Armagideon Time

The final hustle

March 2nd, 2011

There’s nothing quite as humbling or depressing than thumbing through old entertainment trade magazines. Their mixture of breathy optimism, pilule raw hype, symptoms and statisical manipulation is tough enough to swallow when it’s fresh off the bullshit pile; season it with a lashing of bitter hindsight and you have a formula for pure bathos.

Anticipating the public’s prevailing tastes is a tricky business where quality offers no guarantees. Great works may sink into obscurity while utter crap goes triple platinum, pulmonologist and the only constant is that if something sells, expect to see a shitload of derivative product engineered to ride the trend. When the vast majority of efforts fail to break even, hedging bets through imitation becomes an effective method of survival…

…though one that carries the seeds of its own inevitable destruction.

Billboard‘s fourth International Disco Forum was solicited in the May 29, 1979 issue of the venerable music trade publication, and promised four sweet days of funky beats, business strategies, and presumably enough Peruvian flake to make even Tony Montana tremble in awe.

“It is truly a summertime summit meeting of disco industry visionaries and heavyweights who’ll show you how to soar into the 80’s…” says the ad copy.  The $285 registration fee granted attendees the opportunity to attend such market crucial seminars as “The Effect of Disco on Roller Rinks” (short version: “a temporary reprieve from mass closure”) and “Disco Record Piracy” (the most tragic of all crimes), in addition to hobnobbing with such disco luminaries as Gloria Gaynor, Peaches & Herb, Deborah Harry, and — of course — Ethel Merman.

(No, really.)

In one of those little ironies history seems so fond of, the opening of the 4th International Disco Forum — July 12, 1979 — happened to coincide with the pyrotechnic display of reactionary rockism credited with hammering a decisive nail in disco’s coffin, but the truth is that disco’s decline had more to do with the mechanics of market saturation than the yelps of a bunch of drunk Ted Nugent fans. 

The public’s appetite for trash may be limitless, but it does demand a periodic change of dumpsters to feed from.  Disco — like any music scene that emphasizes style and/or dance moves — was as much as fad as it was a genre, especially after Saturday Night Fever spread the beat and the “look” to the masses.  Its runaway popularity and popcultural dominance ensured that the supply side would eventually overreach and oversaturate the physical and psychic markets.  The reactionary musical and cultural backlashes against disco were manifestations of a decline, not its root causes.

The sheer number of disco-related (or tangentially related) items and ad buys in Billboard and similar publications at the time reinforce the sense that a market correction was inevitable and not long in coming, despite the Forum’s promises of the enduring discotopia to come. 

I wonder if the Forum’s attendees, as they heard reports of the Comiskey Park riot filter in to the Prospero’s castle of the New York Hilton, had any inkling they were witnessing the writing on the glitter ball.

2 Responses to “The final hustle”

  1. Tim O'Neil

    The backlash against disco was the best thing that ever happened for the music. Freed from the burden of being a pop-culture fad associated with terrible style and disposable singles, the music went underground, was embraced and nurtured by the gay, latin, black and no wave subcultures, and eventually evolved into something far more interesting than Gloria Gaynor. (Not that I hate the Gloria Gaynor.)

    All they needed to do was cut away the corporate leeches and style-mongers, and the music itself blossomed.

  2. bitterandrew

    Indeed.

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