“What Happened to Electronic Music in the 80s?” is a blog series that attempts to shed light on the innovations of electronic music in the 80s.
The first post, “How Do You Program a Drum Machine?”, explains how drum machines work and how they were programmed in the 80s. It also looks at what impact this has had on pop music and how it affected other genres such as hip-hop.
The second post, “How Do You Sample Sounds?”, looks at sampling technology and how it influenced modern music production. It includes an interview with DJ Shadow about his early days making music with records, his later exploration of digital sampling, and his thoughts on modern technology.
A lot of people ask me what happened to electronic music in the 80s. They want to know, how did we lose the edge we had in the 70s and most of all, why was electronic music so bad in the 80s?
I hear you, I feel your pain. Electronic music was a huge part of my life growing up and I have fond memories of programming sequencers on my TRS-80 with a cassette recorder playing through headphones nearby so that I could record my latest project.
But this is not a simple question to answer. There is no one thing that happened to electronic music in the 80s that single handedly ruined it. Instead there were several factors at work that combined to make it an awful decade for electronic music.
Since its inception, electronic music has been considered by many to be inferior to “real” instruments like guitars, basses and drums. This may seem strange since electronic music can do things other instruments cannot but this is more about complexity rather than capability.
It’s easy to forget, in the age of DJ Shadow and Fatboy Slim and Prodigy, just how weird and raw electronic music sounded in the early 80s.
You had to be there. In the early 80s, when you first heard something like “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell or “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa, it was like a UFO landing in your living room: an alien noise that made no sense at all. And yet it was irresistible.
In fact, I’m tempted to say it was better then than now. The best new computer music today has this sterile sound that makes me feel like I’m listening to demo software. The early stuff had a real human edge to it. There are still plenty of current dance songs that are just as good as anything from the 80s; but most of what I hear on the radio and MTV is blandly professional.
I think it’s because the early music was done by amateurs who didn’t know what they were doing.
Back in the 1980s electronic music was not only a new style of music, but also one which had a lot of promise. The decade was filled with exciting new developments. With the introduction of MIDI and sampling, there were some who believed that it would be possible to create hit songs at home with little more than an Atari computer and a keyboard.
Unfortunately, much of this promise went unfulfilled. Although many groups, including Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, the Pet Shop Boys and New Order, did have commercial success during the 80s, these were more the exception than the rule. By the end of the decade record companies were no longer interested in taking chances on unknown artists who wanted to make electronic music.
So what happened? How did things go so wrong?
The 1980s were a very important decade in the history of music technology. Electronic instruments had been used in pop and rock music since the 1960s, but it was not until the 1980s that electronic music became established as a mainstream music style. The advent of affordable digital synthesizers and samplers in the early 1980s brought new possibilities for musicians, who could now create new sounds quickly and easily.
The first half of the decade saw the introduction of several new digital synthesizers from famous manufacturers such as Yamaha, Roland and Korg. These companies had previously made analogue synthesizers which were popular with progressive rock bands like Yes, Genesis and Pink Floyd. Digital synthesis allowed these instruments to be smaller, lighter and easier to programme than their analogue counterparts. As well as being used by progressive rock bands, they were also adopted by pop and dance acts such as Depeche Mode and A-ha, who used them to create a distinctive 80s synthpop sound.
If you think about it, the 80s were a very strange time to be a child.
It was a time of extreme “monoculture”. There were only three TV networks (and in some places just two), and everyone watched the same shows.
There were no video games, no internet, no smartphones, and there was very little cable TV. The radio played the same 10 songs over and over again, and every city had its own Top 40 station. Almost everyone read the same magazines and newspapers, watched the same shows and listened to the same music.
That made it easy for music to define what it meant to be young. Music was everywhere: on the radio being played at full blast, on MTV (which was new), at parties, and on dates. And the music that defined us as children of the 80s was electronic dance music (or EDM).
Electronic music was born in the early 20th century, and by the end of World War II, composers had created electronic instruments that could be played by performers with varying degrees of skill. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that electronic music became popular outside of academic circles, thanks to synthesizers and a host of other innovations.
The 70s were an exciting time for electronic music. The technology was still expensive, which limited its availability and helped define the genre as something special. Music lovers flocked to hear it live, but most people didn’t have access to it at home.