I just wanna talk the night away...
Electronic music festivals, whether in the UK or abroad, are a raving right of passage. From domestic micro festivals like Field Maneuvers, whose club sized crowd will be treated to Optimo, Blawan and Marcellus Pittman this September, through to an ever growing list of European options, the opportunities to drink smuggled bladders of wine while dancing in the sun have never been better.
Alongside this is another circuit. Plumper in waist and wallet due to the older demographic, it offers a boozy mix of business and pleasure, giving an insight into the half cut, beating heart of the music industry. It's more about getting your shit together than losing it. It's where dance music is pulled away from the body and towards the head, dancing is subjected to academic analysis and the emotionally complicated impact of popular artists translated into easily understandable figures. Step inside the world of the dance music conference.
The most famous of these is Miami's Winter Music Conference, launched in 1985. The city's longevity as a destination lies in a combination of winter sun, daily pool parties, valets offering cocaine hook ups and the enhanced physiques of outwardly beautiful women/men (delete as appropriate). But these same factors also mean that the conference itself has long taken a back seat to a week of physical and moral dilapidation. Though the WMC should be heaven, the advent of clueless restaurant DJs blasting main room records while you're nursing your hangover at lunch and the tricky business of self-medicating for seven days straight means it often tips into air conditioned, curtain twitching hell. In its defence, its roots lie in the house/techno old school, which is why you'll find yourself walking the streets past everyone from DJ Sneak and Carl Craig to Seth Troxler and Jamie Jones.
Any conference, in any sphere, relies on the quality of the speakers present. Held earlier in March, Rob Da Bank's London Electronic Arts Festival (LEAF), was a textbook example of how it's done. Alongside the likes of DJ Harvey and 808 State, the line up included everyone's favourite disco don, Nile Rodgers in conversation. One of the scene's most active participants – he's racked up numerous appearances at the Amsterdam Dance Event, Ibiza's International Music Summit and hosted an incredibly lengthy talk at the Madrid incarnation of the Red Bull Music Academy - Rodgers kicked of this year's LEAF with a talk subtitled 'Unmoderated, Uncensored and Unlimited.'
Namedropping Madonna and David Bowie in his opening sentence, and casually popping in the 30 million plus albums they sold combined thanks to the guitar he's nick-named 'Hitmaker', Rodgers' address is filled with the kind of stories that would sound like posturing dick-swinging if a) he wasn't as musically prodigious as the stories suggest and b) he didn't exude an offsetting humility, open, honest and ceaselessly enthusiastic about everything, bar Ryan Air.
It's a rousing start and sets a celebratory, nostalgic tone, although Rodgers' himself isn't pinned down by history. As much as he's happy to entertain with stories about Chic, he seems equally proud of firing off all three of his Random Access Memories guest appearances in a few studio hours, helping kickstart Daft Punk into finishing the album that they'd been stuck on for eight years.
This is the key to the survival of any dance music conference: understanding the need to storify the past while being increasingly aware of the future and participating in the present. At LEAF, this is represented literally by having a creche in the shape of Big Fish, Little Fish, DJ Food's brilliantly named adult and kids disco onsite. Here the next generation of Joy Orbisons are being shaped from the moment they can stand, finely honed, like Russian gymnasts of old, on a strict diet of classic disco, funk and other time tested classics. Past, present and future all entwined in a bouncin' play area.
If festival front rows are the natural place for teens and twenty-somethings with bags of research chemicals, then dance conferences are the progression for those who don't drift away into "real life", only reappearing for teary eyed YouTube comments about dropping White Doves back in the day. They're pop up museums of dance culture, handing down knowledge and context to up-coming generations and providing an excuse for parents to have a daytime jolly up while still being home in time to tuck the kids into bed.
It isn't all crumbly-kneed nostalgia though, and LEAF kept things firmly in the present with a series of technical demonstrations that showed crowds young and old exactly what the future-classics of days to come are being sculpted on. In addition to the studio side of things, visitors were graced with the presence of Point Blank, the London-based production and DJ school whose online courses and recent new LA venture gives them global clout. With Sasha, DJ Hype and Busy P amongst those sharing their knowledge and skill sets in the room, there's another top tier of experience to tap into.
Whether you imbibe that experience through chat, hands-on experimentation or through the simple act of watching a DJ doing their job, conferences like LEAF offer the listener/participant/dancer the chance to view the scene from a level of intellectual distance. Oh, and you can dance too, if you like.