Is Dance Music’s Return To The Warehouse Really All It Seems?

Last month Manchester’s dance powerhouse The Warehouse Project announced that this year they will be stripping back their events programme, marking a move away from the monster schedule that usually runs throughout the winter season. Only recently, however, had The Warehouse Project rehoused itself in a huge space outside of Manchester in order to accommodate the fifteen act double-header weekends to which we have all become accustomed.

So what has caused this sudden shift in party policy for an organization that has done nothing but expand for the last few years? It’s possible that with two tragic deaths at their events (one at a Warehouse Project party last Christmas and another recently at their Parklife Festival) the management may be concerned that they’ve created a monster, and one that they can no longer control. On top of this, with their various other projects really heating up, from Parklife to Festival No6 to their own security company, the managing duo’s time is in high demand. They have confirmed that part of the reason for scaling back is to enable them to focus more fully on the 10 year anniversary of the Warehouse project that falls next year.

The Warehouse Project in Manchester

However, the management have also made it explicitly clear that this shift is more than just a logistical compromise; it is also hoped it will renew the energy and core ethos that they had in mind when they initially set up The Warehouse Project. Co-founder Sam Kandal purports to be trying to curate something smaller – something with more integrity and soul: “2014 is about WHP going back to its roots. Smaller capacity, more intimate”. Could WHP, with the influence it holds over tens of thousands of young music fans, spark a movement that sees British dance culture walking away from the plethora of new warehouses in search of something more  subtle and individualised?

There is no denying the shift that dance music culture has seen in the last five years. Super-clubs with high-value production like Turnmills, Cable and Matter have slowly been phased out to make way for warehouse parties promising little more than TBA at TBC. This unpretentious and music-minded movement, having become popular across Europe, quickly deteriorated into another commercial money-machine. With ticket prices increasing by a fiver every six months, parties that pledged amazing sound systems, cool spaces and incredible music often turned out to be solely an angry mob weaving around faulty speakers and overpriced bars. Hiring a pure events space enables some promoters to cut corners on the quality of the musical and logistical kit that they bring in themselves. The shift to the warehouse was meant to be an anti-commercial grass-roots step, but has often ended up simply providing an excuse for lacklustre event production and enabled unjustifiable profit margins. What started out as a cultural movement quickly became a branding exercise – supposed anti-commercialism is easily marketable, and ironically, very profitable.

Drumcode party at Ewer Street warehouse

The Warehouse Project has admitted that their return to smaller parties is also generated in part by customers’ complaints about their new venue. Having visited the opening party I’m surprised they used it as long as they have. Carl Craig’s 69 show in the main room disintegrated into a mass of people trying to get to the barricaded smoking area – you couldn’t reach a bar or exit without being made to stand by security guards in a queue for half an hour. The second room – so often an escape from those stresses – was bottle-necked and dangerously hot. The sound bled in from the main room so badly you could barely hear Benoit & Sergio’s live set. It ultimately felt more like leaving a football stadium than being at a club. Sadly the experience was not dominated by the music – a shame when Lorde and Kandel have the resources and prestige to book such influential performers.

Perhaps people will keep paying 20, 30, 40 pounds to be pushed around for 6 hours but it doesn’t feel like this can last forever. Whilst intimate parties never went away if you knew where to look, there have been recent hints that the masses as a whole are looking for something more experiential and intimate. The Boiler Room model of one-off, tailored events has been a prominent example, another being the Off-Sonar parties, with their bespoke locations, strictly capped ticket numbers and faultless sound systems. Ultimately, party-goers want a two-way connection with the artist rather than simply being played to from a stage. These event models seem best placed to create this synergy and often these events also seek to eradicate poor behaviour on dance-floors. Brooklynites Eamon Harkin and Justin Carter, who run Mister Saturday Night, do not announce line-ups, simply setting up Funktion 1s on the river in Brooklyn with a basic set of rules: “No photos, no pushing, no talking on the dance floor – just watch, dance and enjoy”.

Mister Saturday Night in Brooklyn

Innervisions boss Dixon has echoed the move of The Warehouse Project in the label’s plans for this year. In an interview with Crack he said “for our parties of 2014 we will go completely under the radar. No Resident Advisor, no Facebook, none of that. We will do parties that you have to find out about. People will have to search for it, to create that ‘special’ feeling again. We won’t do that for all of them, but for some of them at least you’ll find no information online, nothing: You’ll either hear about it from your friend, or you won’t”. He has spoken numerous times about his disillusionment with dance-floors, filled with people recording the moment rather than living it. Dixon is fighting to preserve the intensely energetic ambience for which his events are renowned.

Innervisions' Lost in a moment party in Berlin

It is too easy to fall into the trap of making this a “big is bad, small is good” dichotomy. For every handful of poorly executed warehouse parties there is another that is magic; many of the most prominent and influential parties were and are in fact large-scale events involving thousands of people – the very foundations British electronic music stands on are derived from 90s rave culture: large scale organised choas. Equally, intimate parties don’t guarantee an electric atmosphere or unique performances. The one thing we can be certain of, however, is that commoditisation of the event experience is never a good thing for our culture as a whole, and the scene has unquestionably suffered as a result of this. With the innate tendency of countercultures to attract young crowds and therefore insincere profiteers, it is crucial that the scene constantly evolves, never becomes stale and stays one step ahead of those who don’t understand it.