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"Dance music has always been treated like a stepchild in this country. But now the music industry is seeing that this culture is at the forefront in addressing issues that affect the entire music industry," says Winter Music Conference founder Bill Kelly, Jr. The 45-year-old DJ helms what has become one of the most high-profile music conferences in the country. This year's WMC, beginning Saturday at the Fontainebleau Hilton, will find the music industry looking to dance music to answer the same questions it once posed to rock and roll: Where are tomorrow's hit makers?
Having left obscurity behind, the WMC now competes for attention with more rock-oriented national conferences such as New York City's College Music Journal MusicFest and Austin, Texas's South by Southwest. With Saturday night's Cameo Theatre showcase, however, featuring England's Fatboy Slim and France's Daft Punk, it's getting harder to tell WMC from its more traditional conference cousins. These artists are just as coveted by alt-rock radio stations and MTV as they are by die-hard electronica fans.
The blurring of lines signals a shift in how tomorrow's stars are being discovered and groomed. A wave of major-label A&R men are set to hit Miami, but instead of trolling dingy rock clubs looking for unkempt would-be guitar heroes, they'll spend their nights peeking into the DJ booths of South Beach's nightclubs in pursuit of the next big thing.
They might be on the right track. Last year's Winter Music Conference yielded the worldwide neo-disco smash hit "The Music Sounds Better with You" from the Daft Punk side-project Stardust. The song's creator, Thomas Bangalter, never even did a formal pressing of the record, which he freely admits was created in his bedroom in the space of an afternoon. He simply showed up at WMC, handed out a few white-label twelve-inch copies of the track he had specially made for the occasion, and let the DJ-generated buzz do the rest.
"It was an underground dance record," Kelly says flatly. "It never would have made the worldwide impact it did if it wasn't for the head start it got down here. Now even people who turned their backs on dance music want to know more about it just because of Stardust."
But beyond spawning hits, the conference's focus is still very much on the dance underground. Another of last year's successes came from the legendary Detroit techno producer Carl Craig. He says he found himself increasingly peeved at major-label intrusion into a scene traditionally hidden from the public eye. Distressed at what he thought was a resultant perversion of the scene's ethos, he arrived in Miami with the dark, moody "4 My Peepz." The song is a bitter tribute to friends lost to the crime and poverty of the urban ghetto, as well as a reminder of the oppressive conditions that house and techno music once reflected. Like Stardust, he handed out just a few white-label copies, then watched as the track evolved into a huge international club hit. The WMC buzz even spurred DJs who didn't have a copy of the record to include it on their playlists in trade magazines, in an effort to seem hip.
That aboveground/underground dichotomy is certainly at the heart of the WMC this year. For one thing, smaller, independent labels will be on stronger footing. "I think you're gonna see the indie labels really flourish because they can cut through the bullshit, they can get records out quickly, and use street teams to do promotion," Kelly opines. "They're just more savvy. Also, the big labels were spending all year restructuring, but time isn't waiting for them."
Besides big A&R men, the WMC is also about the 4500 DJs, producers, and independent label owners (up from last year's 3500) expected to make the trek this year from their wintry climates to network with the rest of the dance world. Despite having its own Grammy category and growing numbers of highly paid "stars," dance music is a form whose lifeblood is still the ephemeral vinyl single. The bulk of the money changing hands in this genre is centered on licensing agreements and faceless producers making remixes -- none of which readily translates into copy for glossy magazines.
Still, even underground aficionados are beginning to hone their business skills, as revealed in the schedule for the four days of seminars held at the WMC. Among this year's topics: "Music Publicity and the Next Millennium" (interesting given dance music's underground anti-press bias) as well as a discussion of how the wildly popular American rave party scene is affecting dance music, both aesthetically and legally. (Raves and illicit drugs and law enforcement seem inextricably tied.) One seminar examines the Euro currency conversion and its impact on transatlantic business, while another's title sums it all up: "Enough About Music: What About the Deal?"
Kelly insists, however, that these aren't worlds colliding. Rather it's just one nation under a groove. Or, at least a place to talk about it.