It’s hated by artists, ridiculed by label owners and seems to have outworn its welcome by nearly two decades. So why is Intelligent Dance Music still being used?
IDM is one of the oddest terms in music. It refers to Intelligent Dance Music, and you’d have to look very far and very hard to find any other term that inspires so much scorn. However, at the same time, the term has persisted: unlike so many other labels and sub-genres, it’s still around, nearly 20 years after it was first coined. Most musicians don’t even stick around that long.
To find out what’s behind IDM’s incredible staying power – and to understand why it’s loathed as much as it is – it’s worth looking at what it actually means. This isn’t easy. IDM is the musical version of a flake of soap: the moment you think you’ve got a handle on it, it jumps out of your hands. In very broadest of terms, it refers to a type of dance music that is characterised by atmosphere comprising unusual, often non-repetitive sound elements, as opposed to the more traditional dance music, which focuses on steady beats and repetitive loops.
“[People look at it] and go, ‘these are the noises of dance music, but not made for people getting drunk in a disco’,” says Leila Arab, a Warp Records artist often referred to as an IDM DJ. Arab – a spiky, Iranian-born producer who provokes as much in her conversation as she does in her deeply experimental music – describes the term succinctly: “I understand why the label exists. It’s saying, ‘wow, arpeggiators, sub-basses, kicks and snares – oh look, it’s like dance music, but not for being drunk on a Saturday night. Dance music, but not for the brave new world’.”
The origins of the term are unclear. Depending on who you talk to, it was either coined by i-D magazine in 1992, or by dance music enthusiast and newsletter author Alan Parry in 1993 (neither magazine nor writer could reached for comment). It came to be applied to several labels and artists who are still around today: Aphex Twin, Autechre, Plaid, Warp Records, Rephlex Records; and here’s the kicker, we spoke to quite a few of these people, and they hate it.
“It’s a terrible name for a genre,” says Grant Wilson-Claridge, one of the owners of UK label Rephlex, which is home to artists like Aleksi Perala and Jodey Kendrick. “I refuse to even acknowledge the existence of IDM, unless it means the skip full of rightly unsigned demo music people endlessly send in or post on internet forums.” Wilson-Claridge criticises it for implying zero sense of humour, and jokingly says he prefers the term “braindance.”
It’s not just the labels. Strictly Kev (Kevin Foakes) is a member of the collective DJ Food – although to be strictly accurate, he’s the sole remaining member of the crew. His new album, The Search Engine, is certainly not your typical dance record, and it comes with a series of shows Foakes is planning at the London Planetarium: “When you take people out of a club setting, they respond differently to music,” he says. “They’re not expecting to hear something they know, they’re not expecting to be made to dance. It places a very exaggerated emphasis on the visual side of things.”
Signed to Ninja Tune – a label which has also been tarred with the IDM brush – the soft-spoken Foakes says he’s not convinced the term IDM has any merit at all. “It’s rubbish,” he says. “It’s kind of insulting in some ways. You’re the intelligent people, but this is just nonsensical dance music…nobody would want to be put in that genre. It’s a means to an end, but it’s meaningless because it has been around for so long.
“At the time it was coined, it described a sector of music: electronica, techno, anything else, in the same way that trip-hop described Ninja Tune at one point. But time moves on, and it’s almost meaningless, because there are swathes of artists and labels that fit into that category, who make different kinds of music. What is it? Is it a little more cerebral than club music? It requires some thought or more than one listen to get it? Nothing wrong with that, but it is fairly pointless.”
None of this, however, answers the question of why the category has persisted and is still being used in discussions even today. After all, if someone at a party were being insulting, humourless and pretentious, you’d kick him out – or at the very least, move to the other side of the room. So why is IDM still used to describe people’s music?
Perhaps one of the reasons is that artists who are filed under the term are remarkably persistent. Unlike their club-friendly brethren, they can afford to be resistant to changing fashions. Given that they’re not pressured to have a radio hit, or are quite comfortable surviving on a small, dedicated audience at a boutique label, they don’t have to change much. And a good deal of the music described as IDM today sounds awfully similar to that which was being released in the early 1990s. We don’t mean to suggest that artists haven’t progressed or pushed boundaries – say what you like about dance DJs, they’re not scared of experimenting – but there do seem to be certain key threads which run through the music.
If any label could ever be described as the home of IDM, it would be Warp, who have been putting out introspective, experimental electronic music for decades. Leila Arab might have described the term brilliantly, but she still hates it with the passion of a thousand fiery suns. “I don’t really see what I do as [IDM],” she says. “I use the apparatus of dance music – electronics and beats and basslines – to make noise. I don’t think I make dance music at all. The only element of mine that would fall into IDM is the apparatus. Historically, that’s really not the music I was into. I’m into it now, but it’s got nothing to do with what I was raised on.”
More importantly, she says, part of the reason the label has persisted is thanks to the journalists, music industry folk and fans who wish to define music, rather than just accept it as is: “Journalists are incredibly lazy. At the end of the day, you lot need to [package things]. And the other thing is, all the labels I’ve been on are kind of dance labels: Rephlex, which was Aphex Twin’s label, and then XL, and now I’m doing stuff for Warp, who are the highest end of the best producers in the world.”
“It’s a weird one,” she continues. “My loyalty is just to noise; I have no loyalty to anything else.” Arab’s new record for the label, U&I, certainly bears that out: it’s simultaneously bewildering and deeply brilliant, not to mention noisy.
Perhaps this is all overwhelmingly negative. You could accuse Arab, Foakes and Wilson-Claridge of ridiculing a term that they have, at least in some part, profited from: any cachet IDM might have had with fans rubbed off on them as well. Surely there must be some positive consequences of its use?
Foakes gives a qualified response: “In the 1990s, when trip-hop as a word was hot, as much as we hated it and still do, it got you work at that point. Now everyone wants dubstep and in a couple of years, they’ll want something else. You need a label to sell yourself in the first place. It’s a double-edged sword.” The work that artists potentially get from being pigeonholed can be very welcome – there might be very few IDM-themed gigs around, but there’s certainly an audience for it.
He goes on, saying that there appears to be a need among listeners (and those who write about music) to put new sounds in little boxes. “People need categories,” he muses, “they need to put things in boxes, to file them away, to sell them, to write about them, to describe. That’s not really a problem I have either. Enough people call my music trip-hop and maybe it is trip-hop to them. That’s the trouble.”
Maybe, but there is the notion that Intelligent Dance Music as a term might just be useful, however loathed and despised that it may be. When music refuses to fit into any genre, there’s arguably no harm in throwing a blanket term over it – though the artists we spoke to feel very differently. Ultimately, it’s just a name, and it will be interesting to see whether it survives the next 20 years.
For more information on DJ Food visit www.djfood.org and for Leila Arab check out www.warp.net/records/leila. For further details on Rephlex Records visit www.rephlex.com.