Thursday 22.02.2024

Authenticity vs Accessibility: The Techno Dilemma

On Saturday night, March 9th, WAS. teams up with the avant-garde French label Mama Told Ya as they unite for an electrifying sonic fusion. Founded by power woman Anetha, Mama Told Ya embodies a new wave of creativity, standing for the collaboration of different sounds and artists. The night will be a celebration of techno music, as this will be elevated to new heights.

Techno music has undergone a fascinating journey from its humble beginnings to becoming a global cultural phenomenon. Once confined to the shadows of the underground, it has since moved into the spotlight for a broad public to enjoy. However, this mainstream embrace has sparked debates about the genre’s authenticity, with some lamenting its departure from its exclusive origins. What to make of this? Has techno lost its essence in pursuit of commercial success, or is its widespread popularity a testament to the dedication of its musicians?

Rooted in the industrial landscapes of Detroit, techno emerged as a counter-cultural force in Black music during the mid-1980s, driven by pioneers like the Belleville Three – Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson – and Underground Resistance formed by Jeff Mills and ‘Mad’ Mike Banks. The documentary ‘Black to Techno’ (2019) reveals the profound connection between Detroit’s industrialisation and the birth of techno. Technology gained a symbolic meaning for the Black community: While an industrial machine moved to the rhythm of production, in turn, techno music made machine produce a rhythm. Techno put soul into the machine. The genre’s early days were characterised by raw, experimental sounds and a rebellious spirit: a feeling that you could do whatever you wanted to do.

In the 1990s, techno transcended its underground origins after Detroit DJs made Berlin their first international stop. After the fall of the wall, many young Germans fell in love with the new sound. The genre’s infectious beats and futuristic sounds attracted a diverse audience. While this expansion may seem out of step with its niche roots, it’s completely in line with the essence of Detroit techno: The techno movement was a peace movement. It was not per definition pro-Black or anti-White, it was pro-positivity.

The globalisation of techno was fuelled by more festivals, such as Berlin’s Love Parade, where the music became a unifying force for people from various backgrounds. But this was not the only expansion that was going on. Gradually, techno embraced commercialisation. While Berlin still tries to maintain the façade of exclusivity through their club door policies – which are, let’s be real, often quite theatrical, and overdone – techno has become accessible to a broad audience. Next to the fact that the sound has infiltrated mainstream music and inspired countless artists in electronic sub-genres, its new status has been made possible not the least by techno musicians themselves. These days, techno DJs are true personas, able to reach even popstar status. Every profit-driven event wants to book what is hot, and if that is Marlon Hoffstadt right now, then they want him to play a set – and they want to promote the hell out of that too. You don’t just book music anymore, but the people you put at the booth are just as important. Sometimes, that’s even more important, just think of a name like Peggy Gou.

It is a difficult balance. Artists like Nina Kraviz, Adam Beyer, and Charlotte de Witte maintain a commitment to techno’s underground spirit even as it gained mainstream attention, but is it fair to call them techno purists – standing on the biggest stages and gracing magazine covers? They are undoubtedly a brand of their own. How about Reinier Zonneveld, who has made a name for himself with his signature acid techno and is now nominated for the Edison Pop Prize in the Netherlands. How the heck did that happen?The debate about techno’s authenticity amid commercial success underscores a constant push and pull between staying true to roots and broadening accessibility. Popularity is an elusive force that, once unleashed, cannot be contained. It’s a compliment, really: The genre’s enduring power lies in its ability to captivate audiences globally, transcend boundaries and challenge the status quo. I do think that next to or despite its popularity, a certain exclusivity will always be part of techno culture. I think of my (younger) self, queuing up at clubs, quickly memorising the night’s DJs, dressing and behaving the way I think will get me in. And then finally inside, when the adrenaline has faded, complaining about how the crowd has become so ‘mainstream’. It’s all about balance, baby.

22.02.2024 | Words by Indira Huliselan