Blink while you're walking down Mill Avenue and you'll probably miss the new Swell Records. Just doors down from Fatburger, with only printed paper to mark its place, the latest incarnation of Swell sits a block north from Swell Clothing. Enter and you'll see a post-industrial space with a few CDs on the wall and a short stairwell leading down to a subfloor with eight turntables against the south wall and racks of records waiting to be heard.
Sure, Swell's been around for ages, but in a move indicative of the current state of dance music in the 'Nix, Swell recently split off its record division and merged it with the more commercial Spin Records, resulting in an entirely new Swell Records that carries as much Top 40 dance music and hip-hop as it does underground beats and breaks.
The underground electronic dance music scene in this town isn't quite dead, but it's certainly struggling for air.
Sure, there's a glut of dance nights vying for your attention every week, but that's part of the problem -- when everybody and his sister is a DJ, mediocrity is bound to be the rule.
Swell's not the only sign. It's curtains for the Valley's most stalwart underground dance club, Freedom in Tempe, after Paul Oakenfold takes his final bow there on Sunday.
It's a pivotal time for underground electronic music in the Valley, similar to when the underground rave scene went nearly extinct around six years ago. That generation of ravers grew up and decided they'd rather have a cocktail in an air-conditioned bar than party with sweaty E'd-out teenagers. Freedom opened, and Scottsdale nightclubs adopted the scene as well.
Now, with Freedom's closure and most underground club nights facing an uphill battle, players in the scene are waiting and guessing at what comes next.
"That must be a difficult thing to do, man," Freedom owner Steve Kushnir tells me when I explain I'm trying to chart the course electronic dance music is taking in Phoenix. "Everyone, even my partners, are saying dance music's dead. I can't really agree that it's dead, I just think dance music became boring for a minute."
A minute that seems to be ticking on forever. Kushnir was at the precipice of the last major shift in electronic music's manifestation, when he and then-partner Jas Tynan recognized that the underground rave scene was at the end of its rope in the late '90s. "The whole rave image was really a deterrent. But I loved the music -- for me they didn't go hand in hand," he explains.
"We thought, 'Let's make a club night out of this and legitimize it, give people a safe place to go,'" Kushnir says of opening Freedom. But now, six years later, Freedom's doors are closing because of lack of support.
Russel Ramirez, the owner of Swell Clothing, and now partner in Swell Records, witnessed underground electronic music's popularity plummet as well. "At one point years ago, 74 percent of all of our sales were music. When we decided to [merge Swell Records with Spin Records], we were down to 9 percent of our sales being music," he says. "Things have drastically changed."
Last summer, Ramirez relocated Swell Records and Clothing from its longtime Scottsdale Road location to the heart of Mill Avenue. Spin Records moved into the neighborhood around the same time.
"What [Spin was] marketing towards is a different crowd. They were doing more commercial dance music, commercial hip-hop, commercial club music, and [Swell was] always more underground electronic, underground hip-hop, scratching kind of stuff. So we figured if we put the two together, we'd be on our way to becoming the ultimate record store," Ramirez says.
The darker truth is that retail underground electronic music can't hold its own any longer.
It's indicative of what Ramirez sees happening in the Valley's dance club scene. "As far as a weekly underground nightclub -- it's done."
Despite that weary prognosis, there are impresarios still soldiering on, trying to compensate for the drought of artistically innovative underground events. Rod Carillo, a Panamanian-born local progressive house DJ who regularly tours worldwide, has been hosting "Flux" at Sky Lounge in downtown Phoenix every Thursday since mid-April.
"There's an audience out there that just doesn't know where to go," Carillo says. He cites a slew of weekly nights competing for the attention of electronic music fans -- "Red" at 6 on Sunday nights, "Posh" with Kevin Brown at Suede on Tuesdays, and "Batucada" with Senbad and Pete "Supermix" Salaz at Next on Wednesdays.
Carillo is hoping that Freedom's closure gives underground electronic music fans a wake-up call.
Freedom's absence will also eliminate the 'Nix's most popular 18-and-over after-hours dance spot, leaving those born on the wrong side of 1983 with few options for dancing the night away. Tim Acosta, a.k.a. DJ Citrik, the promoter behind Outside World Entertainment, is attempting to compensate by continuing to throw raves on occasion -- mostly smallish affairs in the desert, but also larger events like his 18-and-over Connect2 party at the Icehouse this Saturday night, May 29.
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"A lot of people say the rave scene's dead or whatever, but in my opinion it's still alive -- it's just really small right now," Acosta says. He expects around 500 people at Connect2 this weekend, many of whom fall into the 18-to-20-years-old range. "The scene's going through some changes right now -- it's never gonna be like it was in '99 or 2000." Acosta estimates that most of the "raves" happening around Phoenix these days only attract 50 to 100 candy kids, with parties of 500 or more only happening every few months.
Whichever lens you look through, the underground electronic music scene here is struggling through a metamorphosis, and it doesn't seem likely to jell into a singularity any time soon.
Is it growing pains or a death rattle? You'll be the ones deciding that.