OK, EDM, You Got What You Wanted
So what’s with all the complaining?
Enter the Golden Age
In the past few years we’ve seen the unthinkable occur. Electronic Dance Music (EDM) has officially become a monster. Artists like Deadmau5, Skrillex, Calvin Harris, Steve Aoki and countless others have been blowing up. All the while, a healthy crop of upstarts are being moved up beneath them and the trend doesn’t look to change. There’s a number of reasons for the acceptance, not the least of which is the fact that the fans buying records and concert tickets have grown up with synthesized sounds and drum machines in their ears. Resistance in previous generations raised on Classic Rock and whatever else can be forgiven for the fact that so many people were being fed a sound largely foreign to them in the early days of electronic music.
Now we are a long way from the fitful days of early experimentation and the 80s synth pop that left an audience largely divided on whether or not this or that was in fact “real music.” There are still plenty of people who will tell you in no uncertain terms that computers make “music too easy,” or have “ruined music.” Oddly, if you set them down in front of a computer to make some of that “easy music,” you won’t be shocked when most of them come away with no dance hit sensation. In fact, it turns out there’s a whole science to moving a dance floor filled with individuals. It’s not just “what samples to buy,” or a simple product wish list either; it’s a whole host of other things. Regardless of what genre one is working in, there is a touch of shamanism and more than a hint of psychology to crafting a floor filling hit. Those who do it are sometimes aware of it, or sometimes just so in touch with the market they are pitching to that they fall right into it.
We live in a golden age of experimentation with a hardware option for countless possible configurations not just for recording, but for performance as well. As has been so often true of electronic music, there are many pre-rendered elements in an electronic performance. Maybe that’s why, in the end, everyone has sort of become a DJ. Now, in my mind, the DJ is still the DJ. By that I mean that a DJ plays music they have typically not been involved in creating (beyond edits) and spends their night reading the crowd. They drive bar sales or fuel ecstasy (or whatever) driven dance rampages. They make the decision when the crowd moves fast, when the crowd moves slow, or when the crowd just moves. The job of the DJ is not just not to ruin the night, but to make that night amazing. They spot that girl at the back of the room who they heard say over and over “I just want to dance tonight.” They say “why isn’t she dancing?” Then they grab that girl, one way or another, with whatever song in their bag of tricks it will take to get her shaking it on the floor. Somehow, through their years of skill accumulation, they not only get her out there, but they keep everyone else going as well. The bar is happy, that girl is happy, that guy who thinks he has a chance with that girl is happy. Everyone wins when the DJ is on his game. When the DJ isn’t, that’s another story. That’s what you call a bad DJ, or maybe just a bad night. Then again, a good DJ should be able to recover the night.
Somehow, since the DJ became so revered as he/she has in recent years, the cries of “bad DJ” have become more and more frequent. More unsettlingly, the criteria for that cry has become absurd beyond belief:
“That DJ sucks. He’s using CD-Js.”
“That DJ is terrible, he should use an APC.”
“Ableton DJs are doing it wrong, they need to get Traktor.”
“Traktor is for cheaters, they should be on Serato.”
“DJ controllers are ruining music. People need to be using DVS systems.” (Yes, I am suppressing the urge to drop a “lolwut?”)
“If you aren’t DJing on vinyl, you aren’t a real DJ.”
These don’t even scratch the surface of a series of complaints that I can only greet with “LOL.” Granted, the scene has always been fractious. It always seems to be the DJ dream to father their own movement. Recently the trend of naming one’s own music as a style all its own (rather than citing influences like a sane and rational person) seems to have died down, but even in the past decade their have been some particularly hilarious “next wave” styles being tossed around by young hopefuls. Regional scenes rose and fell at the drop of a hat. Not so many people may have noticed each and every one, but a fantastic web project would be to build a series of info-graphics about every style that never was.
All that said, just when one is about ready to cruise around the world hi-fiving everyone in “the scene” and congratulate them for getting over themselves, it happens: We all start fighting about what equipment we use and how to use it. That’s right, something 12 year olds know is a joke in Warcraft becomes a serious topic of discussion. People honestly have lapsed into pointing around the world and telling everyone they are “doing it wrong.” I honestly cannot wrap my head around this one. I spend countless hours puzzling over where people found their rulebook.
So Let’s Get Some Ground Rules
Let’s think about it critically. I am going to offer these statements as facts:
1. Music, in every form, is born from experimentation and inspiration.
2. Electronic music, was born from that same sense of experimentation being married to technological innovation.
3. Each new genre in electronic music has been formed by someone taking the old styles and marrying them to something else, or trying to throw out the rule book and start over.
4. The methods of creating electronic music have long required intensive production and control so the act of performing it has yet to develop what one could call a classic method beyond having everyone perform each individual part on a stage.
Now, let’s do the mind blowing part:
5. DJing has largely become the easiest and most portable (as well as lucrative) method for “performing” within the medium of EDM.
6. DJing was, in the classic way we regard it as two turntables and a mixer, born not just of experimentation, but from jury rigging technology that was not built for the purpose.
7. Even that “classic” method has seen innovation in its lifespan. (Think effects placed on board mixers, expansions to 4 decks, or even incorporation of external elements like the Kaoss Pad or outside synthesizers.)
8. Every single thing about DJing and/or producing electronic music is married at its core to experimentation. (Yes, I realize copy cats aren’t innovators and there’s plenty of that. However, we aren’t talking about the kids’ pool here. We’re talking about the playmakers.)
Fight It Out
So, assuming we don’t digress to dissecting my list and talking the kind of trash the internet already has plenty of; how did we get to the point of all this name calling and whining about how so and so is doing it wrong? I think it is completely absurd, for example, that guys with CDJs think they are now the real deal and others aren’t. It was only DJ controllers that gave them credibility after their technology was introduced much to the chagrin and snickering of the self appointed “purists” from the vinyl jetset. When CDJs came out, it was a natural evolution. Arguably, it came almost too late, literally showing up as the sun was setting on the CD and the MP3 was just around the corner. A few years of shaky bit rates afforded them a longer welcome than they might have gotten otherwise. The other boon in their favor was that the early iPod DJ rigs were almost laughable. Either way, it was not an immediately loved technology. Now, however, CDJs occupy a gold standard area. Their smaller real estate makes them a no brainer for small booths, while their expanded functionality over the years can see them used as a controller or even MP3 player in some cases.
I have no quarrel with the CDJ. It simply reminds me of the synthesizer predicament. Fearful string players and other classically trained musicians were threatened by even the most basic reproductive instruments. We all know the Mellotron sounds like… well, a Mellotron now. Doesn’t change the fact that it was a cursed name once upon a time. In the end, the string players kept their seats even after sampling improvements because you simply can’t replace the entirety of what they do without a good deal of layering, and certainly not in a live performance. All the same, the opposition to the synthesizer remained long after violinist fears had been quelled. After the synthesizer came its well hated little brother, the drum machine. Both of these devices, and the sampler as we know it today, form the root of modern electronic music. They shaped the heart of the inspirations driving the modern production process. That same process is the one that is driving the current EDM scene. Not only that, but much as DJ gear has done, so too is there a “right kind” of synthesizer. Analog purism developed in the wake of some logical attempts to loer costs and increase polyphony. The market is older and now there are hybrid analogs, analog modellers and on eBay so many of the digital synths that justified the return to analog periodically find new value in the hands of another rule breaking or retro minded producer. The cycle is almost embarrassing to watch, though the savvy eBay investor has long since learned to snap things up when they are out of favor and get them restored. Because the out of favor synth of today will often be back and worth more money. There was a time when you could snap up a TR-808 for almost nothing.
Yet, people move through their tired, silly arguments in ignorant bliss. Maybe they never had to play an electronic set to morons yelling for “Freebird,” or a “drum solo.” A lot of people did though, and you would think those would be the guys who were excited about the change. Instead, those guys are talking the same old ridiculous cliches that can be found at the guitar shops no one buys anything from. It’s not uncommon to see someone hating on everything going on and wishing for their good old days. In fact, it’s par for the course as one thing dies and is replaced by the new one. Yet, there was this part of me that got into electronic music making thinking “finally, a scene that won’t be filled with old, bitter purists who think the old way is the only way.” The truth, sadly, is that EDM has become far worse.
I think it might have made sense if the Producer/DJ had come to look down on the DJ. That would almost be natural, despite the negativity and ridiculousness of looking down on anyone for anything. I won’t lie: I tend to ask “is (person x) a DJ or a Producer DJ.” I want to know if they have their own thing. I want to know if they might have a record that I should go listen to after enjoying their set. Ultimately, I also want to know if they can write or play anything. It doesn’t settle my mind either way. Kids coming up who have never known anything but all purpose software packages that let them do almost anything with a mouse or in a grid matrix have every right to do whatever they do to get the sound if the sound is good. Hell, they can do it how they like if the sound is bad, people just won’t like it.
Instead, the fight isn’t over the end result, it’s over the method. It isn’t just young up and comers arguing from a place of insecurity either. Almost daily, there is some new article about how things ought to be done with cameo quotes from veterans of the scene spouting off about how the art is gone. I am not going to say who, because they know who they are. More importantly, I’d still like to get them in for an interview and I hate opening any conversation with an apology. I guess I feel like these are the guys who should set the example. I feel like they should be overjoyed that their life’s work has seen global acceptance. It’s about the kids. The ones railing every DJ from their bedroom because the DJ isn’t doing some mindless controller-ism demo or tying 8 effects to the jog wheel and mapping everything custom. The ones fighting amongst themselves about how this or that is better than that or this. They have an unprecedented opportunity to form their own scenes amidst the greater levels of acceptance. They have the ability to afford to do things people couldn’t have dreamed of on small budgets years ago. Instead they are infighting at best. They are polarizing the scene at worst. When they look to their elder statesmen and see them doing the same thing, what should they learn but to keep it up.
All this isn’t to say I think everything is just hunky dory either. I have been to some pretty high profile shows and festivals this year and definitely feel like I have heard the same set over and over again. If I was to look back to my original idea up top about what the DJ does, I might say even that is in short supply. Why bother building your own vibe and pulling the girl who wants to dance out on the floor in your own way when you already have 8 up front going bonkers for “We Found Love?” When I see it happening like this I stop and think to myself: “Self, are people even worried about the right thing, or are they just fighting over the dumbest thing ever?”
So what am I saying? I’m saying this is all ridiculous. No matter what discipline of EDM or any form of electronic music you are coming from (and even regardless of whether or not crowd reading is a lost art,) this is still a golden age. The price of the tools and technology is absurdly low. The increasing profile of electronic music encourages more people to jump in the pool, and if you haven’t figured it out: the fuller the pool is, the cheaper everything gets. Whether you are a producer, DJ, producer/DJ or simply a hobbyist, you can get all the things you want on a budget. Maybe your good old days are gone. Maybe the way you learned is a “dying breed” in your mind. Is that really so bad? Isn’t it cool that the old systems are tweaked and the new systems are driven by user feedback? Isn’t it kind of amazing that you can live in the middle of nowhere and still get ahold of tracks that once would have been impossible to find in a store near you? Similarly, the technology needed to improve. From the very beginning, it was outsiders making things work. Now the technology is built for the kids that were once working in the dark. We have support resources. We can replace our rig as fast as it breaks because some dude spilled beer all over it. We can afford to DJ and produce and not worry about the sales too much.
If you find yourself looking over at someone, resenting their success and belittling their gear choice; maybe it’s time to look in the mirror. Maybe you should be working on your techniques or your studio workflow. Maybe you should finally be transitioning over to produce. Maybe you should just be trying a little harder to get those bookings you think you deserve. Whatever it is that you want to do with your music, that girl is never gonna make her way to the floor because of how well you trash talked the other DJ. The end result of behaving like this is a return to cliquishness and ultimately a series of stagnating scenes. Maybe everything isn’t “perfect” yet, but what’s the fun in that? If everything was exactly how it needed to be, then you have no opportunity to shake things up. I focused on the DJ and performance angle because it is what we all have in common. This is a good time for what all of us do. Don’t forget that. Even if (your favorite DJ who shall remain nameless) says this or that sucks. Enjoy the ride. Make something worthwhile. Don’t waste time being petty and becoming a cliche.