What is business techno?
Written by Pete Armitage
‘Business techno’ is a disparaging term coined by the electronic music press. It has been adopted by self-proclaimed stalwarts of the underground to describe certain DJs, their sets and their productions.
A brief perusal of reddit confirms suspicions based on overheard conversations in the Griessmuehle smoking area (RIP): plenty of folks like to bandy around the term, but they’ve got different ideas as to what it actually means.
Some trolls consider anybody vaguely successful in the scene to fall under the ‘business techno’ bracket, regardless of their productions, i.e. basically anyone who makes a decent living from DJing techno.
There’s a rather clichéd ideological clash here - what some see as selling out, other see as ‘spreading the word’.
Indeed, an important event in the legacy of Business Techno was Regal’s spiel over facebook back in 2018, conveniently redacted by Mixmag here. He, in short, reacted to allegations of commercialism by totally owning them - ‘20 years ago techno labels were selling more than 10,000 copies, which techno label sells that nowadays? I’m not talking about changing the music, I will stay true to my sound but it would be cool to have more people involved.’
Others argue that business techno refers purely to the stylistic homogeneity of certain well-established artists and labels. They argue that BT is characterised by mundanity - lazily constructed software arps and badly-swung ableton 909 spines married to dashes of sidechained white noise fresh from the christmas discount loops package from Splice.
Truth be told, if we listen critically to Juan Atkins and compare to Drumcode’s latest releases the difference that the chinstrokers are referring to is very much tangible.
But for the sake of debate, let’s just casually define BT as anything ‘indistinguishable, mass-consumed and dressed as techno’ (a definition which admittedly encompasses a huge breadth of material).
Using this working definition, some might argue that BT is, in an endearing sense, a gateway drug of sorts, captivating the ears of those previously unexposed to techno before they delve deeper to discover Purple Plejade’s back catalogue. Some of the more obscure stuff just isn’t as palatable to the untrained ear. And truthfully, is it really better? It’s a tough argument to make.
This genre snobbery is typical of the gatekeeping virulent in many sectors of art appreciation, and if anything, may oppress actual instances of novel creation. Brian Eno hit the nail on the head in an 1982 interview when discussing the reverence of originality prohibiting the actual frequency of its instance, ‘One of the things that's interesting about nearly all ethnic music is that it doesn't have that idea. In reggae you hear the same riffs year after year in a shifting context. The idea there is to use a thing for as long as it still means something. The idea in the fine art culture is to drop something as soon as you can no longer claim it as only yours. As soon as other people are onto it you have to drop it and go elsewhere--and that's such a stupidly childish attitude.’
Those lambasting successful artists for selling out don’t have much of a leg to stand on. Unfortunately, there’s an awful lot of elitism out there, jealous has-beens who never got a slice of the pie for whatever reason. The internet is teeming with them. They’re the reason RA removed the comments feature. People saying nasty shit about successful people ‘cos they can.
Perhaps up until very recently the pseudo-genre of business techno was characterised by sound design. Maybe a sharper definition is anything that masquerades as techno but pays absolutely no aural nor conceptual homage to techno’s original iteration?
Timbre and sound design kinda link in to this, but more to the point is the band of predominantly white careerists who hop on the ‘techno’ bandwagon with a couple of bland ghostwritten EPs and an impeccably presented instagram profile. Ok we’re getting silly now, but let’s face it, some of these people make it big. Really big. And there’s absolutely nothing distinctive about their sound or aesthetic, so how did it happen?
Those things are fairly subjective and despite choices in this regard often signifying ‘commercial’ music, we ought more to discuss the cultural heritage of Detroit techno and its absence in the narratives of many top-tier ‘techno’ artists in 2020.
To quote Derrick Carter in a 2015 interview with Andy Beta at Pitchfork, ‘Something that started as a gay Black/Latino club music is now sold, shuffled, and packaged as having very little to do with either.’
It’s just not right to call people out on ‘selling out’ when they’re just putting music out that’s connecting with fans. But let’s argue that those people who enjoy success as a result of playing and producing ‘techno’ have a responsibility to at least inform themselves on the history of the scene, and ultimately, the intersection of African diaspora culture with technology which preceded the genre and inspired the tradition. Angelbert Metoyer. Octavia Butler. Renée Cox. And obviously The Belleville Three and other clear innovators of Detroit in the late 80s.
Another way of swerving the BT bracket is by not monopolising the scene. The recent culture of huge venues booking 10-15 headliners is slowly putting smaller venues out of business. The more that labels pushing homogenised sounds succeed, the more newcomers will feel they need to conform. It sets a bad precedent for invention.
Another way of doing it is ensuring that the industry's internal power structures are not dominated by cis white males. ‘Cos at the moment they are. They still are.
We ought to embark on a process of informing ourselves on the music we’re listening to. Where it came from and how it came to be.
We can’t really slander anyone for anything but not respecting the musical tradition they are partaking in.