Why we should think more like Detroit’s techno pioneers

The Belleville Three (image: Mixmag)

In the mid 80s, a new style of music started emerging from an industrial city at the northern border of the United States.

The Belleville Three of Juan AtkinsKevin Saunderson and Derrick May are widely credited with being the creators of what became known as Detroit Techno.

Although the sound eventually broke through in the UK, Europe and further afield, in its earliest days there was a real element of scarcity. 

For a start, the internet wasn’t easily accessible. The concept of Real Player or Napster, let alone Spotify, was more than a decade away.

If you lived outside the US and you wanted to get hold of this music as it first emerged there were 3 main options:

  • fly there in-person
  • try and hunt down some of the records in your local specialist store
  • tune in to a pirate radio station that played this music

All of these routes had barriers to entry. 

Flights in the 80s weren’t as plentiful and affordable as they are now, and even then you had to figure out where to go and who to connect with (no Google or Twitter to help you there). 

Highly specialised record stores and pirate stations were largely limited to a small number of urban areas. 

There was also a decent portion of luck involved: the shops may not have had the records in stock; or the radio station could fall victim to a police raid and get shut down.

This created scarcity, and for those with access there was an inevitable tension between protecting and sharing what they had. 

The scarcity wasn’t just limited to casual listeners and obsessive DJs hunting down the next killer track; the technology to make this stuff was generally expensive and complex, or crude and hard to extract good results from. Easy and inexpensive tools like Fruity Loops were still way off.

But this gradual drip of music enabled localised ideas and sounds to slowly form, and while cross-pollination started to happen, the productions at the Detroit source were still largely incubated in relative isolation.

Even when the sounds of Detroit broke bigger around the time of the UK Acid House explosion in 1988, the only real additional access point was being there, live, in a field off the M25. Even videotaping was limited by distribution – VHS copies were the best you could hope for.


Now it’s very different of course. 

You can get just about anything from YouTube. Everything is globally accessible by default. 

Rather than seeking a small drop from a pipette, we’re now drinking from the fire hose.

In many ways this is incredible – the breadth of ideas and inspiration we have access to is almost beyond measure.

It’s hard to imagine the way it was before.

The risk though is that everything starts to look just a little too familiar – whether it’s techno music, photography, or action movies.

A nifty remix becomes a casual knock-off; a localised version feels like a copycat, or even a pastiche, of what came before.

This may not bother you – the founders of Rocket Internet were unapologetic about their ability to quickly replicate Silicon Valley startups for the European market. And many a successful career has been built on calculated commercial re-works of famous songs and movies.

But sometimes the isolation that scarcity provides enables different kinds of creativity, motivation, and innovation to emerge.

Sometimes that single drop gives us a very different kind of taste.


[1] All three are still actively involved in the international techno scene – a good example of the value in playing the long game and staying true to the craft.

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