Precedent Advisor

Precedent Advisor

Dr. Tony

Monsters and martyrs — Who is served by Resident Advisor's monopoly?

The relationship between music and the journalism dedicated to it has, at its best, been a productive symbiosis which pushed the music world into unchartered territory. Whether glorious praise or caustic criticism, intelligent music writing is able to rally an audience around works they otherwise might never have encountered, and challenge artists to reach a higher standard of excellence in their practice. Yet music criticism has not been immune to the same forces which have degraded the quality of journalism at large. The profitability of click-worthy divisiveness has come to supercede integrity — musical or journalistic — for many prominent publications. The electronic music scene presents a disconcerting example in the site that has come to represent it.

Resident Advisor (RA) is a site that both consumers and creators of electronic music have come to know and depend on since its inception in 2001. With a current readership of over 30 million per year, what began as a simple dance music database in Sydney, Australia has become one of the preeminent editorial and commercial platforms of independent music. 

Like practically every other dot-com era success story, RA’s began humbly. Two partners, Nick Sabine and Paul Clement, at the time an adman and a designer, created a website to “post electronic music news, artist profiles, and reviews.’’ The site steadily grew in scope, size, and in turn profitability. As a private company, the details of RA’s success beyond this archetypal story are somewhat unclear. What is certain, however, is that RA’s economic value and market dominance have only continued to increase. Whether or not their musical value has risen in tandem is another question.  

Building a thriving brand on the back of free content, RA has come to rely on the unholy marriage of commercial viability and artistic integrity as much as any other media conglomerate today. The original revenue stream of ad-banners was supplemented with a ticket-selling platform in 2006, and an increasing number of bespoke events and brand collaborations from thereon. Largely uncontested by any comparable platforms, RA became an essential organizational tool for the dance music industry’s continued rise to global dominance. In their resultant monopoly, RA has been able to operate largely inoculated from industry scrutiny. The artists upon whose music the site is built rely too much on the platform for their income to openly disparage the philosophy and practices of the company. Promoters, label managers, and club owners face the same dilemma. In short, the centralization of the entire dance music scene’s journalism, ticket-sales, and promotion have unsurprisingly endowed RA with an inordinate influence. This influence is at best misunderstood and at worst abused. 

RA Community Guidelines, October 2018

RA has taken steps to maintain civility and meaning in the comment sections on their articles, user engagement being one of the key features of the site. Their 'Community Guidelines' are rules intended to prevent irrelevant and disrespectful comments from compromising the productive conversations that the site has come to be known for since the days when it also included a highly active forum. 

On September 3rd, a news article was posted about tracks from artists Peggy Gou and Bob Moses being featured in EA Sports’ latest addition to the FIFA franchise. Both artists occupy a space to the right in terms of musical conservatism, and a high position economically. Compared with Bob Moses, the unabashedly commercial Grammy winners, Peggy Gou, a more recent upstart, has attracted a suspicion from the “underground circles” who she’s allegedly “turned the heads” of for... well, having said that herself. The comment section, as with most recent posts about her, began immediately with a few sardonic comments about her omnipresence on the site. One commenter wrote a few paragraphs about the widely alleged fact that Gou had purchased thousands of social media likes (based on statistics from like-tracking websites), and why he felt dismayed that RA would continue to support a 'known cheater' when there were artists making genuine musical steps forward. There was a certain naivety in said commenter’s perspective about the music business, but nothing fundamentally malicious. In fact, many other users ‘upvoted’ the comments, and nothing untoward or unduly antagonistic came of the thread. This made it all the more jarring to see the entire comment section removed within 12 hours, under the pretense of it having “contravened [their] community guidelines”. 

Considering no threats were made, inappropriate images posted, or irrelevancies stated, it would seem the RA staff took it upon themselves to suspend their valued community’s discussion on the grounds of “hate speech”. Or perhaps they simply felt that what began as a robust discussion had drifted into the dangerous territory of “something more ugly”. If the criticism of an artist’s promotion strategy and general integrity is treated like an abject descent into barbarism within the music community, what does healthy debate consist of? It seems for RA, it consists of that which presents artists in whom they’ve invested a high word count in a positive light. In other words, the only civil option is to think Peggy Gou is wonderful.  

In other words, the only civil option is to think Peggy Gou is wonderful. 

Just a few weeks later, on the 22nd of September, the discourse on a piece about Nastia, another highly successful artist, was similarly suspended. Nastia is widely criticized for her public engagement in which she often complains about inevitable shortcomings of the DJ lifestyle she’s chosen to pursue. As the article observed, “despite being a successful international DJ she suffers from imposter syndrome, which sometimes manifests in ways that irritate sections of the dance music community.” The syndromal symptoms provided almost the entirety of the material upon which the piece — comically entitled Battling demons — was based. Nastia waxed poetic about how and why she resents practically everything with which she’s strongly associated: from the video of her playing which broke her to the size and number of gigs which she now plays as a consequence. Considering the article consisted of little more than its subject criticizing the opportunities which led to the feature being written, it’s unsurprising that the large majority of comments were equally critical in tone.  

The comments ranged from comedic, “I hate that I have to make functional business calls at my office. It’s not really my style at all. I’m much more at home in a smaller setting making leftfield and experimental prank calls,” to more serious, “OK so play fewer shows, practice, meditate. She literally provides the answers to her problems but doesn't follow through. You can’t have it both ways.” Apart from the unfortunately common tendency of comparing her exclusively to female colleagues, there was nothing overtly gendered about the conversation. The subject wasn’t explicitly broached until Saoirse (pronounced Ser-sha, like inertia), a former RA employee and rising DJ who frequently participates in community discussions, characterized the commenters as “mansplainers”, and ultimately as “abusive” ones when defending her claim.

User comment on RA's feature, 'Nastia: Battling demons'

Early into the conversation, a few prescient users realized how it would ultimately conclude. “Comments will be closed due to the sensitive nature of Nastia”, quipped one. Another, more radically, suggested “If the comments get locked RA is like communist North Korea!” Saoirse took no exception with the idea however. According to her, “the whole point of turning off comments is because RA is genuinely sick of men […] jumping on any chance they get to intrude the comments section with vitoral [sic] on features about female artists.” She continued, “this isn’t about men vs women it’s about men attacking women.” It seems the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, as the comments were removed by RA within 45 minutes of her post.  

RA’s community shepherding has been as detrimental to certain artists as it's been protective of others. Consider, for instance, the infamous case of Konstantin. As one of the founders and key figures of the Giegling collective and record label, at the beginning of 2017, Konstantin was riding high on the wave of exceptional success that the label and its contributors had achieved after years of work under the radar. What started as a party organized by a few quirky, music-obsessed students in the mid aughts at the Bauhaus University manifested as a record label in 2009. Over 5 years of high-quality and unique releases, the vinyl-only label developed a cult following. 2014 was the year serious press features began to emerge, and by early 2017, Giegling was the most talked about label in independent dance music. 

Laura Aha, Twitter Bio

Things changed dramatically for the label, and Konstantin particularly, on the 22nd of June when an article by Laura Aha, a freelance journalist focused on “music, pop culture, and feminism”, surfaced in the German publication Groove Magazine. The feature was a long form profile on the label entitled Gelebte Utopia (Lived Utopia). It featured a section entitled “Boys's Club” [sic] in which the author described a conversation that led to Konstantin expounding on his views of gender dynamics within the dance music world. As an “inconsequential anecdote” developed into a conversation about feminism in general, and more specifically about women in the electronic music scene, Konstantin committed the infamous heresy that his career has yet to recover from; “Instead of speaking out for more gender equality on the decks and support for female and non-binary DJs, as one would expect from the techno-scene’s rather left-wing spaces, Konstantin expressed himself with unexpected force.” (Strength might be a more generous — and accurate — translation). More specifically, he expressed his belief that it was unjust for female DJs to be pushed to the extent that they were, although most of them played worse than their male counterparts. By a similar logic, he allegedly claimed it was in fact easier for women to rise in the scene due to the disproportionate amount of attention paid to the few truly interested in the craft. 

Even those entirely unfamiliar with the electronic music world will be all too familiar with how this story predictably ends; no differently than any other instance of politically correct 'cancel culture' in full effect. Every major electronic music publication released their own click-worthy headline regarding Konstantin’s 'unexpected' views. As the standard bearer of the electronic music press, RA was unsurprisingly amongst the first, and explicitly labeled Konstantin’s comments sexist in the title of their original post about the interview. Due to its 'sensitive' political and social nature, one might reasonably expect them to have immediately locked the comment thread of such an explosive topic. They, in fact, did choose to do so, but only 269 posts later. All 269 remain accessible. In contrast with the immediate and permanent erasure of the community’s mild criticism of Peggy Gou and Nastia’s musical integrity, RA allows and encourages of an open season on that of Konstantin’s personal integrity. With plenty of perspectives shared in defense of Konstantin and critical of the backlash, one wonders if the comment section was ultimately closed because it was more merciless, or merciful than it should have been in accordance with RA’s capricious community guidelines. 

[Konstantin] allegedly claimed it was in fact easier for women to rise in the scene due to the disproportionate amount of attention paid to the few truly interested in the craft.

The consequences of this coverage for Konstantin and the Giegling brand have been enormous. Although he denied the characterization of his views by Aha in her piece (which featured no more than 4 directly quoted words pertaining to this subject) and apologized for the misunderstanding, as with any such smear campaigns, its perpetrators wouldn’t be satisfied by anything except the ruins of a once thriving career. Compared with 65 booked gigs by this time in 2017, Konstantin has only been booked for 39 in 2018 thus far. It seems even this 40 percent decrease will not satisfy the bloodlust, based on recent efforts by a vocal minority of peers to have him removed from events he was booked to play at this year's Amsterdam Dance Event (ADE), dance music's Comi-Con. This effort came in the form of an open letter signed by Resident Advisor itself, along with many of the artists who most actively advocated against Konstantin in June of last year, most notably The Black Madonna and the DISCWOMAN Collective. According to the letter, “Overt sexism by male DJs makes the scene inaccessible and dangerous for women” and “Therefore: Konstantin should not be playing at ADE.” Were it just for this extreme estimation of the inherent sexism in Konstantin’s contrarian opinion, and the almost pathological sensitivity implied by it being assumed dangerous to anyone or anything at anytime, it would be easy to write off RA, The Black Madonna, DISCWOMAN, and their associates entirely as any other social justice warriors run amok. They show a suspicious capacity for nuance, however, in their dealings with another case. 

Signatures, Open Letter, 'ADE - don’t welcome sexism, remove Konstantin from the line-ups'

Jackmaster, the Glaswegian DJ who’s risen to the heights of the industry from humble beginnings, faced his first roadblock recently. On the 13th of August, he posted an apology for what, at the time, was only referred to as drug-fuelled “inappropriate behavior” that had occurred at Bristol’s Love Saves the Day Festival in May. On the 17th of August, due to a combination of the public response and dissatisfaction with the apology, he and the festival released extended statements detailing his behavior, which included grabbing and kissing staff members (both women and men) against their wills. According to the victim, his behavior “crossed the boundaries of acceptability, regardless of the fact he was clearly off his head”. 

The events transpired during a drug relapse fuelled by bereavement over a lost loved one, and in their aftermath, Jackmaster dealt admirably with what was likely the nadir of an already low period. In the wake of what constituted a genuine instance of sexual assault, one would be forgiven for predicting his crucifixion and downfall in the current #MeToo climate. But surprisingly, the treatment of Jackmaster offered an exception. After all, while he certainly made the women in his vicinity unsafe that night, he has no known record of comparable aggression, and it seems fair that his career has not been entirely extinguished by this singular moment.

His behavior — curiously — didn’t set off an industry wide conversation about sexual assault in clubs, male privilege, or any other systemic problems with which it could easily be attached. It could be that Jackmaster safeguarded himself from any questions of his feminism through some widely reported posts early in 2017, in which he paid his due penance to the female techno struggle, and to which The Black Madonna and DISCWOMAN (amongst others) responded positively. It could come down to a much more simple question of likability, a quality that’s played a major part in his meteoric rise, preventing people from deliberately interpreting his behavior in bad faith. In any case, one can’t help but compare with the treatment Konstantin continues to endure by the same colleagues and publications who’ve been all too willing to give Jack the benefit of the doubt, or at least that of their silence. 

DISCWOMAN, who emphatically “Just wanted to say fuck Giegling and fuck Konstantin” last June, have yet to say anything at all regarding Jackmaster’s behavior. The Black Madonna considers any question of her inconsistency but yet another tragic instance of patriarchal oppression against her. Resident Advisor’s coverage of the event could just as well have been dictated by Jackmaster himself. The comment section was suspended from the moment the news was shared due to its 'sensitive nature'. 

While as artists, The Black Madonna and DISCWOMAN can be forgiven for these staggering displays of intellectual dishonesty, Resident Advisor must be held to a higher standard by concerned artists and fans. RA is the platform that has come to represent the scene itself, and has a responsibility to maintain a higher level of journalistic integrity. These ethical lapses affect the climate in which new music is being created and careers forged. RA cannot allow itself to be used as a vehicle for personal animus or favor masquerading as political action. Comparing the treatment of Konstantin to the protection of Peggy Gou and Nastia alone would cast RA — and its most devout followers — as well-intentioned, if misguided, progressives for whom a perverted sense of “tolerance” has come to supercede truth in importance. Jackmaster’s case, however, reveals the darker reality about what they’ve come to be: a publication serving those who’ve slowly shaped the movement’s original principles of openness into a closed circle. 

For this circle, decisions about the fate of peers are made carelessly and inconsiderately. For them, Konstantin is a sexist because he questioned the musical value of the scene’s gender-based affirmative action, female DJs are feminist martyrs for facing any criticism at all, and Jackmaster is just a bloke for whom unfortunate circumstances resulted in an isolated instance of Konstantinesque behavior, but one that’s not at all indicative of his general character. A superficial idea of diversity is used as a cover for what is in reality a striving for ideological purity; a utopia in which The Black Madonna never feels upset again. Would the music upon which the scene is built have been conceived under similar conditions? 

A superficial idea of diversity is used as a cover for what is in reality a striving for ideological purity; a utopia in which The Black Madonna never feels upset again.

Resident Advisor’s editorial perspective does not reflect that of the underground dance music scene as it is, was, or should be. Their current dominance of the market gives them the luxury of appearing to through selective censorship. Don’t forget the reasons given for the suspension of their annual DJ Poll, one of the site’s most popular features; the public consensus didn’t conform to what they felt it should. Their goal is not to represent the dance music scene as it is, but as they intend it to be; a vision unconnected with musical progress and entirely consumed with identity. This necessitates a re-writing of dance music’s cultural history, obscuring the real essence of the music, and the scene built around it. Rather than championing the sort of inclusiveness upon which the scene was built, RA encourages the divisive ideas that are the most advantageous for itself and the artists it chooses to support. Political division is no less profitable for Resident Advisor than it is for any other press outlet in the current climate. Rather than portraying the exceptional elements and ideas of dance music which continue to contravene the community guidelines of society at large, Resident Advisor covertly succumbs to media culture’s worst tendencies while hiding themselves behind the underground image it has maintained since its inception. 

Ideas that rely on the silencing of others are bad ones.

Imagine a group of any given thousand ravers in Detroit, New York, or Chicago in the late eighties. Do you imagine they were more or less familiar with the present day subtleties of political correctness? Were they more or less tolerant than modern dance music fans as a consequence? The unique openness which we hear about the early rave days is not characterized by specific, unchallengeable perspectives. Yes, clubs provided safe spaces for marginalized groups, but not through exclusion of all incompatible undesirables and avoidance of all risk of conflict. The music was not only political, but politically effective for this reason. This is the sort of “safe space” electronic music should provide; not a safe space for post-traumatic hypersensitivity, but the variety of ideas, opinions, and tastes which can be reconciled into great musical experiences that shape entire communities. These are the conditions under which great art can flourish. Ideas that rely on the silencing of others are bad ones.

Artists and fans should be weary of RA, but optimistic about the scene itself, because the former doesn’t represent the latter, and never has. In this nascent, exceptional scene, a higher-quality alternative will surely present itself. Until then, trust your own ears, hips, and ideas, regardless of what RA’s manufactured consensus would have you believe. As a wise man once said, free your mind and your ass will follow.