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CAN techno SAVE ROCK & ROLL?

The synthesized beats and soundscapes have transfixed Europeans, major rock artists and a sales-hungry music industry. But will America catch dance fever?

March 30, 1997|Robert Hilburn and Steve Hochman | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic. Steve Hochman writes about pop music for Calendar

'No, no, no," the president of one of the biggest record labels in the world shouts in mock horror. "Don't say that word. All this talk about techno being the next big thing in pop is starting to drive me crazy.

"I just had a call from one of the most respected artists in the world. . . . Someone who has been around for years and who has nothing to do with this music. But he's nervous about it and wants to know whether he should hire remixers to do techno versions of his new songs. He hasn't even written the songs yet and he's asking about remixes."

The harried executive isn't alone in his frustration.

Shaken by flat album sales over the last three years, the $12-billion-a-year record industry is searching desperately for something--anything--to help reignite consumer interest in shiny compact discs.

In the four months since MTV shook up the industry by announcing that it was adding a techno program to its lineup, techno has emerged in the eyes of trend-watchers as the next big thing.

"Trent Reznor said something smart: Music needs to be dangerous, needs an edge to it," says Steven Baker, president of Warner Bros. Records. "Techno has an element of that. The beats are kind of frightening. It gives its audience an identity, almost as if you are in a special fraternity."

There is a revolutionary, rebellious feel to techno--and its accompanying all-night, drug-charged club and rave scenes--that could appeal to young record buyers looking for a way to separate themselves from the music and styles of past generations.

Rather than traditional pop-rock elements, the emphasis in techno--or dance music, as supporters of the genre prefer to call it--is on frantic or calming soundscapes, mostly created by synthesizers and sampling.

The British-led movement has been hot in Europe for years, and has already generated enough excitement among rock musicians for many of them, including U2 and David Bowie, to employ dance textures in their new albums. Recording under the pseudonym x-sample, guitar legend Eric Clapton has made a techno-influenced album as part of a duo billed as T.D.F.

Not wanting to be left behind if there is a cultural and commercial shift to techno, many executives, artists and managers are trying quickly to figure out their place in this new, mysterious world--with its strange-sounding subgenres such as trip-hop and jungle--and a new collection of stars, from the Prodigy to the Chemical Brothers.

The race is on to sign techno artists--just in case something explodes. Radio is experimenting with dance formats--notably "Groove Radio" (103.1 FM) in L.A.--and the music will be showcased in a high-profile tour this summer.

"It's like a fever," says one label president.

But is all this activity genuine heat that will warm up the sales of records, or just "Saturday Night Fever" redux, a replay of the '70s disco era that produced hit records but not career artists?

"[So far] there's not only no smoke, but there's no fire," says Mike Shalett, chief operating officer of SoundScan, which monitors U.S. record sales. Together, the 10 most high-profile dance-related albums of the '90s have sold only 1.1 million copies here. That's less than half the sales of the second Hootie & the Blowfish album, which has been widely perceived in the industry as a disappointment, after the group's previous album sold 9 million copies.

In a survey of more than a dozen U.S. record executives by Calendar, only one thought there was even remotely enough evidence to justify calling techno "the next big thing."

"All this talk about the end of alternative rock and the birth of techno is just distracting," says Don Ienner, president of Columbia Records, summarizing the majority view. "As an industry, we tend to have a lemmings quality and go chasing after things. But we need to keep focused and search for great stars and great songs.

"Techno is only sonically enhancing or dressing up what you have. You can put whatever dress or suit you want on any person. It's the artist and the song, not what suit you're wearing."

Roy Lott, executive vice president and general manager of Arista Records, agrees: "Grunge didn't happen because record companies said it was the next big thing. It happened because Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder came along and wrote songs that millions of people identify with. You always make a mistake by signing genres rather than artists."

*

So, what's the case for techno?

Mainstream pop-rock certainly needs help. The traditional textures were wearing thin by the early '80s, prompting such respected artists as Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, David Byrne and Sting to look to world music, among other movements, for inspiration. Others, including Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, later began focusing on techno.

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