Todd Durrant’s Random Thoughts
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When Did Synthpop Become Industrial?

OK, maybe it’s partially because my favorite college basketball team just lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament today, as they have in so many years past, but I have found myself in a certain funk.  It is a mood that causes me to take a deep look at a very important question in terms of my career.   It is not with any prejudice or hard feelings toward any particular music scene, genre, taste, or fashion, that I find myself asking…

When did synthpop become industrial?

I’ve been a fan of synthpop, or whatever genre title it has carried through the years, since I was about twelve years old.  Back then it was thrown into the larger pool of “new wave”, and when particularly electronic, it may have been called “techno pop”, but I have always classified synthpop to be this:  alternative pop music where synthesizers (or other computerized instrumentation) is the lead instrument.   Just to break down that definition a bit…there is a lot of pop music with primarily electronic backing music, including much of what we hear on mainstream radio today, everywhere from teen pop to mainstream club music.   That’s why I throw in the “alternative pop” because the kind of music I’m talking about generally has a bit more edge, or maybe a bit less sugar-coating, or what I believe is a little more artistic creativity that often pushes the song outside of the radio norm.   Yes, the music can include guitars or other acoustic instruments, but is primarily electronic in nature.

This music genre found it’s roots way back in the early 80’s with bands like Kraftwerk, OMD, Depeche Mode, New Order, etc. and continued growing toward the late 80’s with folks like Information Society, Cause & Effect, Camouflage, and others.   Before I get into any serious history of synthpop, let me just point something out which I believe is very important.  Though the above mentioned groups were always considered “alternative” even at the peak of their success, they WERE mainstream dance music.  Pretty much any big city dance club played New Order, Erasure, Thompson Twins, or Information Society back in those days.  I remember going to a dance club in Taiwan in the late 80’s and after the usual dose of Michael Jackson, I walked to the Chinese speaking DJ and said in the slowest English I could muster, “New Order?  Erasure?  Depeche Mode?”   The DJ’s face lit up, he practically leaped to his pile of vinyl records and spent the rest of the night playing what he had wanted to play all along– synthpop!   Yep, it may have been the alternative dance music, but it was big time!

Then the 90’s happened.  In the USA (and to a lesser degree in other parts of the world) synthpop vanished.  Both mainstream radio and alternative radio decided that they needed something new.  They needed to create “the next big thing” every couple of years or they feared they might lose the interest of their listeners.  So, grunge rock took over the alternative airwaves, and rap took over the club scene, and pretty much every band from the old school was promptly booted from their record labels.  Synthpop bands were homeless and forgotten.  Well, not really– their fans haven’t forgotten them to this day!  There are still 30-somethings and 40-somethings just itching for their aging heroes to put out another album.   Depeche Mode puts out something new and the fans fall in line by the hundreds of thousands to buy it.  Erasure still packs the clubs every tour.   Acts like ABC, Howard Jones, or Information Society can still put together shows now and then and pack the house with middle-aged fans.

Synthpop didn’t exactly die.   Synthpop lived on– it simply went to the underground.   It became a sort of  “true alternative”, or an alternative to alternative.   Support mostly came from countries like Germany and Sweden where electronic music was not so poorly treated as in the USA, but there were still fans, and new bands, and new songs.   But once this fall away from the mainstream occured, something happened.   It’s something I can’t figure out.   Synthpop became industrial, or gothic, and was suddenly part of the “dark music” underground.   It became another music style for those who dressed in black.  It was only played in small clubs so dark you can’t see who you’re dancing with…if you dance with anybody at all.   Synthpop somehow became the melodic, catchy, deep pop music for people who…well…generally don’t like to appear very happy.

I remind you, I’m not trying to complain about those of you who love industrial music, or who dress in black (as I often did in my younger years), or who proudly consider yourselves part of an underground culture.  That’s great!  Go for it!  But when or how did synthpop fall into that general category?  Was it simply due to the very nature of it’s expulsion from the larger market that it was thus embraced by an underground culture?   Is it because industrial music was also alternative electronic music?  Was it because some synthpop bands  (like Depeche Mode) have some dark undertones?

Since I have sold synthpop music and have run a label within the genre for many years now, I have been to many events, clubs, concerts, etc. where I’ve mingled with my good friends within the dark music underground.  Sometimes I’ve felt a little bit out of place, being the guy in the regular t-shirt (yep, I prefer non-black shirts these days) and jeans, but I enjoy the people I’ve met at these places.  Though I may detest some of the noisier industrial music that gets played,  I like some of the more melodic stuff, and the people can be very friendly despite how some of them try to appear rebellious or threatening.   I’ll probably get spanked for saying that– I know, industrial fashion isn’t supposed to be “threatening”…but it only takes somebody in bondage gear, with sprocket contact lenses, and a handbag shapped like a coffin to walk up and shake hands with you to make you a feel just a little bit…um…threatened…or at least misplaced.

During those times hanging out at festivals and concerts and in clubs I’ve discovered something.  As much as I don’t like some of the distorted, angry industrial music that is played there, many of the people on the dance floor equally can’t stand a melodic, cheerful synthpop song, where the singer doesn’t sound like he’s suicidal, or hasn’t slept for a few weeks.  I’m talking about the singers that can carry a complex tune and sing higher than one octave.   Are they too wimpy?  Too feminine?  Too light and bouncy for somebody wearing leather and chains?   So how did the two become bed fellows?  That’s my question for the day.

I welcome whatever tolerance, love and support the synthpop scene has received from the dark music underground for the last 15-plus years.   The genre would be MUCH worse off right now without that support.  I’m glad that industrial guys have industrial girlfriends who admit to liking music made by people who wear jeans and t-shirts, making it just cool enough or tolerable enough that their shared collection embraces bands like Neuropa, Cosmicity, Anything Box, De/Vision, or maybe even (gasp!) the Pet Shop Boys.   I’m happy for the support, because synthpop has needed it!   I just find myself wondering, when will the synthpop genre separate from the dark music underground?  When will it no longer be clumped together with all things gothic?  Will it ever move back into the larger audience that just loves catchy pop music?  Will it ever dethrone the teen pop that rules the mainstream radio these days?   Will it ever again grace the dancefloors of places that are packed with women adorned in bright colors?   Will I ever hear a NEW synthpop band played side-by-side with the Jonas Brothers?  Probably not.  But when those Jonas Brothers fans grow up, wouldn’t they just love synthpop?  I think they would! But if synthpop stays where it is, those kids will never hear it.

Let’s look at one of the most successful indie synthpop bands in the American scene– Freezepop.  How did they get there?  It was with a track on the video game, GUITAR Hero.  See, even rockers loved it.  How about a band like Postal Service– they are quite popular, but only because the singer comes from a ROCK band.   People who listen to rock, or mainstream pop, often love synthpop when they hear it.  They just don’t get the chance, because they don’t hang out in the dark music underground.

I’ll end with a quick story.  I was once in Detroit for a small music festival.   The night before the show I was invited to attend the dance club run by the festival sponsors.   The club was located in a converted ballroom from what had obviously been an upscale hotel in much better days.  It was a very strange setting– one which has since inspired an album by a popular industrial (or synthpop?) band.   I went to the club with a member of one of the bands that would be playing the next day.   That band member was part of an act that many would argue is the most successful underground synthpop band to emerge from America in the last 15 years, and he walked into that club wearing a white t-shirt and jeans.  He was glowing like a light bulb in the darkness of the poorly lit club, thanks to the black lights hanging from the ceiling.  Once the DJ knew that this band member was in the room, he threw on the band’s current hit.  We stood side-by-side for a minute, watching the half naked, leather-clad dancers work themselves into a frenzy.   As a pair of dancers were rubbing and grinding together in front of us, I turned to the band member and said, “congratulations, they’re playing your song in hell”.   He smiled and said he was ready to go back to the hotel room.  We left, which was fine, because with every passing minute I was fearing for my physical well-being, since I’d mentioned to a club patron earlier that I thought Ministry’s only good album was their first (a disco-influenced, synthpop gem for sure).

That night several years ago, and many times since, I’ve asked myself that question.  I won’t ask it again, but I invite anybody from the dark music underground, or from the old school, like myself, to share a perspective.   Maybe there are no real answers.   How much longer will I work with a synthpop label, running a synthpop mail-order store, and never see the music return to where it was in the beginning– part of the alternative mainstream?



15 Responses to “When Did Synthpop Become Industrial?”

  1. It got industrial when synthpop fans thought it’d be cool adding some Throbbing Gristle and Suicide aspects into the arena together with electropop à la Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode… Most industrial acts started out as electropop acts anyhow.

    I might be wrong though :)… Then again, the newest Depeche Mode has got nothing to do with synhpop either, it’s not even electropop. No?

    Btw, glad to see this blog, it’s always fun speaking to professionals instead of the usual hrd.

  2. Funny that you’d ask what I’ve heard so often asked in the reverse order. And believe me, there are quite a few people asking “when did industrial become synthpop?” thanks to all the ‘future pop’ that (unfortunately, in my opinion) started appearing something like 8-9 years ago.

    Synthpop being ‘overthrown’ by grunge and so on isn’t that strange. Don’t forget that, in addition to synthpop there were other tendencies in the 80’s like glam rock and so-called ‘hair metal’ which were touted as being ‘the next big thing’ (thankfully though, most of those bands were consigned to oblivion). Perhaps I’m seeing it wrong but the US alternative music scene is quite rock/guitar-driven (or at least was so in the past) so that even what is known as “american industrial” features rather prominent guitar material (played or sampled) – Ministry, Revolting Cocks, Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy, Spahn Ranch, KMFDM, Frontline Assembly, etc.

    As for the audiences… Sometimes it’s an age thing, sometimes it’s a stupidity thing with trying to be cool among their peers. Take it from me: quite a few of my friends in the UK, heavily into the industrial/noise music spectrum guiltily admit, from time to time, liking the whee bit of the ‘ghey synthpop’. 😉

    «I thought Ministry’s only good album was their first (a disco-influenced, synthpop gem for sure).»

    I’d say it’s a pretty good album indeed and this coming from someone whose first exposure to Ministry were “New World Order” and “The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste” (still have a soft spot for “Burning Inside”…). Bands and people evolve, I guess…

    But, hey, I’m probably one of the biggest oddballs around, equally ‘at home’ listening to synthpop like Intuition or noisy power electronics like Navicon Torture Technologies. And enjoying both immensely. 😉

  3. A small addendum and not-well-known factoid: one of the main influences cited by Genesis P. O-rridge from Throbbing Gristle and who started this whole “industrial music” genre thing (back when it was ‘just’ experimental music) cited Abba as one of his main inspirations. So perhaps things do come full circle… What do you think…? 😉

  4. I’m kind of coming at it from a strange perspective since I came to love the modern evolution of synth pop long after its heyday. I was born in the 80’s. And strangely, I was into the melodic stuff long before I ever really liked the darker stuff, and still am. I’m not into the sickly sweet synth, but I’m much more into beauty in music than anger.
    Honestly, I kind of hate having to feel like I have to cater to a darker sound than I would like. But sometimes I feel like if I don’t then no one will listen. It’s balancing act, but I’m not sure how to survive it.

  5. This post hits home, as I spent most of the early 2000’s going to the local goth clubs a few times a week (!) so I could hear and dance to the few synthpop songs they played. Yeah, I wore a black t-shirt and that’s about as goth as I get. I was just glad synthpop was getting played somewhere.

  6. My short answer would be “Songs of Faith and Devotion,” when the big name synthpop went grungy. I’ve also blogged about this question at length (I reference you in my “iLike, Synthpop, and Why Don’t You?” post). I disagree that the big names in synthpop right now are industrial. I think most are playing to the 8-bit revival.

  7. You know what? I don’t think it’s a far cry to say fans of the Jonas Brothers may one day be synthpop fans. I was born in the 80s and listened to a lot of similar bands when I was younger, always craving songs more electronic than the Backstreet Boys and A-Teens. When I chanced upon The Echoing Green, all I knew was that this was it and I wanted more. I’m sure there’ll be more making the transition. 🙂

  8. I think it’s sad that bands feel they have to cater to the darker side of things in order to keep selling music. Red Flag did that, and ended up losing a lot of people. I hope they picked up enough new industrial fans to make it worthwhile. On the other hand, The Cruxshadows started out pretty dark, and while their music has still stayed that way, they lyrics have actually become pretty uplifting.

    Justin, I hope you can feel comfortable just being you, and that people will still like Rhythmic Symphony without you having to cater to anything that doesn’t come natural.

  9. I blame DM. They toured with Nitzer Ebb and sang songs like “Dressed in Black” and “Black Celebration,” not to mention the whole bondage S&M thing.

  10. I guess my perspective is slightly different, but I would reject the claim that synthpop has become industrial. And the process by which the fan bases have largely merged doesn’t seem too mysterious. My own experience is this:

    I was 13 when Violator was released, and I’d never heard anything like it. I became one of those annoying teen DM freaks who couldn’t stop talking about them. Depeche Mode hooked me up with some of the other bands you mention, like Camouflage, Cause and Effect, New Order, Information Society. There are all bands that sound almost nothing like the other stuff on the radio at the time, and quite a lot like each other. They write in minor keys, focus on the interplay of rhythms, and mostly use deep vocals that don’t try to be upbeat. That was late 80s/early 90s synthpop for me.

    Depeche Mode also hooked me up with post-punk (and especially goth) music, which I loved for most of the same reasons. Bauhaus, Joy Division, Magazine, and Gang of Four share many elements with later 80s synth, they just do it with a different set of instruments.

    DM would have hooked me up with industrial music, again for the same sorts of reasons. It uses the same pallet of instruments as synthpop (and I used to prefer synths to other instruments). It’s rhythmic and dark, which I like. The absence of melody always kept me from getting into industrial, though.

    Anyway, after synthpop bloomed and faded, these were three niche genres that appealed to related tastes with related approaches. It makes sense that niche genres would have to join forces to support a scene. I think I’m pretty typical in liking two of the three, and loads of people like all three.

    So, three niche genres that share some common features band together to support a scene. The relative interest in each of the three genres fluctuates over time, and cross-pollination blurs the lines between them.

  11. This is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. For me, however, it’s not so much that synthpop has become industrial, but rather, everything is borrowing from each other. Since I like a lot of elements from synthpop and industrial music, I like the resulting ambiguity. However, I also feel a need for more distinct music from both sides.

    I’m 20 now, born in 88. I missed the pivotal era for synthpop, new wave, and industrial, so I’m discovering it now through thrift shop vinyl hunting and used CD sales. I grew up thinking that my NES sounded cooler than “real” music, so I’m guessing that’s what made me seek out electronica as I got older. I was about 12 when I started discovering trance and techno, with The Cynic Project being the only band that I stuck with. After hearing my cousin mention the term “synthpop” (he grew up with punk and all the other good 80s stuff), I didn’t think much of it. When I grew tired of all the generic trance and techno (about 16) and craved something more melodic and vocal, I Googled “synthpop radio.” I discovered Sloth Radio, a primarily synthpop-oriented station that also played lots of generally good 80s stuff, as well as futurepop.

    This was where I found what I listen to now. Since my focus was electronic music, I leaned toward the synthpop side, but I was instantly in love with bands like VNV Nation and Assemblage 23. Both of those have strong industrial elements, but they’re very synth oriented and have great vocals. On the synthpop side, the first band that I really liked was Iris. Not counting all the trance compilations and Weird Al’s Running With Scissors, Disconnect and Awakening were the first albums I ever bought. From there I went on to discover great stuff like Rupesh Cartel, De/Vision, and many others. After I established myself as a synthpop fan, I started working BACKWARDS and picked up on the Pet Shop Boys, Front 242, New Order, and of course, Depeche Mode.

    Right now I stand as a fan of alternative electronic music, from 80s to current, from Flock of Seagulls to VNV Nation. I don’t like screaming vocals, so that cuts out a lot of industrial stuff for me, and I can’t feel the mainstream “synthpop” like Hellogoodbye and all that powerpop crap. I’m tired of all the super happy radio garbage, but I don’t want to hear something that’s just being angry and noisy either.

    The ambiguity right now is fine with me, but I’m actually noticing a trend toward more upbeat synth music in the bands I’m following. Apoptygma Berzerk has gone from gloomy synth-heavy stuff to almost radio rock with Rocket Science, while keeping their electronic style. Rupesh Cartel hooked me with Mainland, being very downbeat and full of longing, but The Disco and the Whatnot was very neutral and Oh No Oh No indicates a much more upbeat and cynical tone for Anchor Baby. VNV Nation has promised something different that will appeal to both new and longtime fans, and I have a strong feeling that it’s going to be a more upbeat album with electronics influenced from their earlier works.

    What bother me is that goth is becoming either pop or metal. There’s not as much plain dark and downbeat music today. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the goth label today seems to be applied to stuff that’s either screaming or sarcastic and happy synthpop.

  12. I’m going to agree with what someone else has already said – Depeche Mode’s “Songs of Faith and Devotion.” That and NIN’s “Pretty Hate Machine” really blurred the lines between the two scenes in the early 90s, and I think things just picked up momentum from there.

  13. i’m not sure if synthpop “became” industrial, as much as the industrial/ebm crowd likes to hear synthpop songs once in a while (especially retro ones). and the industrial crowd is generally more fashion-oriented, more club-oriented, so certain tracks work well for that crowd

    also, nobody under 25 really knows what the word “synthpop” means, or if they do they associate it with old people and the 80’s. so i just generally avoid using the word altogether.

    what you have now is a bunch of indie-rock bands using keyboards (postal service, innerpartysystem, hellogoodbye, etc) but using them in a more rock-oriented way, or a punk-oriented way, instead of following the depeche mode template. the music industry also continues to fragment, fold in upon itself, cross-polinate/mashup, and practically every band out there now uses “synths” in some way. so the days of having any sort of unified scene may be over. young people these days grow up with a tremendous amount of music at their fingertips, and no mass media to bind it together into any “scene”. personally, i find this very interesting, and it means that our potential audience is much more diverse than it would have been 15 years ago.

    but i guess to answer the original question, is “synthpop” ever going to be big again? no, and neither is 70’s funk music or 90’s grunge. in fact i think the days of having “alternative” music in general is over. everything’s alternative. radio is dying, if not already dead, people find out about bands via myspace/facebook/twitter/etc instead of TV and magazines, and there are now 100 times more bands than there were a decade ago (because recording has become so easy). it’s a weird state. making money has become more difficult, but getting eyeballs (and ears) has become easier.

  14. It’s hard to say when Synthpop became industrial, but I think it’s a natural evolution of the scene. There are a lot of electronic bands nowadays who invent and create melodies and introduce new instruments. Actually I believe Synthpop is a word less known now than back in the past. Even though here in Brazil there are some Synthpop bands and the public in general enjoy them but they don’t know the word Synthpop. It’s because in the late 90’s we had a big culture of Raves, so people went out, took the streets in order to dance Trance, Drumbass, Techno and so on (they enjoyed to being called Cyberpunk or something). However when it appears someone behind a Keyboard and other singing (in Portuguese or English), people find it strange, they say that they are just a rock band, because they also use guitars. But if you play Depeche Mode, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys and OMD even Kraftwerk, meddle-aged people will remember. The interesting thing I found out is that the teenagers, the new generation, like Synthpop, they just don’t know how to categorize what they are listening to. That’s it!! Long life to Synth-industrial-goth-electro-pop.

  15. I got my start in the electronic music genre with the wonderful talent of Annie Lennox in Eurthmics. Her look, voice and the soul in the music was amazing. In the earliest of that decade it wasn’t unheard of for dj’s to spin Depeche Mode, Howard Jones, New Order, Thompson Twins, OMD, and even Kraftwerk (I heard Numbers all the time!). Even though I consider 1988 the year that Industrial Music broke me (lol)…when I discovered Front 242, Skinny Puppy, and A Split-Second…and a slew of other beat heavier electronic acts, I still loved all the lighter fare. In fact, to this day the most influential stuff in my head remains to be earlier work of Duran Duran, Japan, Brian Eno, Human League, The Neon Judgment, Severed Heads, and DAF. All to me were synth driven acts that were awesome!

    Industrial as a word is not always a politically correct terminology to use for music (Nine Inch Nails, Static-X, and Fear Factory have all been considered by critics as “Industrial”) Just like Type O Negative and The Cure have been considered “Goth”, it’s just a label to throw at and act that makes “darker” or “edgier” music. As you said above. It’s funny…I’ve always used the term “Electro” only because it is a bigger umbrella…but even that term isn’t correctly applied to my collection of music. So labels are just that. I’ve heard plenty of newer synth pop acts (Soil And Eclipse for example) that utilize non-electronic instruments. I think nowadays it is getting harder to distinguish between what a band considers itself and what the fans might consider it. Just check any bands music profile on myspace and their tags on top will most often be three or four different genres. Does that help fans find them or does it confuse them or both?

    I think Industrial as a term/label or whatever was left in the late seventies early eighties and think that Throbbing Gristle just grate their teeth at the thought of the term (supposedly spawned off their “Industrial Records” label at the time). But nonetheless I am willing to bet you will have that uber goth person at the club just quick as all hell with the term. It’s all good. -)

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