Between a Rock and a Hard Break: D&B’s Survival in the US
Between a Rock and a Hard Break: D&B’s Survival in the US

If you’re aiming to make a living solely from drum & bass, be it as a producer/DJ, a promoter, or an agent, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to reach that goal if you’re based in North America alone—at least not yet. This career choice is a viable option in any part of Europe, but that is arguably the only continent where this is the case. (We’ve already lost two of our superstars, Toronto’s Rene LaVice and San Francisco’s Gridlok, to those cloudy climes.) With the glut of festivals—as well as enough drum & bass club nights for a good 10- to 15-date tours across North America—why isn’t being a drum & bass creative a possibility here?

A look at Insomniac’s Beyond Wonderland’s lineup revealed Dieselboy and MC Dino as the only domestically-based D&B artists. Programming-wise, various bass music artists are packed in back-to-back sets, some wedged in between other styles not necessarily palatable to the drum & bass purist, while others are not programmed at ideal timeslots (decided on by a committee made up of the artist, the agent, and the promoter) for the style, which lends itself to later, darker hours. A select few from the lineup, namely DC Breaks and Loadstar, will be joining their Ram Records label mates Bad Company UK for a late-night, very affordable $10 Funktion session at a spot that is quite literally underground, DTLA’s Belasco Basement, the Wednesday prior. This poses another issue: the mid-week commitment. On the upside, the venue is 18+ rather than the restrictive 21+. But even with all these opportunities to experience the music, the drum & bass fan turnout for either festival or club leaves a lot to be desired.

It’s a guarded culture, a critical audience, and a tough fan base. It’s hard to make everyone happy.

“This music is advanced and complex,” says Tony Merino, Head of Bassrush, Insomniac’s bass music brand and the platform on which Funktion sits. “It’s harder to produce, harder to DJ, and harder to dance to than any other form of dance music. The mind that likes drum & bass is more advanced. The average person can’t comprehend it and wants something that’s easier to digest. The people that do get it are so about it, they’re super particular. It’s a guarded culture, a critical audience, and a tough fan base. It’s hard to make everyone happy.

“We book tons of drum & bass,” he continues. “We’re doing our part bringing the artists, setting up the stage, creating the perfect environment, but the fans are not always present. It’s like voting. If you want someone to win, you need to vote. If you don’t go out to the polls, you’re the person that’s not going to win.”

“We would save money if we didn’t book drum & bass,” admits Forrest Hunt, a self-proclaimed drum & bass-head and Executive Producer at Insomniac Events, one of the very few North American festival promoters booking drum & bass.

He continues, “If I was an independent promoter doing Funktion, I wouldn’t be able to make a living. Everyone that’s been around for a while feels entitled. They want to be on the guest list, they have to be backstage, they have to have drink tickets. You have to do things for the brand, even if it means losing money here or there. We do it because we love drum & bass. It’s the only music that still gives me goosebumps.”

Between a Rock and a Hard Break: D&B’s Survival in the US
Between a Rock and a Hard Break: D&B’s Survival in the US

“The genre is 25 years old now,” points out DC Breaks’ Chris Page. “There are all these subgenres that have fragmented the scene. I like all aspects so I write and play a bit of everything. I’m either not pleasing anyone, or I’m pleasing everyone just a little. The music will always evolve, but it won’t take everyone with it. Regardless of what’s happening in the mainstream, it will always be there.”

“In Europe, drum & bass is the first musical drug for a lot of kids,” says Markus Wagner of Camo & Krooked, who performed at Beyond Wonderland. “In Vienna, where we are, drum & bass culture is so strong and big part of youth culture is based on it. Drum & bass has a punk feel to it that kids relate to.”

“The age divide is another issue,” adds Camo & Krooked’s Reinhard Rietsch. “The younger you are the more in-your-face you want it, harder and ravey, getting sonically punched in the face. As you grow with the scene and become a real drum & bass-head, you want to hear everything from downtempo to hard-hitting stuff. When we tour North America, it’s hard to decide what to play. You have to stay true to your game, at the same time, you just lose when you’re playing after Doctor P, for example, and half the people left because yours was a vibe the crowd didn’t feel at that point.”

“In North America, you have to go through EDM then trap—which hip-hop is a gateway for—then dubstep then somebody will tell you about ‘fast dubstep’ and you’ll end up at some party where half the crowd is old,” adds Wagner. “The promoter is the last person on the chain that can change anything.”

In Europe, drum & bass is the first musical drug for a lot of kids. It has a punk feel to it that [they] relate to.

While it’s a struggle for the promoter to get fans to pay, for instance, the $10 cover for January’s Bassrush presents Funktion with Calyx & TeeBee, State of Mind and Reid Speed, Excision sells out Bassrush for three nights at the Palladium for a total of 11,000 hard tickets. It seems having other genres of bass music is what’s funding drum & bass. Vancouver’s strong Saturday night bass music weekly, Subculture, held at that city’s wonderfully grimy Red Room Ultra Bar is able to host drum & bass half of the time because of the bass music that has the bigger draw the rest of the weeks of the month.

“We have local DJs like Stickybuds that play Shambhala and they sell out the venue to the same capacity as Andy C,” says Subculture’s promoter Blake McRitchie. “During a 90-minute set, Stickybuds will play drum & bass for 30 minutes and the room will be going off like crazy, way harder than the rest of the night. Other guys from the same scene will do the same thing with the same effect. I always say, ‘Where the hell are these people when we do the rest of the shows we do all year?’ They’re not coming out. They love drum & bass when it’s played in front of them, but they’re connecting with the artist and not the genre. If I ran a drum & bass weekly in Vancouver, even in an underground venue like we have and the sound system that we’re using, it wouldn’t work.”

Between a Rock and a Hard Break: D&B’s Survival in the US
Between a Rock and a Hard Break: D&B’s Survival in the US

Los Angeles’ Respect is possibly the best known drum & bass weekly in North America, recently celebrating 18 years and upwards of 900 shows. Even so, it’s a labor of love for its crew, Junglist Platoon, and one of three avenues central figure, Rob Gonzalez aka Machete uses to push the genre. In addition to running Respect, Machete is a longstanding, eclectic drum & bass DJ who travels across North America for gigs. He is also one of the specialist drum & bass agents at Circle Talent Agency, an electronic dance music booking agency with a hefty roster of cross-genre talent. It is only this combination of endeavors that allows Machete to focus on drum & bass.

“Depending on the artist, it’s possible to book a solid North American run,” Machete says, speaking as a booking agent. “There are definitely markets, but they tend to be on the coasts and everyone wants a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, whereas a bass music or dubstep artist could potentially play almost every day of the week in a different city.”

“There are a ton of promoters out there,” says Scott McCusker of Cybergroove, a niche booking agency with 90% drum & bass on its 60+ artist roster, which he supplements with other ventures so he doesn’t have to rely on bookings to pay his bills. “But in independent markets where they only have a very limited budget to book a tour, I can’t make a living booking just drum & bass. No one really cares about my domestic talent. It grinds on my artists because they’re creative people putting their hearts on their sleeve because this is what they want to do.”

We’re passionate about drum & bass, but it’s not for the money at all. We do these shows because we want to do our part to keep the culture moving forward.

“If I was just DJing and that was my livelihood, I would have focused more on production,” says Machete. “But there’s no guarantee that would have taken off because there are a lot of talented guys out there that just can’t seem to catch a break or don’t know how to market themselves. If you stick with something long enough, it pays dividends to some level but that’s not the most important aspect of being happy. It’s hard for me to imagine doing anything else.”

This attitude is what all entities working in drum & bass share, often with no regard for financial outcome. As Merino says, “You should do things because you’re passionate and whatever happens, happens. At Bassrush we’re passionate about drum & bass, but it’s not for the money at all. We do these shows because we want to see these acts and do our part to keep the culture moving forward.”