Rave Against The Machine
How Rave Became Business

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in This Magazine on 1 November 1999

It was all thump and bleep. Simple analog computer sounds that, amplified to discotheque volume, somehow suggested a new future for the human race. A thousand kids, wearing no style in particular, dancing sexily, rhythmically, or even just spasmodically, committed themselves to pushing through until dawn and beyond. Maybe it was the drugs. Or maybe they were on to something.

My first exposure to rave culture, back in 1988, was perhaps the most significant dose of pure possibility I had experienced since my psychedelic initiation 10 years earlier. Too young to have any direct contact with whatever the 1960s may have heralded, I was convinced we had stumbled upon something truly novel: a social scene capable of transforming the greater world around it.

In a room or field with no agenda other than a 120-beat-per-minute pulse, a few thousand intimates could liberate themselves from conventional closed-mindedness for long enough to touch something else. While we had many names for this “other” – from the strange attractor, to God herself – it all boiled down to experiencing ourselves and one another in a new way: as a collective, in motion and evolving. Blindly but boldly, we would go where no man or woman had gone before – or so we thought.

Rave was meant to be as democratic as the Internet itself: there was no boss, anyone could participate and the more contributions from around the world the better. The object of a rave dance was to bring a large group together – at least temporarily – into a single, joyful, coordinated being. How much closer to the utopian dreams of the Internet can a cultural movement get?

See, the beauty of the ecstatic experience, whether you’re using Ecstasy (MDMA) or not, is the freedom it offers from value systems. Everything is delightfully up for grabs. This is what distinguished the nineties Ecstasy kids from the sixties acid generation. The hippies picked up signs and fought the war, their parents, and the system. The “man” was real, and he needed to be brought down. By the 1990s, these enemies could no longer be held as real. It seemed as if the establishment’s faulty foundations would crumble under their own weight. Just turn up the bass a little to speed up the process.

All we had to do was dance, and the rest would take care of itself. As we told ourselves with our music, everybody’s free to feel good. We believed in the power of love, and cheered as we watched everything from the Berlin Wall to apartheid topple in its wake.

I understand why we strove for rave to not be about anything in particular. If it got too grounded in one or another brand of politics or religion, the scene would lose its healing levity. But the problem with having no agenda is that you’re open to the agendas of others. The scene can be co-opted.

The Criminal Justice Act in the U.K. and over-zealous police forces in the U.S. brought about the first wave of change. Although we had a sense that it would diminish a certain something, we took our parties indoors to commercial venues. Who cares, I remember thinking, as long as we have the music and the people? A few extra bucks to the police let us keep the right chemicals in the mix, and a few more to the club owners kept the power on through morning.

But everything had changed. When we were off the map, we could keep our bearings. Traveling three hours to a rave and having to spend the night in an open field forces an intentionality all its own. The trip requires a commitment, and the event itself is a tribute to our resourcefulness.

Today, you can find something called a rave almost every night of the week at a club within walking distance. Some of these parties are taking place in the very same rooms where your parents went every Friday night after a long week of work to let off steam – with booze and boogie instead of tryptamines and Tricky. By current estimates, a million hits of E are consumed every weekend in the U.K. So why is club culture so devoid of everything that rave appeared to herald?

For one, the ecstatic experience doesn’t work if it happens every week. Sure E itself has effect. But when it’s taken in weekly doses, the empathic qualities quickly give way to simple stimulation, provoking the same sorts of hooliganism that everyone else succumbs to on a weekend binge.

Rave deteriorated because we allowed the movement to become part of business as usual: a weekend release, no different from the pub crawls of any other worker who, given a break to blow off some steam, can go back to work on Monday morning without complaining. We failed to figure out exactly which part of the rave experience was most important to bring indoors. And that, even more than the beats or the chemicals, was the economic principle behind rave.

Rave parties had been part of what could only be considered a gift economy. Collectives would form spontaneously, gathering enough money to rent a sound system and print up some flyers. If there were extra cash from a successful event, the money would go to pay for a few meals for the organizers and the rest towards the next party.

While the cops and government officials hated the idea of kids doing drugs and making noise in abandoned spaces and remote fields, business hated it even more. The young people who should be buying alcohol, Top-40 records and paying for admittance to the disco, were instead participating in an alternative economy – dropping psychedelics, exchanging remix tapes, and driving to the country.

When rave became a club event, it merged this gift economy with the business of nightclubbing – and this is where it all went bad. We all know the story by now. Clubs make money selling drinks, but kids at a rave ingest E, not booze. The solution? Sell bottled water to the dehydrated trippers. To insure this lucrative business, club owners began confiscating any water that the kids brought themselves, and shutting off the water in the bathroom. Some would argue that the first vastly publicized deaths due to “ecstasy overdoses,” may have been cases of simple dehydration. The kids were killed as much by the water-sellers as by the drugs.

The rise of the commercial rave effectively destroyed the very real but unstated ethic of the gift economy. Rave promoters, initially forced to raise their prices to pay for venues, learned that a few more dollars added to the price of a ticket could yield tremendous profit. Promoters who were used to breaking even found themselves tens of thousands of pounds or dollars richer by morning. This drew new legions of would-be promoters into the ring, whose glossy flyers would compete with one another for attention at the record shop.

What had been a spontaneous expression of community turned into good old-fashioned free-market competition. With five or more separate clubs competing for the same audiences on the same nights of the week, distrust and ill-will between rave posses ruled. DJs who used to be anonymous became headliners who performed on stage under spotlights. The number of gigawatts of bass became an advertising pitch. Promoters worked hard to prove through their graphics and slogans that they were the exclusive purveyors of the “original” integrity that defined the great raves of 1988. But no matter how good the sound, the lights, the DJ, or the drugs, the commercial parties were missing the ingredient that used to hold it all together.

By reducing its participants to mere consumers, rave lost its claim to the sacred. As economic and business forces became the driving force of the culture, the imperative to have profound experiences was replaced by a financial imperative to sell more tickets to more people in less time. We no longer took weeks to prepare both practically and mentally for the ritual. It was reduced to mere entertainment – appropriately listed alongside concerts and movies in the weekend newspaper.

But what made rave so revolutionary was its economics. The reason we felt so removed from the workaday reality is that we had disconnected ourselves from the cycle of consumption and production that degrades and dehumanizes so much of the rest of our daily experience. Just as Wired magazine reduced the community-inspiring Internet to a shopping mall called the World Wide Web, commercial interests reduced the rave movement to an “Electronica” category in the record shop.

It was not its existence outside the law that made rave so special, but its separation from corporate culture and the market economy. We were striving toward a celebration of the sacred. Instinctually, we realized that our vision would be compromised by business and politics. Business used the power of government’s enforcers to drag our parties indoors, and while we managed to hold on to our stashes, we didn’t hold on to much else. In the end, we simply didn’t know enough about what we doing to fight for the part that mattered.