Committed to interviewing community-focused artists and practising a more sustainable flavour of electronic music journalism, Dance Policy is a youth culture zine and online photography archive grounded in honesty. From the sci-fi novels of Iain M Banks to DJ Charlie Dark, Rob Smith chatted to the zine’s founder and editor Zak about the books, ideas and people that have built Dance Policy.
I always start by asking what was the first book that you remember engaging with?
It was called The Big Book of Knowledge. It was just everything from dinosaurs to planets, and evolution. Like an encyclopaedia but more jokey and fun. When I was really young I used to carry it around everywhere.
It seems silly to ask but I’m always very interested in other non-creative disciplines that people are interested in outside of dance music, and whether it affects their creative practice.
I mean, ironically the people I respect the most are actually the people who do the most outside dance music. Someone I really look up to is Charlie Dark. He does a lot of stuff with Mr. Scruff and we interviewed him in the fourth issue (‘The Prospect of Movement’). That was one of the best interviews that I’ve done, he really is one of the most inspiring people I’ve met.
I like how honest he is about building the DJ persona and how neurotic that can be.
That’s completely true, and frankly, there’s only so much you can really talk about music. Everyone does have a similar story. They went through hardship trying to get to where they are now, they had a breakthrough and now here they are. For me, most musical journeys can be broken down into those three steps. Maybe they skip step one because they’ve got rich parents, which is a lot of people I’ve met. When I started Dance Policy I wanted to talk to people who are making an impact outside of music.
Charlie does a lot of well-being work he runs the Run Dem running crew and also facilitates mediation and yoga classes for people who’ve heard of him through music. He’s brilliant. It’s why I also spoke to Sheffield’s Gut Level, who has an allotment/garden in their smoking area. The people who are building communities and putting everything all under one roof are the ones I respect the most.
Aren’t they being moved on now…
I don’t know what will happen now, it’s really sad. All we can do really is support them and respect any decision they make from here. To be honest I’m feeling quite a big disconnection from rave music at the moment. It’s becoming oversaturated, unfortunately, with people like me, who do what I do. Since 2020, they’ve been a big explosion of youth and dance music magazines.
People have had the time to sit down and think about raving too much?
I think what we’re seeing here, is the reconnection of individuals with the physical: vinyl, cassette tapes, film, magazines. I think it’s magazine time now, magazines are about to explode again. When you spend all your time digitally, working digitally, consuming everything digitally. It’s nice to be someone who was a part of this resurgence of the physical as it started taking off but zine culture and independent publishing are exploding.
There is competition at the moment, Let’s be honest. Whenever I see someone who does the same thing as me, it pisses me off. Sometimes I’m like, ‘I should be doing that.’ I think it’s good overall though, to have that competition, to get as many people involved as much as possible. When I released issue six (‘You Make me Nervous‘), Village Books let me put on a whole event there in their event space, and maybe that might spur other shops on to do something similar.
I guess that competition is good for encouraging more independent publications to be produced, but maybe there’s a balance to be maintained between churning out more publications and giving people more options? And writing about the topics that made these publications popular in the first place?
Definitely, doing something unique is really important to me. I hate doing something unless I feel like I contribute something unique to it. Not that anyone does anything consciously thinking they’re just gonna do exactly the same thing as someone else. But before Dance Policy I originally wanted to be a promoter. But I reached a point where I was asking myself ‘What can I really contribute unless it is for my ego?’
Being a promoter nowadays is more than just whacking a couple of posters together and putting the word out…
I think the way that we interact with events and promotion is so based on a time that’s completely disappeared. People are still trying to do printed rave flyers like from the 90s or 80s. Why? It’s cool, yeah. But like, you don’t need to do that, like people had to in the past. The whole system is predicated on this like, bygone time. I don’t know why we all keep engaging with it. It’s like vinyl releases, having vinyl is grand, but you don’t have to do it. If you’re trying to base your whole music career on just vinyl releases you’re just asking not to go anywhere.
So that’s, that’s why I started Dance Policy. Because I just didn’t enjoy all the confusion around promoting. My main focus with Dance Policy is just Instagram, unfortunately. Because that’s just the way people interact with it the most. I have also recently started a Subreddit page, R/Youthculture, as a free platform where people can upload and discuss youth culture photography.
It makes sense to focus on Instagram as a lot of your content is photography and it’s an ideal medium for that.
Yeah, exactly but to be honest Instagram is actually shagging me every day honestly. We’ve got 4.6k followers and the other day I got shown to 200 people. That’s 5%, that’s ridiculous, right? So I’m just constantly trying to think about ways I can innovate and put my work out there that people genuinely interact and engage with, not just on an aesthetic or artistic level.
If I were to put some content, say an interview like this on a physical medium, like a vinyl record or a tape it would be ridiculous. It just seems like such a stupid way to interact with an audience. I think it’s important to be aware of the limitations of reconnecting with physical formats.
I understand what you mean. I love doing long-form interviews and reviews, but if proofreading takes 15-20 minutes, even with the best intentions is anyone going to sit down and read it all? I guess you just have to move with how people see culture and reportage about culture.
Exactly, when I read your question ‘What makes good music writing?’ all I wrote was ‘no big blocks of text’. Unfortunately, I have to use text chunks in Dance Policy occasionally as I don’t have unlimited time and money to make it exactly the way I want to. Have you ever seen some of these magazines? When I see each page no matter how interesting the writing is, unfortunately, my gut reaction is ‘god, this is so long’.
Back in the 90s and 80s that was the only way that you could interact and engage with people interested in your work. Whereas now, you have to do it through short snippets, one-minute conversations, or through photography.
I find it tricky when writers claim they want music writing and reviews to revert back to being solid paragraphs full of ostentatious language and mad imagery like you would have read in a mag back in the day. That is ultimately what I want from electronic music writing as well in an ideal world, but I’m not sure how many people would engage with it.
I don’t want that. I don’t even want that ideal in an ideal world. People purport this authenticity thing back in the day. But isn’t that just because that was the only way? If they had TikTok back in the day of course they’d fucking do it. People always come up to me like ‘Yeah I wish raving was like it way back in the 90s’.
But do you know how prevalent racism and sexual assaults were at raves back in the day? Do you know how insanely vulnerable some people were in these places? Music has never been A. safer and B. more interesting than it is now. Of course, music isn’t perfect now, there are still industry-wide problems with racism/homophobia, but we idealise the past too much!
The lack of clarity about the past is what really frustrates me. I once met a guy outside Soup who, when I told him about Dance Policy, thought I was a 50-year-old guy reminiscing. Which was mad. I wasn’t even born then. But that’s why I keep my personal persona out of Dance Policy because it’s not about me. I also think the idea of being famous sounds horrible.
Which titles would you put on a ‘Dance Policy Essentials’ reading list?
I am so lazy with finishing books. I am dyslexic so it’s hard, but I like to say that more than it actually is. I’m just lazy. I really want to read some of yours, Harold Heath’s Long Relationships: Unknown DJ to Small Time DJ, and I need to read Out of Space and Join the Future as well.
I really love Iain M Banks’ ‘Culture’ science fiction novels as well, and they’re actually a big inspiration behind Dance Policy. Every issue has been called something, so this one is ‘Swelling of the Metropole’, this one is ‘Prospect of Movement’ and this one’s called ‘You Make Me Nervous’ so each one is named in rough relation to a theme, rather than just being numbered.
In the ‘culture’ series every spaceship is conscious and they all name themselves something, one of my favourite ship names is ‘I Blame Your Mother’ and there’s a sister ship called ‘I Blame Your Mother Two’. Just like some really funny names. That’s where I get inspiration for giving each issue a self-contained name. They’re great books, tell people to read them!
I just think if you’re a DJ or a producer you should read in general. I really hate this concept that you have to know the complete history of whatever you’re doing before you pick up the decks. But I do think that when you pick up the decks you should also pick up a book, or read about the music you’re playing as you go.
There are too many white DJs playing jungle at the moment, who don’t really know what’s gone on before them. It’s not that you have to, there’s no moral imperative. It’s just a good idea if you want to be a better person and find better music. If you picked up any other new hobby tomorrow would you not want to read about its past? Or who the biggest names were?
I think there’s definitely value in giving props to people who originally created stuff, but also just knowing where stuff comes from can inform what you select and help you find all the interesting corners of a sound that have been there from the start.
In terms of history books, I would definitely recommend reading a book called Contact High by Vikki Tobak, it’s just a very definitive visual history of like rap and hip-hop. Which I’m very much into at the moment, more so than rave music which I’m feeling pretty distanced from.
Dance Policy champions a slower approach to music journalism. What motivated you to take this approach?
Just because Dance Policy takes a slower approach to music journalism doesn’t necessarily mean that I want to grow slower as an organisation. I can explain it by going through why I do Dance Policy myself. I do it by myself because no one tells me what to do, which is fantastic. I hate being told what to do. I’m very immature and get absolutely livid when someone tells me what to do.
Even being told to do my washing up makes my blood boil. I don’t know why, it’s so pathetic and stupid. But I don’t let anyone tell me what to do with Dance Policy, more out of insecurity than arrogance. I always listen to other people’s advice and always consult with my friends but if I make a mistake I want it to be my responsibility, not anyone else’s.
That doesn’t mean I don’t let people join in. We’ve got loads of contributors. Karina is one of my best writers. She’s fantastic, ten times better than I could ever be and I’m so glad she’s part of it. I think if I was running it with someone else I wouldn’t have found a contributor like Karina as I met her through an open callout for submissions (on IG). Otherwise, it becomes a space where you only invite people that you know into it and that’s like nepotism through and through and I didn’t want that at all.
I guess with co-ops and collaborative work, it’s good to build a setup through people that really want to contribute to them, rather than just sharing responsibility and work between people you’ve met already. I guess a lot of the time if you know someone as well you develop similar viewpoints about stuff through hanging around with them. So it’s kind of cool to challenge that and welcome other people in.
It’s like building a whole pond and then taking out all the oxygen out of it and killing all the fish. You also have these teams that come together for like, a year, and then they fall apart because one person is always the one that does all the work.
I’ve seen that so many times in Manchester and maybe that’s nice because the city is constantly refreshing. But If you want longevity, you’re gonna have to do it by yourself. Slow doesn’t mean any growth, maybe just more sustainable growth instead of exploding overnight.
I mean, I’d love another 100,000 followers on Instagram, because I feel like it can make a massive impact on things. But I’m not, you know, choosing content based on that. I think that’s the big difference. If I had 100,000 followers I’d be posting the same content that I do now.
A lot of bigger publications that cover music are run by massive groups of people who only choose to interview artists they all recognise when they’re big. It’s like everyone’s in a fucking hold up and they’re watching each other with their guns like who is going to publish it first. Everyone is only looking at who has already succeeded and it becomes a complete echo chamber. It’s like knee-jerk-journalism which doesn’t really work for music journalism, in my opinion.
I guess because there are just so many people in electronic music and so much music being made that if you’re going to report like that it’s just gonna turn into the Yellow Pages, just be like a list of names. I guess, being brutal about it, you’re not providing your audience with the service they’re looking for. You’re not informing them about something new they’ve not heard of before.
That’s a fantastic way of putting it. I mean honestly, that’s basically what some of them are, catalogues of DJs who have made it. I’m just like is this not so boring? I would much prefer to be someone who creates a relationship with a DJ, or artists before they’ve got that big.
I think that’s a really exciting thing. You mentioned my interview like me before he made it big, fucking wicked. You know, I mean, yeah. But that’s I see my job as finding, interviewing and supporting someone and then looking back and being able to say ‘I saw the potential, I saw the talent.’