BC010a – Q&A: Where DJ culture fits into the history of live music
The first of a two-part Q&A with historian Steve Waksman, author of the crucial new book 'Live Music in America.'
Following on from my consideration of DJ mixes in the canon, per The Guardian’s “Top 100 BBC Music Performances,” a couple weeks back, I figured this was a good time to share a longer version of a recent Q&A I did with Steve Waksman.
A music professor at Smith College, Waksman is the author of two previous books: Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience (Harvard University Press, 1999) and This Ain’t the Summer of Love: Conflict and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk (University of California Press, 2009), that reflect his longtime adoration of hard rock and metal. But his new Live Music in America: From Jenny Lind to Beyoncé, just published by Oxford, is his most widescreen work to date—covering more than 170 years, from 1850, when the Swedish opera star Lind caused riots and inspired ticket scalping after P.T. Barnum brought her to the States, to Bey’s Homecoming show at Coachella in 2018.
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Waksman rewrites the story of American music (popular and concert) while also wrestling with the animating idea of what, exactly, constitutes “liveness” in music, and how it has changed over the years. He’s been thinking about that question for fourteen years—and the more you think about it, the more essential it seems, especially post (or, really, mid) pandemic. But he’s also provided a nuts-and-bolts history of the art and business of presenting music to large (and sometimes smaller) audiences.
I spoke at length with Waksman about the book for Pollstar. We left plenty on the floor, and I’m going to be presenting the outtakes here in two parts. First up, the freebie: Waksman and I jaw on DJ-related manners—hip-hop, EDM, and the way they work as “live music,” as well as Alan Freed—a DJ, all right, for radio, as well as a key live-music promoter.
Unusually, the second part, which is longer, isn’t DJ-oriented; hence, it’ll go out this weekend, an addendum to this post, rather than next week. It’s more pop oriented, but it will also go behind the paywall. (Get a full subscription today!) Here’s part one.
Steve shreds; courtesy of author.
MM: The way you tell the story of Carnegie Hall suggests you could have done this book as a history of specific venues. Was that a temptation?
WAKSMAN: I don’t know that I ever was specifically thinking I was gonna write it in that way, where’s there’s a chapter on this venue and a chapter on this venue. But I definitely thought a lot about the importance of venues to the history that I was telling. It’s another one of those things where I could absolutely have written the book completely differently by making venues more central. There are some other folks who have done some really good work in that regard. In particular, Robert Cronenberg has really become the specialist on the architectural dimension of live music. He’s an architect. He understands that. I completely don’t, about things like architectural acoustics.
But venues are absolutely integral. It matters a lot as to whether a venue was designed to be a music venue, or whether it becomes one by default. It’s another one of those things that has to do a lot with the relative prestige of the music that’s being presented. Vaudeville theaters are not really designed to be music theaters, per se. They’re not designed to have great acoustics, necessarily—or, to the extent that they are, it’s more like acoustics so you can hear a speaking voice well, not so that you can hear a band so well.
There’s no popular music equivalent to a classical music concert hall, really, even up to the present day. I mean, nowadays, I guess we have some. There are certainly more purposeful live-music venues that are geared towards rock and other forms of popular music, and have acoustics that are designed for that and that are not designed to have the liveness and reverberation that a concert or classical hall has.
But historically speaking, part of what I think is so significant about the way that venues matter to the history of live music is that, most often, venues are spaces that were built for one purpose and then wind up getting appropriated in order to become spaces where live music happens. The history of jazz is especially interesting in that regard. But also, the fact that so many rock and roll concerts wind up being held in movie theaters—for instance, there’s really interesting interplay that happens when spaces as different phases of American entertainment evolved. Vaudeville theaters become movie theaters, and in both cases, music has a certain place in those spaces, but they were never designed primarily to be music spaces.
Well, that’s EDM, or rather, that’s dance music. That’s DJ culture. The history of rave is the history of people appropriating spaces. Discos, too, for that matter. To your point about purpose built for certain kinds of music, I think of a venue in Minneapolis that closed down a few years ago, the Triple Rock Social Club. I went to the opening night there—one of my favorite bands ever opened it, Lifter Puller. It was deliberately built for rock. Also, when it comes to purpose-building a place for a certain music—in dance music, it is about the sound system, per se. It’s about the speakers, and how the speakers interact with the space.
The cover for the program for Alan Freed’s Easter Jubilee, Brooklyn Paramount, April 1955.
Speaking of rock, you may be the first historian to look at Alan Freed primarily as a show promoter, rather than a DJ doing events as a sideline. Did how you view him shift at all by doing that?
I think so. A lot of this came down to the sources that I had available. I was lucky to be the very first person to ever get to do research at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archives. I was let in to do research there in the fall of 2011. They weren’t even open to the public at that point. Their collections were already pretty well established. But they’ve grown significantly in the decades since then.
One of the first things I noticed was they had this Alan Freed collection. I was like, I bet there’s some interesting stuff in there. I didn’t know necessarily what I was gonna find. But I immediately started looking at Freed’s papers, and sure enough, a lot of it was about his live music promotion. I would say there was proportionally more stuff about his live music promotion career than there was about his radio career in his personal papers. That’s probably just a complete fluke of what got donated and what didn’t. But it was a total stimulus.
Really, this guy was in the middle of this phenomenon. He was obviously promoting it on the radio. But again, talking about the synergies that existed between live music and other media that surrounded it, the radio-live music interrelationship has been fundamental for a really long time. I don’t think historians of radio have really dealt with that much at all, for the most part. There’s been some great radio history done in recent years. People talk about things like remote broadcasting and stuff like that. But that’s different from the radio DJ who decides that he can just create a nice side business by promoting shows, which he can then promote on the air, and the two things feed off each other, and his station likes to do it because it builds listeners. Freed totally figured that out.
He wasn’t the only one. There were a lot of other DJs doing analogous kinds of work around that time. He was the one who pushed it the farthest, who got the biggest name for doing so. Of course, it matters a lot. Again, this is where I feel like, by focusing on live music and not just looking at things the way they’ve usually been told, you choose these things out that other folks, other people writing about music history, have tended to miss.
I think what we hear about Alan Freed in rock and roll is that “rock and roll” was this term that he was using in his radio broadcasts, and that he’s using it as a corollary to the name of his radio broadcast early on. There’s no doubt that that was significant. But it also really matters that he starts like using the same term to actually describe the shows that he’s promoting, which he’s describing as rock and roll shows. Even in contracts for these shows, it’s talking about them as rock and roll. When you see that, the folks who were promoting the music, whether it’s live rock or live jazz, they strategically see that these genres of music have a very particular value. That’s something that they deliberately want to put on. This isn’t just a show; that is a jazz show. This isn’t just a show, but a rock and roll show.
You get a sense that live music is very deliberately essential to the definition of these major transformative 20th-century genres as they are emerging, in a way that’s been largely marginalized by people stressing that it was really all about the recordings. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band matters because they released this record. But meanwhile, they’re also playing every night of the week in the middle of Manhattan, at this really crucial venue, where the fact that they’re a jazz band has a very distinct value that the venue itself recognizes. They actually put it in the contract. “We’re hiring you to play jazz music.”
Same thing with Alan Freed and rock and roll. Everybody’s like, Alan Freed is so instrumental to rock and roll because he used the phrase on the radio and played the record. But he’s also promoting it live using the same vocabulary. I don’t think it would have had the same impact if he had only been doing on the radio.
You make a strong argument about hip-hop’s role in the post Coachella Festival culture: “at once central and peripheral.” That is what I have long said about DJ culture, dance music, EDM, because when you look at the actual makeup of not all but a lot of big festivals, Coachella first among them. The first Coachella, and most of the Coachellas since, have been two thirds electronic music, strictly speaking. But nobody thinks of it as an electronic festival. They think of it as a rock festival because of the headliners. You quote Dan Charnas discussing how promoters began “using the term ‘hip-hop’ to distinguish themselves from disco,” and a few pages later, my jaw dropped at a quote from a Variety headline: “Discotheque: Foe of Talent.”
That’s from the sixties!
That’s from the sixties, but it also speaks to the whole Disco Sucks thing, so I want to ask you about how that impacted Americans’ delayed reaction to dance music.
Earlier, when you were talking about this significance of the sound system and live dance music, I couldn’t help but think of David Mancuso. Disco has this really complex [relationship to live music]. Being early on formation of a dance club culture that revolves more around the spinning of records than what we more conventionally think of as live performance, I think that disco and the subsequent dance cultures that have evolved from it have always had this really both paradoxical and contentious relationships with live music, per se, or with music subcultures in which live performances invested with a very particular importance as an index, as something authentic.
If you have a very particularly strict and rigid idea of what makes a certain live music performance real and authentic, and that idea is like thrashing away at a guitar very actively and physically, or bashing away at a drum set, then spinning records may seem like something that follows very much short of that, if that’s your measure. But of course, as anybody who follows the trajectory of dance music and its evolution knows, so much of what matters about dance music and the dance club experience is precisely that the attention shifts to a significant degree from the stage to the audience, and to the dancers themselves, as opposed to the performance.
I think that creates a whole other basis for understanding what constitutes a compelling live experience. But I think that those for—to use a term that’s not as fashionable as it once was—the rockist preconceptions die hard. Even in spaces like Coachella—in practice, like you say, it’s not a rock festival in a conventional sense of the term, if you actually look at who’s been programmed. Rock is probably the minority of actual genre acts that are performing at that festival. And I think that’s true for a lot of major festivals nowadays, that still somehow can project [themselves as rock].
It’s been that way for twenty years!
For the whole extent of the period during which we’ve seen the music festival revive as a major phenomenon in the 21st century.
This is the destination festival, as opposed to the touring festival of the ‘90s.
Exactly. But somehow, it seems—and this is something I’ve thought about, and it’s implicit, I think, in some of my writing about Coachella—that the legacy of the rock festival remains really essential for giving these kinds of events an air of legitimacy. I could have definitely expanded on it a lot more. And I would have liked to have also written more about Bonnaroo and some of the other parallel events that have emerged during the same years.
Some of that goes back to how Woodstock the movie, but also the festival, laid the groundwork for a certain ideal sense of this is what a live music experience should be; this is what a community of live music attendees should look like and act like. I think we still weirdly hold on to that image and that ideal, even though the musical landscape has shifted pretty significantly away from the notion that rock is the best and most enjoyable and pleasurable genre of music around.
I think in terms of audience share and market share, and relevance to young listeners who have always been the driving force of pop, rock is no longer dominant. And yet, ideas associated with rock are still dominant, even when we’re talking about events that are more really about hip-hop or more about events that are dance music events.
It comes back to Beyoncé. She has been so savvy and making live music such an essential part of building her persona and her brand. She recognizes that by associating herself with this mode of representation that has that aura of rock legitimacy, she gains and credibility.
Right. But also, as the book demonstrates really clearly, she’s working in a lineage that goes well beyond rock.
Totally. I mean, on the one hand, she appropriates rock to her own ends. On the other hand, she recognizes that like the history she’s drawing on is by no means limited to rock at all. And in fact, rock’s pretty marginal to it.
Beyoncé doing what she did at Coachella, and Coachella being a festival that is in many ways itself an outgrowth of all those changes in the live music industry, the move from local grassroots production to [now]. It seemed like a good place to synthesize these strands in the book that had been there all along. I hadn’t fully figured out how they spoke to each other until I really got to the end of the book.
The same thing happened to me with The Underground Is Massive. In the middle of writing it, Daft Punk swept the Grammys. Then I saw, on social media, invitations to the after-party, and realized: That’s how I’m going to end the book. I imagined it was similar for you when you saw Homecoming. Or did you cogitate a bit?
I definitely cogitated. The initial wave of publicity around Homecoming certainly piqued my interest. But different people have different writing modes. I go into a book having a sense of where I’m going to go from beginning to end, but I also like to keep a certain amount of flexibility. If you work on a book as long as we have done—in my case, like you said, thirteen-fourteen years. The notion that the book is gonna be exactly the same when you get to the end of it, fourteen years later, as it was when you started it, is ridiculous. Life isn’t static; why should the book be static? It’s important as an author to be able to respond to things as they’re happening, especially when you’re telling a big history that has implications for the moment we live in. By the time I watched the Homecoming documentary, it was like, Yeah, I think this is totally something I can build on, and it started to fall into place pretty quickly from there.
You mentioned you were interested in “things like the various Electric Daisy Carnival events and how they are tied to places like Vegas, and Miami becoming very particular centers for live music production.” Can you elaborate on that?
I think Vegas as a locus of music performance activity has a fascinating history that’s only starting to be fully grasped and documented. For decades I think it had, with some justification, the reputation of being one of the most musically uncool cities in the U.S., or at least, uncool from a rock and roll perspective. Maybe it was Rat Pack cool, but mostly when you thought about music in Vegas in the fifties, sixties, seventies, you thought of tribute acts and “lounge acts” that were the live music equivalent of easy listening. Of course, then you have Elvis and his residency there starting in the late sixties, which is both in keeping with all of the above and complicates it.
The Vegas residency is a sort of turning point in the city’s history as a live music setting, especially when the residencies get to be less like the last rites on a fading music career and more like the musical version of a Hollywood blockbuster, with Celine Dion, Elton John, Britney Spears, etc. But I think the residencies are still basically working on the level of music for grown-ups.
Electric Daisy Carnival to my mind marks the moment when Vegas starts to look viable to the world outside as a place where contemporary pop and not just legacy pop has a home, where the tastes of the eighteen-to-thirty crowd are catered to more openly and intentionally. I’d add to all this that this is very much from the perspective of how Vegas looks to people who don’t live there. I’m sure there’s a whole other sense of Vegas as a music town that locals know that is invisible from the Strip. But Vegas as “Vegas,” that’s where I think EDC has a very particular kind of importance, because it basically opened the way towards Live Nation and AEG seeing Vegas as exactly the right kind of city to be expanding the new live music economy into.
Part 2 this weekend for paid subscribers only! Don’t miss out!
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