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What in the World Happened to Techno?

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

The fortunes of techno music rose and fell as sharply as the stock market during much of 1997: sky-high early in the year, when the music was widely tabbed as the Next Big Thing, to a virtual fire sale these days, when you can find only two pure techno collections on the list of the year’s 200 best-selling albums.

It’s a rise and fall that tells us as much about the workings of the record industry--and the difficulty of predicting public response--as it does about the commercial potential of techno itself.

At the start of the year, there wasn’t any reason to think of techno as a major sales force--until the industry’s search for something to jump-start sluggish sales led, unexpectedly, to techno’s door.

Expectations quickly soared after MTV, looking to boost its own sagging ratings, announced that it was going to move away from its reliance on alternative rock and rap videos because viewer surveys showed fans were tiring of the styles. Those sounds, along with country music, have been the backbone of the industry in the ‘90s, generating almost $8.5 billion in sales in 1996 alone.

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Though MTV said it was also going to add more pop videos to its programming, the industry zeroed in on the fact that the cable channel introduced “Amp,” a weekly video show devoted to techno--or electronica, as the dance music is also called--to its lineup.

Even though “Amp” was placed in the ungodly 2 a.m. Saturday time slot, the industry picked up on techno. The idea of more pop videos on MTV--from the novelty of the Spice Girls to the polite musings of Jewel--seemed too mainstream and old- fashioned for an industry that likes to think of itself as cutting-edge.

Besides, techno had an energy and imagination, a style far more sophisticated and diverse than old-fashioned disco. And the music had become the dominant sound on the British club scene, where a group of new acts was bringing personality to what had long been a faceless genre. Stars such as Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers and Goldie were profiled alongside traditional rock groups in the British pop papers. Some, notably Prodigy, even brought a sense of song structure to the music, thanks to such tunes as “Firestarter,” a hit around the world.

Aware of all this, record execs in the U.S. started having daydreams of MTV’s new “Amp” doing for techno what “Yo! MTV Raps” had done earlier for rap: open the sound to the mainstream rock audience.

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By spring, however, in a Calendar report about the potential of techno, executives were having serious second thoughts about the millions they were pouring into signing and promoting techno acts here and in England.

Despite the sometimes seductive lure of techno, there was an anonymity in the whiplash beats and silky, ambient sounds that made it a hard sell on record. Songs are the key to building careers, executives reminded themselves, and most techno doesn’t have songs in the traditional pop sense.

Still, the industry took notice in April when the Chemical Brothers’ “Dig Your Own Hole” became the first album from the hard-core English dance field to enter the U.S. pop charts in the Top 20. The album, which registered at No. 14, sold 48,000 copies in that first week, and it went on to be certified gold (500,000 sales).

But the future of the Chemical Brothers appears limited. On stage, the group was unable to overcome the anonymous sound of the music. The show was about as exciting as a crew of sidewalk construction workers.

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That shifted attention to Prodigy, which made history in July by entering the U.S. charts at No. 1, selling 201,000 copies of its “The Fat of the Land” album, according to SoundScan. The album has gone on to sell more than 1.5 million, making it one of the year’s Top 30 sellers.

Unlike the Chemical Brothers, Prodigy proved to be a knockout live--but in ways that didn’t necessarily augur well for the commercial future of techno.

Prodigy is as much a rock band--in terms of attitude and approach--as it is a techno band. You see a lot of the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten in the wardrobe and sneer of frontman Keith Flint, and you hear a lot of the independence and rebellion of the Who and other classic rock groups in such songs as “Firestarter.”

The success of Prodigy ultimately reinforced the idea that techno’s future in the commercial mainstream is as an influence, not as a dominant style.

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In that way, techno’s place in pop history may be similar to the role of punk. Despite such great groups as the Sex Pistols and the Clash in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, punk was never a major, consistent seller around the world. But punk’s youthful fervor and do-it-yourself spirit inspired virtually every rock band of note over the last two decades, from U2 and R.E.M. to Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers didn’t start a stampede to techno. Garth Brooks’ “Sevens” album probably sold more in three weeks in the U.S. (2 million copies) than all the techno albums released here during 1997 combined, except for those two groups. And MTV’s “Amp” remains in its 2 a.m. Saturday slot.

An incident that gives evidence of the low standing of techno’s stock these days came when Goldie opened for Jane’s Addiction at the Universal Amphitheatre earlier this month. It was the perfect setting for this star of the British dance scene to showcase his sound before a young, tastemaker audience.

After two numbers, the energy level was so low in the room that Goldie moved to the edge of the stage and tried to peer out into the darkness. “Los Angeles, are you out there?” he finally asked.

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The truth was Los Angeles--or at least 90% of the 6,000 fans who came to see Jane’s Addiction--wasn’t out there. They were either out in the lobby or sightseeing along CityWalk. They hadn’t even bothered to see Goldie. And many of those who were in their seats at the start of the show left after a couple of numbers.

So what are we to make of techno?

Ironically, the commercial fizzle this year may be the best thing that could have happened to it. If the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy tours had prompted fans to rush to the stores in search of other techno albums, record companies would have started signing acts with even greater gusto. This would have brought all sorts of opportunists into the music, contributing to recycled and repetitive sounds.

But the fact that techno didn’t explode commercially means that only artists with a genuine love of the music will likely gravitate toward it. The opportunists will form more ska bands--the most successful but least interesting trend of the year.

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The one bright spot in all the success of ska and novelty records this year is that a flock of sing-along hits, including Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” and Smash Mouth’s “Walking on the Sun,” caught the ear of a preteen crowd, easing fears that today’s youngsters might be so enamored of video games that they would never care about records. The best sight of the year, one retailer said, was parents being pulled into stores by grade-schoolers.

If “Tubthumping” and the rest can get the kids listening to music, they’ll eventually graduate to more substantial fare. And those sounds seem to be arriving from England, where there has been a revitalization of British rock, thanks to a new generation of artists. Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft, Blur’s Damon Albarn and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, among others, understand the importance of songwriting and don’t shy away from mass acceptance.

“The future of pop lies with songwriters,” Gallagher said in an interview this year. “It doesn’t matter which style or whether they’re playing guitar, piano or the world’s biggest synthesizer. A great song is a great song.”

In the end, the problem this year wasn’t techno, but the expectations put on it. Think of hard-core techno as a great resource library. At its best, techno is smart, exciting, even revolutionary music. There will be collections of it that will occasionally connect with mainstream audiences the same way some of the Clash’s albums did during the first era of punk. But the primary audience is likely to remain a subculture.

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Eventually, however, a great young songwriter will likely be excited by it the same way U2’s Bono and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain were excited by punk. Then, we can start talking about the Next Big Thing in earnest.


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