Online dancing with UK-Dance
By Dr Hillegonda Rietveld, South Bank University, London. Over the last year, I've started DJing again, thanks to Raya, a collective of DJs who put on gigs in several places,...
By Dr Hillegonda Rietveld, South Bank University, London.
Over the last year, I've started DJing again, thanks to Raya, a collective of DJs who put on gigs in several places, including the ICA in London. Raya know each other through an Internet discussion group, UK-Dance and, as I got to know more of the list's participants, I was invited to take part. It has since become part of my life, in a way it has for many others. Because I know a few of people on it, this is not a list that feels abstract and impersonal, a virtual reality that has no substance. Rather, it produces and enhances a material, 'embodied', reality, because the list's social contacts are reinforced 'in the flesh' during parties, nights out and trips abroad.
The subscription details say the following about the list: "UK-Dance is an Internet mailing list for discussing all aspects of dance music culture in the United Kingdom: clubs, parties, one-off events, record shops, radio, records and anything else to do with the dance music scene. ("The List Charter")" Apart from news on releases and events, as well as some sample spotting, the list is even more prolific in its chat about other vaguely related issues which provides some background information about its participants and which makes UK-D come to life. Topics vary greatly, not only in terms of musical taste (from genre wars to record reviews) but also in terms of consumables (shoes, pop drinks, dance drugs, sweets, morning-after foods or record bags); political philosophy; music technologies (from MP3 to CD burning, from vinyl cutting to DJ mixers); holiday advice; some vivid description of mad nights and weekends out and general moaning about work and the state of the day (such as the recent fuel crisis). At some point, this summer, the list was regularly updated on how many slugs one promoter found in his English garden, while others gave him advice on how to get rid of them. Some participants don't ever bother reading the music reviews. For example, one reggae collector, who is not particularly into club music, takes part because of the amicable atmosphere and political rants.
These chatty topics, that have their anchoring in real life situations, provides an iridescent aspect to the list, showing a great variety of voices, despite the fact that some participants eagerly want to reach a kind of consensus. Such an argumentative move can sadly scare some potential participants from showing their presence on the list. Various "lurkers" (people who quietly read and don't participate on the list itself) have written to me that they felt quite intimidated by the banter and depth of knowledge that is shown on the list. Especially women seem to fear that they might be shouted down. The tone and humor is quite laddish in a way and it may be difficult for some women, but not all, to find themselves at home with that kind of discourse. For example, one female subscriber, who has been on the list for the last seven months, commented that: "(I) Email quite a few ppl off the list on a regular basis but only contribute on the list now and then really - frightened of getting flamed by the some of the more stroppy members - and I have found by speaking off the list to some ppl that they also feel the same...." Nevertheless, practice makes perfect. After some persistence, most subscribers do get used it all. To continue the illustration of what several people have written in, the same person added that: "All in all it's become, in a strange way, a part of my life - I've met some fantastic ppl in person, on the phone and on e-mail - read about some fascinating stuff that I wouldn't have known otherwise..."
Ways of making members on the list come to life include the swapping of DJ mix tapes and CDs as well as the use of associated websites. Various people have personal websites or websites for their record labels or club nights. People can download DJ mixes via audiofiles and see photographs from events and holidays. Record reviews on the list also reveal something about participants and the references to their favorite audiofiles can have a good instant effect. However, if one follows each clue and pointer, it is easy to spend hours a day doodling with the list, as I have when I was trying to get used to this medium's format. Nevertheless, pictures of its participants are not widely available and the virtual image some people create of themselves on the list does not always match up with a material reality. As one person commented: "When I first met (X) I imagined this tall, gruff junglist. When we met in a cocktail bar in soho I was shocked to find a tiny squeaky media whore behind a mask!"
The format of distribution has had some influence on the content and quality of the discussions. In my case, I receive the digest form, twice a day. This means trawling through the day's messages and perhaps composing a reply or two in response to a point made earlier on. The digest form came into existence in 1995 for financial considerations when, according to the subscription details, the list was distributed by ordinary phone line: "Bringing back a 'live' version once it moved onto the Internet proper was considered, but the general consensus was that the quality was better as a digest and it encouraged people to think more about what they wrote." There is now also a brand new interactive website, at <http://www.uk-dance.org>, which invites a more spontaneous dialogue. It is ideal for those that interact with the list at their institutional office desks, rather for those who access the web through a relatively costly (in the UK) modem and phone connection. However, this can invite cryptic messages that need an immediate context to be understood, moving too fast at times to take part in when one is not able to sit at the computer all day to keep up with everything. There might be a possibility that the list could go the same direction as many other instant gratification interactive discussion lists, and could dissolve in utter triviality. Its saving grace, however, is that a good proportion of people do know each other now, providing UK-D with a self-regulating persona which is passed on to newcomers.
Although Internet skeptics claim that most lists and discussion groups are pseudo-communities that vanish with the click of a mouse button, UK-D can operate as a community with real material effects. While some read the list like a soap or fanzine, many of its more talkative people encounter each other in the real world, from London based dance parties to meeting 'strangers' half-way across the globe and settling into a social life in an otherwise alien environment. In that sense, UK-Dance has affected some lives significantly. For example: "... I owe uk-d and triology a lot, for helping me to find a wonderful social group of sorted people, constantly evolving. we've put on some great parties, I've had some great nights clubbing with them, talking utter bollocks at after-parties etc etc. much like any social group really but there are often barriers to prevent you from finding these social groups."
Triology is an UK-D related party gathering. One of its seminal organisers explained to me that: " Triology is one example of a club/party night that came together as a result of the list. It consisted of 3 systems doing 3 rooms at the first party in the dungeon - Flame for jungle, Kult for techno and house and Raya for weird beats. All 3 have gone on to be successful in their own right." Before that, in December 1994, there was a party called Cybiza, which featured some of the DJs that are still involved in Triology and UK-D. There was also H.E.A.D.F.U.K, a regular gabba and hardcore tekno event, which is now less engaged with the list. The configuration of people involved in the organisation of these events has changed over the years, people moving on and new blood filling the gaps, but the concepts of these systems and, indeed of Triology, continues to this day. Throughout the list's development, many other club and party nights have been somehow associated with the list; current examples are Whistlebump in London, Radius in Cardiff, Big Chill's events in various locations and many many more.
One long standing and well-traveled member suggested that UK-Dance consists of a type of subculture. Although subcultures are rare these days, due to their co-option into so-called mainstream media, there is a particular sense of humor and knowledge on the list that includes and excludes certain people. As has been illustrated earlier, the list is self-selecting in that way, despite most of its friendly participants' utopian intentions to be all-inclusive. Quite a few of the people who replied to my requests for further information seem to have been on the list for a few years. They have grown used to each other's spiky comments and happily join in on the humor without hesitation. One also sees how various participants start to listen to each other's choices of music and retuning their tastes accordingly, even though it may take some years of heated argument to achieve this.
In the context of media co-option, the listmaster, Stephen Hebditch, wrote that: "Dance music is so mainstream these days that only a really radical new scene that couldn't be rapidly co-opted by the existing one would be capable of coming up with a new media to support it." When I asked Hebditch if UK-D was not a type of interactive fanzine that could support a new music scene, he did agree that UK-D might "open the possibility for something more radical", but that, nevertheless, UK-D was "too tied really to what's gone before". A sense of traditionalism, indulging in old skool rave or classic disco, could perhaps bar a radical new dance music scene to develop, since fans often follow meticulously but don't dare to break established formats. This may be too pessimistic, though - it is not a bad thing to evolve from a historical perspective - as Nietzsche once said, "nothing is original". In addition, debates on the next New Big Thing (NBT) do develop at times and reviews of new forms of dance related musical genres appear regularly. In other words, there is hope for something unique to be produced with support from this site.
In order to find out from where the roots of these discussions stem, it is of interest to see where UK-D started out. The listmaster commented that: "The list started in 1992, but as UK-Rave, coming about through interests from various people on the alt.rave Usenet newsgroup who expressed an interest in doing something for the UK along the lines of the US rave lists of the time such as sf-raves. It then changed its name around a year or so later as people on the list felt the rave tag was too limiting and unfashionable. The name UK-Dance was felt to be broad enough that it could grow over time as the scene evolved." If one wants to be technical about it, 'scene' is a more appropriate word for the list than' subculture' or 'community'. A scene is just a bit more loosely knitted, a crossroads of musical tastes and opinions that is not isolated from the outside world, with its pre-existing mediascapes and soundscapes. Parallel to the historical roots of UK-D, the genres that are discussed on the list are as diverse as the fragmentations of dance music which have occurred since the explosion of raves in the late 1980s and early 90s. The list bonds ultimately through a liking of contemporary dance club music, from garage (both UK and US based), techno (mainly US based techno), underground house music as well as the occasional breaks, to, ahem, trance. Like a scapegoat, the latter genre receives a regular write off, in a kind of jokey manner that seems to weld the rest of the disparate tastes together. "Trance is shit" or 'shite' (or 'crap', even 'the pants', depending on where you're from - all indicating a certain bowel emission) is a regular phrase that seems to work like a mutual pat on the back. Accordingly, a bunch of defensive voices go in against a tide of articulate trance haters. It's a regular brawl and operates like a chorus line that everyone gets rehearsed in, within time.
A recent discussion on the list has also highlighted that there is a need to acknowledge music that developed before the existence of the notion of raves, and hence some of the older members have started a debate about indie guitar music versus electro and old garage in the 1980s. Reading contributions over summer 2000, an estimated guess has been that the average age is around 29, although some have written in to the list to say they are as young as 17 while others are 40 years old. In line with the demographics of the Internet as a whole, it seems that there is majority of white middleclass males on the list, with a slow increase of females over the years. In addition, British Asians are more prominent than other non-white ethnic groups. Most subscribers are based in the UK, but there are also mails from the USA (such as San Francisco, LA, NYC, New Orleans, Chicago), The Netherlands, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Finland, South Africa, Australia, Malaysia, China, Japan and various other countries. There is evidence that many of the participants are well-educated, with a schooled writing style. Some also show a good knowledge of cultural and social philosophy, leading to heated arguments of Marx versus Baudrillard, in a half-humoured manner that can take some serious turns and that has resulted in complaints of exclusive elitism. There have also been related arguments about politics. Of interest is that most of the traffic is during weekdays; this could indicate that a lot of the participants write from their terminals at work (or at college). In addition, a few prominent dance industry professionals seem to keep an eye on UK-D, replying occasionally when the discussion affects their business.
When reading cultural commentators about the internet, there are the technologically determinists who claim that, due to new forms of communications, the world will change and become a better, or worse, place. In a different camp are the critics who look at uses of communication technologies within particular social, economic and cultural contexts; they often make pessimistic disclaimers of great utopian dreams about the effects of the internet. Due to its combination of virtual communication with face-to-face contact, plus the exchange of dance music (which works on a tactile level), UK-Dance has been able to forge and support a social scene with real material presence. In addition to personal collaborations and projects, currently, this means that Triology is doing a weekend in Normandy, Kult is getting a weekly night together in London and Raya is launching their first compilation album, 'Collectivism'.
Although I would have liked to have quoted more people, the word limit has prevented me from doing so. On request of some contributors to this article and in order not to make certain people into stars at the expense of others, no names have been mentioned, except for the listmaster. However, I want to thank all who have kindly lent me their ideas, thoughts and insights. First and foremost, I want to thank Stephen Hebditch for making the list possible and for providing the necessary historical information and ideas about media uses. UK-D's veterans: Jon Ross (Catweasel) for sending me vast amounts of information and insights, including a digest of archive material from 1995; Andy Stone, for getting the finer details right; Dub for some excellent additional observations and corrections. For helpful suggestions: Tom Churchill, Susanna Glaser, Nicholas Larsen, Steve Merrylees, Neil Orr, Nicola Proctor, and Messiah Wannabe. For additional facts: Baz Bazzer, Gavin Davenport, Raoul Duke, Simon Green, Aidan Harris, Mike Hoehn, Tom Lawton, Richard Lee (Roo), Dave Parkin, Miles Pearce, Turkish Tonedef and Justin Slack. For data I picked up from the list: Pete Robinson who made the heroic attempt to research the average age of the list's participants.
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