All the ingredients for its aesthetic doom, in other words. But like virtually every other popular music that's gone through the corporate grinder in the last 50 years, sifting through the ashes after slash-and-burn commercialization reveals the essence of what the music was all about in the first place: innovation and artistic freedom. Scarred, perhaps, but alive and well, and definitely a little wiser for its troubles.
In the case of home-grown electronic music, the back-story goes like this: as mainstream media is wont to do, it sought a sound bite-sized label to tag on over the whole of this latest trend and, casting aside the multitude of vastly different styles within electronic music, dubbed it "Rave" music. It was a simplistic but easy-to-carry handle about as specific as rock & roll, which, we hasten to remind, is the rubric under which both Billy Joel and the Sex Pistols allegedly co-exist. But it was probably at that precise moment that the "tipping point" was reached, and breached. The same Rave culture that had adopted electronic music and helped make it a household name just as quickly threatened to be its undoing.
"It was around '97 or '98 when Rave got a shirt and collar on it," says Scott Modie, the owner of Vibe Tribe, a music retailer on Central Ave. devoted to electronic music. "It got commercialized and a dollar sign was put on it and then it got milked for everything it could possibly be milked for."
It happened across the country, and Charlotte was by no means immune. After invigorating an initial core of talented and entrepreneurial listeners in the early '90s, electronica moved from late-night, after-hours informal warehouse parties and hole-in-the-wall venues to massive, up-scale "legitimate" clubs, places where the music was an afterthought to many, aural wallpaper for the "scene." In the process of commercialization it drew younger (and younger) people from the suburbs and beyond seeking initiation into the latest subculture market.
Beneath a steady barrage of major-label promotion, electronic music began seeping into the mainstream, the attendant culture -- the "look," in other words -- in tow. "Techno" sections began aggressively elbowing for room in music retail outlets; popular tunes from the dance floor became the soundtracks to "hip" car/beer/clothing ads; stores catering to baggy or shiny "Rave" clothing popped up in malls across America; and Ecstasy became the drug of choice for a new generation of kids rebelling against whatever was handy.
But when overdosing, underage suburban kids began filling up local emergency rooms -- well, it wasn't long before suburban parents began exerting pressure on suburban politicians to have several clubs shut down. Next came a late-night curfew effectively sending some shows back underground or off the map altogether.
Cash-hungry promoters, record companies and club owners took note -- the techno bubble was about to burst, market saturation achieved -- and many bailed out with swag in hand. By 2000, the trend had seemingly run its course.
The inevitable contraction, however, may have been the best thing to happen to Charlotte's electronica scene.
"We went from being a novelty to being a major part of pop culture, and now we're back where we started -- smaller venues, more intimate settings, and a slower pace," said Kris Krause, 32, a veteran of the electronic music scene in Charlotte for over a decade. "Now we have some room to breathe and grow at a pace that's healthy."
And while unwholesome elements of the techno bubble remain, a closer look at some key players in Charlotte electronica reveals an underground of innovative musicians stretching the barriers of what technology can do with sound.
The Technicians"We're just trying to make machines sound as human as possible," Kris Krause says above the thunderous beats at Tonic, the Charlotte club where his mates and co-founders of Outside Records -- performing as nKtar this Friday night -- are putting on a 90-minute lesson in improvisational dance music. "We don't get respect as musicians because we are using computers and electronic instruments. But at the end of the day, a guitar is just a piece of wood until someone picks it up and plays it. It's a mere lack of understanding and interest."
Krause, who performs as Mr. Atomic, says the most common misconception among non-practitioners is that the DJ is simply spinning and scratching records. But watching nKtar will disabuse you of that notion in a hurry. For starters, Jeff Nagel, 31, and Brian Darden, 24, never touch the custom-made vinyl or CD turntables in Tonic's booth. Instead, operating from two laptops running through two MIDI controllers, a digital mixer and the club's PA system, Nagel and Darden take their own pre-recorded basic tracks and alter them on the spot. It's somewhere between a conductor directing a computerized chamber orchestra and the way a jazz saxophonist might improvise off of a standard or one of his own compositions.