In The Club: Together Festival, Gender And The State Of EDM

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Together Festival (Courtesy of the Festival)
Together Festival (Courtesy of the Festival)

If you’ve never heard of Together Festival, which will infiltrate Cambridge and Boston for the fourth year in a row from May 12 to 19, fear not. The festival’s website, which describes the event somewhat vaguely as “an annual celebration of music, art and technology,” also provides a helpful link to the Wikipedia page on electronic dance music.

The gesture may seem absurd, but it encapsulates the festival’s ethos. Electronic dance music, or EDM, is a catchall term for a myriad of DJ-driven subgenres: house, dubstep, garage, jungle, ambient, and on and on. To the uninitiated it can seem intimidating or inaccessible, and it is for this reason Together stands out. The festival offers reassurance that it’s OK to be unfamiliar with electronic music even as it embraces the very techno-centric culture that makes it potentially alienating to outsiders.

“This is not an EDM ultra-event,” says Together co-founder David Day. “It’s more of a community-building and community-forward type of event. Putting the city on display more than having a raging party.”

As he says this we are sitting on the ground floor of an unobtrusive building on Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square, the headquarters for Mmmmaven, the record label/DJ school run by Day and co-director Alex Maniatis. The space, which serves as the school’s only classroom, is small and shabby, dominated by two neat rows of DJ stations, each equipped with its own shiny turntable. We sit on futuristic-looking white stools as the room is slowly dismantled around us in preparation for Mmmmaven’s move to larger offices upstairs.

If the Mmmmaven Project, as the DJ school is known, is evidence of Day and Maniatis’s commitment to fostering local talent, then Together is proof of their desire to expand and diversify the audience for electronic and dance-oriented music in Boston.

The festival will feature ambitious multimedia projects like “A New Cosmic Mix” at the Museum of Science’s planetarium on Sunday, May 12, which combines a live DJ set with video art projected on the vast domed ceiling. There will be film screenings at the Museum of Fine Arts, master classes in music editing and a huge block party in Central Square on Saturday, May 18. Then there are the free daytime panel discussions with titles like “Crowd-Surfing Through Crowd-Sourcing,” and “Copyrights and Copywrongs.”

But Day is selling the festival short when he emphasizes its daytime events over its parties. For those in the know, Together boasts a hip lineup that demonstrates exactly how varied the music falling under the formidable umbrella term “EDM” truly is, from the gleaming hallucinations of L.A. experimental artist Flying Lotus, to the murky, bass-driven sleaze of Sacramento-based dance-punk outfit !!! (pronounced “chk chk chk”), to the coquettish, sinewy flow of New York rapper/producer Le1f.

Now that the festival has attracted notice, however, it has also begun to draw criticism. Of the 82 acts listed on Together’s lineup, only six include women — and of those six, only three are solo DJs.

According to Day, the problem stems from a small talent pool. “There’s talented local female DJs and producers — there’s just so few of them.”

“We pursued so many different ideas on that,” he says, referring to the festival’s attempts to book more women, nearly all of which ultimately failed.

But DJ Ripley (a.k.a. Dr. Larisa Mann), a New York City-based DJ and one of the few women on the bill, says the disparity is shocking even in the context of the male-dominated electronic music scene.

“It’s just clear that if it were something that [the organizers] were aware of they would’ve done it differently,” she explains. “And not being aware of it in 2013 is kind of a pity, considering the number of people booked.”

Ripley’s own work, which draws heavily on Caribbean and African beats and can be grouped within the blanket term “global bass,” finds its roots in the musical traditions of the oppressed and disenfranchised. “A lot of electronic dance music starts in marginalized communities of all kinds,” she says.

Despite being forward-thinking in so many ways, it appears that Together may be in danger of forgetting this.

“When people write about the [electronic music] scene, either at the time or looking back on it, often they forget about the women,” Ripley says. “Like somehow even when women are there they aren’t included and they aren’t remembered.”

Together Festival (Courtesy)
Together Festival (Courtesy)

In Mmmmaven’s new headquarters, a giant map of the world covers a huge chunk of wall from floor to ceiling. Day tells me that the previous business to occupy the office was involved in the fracking industry.

Were you to color red the places with the most vibrant dance and DJ-centric music scenes, a few spots would instantly light up: London, Berlin, Jamaica. Boston would pale in comparison, although it shines a little brighter than it has in the past.

But if all the record-spinning women on earth appeared as tiny points of light, the world would suddenly glow like a neon sign.

Amelia Mason is a writer and musician living in Cambridge. Those pesky “day jobs” she has to “make money” really aren’t worth mentioning. Naturally, she also has a blog:

This article was originally published on May 10, 2013.

This program aired on May 10, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.