Sometimes everything goes wrong but it all works out anyway. That was my experience of this year's We Love Sounds festival, held (as usual) in the Hordern and surrounds. All the portents were poor—a less impressive line-up than previous years, poor ticket sales, cancellation of the Perth leg of the festival's national tour, downsizing of the venue, etc, etc.
I was lucky enough to get free admission because my friend Phil (pictured above) was playing. When Dave and I arrived we soon realised how limited the sales had been, with only a hundred people barely making their presence felt in the Royal Hall of Industries. There was a sedate atmosphere and very short lines for drinks all day. Things did pick up as the evening progressed, and the Hordern was apparently inaccessible for 2-3 hours because of the massive electrohouse crowd rammed in to see Crookers and Steve Aoki.
Nevertheless, the music we did catch was excellent. Seth Troxler, following the Bang Gang in the RHI, miraculously managed to shift down several gears from their noisy, ravey nonsense. Sure he lost half the crowd at first but then expertly built atmosphere without resorting to obvious choices (the "Angel Eyes"-sampling bleeptastic techno monster he played was nothing short of thrilling). Soon the empty hall was filling up to genuine underground sounds.
Off to the Forum, we then caught most of The Revenge's set, which was a slow-building, pitched down house sound warm-up (ridiculously programmed after the hideous blare of Sound Pellegrino Sound System). Unlike the last time I saw him, at La Campana last year, there was a cohesion and flow to what he was doing that suggests growing maturity as a DJ. It was a perfect lead-in for M.A.N.D.Y., who have not been on our shores since 2007.
Sadly the promised live show was not to be as the airline had sent their equipment to some misbegotten part of the world. But, after not having played together for some time, Patrick and Philipp played a storming set that started a little shaky (too much Dirtybird-style stuff for mine) but then tore the roof off the now comfortable full Forum. That massive Angelique Kidjo track by Tim Green was the absolute highpoint in terms of energy, but seeing the boys having a ball behind the decks reminded me that tech-house DJs don't all have to be mopey and serious all the time.
Then it was Ellen Allien's turn: she who had blown me away with her festival and after party sets two years ago. This time she was much more eclectic, mixing indie sounds with techno and even old Chicago house. The musical selections were always top-notch but the set was all over the place. And one does wonder whether she, dressed in oversize t-shirt and bright red leggings, is more fashionista or DJ?
Finally, we decided to brave the queue for Underworld and to our surprise we were allowed in to find... a near deserted Hordern. It would seem the electro kids had moved on after Aoki's set finished and while the room filled up again it was disappointing to see that it was far from packed (as it had been last time I saw the band here). Underworld, of course, didn't disappoint, mixing more recent material including the euphoria-inducing "Scribble" with classics like "Rez", "Cowgirl" and "Two Months Off". The visuals, their amazing stage presence (Karl Hyde > Peter Garrett on the gangly dancing front, any day) and the musical production were all stunning, letting us leave on a high note.
I wish I could be as kind to the after party (and I didn't stay to see the worst of it).
So what to make of the poor ticket sales for WLS? In late 2008, just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of global economic crisis, I speculated that we were approaching a fin-de-siecle moment in the Sydney electronic music scene. At that time it seemed to me that the overpriced hedonism being offered by increasing numbers of promoters in proliferating venues was unsustainable. But the unexpected economic revival under the influence of government guarantees of a fragile financial sector, the stimulus package, the reflating of a residential property bubble and the continuing good fortune of exports to China seems to have not only staved off the collapse of the economy but the restructuring of a bloated EDM scene.
In 2010 things are not looking so good. Quality nights like Future Classic's Adult Disco are pulling small numbers and there has been a string of festivals performing below expectations (Shore Thing, the tiny Space Ibiza event and now WLS). It would be too easy to blame this on the specifics of the events—even if their quality is variable. Rather, it seems to me that what we are seeing is a classic crisis of overproduction in the Marxian sense.
During the good years, promoters used profits to expand and upgrade their operations and thereby created larger markets for their product. When I seriously got into clubbing in 1998, international acts in a particular genre came around every month or two, but in recent years a minimal head (for example) could almost see a different international every week.
Yet as more players entered the market, a saturation point was reached—more was being put on than could possibly be absorbed. Such expansion need not stop as long as the factors which allow promoters to find a large enough market willing/able to consume the product persist, most importantly a growing economy where employed wage workers can fork out pricey entry fees.
There is a paradox in how these economic processes work themselves out. Even while too much is being produced across a sector of the economy (here, too many club nights and festivals), for each individual business person it is in their interests to keep expanding in order to beat the competition. It is my understanding that WLS tried to expand this year in particular because there was a new festival on the block with a similar type of line-up, the same venue and a well-known brand (Creamfields).
In a different time, with Sydney clubgoers happier to spend their hard-earned pay for a fun day out, perhaps both festivals could have done well. But I am speculating that the relative failure of WLS this year is an early warning that we are heading for a double-dip recession, initially being reflected in a contraction of discretionary spending by consumers. Given that retail sales in general are sluggish, the headline unemployment figures (generally a lag indicator anyway) may be lulling us into believing that old cliche that "the economic fundamentals are sound".