Between commodification and urban policies – Can techno still be revolutionary in Amsterdam?

October 14, 2014
by Matthieu Foucher

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In recent years the impact of ‘underground’ culture on Berlin’s increasing rents, especially that of techno music, has often been discussed. Since 2009 and the release of Lost and Sound by Tobias Rapp, the city’s clubbers tend to curse the infamous ‘Easyjet-setters.’ When I lived there not too long ago, people had only one word on their tongues, uttered with visible horror between two sips of Club Mate: ‘gentrification.’

The same dynamic takes place in the French banlieue of Saint-Denis where the 6B, a facsimile squat transformed in a recreational space for young Parisian party-goers and the so-called ‘creative class,’ is changing the face of a somewhat deprived municipality, to the satisfaction of the Brémond group, a local property developer.

But if there is one city that has historically known how to capitalize on its nightlife and party scene, it is Amsterdam.


Amsterdam Dance Event: the clubbing world cup

From the 15th to the 19th of October 2014, the capital of the Netherlands will – for the 18th year in a row – welcome the Amsterdam Dance Event (ADE); an eclectic electronic music festival attracting around 350,000 clubbers and 2,200 artists that will be dispatched between more than 300 happenings.

These happenings are far from free, or cheap for that matter (costing between 20 and 50 euros to get access to the main names of techno), and dedicated to a rather precise demography; mostly a young, white and privileged audience.

Last year, I naïvely spent a tiny fortune to see Âme and Jamie Jones the first night, then Bicep and Nina Kraviz the night after. Blank spaces packed to the max with subtly aggressive cattle under permanent surveillance, annoying token systems (not to mention extreme monetization), and a terrible sound system for a general atmosphere disturbingly similar to the one of the Salon de l’Agriculture (the only difference being more drugs). You won’t catch me doing that again.

But who cares, after all, if the parties are complete scams? Last year, the communication organ of the city, ‘I amsterdam’ (who has the dreadful habit of leaving its hideous logo lying around in inopportune places), reminded us all that ADE is, first and foremost, dedicated to music professionals and is all about business. This is an event where labels, promoters, club owners and sponsors meet to discuss the future of an industry that is now worth between 15 and 20 billion dollars. A simple look at the partners list is enough to get an idea of the economical machine hiding behind this joyful event.


ID&T and the “Dance headquarters of the world”

But then, the Venice of the North (a true city of merchants) has long understood the pecuniary potential of electronic music. The festival economy has been developed since the 90s by ID&T, the company behind events such as Sensation, Mystery Land, Magneet and Tomorrowland (this one attracting more than 360,000 visitors).

The firm, valued at 136 million euros since its buy-out by the American SFX (listed on NASDAQ), is closely linked to the recent renovation of the Shell tower in Amsterdam North, where it will occupy four floors. After rechristening it ‘A’DAM’ to make it sound cooler, ID&T ambitions to transform the tower into the “Dance mecca” or the “Dance headquarters of the world,” according to one of the project’s initiators (a project moreover estimated at 32 million euros).

A matter of big business, it seems. Considering that some collectives organize parties in the same tower, inviting young, rebellious clubbers to “protest against the establishment,” it is uncertain whether one should laugh or cry.


Trouw, the ‘creative cities’ and the 24hr-economy

Under (deceiving) subversive appearances, it not only hides increasing financial interests but is also totally integrated into urban development policies. Inspired (like many European capitals) by the very liberal Richard Florida and his controverted theories on “creative cities,” these governmental strategies value “tolerance” and a certain cultural freedom as ways to attract the celebrated “creative class.” These yipsters are meant to create wealth that one should retain at all costs.
And the municipality has understood the attractiveness of rave culture amongst Easyjet-setters. In 2013, when it finally gave Trouw (the local techno temple which desperately tries to compare itself to Berghain) a license to organize 24 hour parties, it did so for a specific reason. As Trouw’s owner Olaf Boswijk himself puts it:

Every night mayor in the last ten years has lobbied for better opening hours, and every time comparisons were made with Berlin, but the city council never really wanted to change anything. But the new mayor, who came into office just over a year ago, is a bit more pragmatic. He wants to make sure that Amsterdam has a 24-hour economy that can rival Berlin, London and other creative cities.

The club, which will close in a few months, will be transformed into a massive student hotel (the renovation estimated at 60 million euros), and will have had the merit to make the area more attractive to Amsterdam’s youth. An area that had, before that, nothing too sexy to offer.


NDSM or counterculture as a tool for urban development

Even better than attracting bohemian tourists (or ‘post-tourism tourists’), urban subcultures now allow recycling of those pesky neighborhoods no one knew what to do with.

By transforming, for instance, former shipyard NDSM-wharf into a consumable leisure area for concrete-enthusiast urban explorers and other creative heads fond of graffiti, Amsterdam’s government ensures the economical development of the North shore. Its gigantic hangars and warehouses often welcome overpriced raves. Ironically, it is ‘counterculture’ piloted by the city council; a counterculture that now allows the progressive cleaning of this post-industrial zone, a long-abandoned area that was previously known for trafficking of all kinds.

The current escalation of rents has not been unnoticed; ancient residents and broke artists that have been living there up until recently now grind their teeth, but, after all, business is business. Similarly to the banks of the Spree (a renowned clubbing spot in Berlin), now occupied by MTV and Universal’s HQ (the infamous Mediaspree project), NDSM is the new host to Red Bull, Nickelodéon and… MTV offices (the less notorious Mediawharf)!

Discarded waterfront, techno, MTV: the circle is complete.


Can techno still be challenging?

If the commercial turn taken by techno is neither recent nor unexpected (one can think back to the respective histories of rock, reggae, punk-rock and house), its integration within urban development policies and its growing relationship with gentrification is more surprising.

At this time of ‘creative cities’ — when countercultures have become marketing arguments and clubs as many valuable assets (in the accounting sense), when nightlife is now at the center of the fierce competition among European capitals (a competition involuntarily enhanced by the participatory new media which helps to make matters uniform) — one wonders if techno still has a subversive or contesting potential of any kind.

In Amsterdam, after all, the festival is nothing but a business model; techno and house mere products and labels and DJs are brands and trademarks, exploited by the city to lure the ‘Techno Jet-Set’.

“Much of dance music’s Utopianism comes from a place of struggle, injustice and desperation,” wrote Luis-Manuel Garcia in a long analysis published in January by Resident Advisor. And to quote musician, critic and trans activist Terre Thaemlitz: “House isn’t so much a sound as a situation.”

One could write dozens of books, or invoke many dead French thinkers (Baudrillard, Debord and Foucault, to name a few) to explain how contemporary club culture—known for having its roots in poor districts of Detroit and Chicago, often coming from Black and/or queer communities, later taken over by the working class in England at the time of free parties—have become an instrument in the hands of both capital and power.

In the past, music was fundamentally political. It was the ultimate outlet of social protest because its identification power has always been stronger than that of other forms of arts such as cinema or literature […]. It is music that enabled people to meet, to create such a strong identity.

Should one believe Didier Lestrade then, when he claims (after a long career in clubbing, journalism and activism) that this era is now over and that just like techno, music in general that has lost its contesting dimension; that it “will never be the vector for social change”?


Just hundreds of strides to the void

In a few days, while ADE is taking place, I’ll still go dance if I feel like it. But, rather than paying 50 euros to be parked like beef in a overcrowded hangar, getting my ears destroyed by a poorly set up sound system, I’ll go to an old-school free party, furtively held under a bridge or hidden by some forest trees. I shall not see Nina Kraviz, nor Luke Hess, nor Steffi, but I’ll be certain of one thing: that the organizers, this time, will have one desire and one desire only: their pleasure and the crowd’s… and mine. And I’m sure that my dancing, far from the policed warehouses, the queues for the bathrooms and their paid-for water bottles, won’t yield anything to anyone but will remain perfectly vain, absolutely unproductive: a long, pointless walk in the dark; just hundreds of strides to the void.


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