Techno tourism: How Detroit's unsung musical heritage could be an economic boon
When you think of Detroit and music, what sound comes to mind?
This long weekend, the city will welcome massive crowds to the Detroit Jazz Festival, billed as the world's largest free jazz festival.
While Detroit celebrates its rich musical history when it comes to Motown, hip-hop and jazz, some say the city should be paying homage to its forgotten legacy as the birthplace of techno.
I was a little kid, and [to me], it just sounded like the future.- Adriel Thornton, Detroit music promoter
As the 1970s gay clubs of Chicago birthed house music, so did techno emerge from 1980s Detroit.
The futuristic new sound was a product of African-American teenagers mixing Kraftwerk's cool electronica with the warm funk of Prince and Parliament Funkadelic.
But while thousands flock to Detroit's annual Movement electronic music festival each May, techno as a genre never really went mainstream across America.
Meanwhile, in Europe, techno became a multi-billion-dollar industry, providing the soundtrack to the post-Cold War era.
Cities like Berlin and Ibiza continue to draw hordes of dance-music fans from around the world, while Amsterdam, Paris and London recently appointed 'nighttime mayors,' tasked with ensuring that their urban nightlife is able to thrive.
Now some Detroit music promoters are trying to find ways to promote the legacy of techno — with the help of their European counterparts.
For a city still emerging from its 2013 bankruptcy, "techno tourism" could offer a much-needed economic shot in the arm. Movement is touted as one of Detroit's biggest draws after its annual auto show, bringing millions of tourist dollars into the area.
But one big festival once a year isn't nearly enough, argue the promoters and fans who want the city to better promote the legacy of Detroit techno.
'Sounded like the future'
"I was first introduced to Detroit techno by my older cousins who were high school students," recalls veteran Detroit music promoter Adriel Thornton, who offers "techno tours" of the city through Airbnb. "They were part of the early dance party scenes that were happening there and sort of the first adopters of electronic music. You know I was a little kid, and [to me], it just sounded like the future."
I am convinced that one of the main assets Detroit has is its music history.- Dimitri Hegemann, Detroit-Berlin Connection co-founder
As it happened, that futuristic sound provided the perfect sonic backdrop for a new era in Berlin following the fall of the Berlin Wall, explains German techno pioneer Dimitri Hegemann, the founder of Berlin nightclub and record label Tresor.
"The Detroit guys brought us the first techno tunes to our city in the right moment," he recalls. "It was this 'over the moon' moment. The euphoria was really high in Berlin, and young people started to celebrate this new freedom [by going out to clubs and listening to dance music]."
Over the years, Hegemann not only released Detroit techno tracks on his label, he also began taking trips to Detroit to experience the city's techno scene for himself.
Hegemann co-founded the Detroit-Berlin Connection, a group that aims to bring the lessons of Berlin's electro and nightlife culture over to Detroit.
"I am convinced that one of the main assets Detroit has is music — its music history," Hegemann says. "I think the club culture will be key to bring Detroit back on track. I have been many times in Detroit now. I finally talked to the right guys on [city] council and they were very open. Where governments sometimes see problems, I see opportunities."
One of the Detroit-Berlin Connection's initiatives has been to welcome Detroit officials to Berlin to see how that city celebrates its electronic music scene. Unlike Detroit's 2 a.m. curfew, the lack of restrictions in Berlin means the city's club scene pulses with energy around the clock.
Detroit mayor Michael Duggan is paying attention. One of the officials who's been convinced by Hegemann's push to boost Detroit techno is Adrian Tonon, director of customer service in the mayor's office.
"We have worked closely with festivals such as Movement to assure … a memorable experience for all who are visiting Detroit," says Tonon. "For the last two years, Mayor Duggan has recognized May 22 to 29 as Detroit Techno Week.
"Past techno tells a story, [and] present techno has the opportunity to represent Detroit moving forward as not only a place to create music, but also to break music. We would like to see artists working, playing and living in the city," he continues. "In order for that to happen, it is crucial to create an environment that artists can thrive in and not be displaced by their own success."
Detroit can take some lessons from other cities in how to promote this abstract art form.- Adriel Thornton, Detroit music promoter
Thornton is one of those creatives who's been working for years to ensure techno has its pride of place among Detroit's musical history.
"In other parts of the world Detroit is a genre of music," he points out. "You're going through a record store in Berlin and there's a Detroit techno section. Detroit as a city hasn't really done the same sort of promotion for techno as they certainly did for Motown."
Thornton, who was part of the team that produced the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, an early precursor to Movement, notes even the city has indicated that the festival brings in up to $90 million in residual tourist dollars (i.e. not counting ticket sales, as early incarnations of the fest had free admission) each year.
"Detroit can take some lessons from other cities in how to promote this abstract art form," Thornton says. "We've got this music form, but what goes along with it is the actual celebration of that music, which is the club scene. One of the biggest lessons is just recognizing that nighttime culture is important and a huge economic driver."
Nightime culture is something Hegemann knows firsthand from his years of experience in Berlin. He's interested in eventually opening up a Tresor-like club in Detroit, ideally in the lobby of the old Michigan Central Station (he's already made some headway in potentially transforming the old Packard automotive plant). But he's also proposed some steps council can take to better leverage techno's tourism potential.
Techno is the perfect soundtrack for drafting the new Detroit.- Adriel Thornton, Detroit music promoter
"Maybe we start with a music district," Hegemann muses. "One main street, a test period in a zoned area, we cancel the curfew there or have it at least 6 a.m., and then we watch it over four, five years."
"I like that this music has changed my life, and started the biggest youth movement in the world," Hegemann says. "The electronic music community is happy that Detroit gave us this key."
For Thornton, celebrating Detroit techno isn't just a way to boost the city's economic fortunes, but an apt marker of its past and present.
"I think it's important for the city to really embrace techno because it's the perfect soundtrack for drafting a new Detroit — one that still honours its industrial past but now focuses on its technological future."
PLAYLIST: Listen to some of Detroit techno's foundational tracks in the player below.
BONUS: Adriel Thornton's top 5 Detroit techno tunes
1. Strings of Life – Derrick May
2. Timeline – UR
3. Night of the Jaguar – DJ Rolando
4. Dusty Cabinets – Theo Parrish
5. Cosmic Cars – Juan Atkins/Cybotron
To listen to the full mini-doc about Detroit techno tourism, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.