chicago, it was a primarily White, middle-class, heterosexual one. At the beginning, a lot of these Chicago raver kids found out about what was going on in their own city through British music magazines like Melody Maker and NME. This racial, sexual, and class divide was still apparent when I arrived to Chicago in the mid-2000s, although it has drifted in a few ways. The rave scene in Chicago boomed in the mid-1990s, shrank under the pressure of moral panic and police crackdowns during the late 1990s, fragmented into sub-scenes according to sub-styles of EDM, and moved their events into nightclubs and other licensed venues. Few of the events that I attended were ever called raves, except in a nostalgic or ironic way. At the same time, there is still an active Black and Latino gay house scene in Chicago—overlapping with the drag ball/pageant scene—that only occasionally converges with the post-raver crowds (like at the weekly Boom Boom Room events on Monday nights).
In recent years, an interesting thing has been happening: EDM events have been moving out of nightclubs and back into unlicensed and “underground” venues. This seems to be partially driven by the relatively early closing hours of Chicago nightclubs (between 2am and 4am, usually), the strict security surveillance of these venues, and the rising cost of going out. This also seems to be facilitated by an already-vibrant afterparty scene in private residences, the increasing use of social media (especially Facebook) to publicize “illegal” parties while avoiding the risks of broadcasting the event publicly, and a set of unlicensed “after-hours” venues that have been open to hosting these kinds of events.
Discothèque culture in Paris never experienced the precipitous fall in popularity that occurred in North America in the early 1980s (see: “Disco Sucks” and the Disco Demolition Derby for US examples); most discos stayed open right though the 1980s, but shifted their programming to include rock, Top 40s chart-pop, New Wave synth-pop, or that most French mix of chanson and pop: variété. As the acid-house movement was flourishing in England in 1988 and 1989, it began to be noticed in Paris, especially once Parisian DJ Laurent Garnier returned from a stint at The Hacienda and brought this new sound with him to the discothèque Le Rex—which would become the haut lieu of French techno during Garnier’s time as a resident DJ from 1988 through the 1990s (he’s still technically a resident DJ there, but he doesn’t play very regularly). This acid-house sound was soon picked up by other discothèques, nearly all of which were queer clubs.
By the mid 1990s, however, another wave of EDM-related partying came from Britain. British “sound system” collectives that had been organizing outdoor “free parties” in the countryside (e.g., Spiral Tribe) started to leave the increasingly hostile policing and “anti-rave” laws of the UK for a generally more tolerant Continental Europe. In France, these events (les free partys or les teufs) took place in and around Brittany, Lyon, Marseille, Montpelier, and Paris (usually in nearby suburbs). These parties featured “harder” styles of EDM (hardcore, jungle/drum’n'bass), espoused anti-establishment politics, and favored a gritty style of dress and behavior that contrasted sharply from the earlier urban, queer, house-oriented scene in Paris.
“Techno” surfaced in French public media during the time of the free partys and this initially prompted some of the panicked negative reactions that had taken place in Britain—although, revealingly, the panic was less about threats to social order and more about threats to Authentic French Popular Culture (whatever that means). By the late 1990s, however, the French Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste or PS) was in power and decided to try to integrate this “youth movement” into the party’s youth-oriented cultural programming. This seemed to be a successful strategy for all involved, but the consequences have been ambivalent. The French Ministry of Culture accepted “techno” mostly in an effort to professionalize it and break its association with illicit and underground activities; as a result, EDM scenes in Paris are closely regulated, thoroughly institutionalized, and therefore deeply integrated into the city’s leisure and entertainment industries. On the one hand, this lends a certain stability and professionalism to the scene that is absent elsewhere, but on the other hand, there is consequently much less to distinguish EDM scenes from “mainstream” or “commercial” scenes. For North American readers, a useful comparison for this would be the integration of “independent rock” into major recording labels during the late 1990s/early 2000s.
Unlike Paris, where EDM was initially subject to strong backlash and unease about its proper “Frenchness,” Berlin took to EDM quickly and enthusiastically. In a sense, EDM had already been developing in Berlin well before acid-house arrived from England in the late 1980s: it was preceded by “industrial” styles (especially the Electronic Body Music sub-style), Neue Deutsche Welle (e.g., Einstürzende Neubauten, Ideal), experimental rock (Can, Neu!), Kraftwerk, and the experimental electroacoustic work of composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen. In other words, there was hardly anything foreign or unnatural about electronic sounds in popular music by the time that acid-house began appearing on Berlin’s radios and in its clubs. Also, as what would later be called “techno” was developing in Detroit in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many Detroit DJs, record labels, and producers established strong links with producers, labels, and nightclubs in Berlin.
The first generation of Berlin clustered into a sort of Clubmeile [club mile] centered on Leipziger Platz in the former East Berlin district of Mitte, immediately east of Potsdamer Platz and the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall (and its infamous Todesstreife or “death strip”) caused a depopulation and abandonment of buildings near the wall, and this no-man’s-land became a sort of anything-goes playground for Berlin nightlife after the wall came down in 1989-90. Most of the most famous clubs from this period were located in abandoned industrial-commercial buildings, such as Tresor (in the vault of an old department store), WMF (in a factory called Württembergische Metallwarenfabrik), and E-Werk (in a disused electrical substation). While it sure helped that the recently reunified municipal government of Berlin was far too busy (and financially burdened) with reconstruction to be concerned with monitoring nightlife in disused buildings, these clubs soon found themselves directly in the path of Berlin’s plans for urban renewal and gentrification. Property leases were terminated (or not renewed) and the buildings were sold, demolished, and converted into new office buildings, hotels, and shops. All of the clubs in this first generation have either closed or re-located in substantially different guises.
This is the ending that now faces many clubs in Berlin’s second generation of EDM clubs, which mostly emerged since the beginning of the 2000s. They form what Tobias Rapp has called “the new club mile,” which mostly stretches along the banks of the river Spree in the East Berlin neighborhood of Friedrichshain (and Kreuzberg, to some extent). Whereas the managers of the 1990s Berlin clubs were well aware that they were engaging in a sort of temporary squatting and thus invested very little in their buildings, these second-generation clubs (such as Berghain, Watergate, Weekend, Maria am Ostbahnhof) secured long-term leases and invested a great deal of money in lighting, décor, furnishings, fixtures, and high-quality sound systems. Nonetheless, they are still mostly located in former industrial-commercial buildings.
Although these clubs seem determined to stay where they are, they are coming under increasing pressure from the same processes of urban redevelopment and gentrification that hit the first generation of clubs in Mitte (see my article on Resident Advisor for more detail about this). The most high-profile example of this is the hotly-contested Mediaspree urban renewal project, which aims to transform most of the property along the banks of the eastern Spree river into office spaces, upscale housing, and “creative industry” workspaces. In just the last year, this has already brought an end to well-known EDM establishments like Bar25 and Maria. For many other establishments, this has meant increasing hostility from landowners and nearby residents. But, at the same time, these clubs have driven a boom in EDM-related nightlife in Berlin and, between the “techno-tourists” who visit and the “techno-professionals” who relocate to the city for their careers (as well as the recording labels they often bring with them), this has created a much-needed revenue stream for a city that still struggles with tight budgets, low tax revenues, and high unemployment. And a further irony is that Berlin’s EDM scenes contribute a great deal to the the city’s image as a “cool” and young city, which is a prime attractor for the bohemian-bourgeois consumers that are driving the gentrification of these same neighborhoods. It’s an interesting time to be in Berlin.
When I was “in the field” (i.e., actually there, doing fieldwork), I had two methods: participant-observation and interviews. Participant-observation mostly entailed going to EDM events, paying careful attention to what was going on, and then writing down detailed field-notes as soon as I got home (I developed a really good memory of events as a result of all this memory-work). While I participated in these events (e.g., danced, engaged socially with people around me), I didn’t engage in typical practices of participant-observation like audio-video recording or on-the-spot interviews. You might imagine why I did this. To begin with, there are lots of practical reasons for why trying to record audio or video from the middle of a crowd or conducting an ethnographic interview on the dancefloor would be difficult and unpleasant. But on top of that, this would violate all sorts of norms about anonymity, privacy, and the separation of nightlife from everyday-life.
Just imagine if I walked up to you on a dancefloor and whipped out a dictaphone: “Oh hey, I’m just a random person you don’t know. Why don’t you stop having fun for a second and answer a bunch of questions about your experiences of intimacy and sexuality and drug use and some other highly personal stuff. No, I swear I’m not a cop. Oh, are you too high to give informed consent? No problem! I promise I won’t use any of this to embarrass you or get you into legal trouble. Sure, you look and sound like crap after dancing and drinking and shouting for hours, but that doesn’t matter, right? Tell me everything. Maybe later I can take a picture of you with a rolled-up bill in your nostril.”
Considering the rather difficult history most EDM scenes have had with police scrutiny and sensationalist journalism, most EDM partygoers are understandably wary of somebody coming up to them with the usual ethnographic equipment and asking for an interview. It’s for these same reasons that it took me a really long time to secure interviews with people involved in any local EDM scene: I had to develop a sort of trust-network of people who knew me, knew of my academic work, but who also knew me as more than Yet Another Scholar Who Will Get It All Wrong. I don’t know how many of those actually exist in reality, but the ghost of that clichéd scholar haunts all ethnographic work on popular music. Since approaching strangers wasn’t a winning strategy, I used a version of the “snowball-sampling” recruitment method, where I first approached friends and contacts about conducting face-to-face interviews, and then asked them to put me in touch with other people they thought would be willing to participate. Despite these efforts, interviews still took very long to secure in these scenes: it wasn’t until nearly the end of my first year in Paris that I was able to approach my fieldwork contacts about formal interviews. As a result of all of this, the set of contacts I developed at each fieldwork site (especially Paris and Chicago) are not so much a “representative sample” or cross-section, so much as a part of a larger interconnected social web.
My time doing research at each “fieldwork site” (i.e., Berlin, Paris, Chicago) is scattered and asymmetrical, mostly because I was dependent on getting funding to go to each place. For Paris, I had the luck of landing two one-year gigs as the IT person for the University of Chicago’s Center in Paris (2006–07 and 2008–09), which allowed me to really get involved in the scene, develop a robust network of contacts, go to a lot of events, and conduct 10 in-depth interviews. I’ve been living in Chicago since the beginning of my doctoral studies (2004), but the research for the dissertation project didn’t kick into gear until the year between my Paris trips (2007–2008) and afterwards (2009–2010); but while I was in Chicago, I was also teaching classes at the university, which also prevented me from sustaining the sort of intense fieldwork that I did in Paris. As a result, I have a deep knowledge of the the Chicago EDM scene, I’ve developed a broad network of friends and contacts among which I conducted 10 in-depth interviews, and I’ve been to a ton of Chicago events, BUT I don’t have as many written-out field-notes from specific events, because I was often overwhelmed by daytime work at school. Berlin was added late to my project (after nearly every one of my Paris contacts asked me, “Why the hell aren’t you in Berlin, then?”), so I was only able to raise enough funds to sneak in a pair of two-month summer visits (July–Aug 2008, and July–Aug 2010); nonetheless, during my last year in Paris, I was able to take advantage of Easy Jet (and Air France sometimes) to make frequent short visits to Berlin. My visits to Berlin were too short to build enough of a trust-network to conduct in-depth interviews, but since I wasn’t distracted by any other obligations while I was there, I was able to conduct a TON of observational work at EDM events. As a result, many of the anecdotes that populate this thesis came from my time in Berlin.
Previous in series: Introduction, Part 1: The State of EDM Studies