We have entered the era of ‘Fred againia’

today06/03/2023 15 1

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Megan Townsend investigates why fans across the globe have become so enraptured with Fred again.., and what the wider implications of a new “superstar producer” could be for dance music

  • Words: Megan Townsend | Photo: Boiler Room, United Press International, THEO BATTERHAM
  • 6 March 2023

Nervously biting her knuckles, TikTok user planet.cece and a friend are sitting cross-legged in front of two laptops, two phones and two tablets — trying, desperately, to get hold of sought-after gig tickets. It’s a familiar sight for anyone who’s woken up at 9:AM on release day for Glastonbury, or the legions of fans who attempted to secure admission to Beyoncé’s 2023 tour. But, CeCe isn’t the dedicated fan of one of the world’s biggest pop stars. Instead, she is joining tens of thousands of people attempting to get tickets for Fred again..’s three-night run at O2 Academy Brixton.

Despite this being just one stop on the producer’s first world tour, with his third album ‘Actual Life 3’ still being packed into pressing plant shipping boxes, the demand for tickets to catch him at the 5000-capacity South London venue – with over 46,000 attempting to get tickets for just one night according to those who tried – became a meme on social media. Fans documented their joking-but-not-joking willingness to trade their first born, to pay three-times face value from touters or even give out sexual favours in order to secure a spot. “I panicked thinking I wouldn’t get tickets when the European gigs were announced.” Georgie Atkinson, a 26-year-old student studying at the University of Cambridge tells me. “I bought emergency tickets for the Paris date. Happily, I managed to go to one of the Brixton shows, but I would have been more than happy to potter across the channel to see him.” The proliferation of Fred again.. isn’t limited to Europe either. North America has its own share of extreme reactions — there were reports of tickets for his recent tour going for $500 and, most recently, Fred again.. along with his new best friends Skrillex and Four Tet sold out a surprise show at Madison Square Garden in just four minutes. While a secret “pop-up rave” in Melbourne, Australia earlier this month is reported to have sold out in 30 seconds.

It’s an admittedly extraordinary, and somewhat groundbreaking, reaction to an electronic producer with an unmistakably underground-inspired sound — then again, Fred again.., hasn’t had an ordinary rise to prominence. Born in London, but educated at the prestigious Wiltshire-based boarding school Marlborough College — Fred again.., aka Fred Gibson, spent over a “decade” in classical music before becoming the protégé of seminal ambient artist (and family friend) Brian Eno when he was just 16-years-old. His first credits came in 2014, as songwriter on Eno’s ‘Someday World’, becoming an alumni at the Red Bull Music Academy in Tokyo in the same year. From there, he found success as a producer in the mainstream music world, working with a who’s who of chart successes: Little Mix, Ellie Goulding, BTS, Rita Ora, Westlife, Charli XCX, Clean Bandit… the list goes on. In 2019, Gibson was involved in the production of 30% of the UK’s #1 singles — bolstered by his work on Stormzy’sHeavy is the Head’ and Ed Sheeran’s ‘=’, with the latter earning Gibson a GRAMMY nomination for Song Of The Year with the colossal ‘Bad Habits’. However, simultaneously, Fred began work on his more underground-centred solo project — kicking off a Rinse FM residency in September 2019 and in early 2020, releasing his critically-acclaimed Headie One collaboration ‘Gang’. But it was much later — in throes of lockdown, that Gibson dropped his first full-length solo record ‘Actual Life’, and with it a diehard fanbase was born overnight.

Gibson’s idiosyncratic approach – combining rough-edged audio snippets in a sort of “sonic diary” with fluid, instinctive production – struck a chord with dispirited audiences, yearning for dancefloor connection. From at least an anecdotal standpoint, it was ‘Marea (We’ve Lost Dancing)’ – a searing bass track that samples a mournful Blessed Madonna expressing her grief over the loss of nightlife in the pandemic – that brought many of Gibson’s more diehard fans into the fold. “I first heard that track in CRi’s Anjunadeep mix,” says Patricia, an accounting masters student from Los Angeles. “I have an oddly specific memory of the exact part of my commute I was on when It came on, it made an impression on me. I took it for what it was, and friends and I would play it here and there. I did share with a few people, as sharing music is my love language, but I did not delve too much into his discography at that point.” Similarly Adrian, a social worker from Southern California, says their first listen of ‘Marea’ and the earlier ‘Sabrina (I am a party)’ gave them “the biggest chills” and a feeling of shared heartache with a world still in lockdown. “His music is just different and emotional. It made me feel something, connected to other people’s pain from the pandemic, but also like I wanted to dance.” The record, including its standout singles, quickly racked up millions of listens — and as mass gatherings resumed in Summer 2021, Fred again.. would play his first ever live show… to a 10,000-strong crowd at All Points East.

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“What the fuck!” the then 28-year-old producer had stammered over the mic at London’s Victoria Park, “I don’t know what’s happening right now!” During his Mixmag cover interview three months later in November 2021, Gibson described the experience as “very tense” due to a technical malfunction onstage — explaining in his now-familiar humble tenor that “we kind of got away with it because it built up the tension. I just force quit in front of however many thousands of people.”

This discernible modesty has become synonymous with Gibson: his loyal supporters as enamoured with his down-to-earth public persona as his music. In lieu of a cool, collected approach to promoting usually seen in “underground” electronic acts at the top of their game (see: the understated disposition of a Bicep or Bonobo) — Fred’s initial gig run following his debut was characterised by fan participation. Ahead of a string of UK shows in early 2022, Gibson had asked fans to suggest local venues that were “important” to them, before inviting them along to a surprise show at Hackney’s Night Tales alongside HAAi and Romy. His subsequent tour was illustrated not by slick shots of the cities he visited, but by submitted videos from the dancefloor, to-camera monologues expressing his astonishment at crowd turnout and even, at a show in Milan, helping someone propose to their partner. Similarly, when promoting his albums ‘Actual Life 2’ and the later ‘Actual Life 3’, fans were given the opportunity to vote on which of his tracks would be released, posting rough wavs asking which would be preferable for videos, giving to-the-minute updates and sharing Zoom and Facetime calls with his collaborators. Meaning that by the time both projects came out, many fans were not only invested in the material, but felt a sense of partnership in the musical process. “He just seems like a genuine, normal guy,” says 29-year-old Joe, a Project Manager from Tooting, London. “You can tell at his shows his appreciation of the love he’s shown from the crowd and that it’s reciprocated, which in itself creates an amazing atmosphere. He just comes across as someone that could be your pal, enjoys a Guinness and has spectacular taste in music.”

The fan-focused interactivity of the Fred again.. project seemed to be paying off, with a live set at Coachella in April last year heralding the beginning of a stateside takeover, as a crowd far-exceeding the capacity of the Mojave stage – which had also featured sets from Kim Petras and Dave – gathered for the sunset show. When tickets went on sale for his debut US tour three days later, many sold out in minutes. Back in Europe, a thousands-strong crowd at Barcelona’s Primavera seemed to shock even Gibson — sharing footage of an apparently endless sea of dancers during his set at the Cupra stage, writing: “This time last year I hadn’t played a show yet! THIS IS MAD.” Behind the scenes, Gibson was preparing for the release of ‘Actual Life 3’, working with an all-star cast of collaborators: Four Tet, Rico Nasty, Flowdan, Skrillex and Swedish House Mafia. However, despite an atypical approach to growing his fanbase, it was the traditional tried-and-tested method of a producer on the rise promoting a new record that would catapult Gibson from dancefloor-favourite to household name: a Boiler Room set in July, 2022.

Filmed in an East London warehouse, Gibson’s set featured mostly production cuts – drumming furiously on sample pads as a horde of mid-week ravers threw up gun fingers around him. It was the perfect partnership: the typically DIY platform – renowned for its unpolished presentation of DJ sets and unpredictable crowds – and the approachable, rough-around-the-edges superstar producer. Within 24 hours, the set had wracked up a staggering 150k views, and has now surpassed 15 million views. The tracks used in the mix shot up the charts, with Swedish House Mafia collaboration ‘Turn Out The Lights Again’ reaching No.21 in the UK. Meanwhile Spotify reports that, while Fred again..’s releases had been steadily rising by around 1-2% a month in 2022, following the Boiler Room set in July they rose by 50%, and in August 89%. The set sprouted thousands of memes, tattoos, Halloween costumes and even making a star out of crowd member Rodney, who after inadvertently turning off the music halfway through the set due to some slightly overenthusiastic dancing, was the subject of an entire reddit investigation to find his identity, a TikTok subject with over 5.5 million views and even a Sports Banger t-shirt aptly named “ROD AGAIN.”

Fred again..’s Boiler Room had become a rare dance music/pop culture crossover moment, lending momentum to producer’s rise and bringing in a slew of new fans — both from the worlds of electric and even those previously unfamiliar with the genre. “I’m secure enough to admit that I only started listening after the Boiler Room set,” says 27-year-old Grace Reeve who lives in Hackney. “I’d heard some of my mates going on about him for about six months beforehand but I’m not really into that kinda music usually, so I happily ignored. Now I’m in the top 0.01% of listeners on Spotify which is pretty embarrassing, after only discovering him half way through the year.” Fred again.. was no longer simply an electronic act, but instead a mainstream musician — garnering a legion of fans as enamoured with the man as the music.

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And so, like the Beatlemania that spread from Liverpool to the ends of the Earth in the ’60s, Fredagainia was born, and with it, the kind of “stan-like” behaviour previously inspired by pop stars. TikTok users began relaying their most intimate thoughts around Gibson, creating “Fred again.. iceberg” charts and posting guides on how to get into his “pop-up” shows. Grace Reeve, like thousands of others, went to Hyde Park in November to take part in Fred again..’s impromptu cycle along to film a music video for single ‘Clara (the night is dark)’. “I sacked off a first date to go on the cycle, stupidly thinking it was going to be an exciting intimate affair. Didn’t expect to be pushed in front of a bus by a fully grown man,” says Reeve. “I think I’ve developed a small crush on him despite the fact he looks like 99% of men in Hackney. I guess it’s his apparently very rare ability to process his emotions that’s pretty attractive and sets him apart from that 99%. As annoying as it is trying to get tickets, it’s also refreshing that he seems super modest about his rise? Who on earth organises a bike ride and doesn’t realise it’s going to turn into a mob.”

It’s rare in 2023 to hear the word “mob” used in conjunction with an audience of an electronic musician, but in scenes not witnessed since the shutdown of Brighton Beach for Fatboy Slim’s Big Beach Boutique in 2002 — Fred again.. appears to be inspiring fan frenzy wherever he goes. In the US, his set at San Fransisco’s Portola festival in September, resulted in a crowd control incident — as attendees attempted to barge their way into 10,000-capacity Warehouse stage. Most recently in Australia, hundreds of fans turned up to a bar in Melbourne anticipating a “pop-up set” only to find out it was a social media rumour — with thousands documenting their attempts get into his secret shows by hunting down “white whales” across the country. Many fans who Mixmag spoke to reported using discord servers to find the locations of shows and to “bank together” in attempts to secure tickets for listed events. While in London, fans who didn’t manage to secure tickets for his run of Brixton shows took matters into their own hands — waiting by the back door of his soundcheck so they could at least “meet him in person.” It’s clear, Fredagainia has become a worldwide phenomenon. But why? What is it about Fred Gibson that has inspired such intense reactions from his followers?

The obvious, and most surface-level, answer appears to be the consistent element of his persona thus far — he’s your mate, not a superstar. Fred again.. is the guy you smoke rollies with, he’s pouring you pints of Guinness behind the bar, he texts you and asks you if you fancy coming to his house to play some tunes. Subverting the traditional method of a major label-signed producer, or so it seems, Fred again.. instead posts links to shows along with a WhatsApp screenshot on his Instagram story at the last minute, he invites people to contribute to the making of his records as a way of slowly teasing out his releases instead of a well-manicured press campaign, he asks for travel tips for the cities he’s visiting to build up momentum ahead of his shows. In a stroke of what can only be described as marketing genius, Fred again.. informed fans in Amsterdam that a number of “Fred again.. scarves” had been left at a café, before posting up footage of hundreds stood in queues, proudly waving their merch to the camera. “Amsterdam you lot showed uppppp,” he captioned the TikTok. The apparent spontaneity of Fred again.. means that fans, if they want to have the “real” experience, need to stay engaged with his social media near-constantly. It’s undeniable that the majority of fans who managed to get hold of tickets for his show at Madison Square Garden, alongside Four Tet and Skrillex, were those perusing the trios social media pages in the few minutes before tickets completely sold out.

Though it isn’t like other stars haven’t attempted this kind of “hyper-personal” move before and failed, and for many fans it appears that it’s a real mixture of apparently “friendliness”, but also a connection with his emotionally-tinged productions. “He just seems so pure, honest, and real,” says LA-based fan Patricia. “He allows himself to be vulnerable in his music, and that makes me have so much respect for him. He seems like the nicest guy, and he honestly deserves all this love that he has been getting.” Meanwhile 29-year-old London-based fan Joe, isn’t as clear on what has drawn him to Fred again..’s music: “I find myself connecting to his music in a way I’ve not done with any other artists before – perhaps that’s due to the element of taking snippets of real life and creating a song out of that moment,” he says. “I can’t really put my finger on it to be honest, he just has the magic touch – as corny as that sounds, haha. I remember he put on a small snippet of a song on his Instagram with Stefflon Don yonks ago, and I was in his DMs asking for a release date with some flame emojis – only Fred has got me doing weird stuff like that. Obviously he’s an amazing musician and DJ in his own right, but his appreciation and production of music of all genres is just outrageously good.” Joe, a long time follower of Gibson from the days of his Rinse FM residency, went in even further after seeing Fred at Islington Assembly. “The energy, people and (of course) music just all came together to make one of the best nights of my life. I’d wanted to get a tattoo for ages but was undecided as to what to get as my first and just thought what better way to start than that night, so got the flowers and ‘again..’ text on my leg – I associate it with amazing memories and people. It also looks good… in my opinion.”

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Cambridge student Georgie Atkinson believes that Gibson’s ability to allow others to connect within his music was a point of inspiration: “The shared euphoria that his music cultivates and how united you can feel with others is really rather powerful and adds a unique quality to the music itself. There is quite an intensity created knowing that everyone in the audience is experiencing similar emotions to you. Especially when everyone is singing, ‘I’ve been lost’ at the top of their lungs,” she says. “I have found being in my twenties is a pretty uncomfortable and uncertain time especially in respect to what the future may hold; Fred again..’s work manages to provide a soundtrack that both seemingly has guided me through as well as documenting the pain that we possibly all experience,” she continues. “Post the pandemic when everything felt especially turbulent, I think a lot of people (including myself) found solace and comfort in Fred’s music whilst trying to navigate personal changes that had taken place. Despite the albums being called ‘Actual Life’, Fred’s work seemingly enables you to believe that you can experience life in its truest form again.”

The fact much of Fred again..’s work is centred on feelings of intense emotion – such as grief, loneliness and depression – seems to be a key part of his appeal. Music that many feel embodies and speaks to their own struggles. “I like to think that his music spoke to my grief-y heart,” continues Patricia. “I had been in a depression and dealing with so much grief, and I felt like those elements in his music spoke to me and forged a connection. His music had elements of hurt but also hope and that was the possibility of more. Grief has so many dimensions, and that came across so well. Emotional dance music, If I can sing my heart out and dance with an emotional connection to the music, that is honestly the best combination one could ask for.”

However, for a genre so inherently tied to the expression of euphoria and melancholy — from its disco origins to the tearjerking synths of Bicep, can “emotional dance music” really be the reason fans are queueing for hours on the off chance they might catch one of his sets? Irish-based electronic publication District Magazine believes there is another explanation, that even with Gibson’s highly-personal, fan-friendly public persona — it’s the mystique around him that actually captures the imaginations of his more diehard supporters, even drawing comparisons between Gibson and everyone’s favourite producer enigma, Burial. “It’s not outlandish to draw comparisons to his innovative peer’s solitary crusty press photo and cryptic presence,” comments writer Dylan Murphy. “When you couple this with the fact that, in his absence, Rodney picked up his DJ Mag award on his behalf, it only bolsters the mysterious presence of someone who is always in plain sight. From the outside, one could surmise that, at its best, he’s a private, music-oriented individual with an eye for creating moments.” So is that the answer? That by offering both a distinct camaraderie between himself and his fans, while maintaining a vagueness that allows them to place whatever emotions they feel within his music, he has created an impossibly appealing brand? Or is it just that, critics be damned, his music is actually quite good? “Every artist that works with him sings his praises, not just in terms of his talent but also him as a person,” says Joe. “For someone who has worked with, and seems to connect with, such a huge variety of people – from Berwyn to Blessed Madonna – I think that says a lot really.”

It’s undeniable that dance music rarely sees an individual artist reach the kind of pop stardom Fred again.. Is currently experiencing, and Gibson could perhaps be one of the first ever to achieve it in the social media age. Fan culture, or stan culture, has been inherently changed by the ease – and perceived intimacy – in which artists can connect with their followers — and though Fred again.. may not have droves of crying teens waiting for him at JFK like the Beatles did in 1964, his rise from little known label producer to selling out arenas in just under three years — and the impassioned, fervent dedication exhibited by his fans — is a phenomenon in unto itself. But what are the wider implications upon dance music? Will Fred again.. be a one off? Or will labels and managers follow his example? Will it now be fan-service and social media that spells out the roadmap to success as an electronic artist?

This isn’t by any means a new conversation in dance music, in the past decade there has been a steady rise in artists from across the board who have seen success in curating a brand, instead of focusing solely on music — a trend that has had both positive and negative effects on the scene. But it has troubling implications when dance music, at least this more underground-inspired off-shoot à la Fred again.., is taken away from the nightclubs and scenes that have created it and packaged into a recipe for commercial success. Days after Fred again.., Skrillex and Four Tet took over Madison Square Garden, William Earl wrote in Variety that the sold out show had heralded a new chapter for EDM and dance music. “In the wake of a pandemic which silenced live dance music for months,” he writes “this marathon rave united New York City fans and brought a genre to its feet once again.” The assertion that dance music, and indeed New York’s scene, had been reinvigorated by the show was rightly criticised. Despite the obvious fact the the popularity of dance music as a whole has been steadily rising across the board for the past decade, the comment ignores the far-reaching and multitude of inspirations that make up the modern underground sound.

In NYC, Brooklyn’s thriving underground scene has become the envy of the dance music world, with its bustling basement venues and frenetic cross-Atlantic mixture of jungle, UK bass, footwork, house, Jersey club, ghetto-tech, juke, drum ‘n’ bass and more. The European scene, including the UK, has been heavily influenced since dance music’s origins by the US – and vice versa. Four Tet, with his two and a half decades in underground dance music, has been continuously inspired by the sounds he’s encountered. Skrillex, despite arguably having popularised it on a global scale, didn’t invent dubstep — it was born in basement venues in South London. Fred again.. similarly borrows elements of UK bass and garage, but this “reinvigoration” of those genres wasn’t created in his studio – or on February 17 at Madison Square Garden – it was created by the artists that have inspired him, and the artists that inspired them. He may have been one of the first artists to play a rave alarm sample at a US arena, but he is not responsible for bringing “dance music back.” Fred again.. and his collaborators are instead riding a wave of cultural exchange, benefitting from a new globally connected underground culture that is seeing artists employ elements of South African amapiano and gqom in the same set that features Brazilian-inspired Baile funk, or overlay the futuristic synths pioneered by Japanese techno artists above the raucous basslines of hardstyle originating from The Netherlands. The Madison Square Garden show was not the anomaly that brought dance music back, but rather a symptom of a wider global phenomenon allowing dance floors and communities to connect.

Read this next: The Cover Mix: Fred again..

Though, poignantly, Earl had made his statement beneath a report of audience from the show, such as: “‘I didn’t know Four Tet’s stuff coming in, but I need to check him out,’ or, ‘I wasn’t a big Skrillex fan, but working with Fred has really opened him up for me.’” Perhaps that is the ‘reinvigoration’ Earl is referring to, that a nominal pop star like Fred again.. Is introducing a new audience to underground-inspired dance music, and the result could be a rise in popularity for the entire genre — a much harder point to argue against. Because if we’re being honest, how many dance music fans imagined a decade ago that Four Tet would play in Times Square? That an electronic artist would be dropping Overmono at Madison Square Garden in front of a crowd of 20,000 people?

Reflecting on the rise of EDM in 2014, Carl Cox famously said: “I don’t think it’s ‘underground vs overground,’ I just think it’s pop culture versus people who actually love the music,” making the point that commercial dance music can act as a stepping stone for listeners, who eventually discover the genres origins. As Fred again..’s unstoppable rise continues, only time will tell if the legions of fans he’s attracted will become underground converts, or if he will be an isolated phenomenon. Will “Fredagainia” remain so, or will it eventually transform into “dance music mania?”

Megan Townsend is Mixmag’s Deputy Editor, follow her on Twitter

Written by: Tim Hopkins

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