Waves One to Four: A Short History of Some Long Weekends
The first record dropped at Hart Plaza nearly six years ago, after months of speculation and uncertainty – pioneered by Carl Craig’s creative direction, produced by Carol Marvin’s Pop Culture Media (PCM), and partially funded by the city of Detroit. The first year was an undisputed success for music lovers and performers, drawing more than anyone could have anticipated, exposing many then-unknown Detroit artists, and creating an electronic music experience that few Americans had ever witnessed – certainly not in their own country. However, the city lost money on the production, creating increased pressure for profitability in the second year.
Only a couple of weeks before the second festival, Carol Marvin terminated Carl Craig’s contract. Several artists refused to show up, pink and black I Support Carl Craig stickers were plastered on most attendees and nearly every Ford Focus (the controversial mainstream sponsor) in the city. On the closing day a huge DEMF = CARL CRAIG banner appeared in the middle of the main stage crowd. Carl Craig’s contribution was still enormous, internationalising and diversifying the line-up, adding artists as far afield as Tortoise and Kit Clayton. PCM’s influence was equally prevalent, offering the first of two attempts at broadcasting advertising during the breaks between performances. The same Eminem spot was shown hundreds of times over three days, to resounding disapproval.
The third year of the DEMF saw PCM working with a committee of seven Detroit techno legends, brought in to ensure the festival’s musical integrity following petitions to have Carol Marvin’s contract revoked and Carl Craig’s (then pending) unlawful termination lawsuit. Juan Atkins, Eddie Fowlkes, Kelli Hand, DJ Bone, Mike Huckaby, Mike Grant and Alan Oldham took creative control, promising to bring back a locally orientated line-up with heftier dance floor dividends. This was likely the busiest of the festivals, but it still couldn’t make money. The crowd was notably less diverse than the previous two years, full of zombie raver kids and absent of vibe. But as devotees found the festival less fulfilling, the afterparties built on the successes of the second year, benefiting from fresh audiences and the suppressed emotion poured out on every evening.
The fourth year kicked-off with controversy just a few months after the third festival ended. It started with a battle for contractual ownership, the initial contract having expired after three years. Derrick May and Carol Marvin’s (PCM) teams fought an intense battle, culminating in an early-Spring decision to give control to Derrick May on the condition that he produce the festival without city funding, at a time when none could be spared. Some of the rifts from previous years appeared to be healed with Eddie Fowlkes’ inclusion in the grand opening of the Detroit Techno exhibit, and most of those key to the development of Detroit’s sounds were invited back, including Carl Craig’s first Movement performance with his Detroit Experiment band. Asking many performers to play for little or no money, May’s group were only able to put the festival together with the support of the techno community, particularly many of those in Detroit who invested their time and/or money to guarantee the festival’s continuation. They were able to do this without sponsorship from mega-corporations. The crowd responded with renewed enthusiasm – the festival being its liveliest since the first year. Given this monumental achievement, it seemed from the outside that nothing could stop the fifth festival from being the smoothest to date, but nothing is ever that simple in Detroit.
In the weeks leading to my fifth visit, I noticed some recurring patterns in this hot politicisation: speculation about the line-up and omissions, the insularity vs. stagnation debate, and the inevitable second-guessing of festival leadership. But each year also has a distinct character. Fifth time round, the festival line-up was announced weeks later than usual (even given the fourth year’s late contractual award). The schedule was not published until three days before the festival started, and Kevin Saunderson was added as festival co-producer only 18 days before it kicked off. At the festival’s press conference he said he had always been involved in organising 2004’s festival. However, these delays didn’t stop the international contingent from choosing Detroit for a techno holiday. The Detroit Free Press’ small survey of 241 festival goers revealed that 10% of the audience travelled from abroad. Once again the festival felt like a global techno reunion for common musical passion.
Written by Tristan Watkins
Editorial assistance from Ken Odeluga
Photography by Hannah Maloney and Tristan Watkins
Earlier festival reports here.