Dutch Diplomacy

Why Holland leads on the dancefloor. Or do they? Dance aficionado Marlina Azmi grabs some Edam, puts on her clogs and goes undercover.

Text Marlina Azmi

“Armin van Buuren and Tiësto made DJ Mag Top 100 poll history by taking the top spot for three consecutive years, a feat that no other DJs have accomplished. It’s just the tip of the iceberg”

“Electronic Dance Music is an important factor in the Dutch economy. It accounts for about 11,000 jobs and records a turnover of almost €500 million”

One of those names is DJ Mag’s #1 DJ of 2009, Armin van Buuren. The two Dutchmen made DJ Mag Top 100 poll history by taking the top spot for three consecutive years, a feat that no other DJs have accomplished. It’s just the tip of the iceberg. An extensive list of Netherland natives have made their mark on the dance world. In Malaysia alone Tiësto, Armin, Ferry Corsten, Sander Kleinenberg and Marco V are all repeat offenders at various large scale club events and outdoor festivals here. In November and December 2009, Malaysian clubbers were graced with the presence of Armin van Buuren and Laidback Luke at Zouk. This month we’ll be witnessing the debut of Richard Durand at the Music Conference Asia: The Creation and DJ Nenes, while Chuckie is headed this way via Zouk in February. For most of these Dutch jocks, it’s not their first visit to the country, nor will it be their last, judging by the thousands that continue to flock to see them. And if the hype is to be believed better watch out for newcomer Jan Oostdyk, who was named best breakthrough DJ/Producer of 2009 by his countrymen Ferry Corsten and Sied Van Riel in a DJ Mag interview.

Rafael Frost who’s signed under Ferry Corsten’s Flashover Recordings vouches that being Dutch has its perks. “I think, being a DJ coming from Holland gives you a small advantage. When I travel abroad, I notice Holland is popular with the crowd, for the simple fact that the listed top names are mainly Dutch guys.” Raphael is referring to DJ Magazine’s wildly popular annual DJ poll. Now over a decade in the running, Dutch DJs feature regularly and in prominent positions.

But sitting on the top spots of DJ Mag’s Top 100 DJs poll doesn’t necessarily make you the best DJ on the scene. In fact, the poll has long been lamented as nothing more than a popularity contest. Voters get to choose their favourite DJs and nominated DJs have been known to mass mail their fans and followers to motivate them to demonstrate their loyalty. With the advent of social media sites like Myspace, Facebook and Twitter, the opportunity to cover more ground and reach more people is even greater.

Last year (2009) dance music’s largest poll successfully raked in a whopping 300,000 votes from 263 countries. Being placed in the Top 100 definitely boosts a DJs ranking in the music scene as booking agents (and in Malaysia, sponsors) take it seriously when it comes to choosing headliners for their events. But the voting system doesn’t sit well with everyone. To win a DJs strategy needn’t be to play an impressive set but to market themselves and leverage social media networks and the internet. “It’s a weird poll where I’m ranked higher than Daft Punk, who I think are better than me. Then again, what are they doing in the list in the first place? They’re not DJs; they’re producers who play their own songs in shows, not clubs. This does bring out the question whether the voters really know what they’re doing,” said Frenchman Joachim Garraud in dismay.

On closer inspection however, it would appear that the Dutch aren’t as popular as predicted. In 2008, only 12 Dutch DJs made it to the list and last year 15 of them took up spots in the poll. UK DJs come out more favourably. 26 DJs from the UK made the list in 2008 and 25 successfully made the cut last year. It would seem that the Brits are still favoured for their style and reputation. Names like John Digweed, Sasha, Fatboy Slim, Carl Cox, Judge Jules are literally household names even to audiences as far flung as Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. It’s not n isolated incident either, despite the perception even Resident Advisor’s Top 100 DJs for 2009 doesn’t include any Dutch names and sees Richie Hawtin at the top spot for 2009. Shocker!

The Dutch don’t seem to cut the mustard in the production side of the industry either. Beatport’s 50 most downloaded tracks of 2009 include only two tracks from The Netherlands: ‘Rockerfella Skank’ (Koen Groeneveld Remix) and Fatboy Slim vs. Fedde le Grand’s ‘Praise You 09’. Nor have the Dutch won a Grammy. The Best Electronic/Dance Album Award was introduced in 2005 and since then only one Dutch producer has received a nomination. Tiesto received a Grammy nod in 2008 but lost out to techno and house legends, Chemical Brothers from the UK.

Nevertheless, the Dutch dance music scene is wildly successful and that does make Dutch DJs / Producers and consequently Dutch dance fans winners. A survey conducted by entertainment company ID&T back in 2003 showed that Electronic Dance Music (EDM) is an important factor in the Dutch economy. It accounts for about 11,000 jobs and records a turnover of almost €500 million. Much of that is export-related and involves record companies, booking offices, distributors, recording artists and DJs. Between 60% and 95% of all copies of an average Dutch release are destined for markets abroad. So what is it that makes the difference? What do the Dutch have going for them that the rest of the dance music world doesn’t? Is it their flat low-laying lands, well below sea level, that optimises music creativity? Something in the water that channels their creative juices? Or perhaps it’s the open attitude towards life that makes them more responsive towards seeing and hearing a way forward for Dutch dance.

Modern technology plays a big part in promoting the Dutch EDM culture with the Internet being an important tool in distributing music more freely compared to when vinyl’s were widely used to release singles and tracks. The advancement of digital releases makes it easier for fans and DJs to get hold of the goods from online stores like Beatport. Despite some producers being sentimental about the rawness of vinyl, they’re more than grateful with the advancement of music software. “Back in the day the system was to produce a track then send it out to get it pressed on vinyl but now, we get to make a track, master it and off it goes to the distributors,” says Dutch DJ and Producer Marcel Woods. “The main progression of EDM is the technical production of the tracks; it’s amazing how that progressed in the last couple of years. Of course that’s also the result of all the great and affordable software out there nowadays,” adds Rafael Frost, the Ferry Corsten signee. Then again, you could say that is true of any scene with an internet connection and a laptop.

Marcel, who was in KL to mentor Malaysia-based DJs, producers and dance music enthusiasts at Music Conference Asia “The Beginning” (MCAsia for short) in November 2009, also believes that the Dutch are more receptive to dance music because of the huge party scene back home. “We like parties, big parties to be exact and these events provides a platform for gifted and talented producers to spread their music on a wider scale,” explains Marcel. Twan van Loon, content and promotion manager for Ferry Corsten’s Flashover Recordings and Dance Therapy also agrees with this notion. “I think the Dutch are very party-centric, we have lots of parties in various EDM styles every weekend. And in the summer we have huge outdoor festivals such as Dance Valley, Mystery Land, Extrema, Defqon, Awakenings and many others.”

These parties and music festivals not only attract locals but also a large number of foreigners who flock to The Netherlands yearly for these highly acclaimed events. Dance Valley attracts an average of 50,000 revellers every year while Trance Energy consistently sells out 30,000 tickets every year since 2001. Parties and music festivals in Holland are also on the receiving end of a lot of exposure and support from the media. Not only will you get to find out about it from magazines and the Internet, event promoters and party planners have the advantage of blasting out ads and teasers on radio and television too. The maturity of the dance music scene in Holland makes this possible but more importantly the size and scale of the events that can be organised and consequently the amount of revenue generated means that media usually beyond the reach of many promoters is available to the Dutch to push their brand of EDM forward.

Party and festival announcements and advertising aren’t the only recipients of airplay love, EDM is regularly heard across local radio stations like XFM, Track FM, DBS and Hurricane FM. Twan, who also hosts a weekly EDM show called Dancemania on Siris Radio in the south believes that constant radio airplay lends the necessary exposure for producers and quite a number of EDM tracks have made their way into pop music charts. “Ferry Corsten ‘It’s Time’, Barthezz ‘On The Move’, Tiësto ‘Just Be’ and recent tracks like Deadmau5 vs. Kaskade ‘I Remember’, David Guetta feat. Kelly Rowland ‘When Love Takes Over’ and Tiësto’s ‘Escape Me’ have successfully made its way in the regular music charts here in The Netherlands,” says Twan. Holland’s geographic location in the heart of Europe and its accessibility and desirability as a destination mean it’s not too long before those sounds are heard elsewhere.

Crucially the Dutch also receive important government support for the scene. According to the Holland Trade Report, government support has developed to become more structural than incidental. Dutch cultural policy strives to ensure high quality production and to stimulate innovation and diversity. The main focus is on subsidies for venues and podia, but also on festivals, which provide many opportunities to perform for a diverse range of artists. And apparently, government officials take time to personally check out what these events are all about too. “These days dance events are established events. Mayors come and visit them to see what’s happening and actually really like what they see,” Amsterdam dance event organizer, Pieter van Adrichem was quoted as saying in a recent interview with online magazine, Resident Advisor.

Mervin Wong of Future Sound Asia, the entertainment company behind events like Speedzone, 2009’s Dimmak blowout and January’s New Year weekend double bill of Bloody Beetroots and Basement Jaxx has his own thought on the matter: “I have a theory about why there is an impression that the Dutch are the best. The small handful of Dutch trance super DJs get booked for festivals around the world, because when you book a DJ which plays euphoric music you sell festival tickets as people want to have a great time at festivals. Now when you ask a regular clubber which is the best DJ of the yearv, chances are he/she will remember an experience from a festival, and you will remember the headliner’s name which will be the Dutch trance super-DJ. It does set of a chain reaction of promoters around the world booking these DJs as they will make them the big bucks, hence inevitably retaining these DJs popularity around the world,” explains Mervin and quite logically too.

To be fair, the Dutch never claimed they were the best in the first place, but the dance community here in Malaysia can’t deny that those in positions of power within the scene, the decision makers, and many clubbers put Dutch DJs on a pedestal. It’s why we keep seeing them. And why many of us would travel as far as PD, Melaka, Genting, even Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia to watch them play. “I don’t really believe in ‘the best’, impresses Rafael Frost. “What defines ‘the best’ anyway?” he says. “After all, music is a matter of personal taste.”. We couldn’t agree more.