July 6, 2012

Paris, Pushing Buttons, and the Mau5 That Roared

Paris is Burning

We’ve probably all heard about it by now, but proof positive leaked that Paris Hilton is a terrible DJ. This had most likely been what we’d all imagined would come to be known, but the footage of Paris some “over it” festival goer posted confirmed any suspicions that she would be terrible.

Originally, I was going to write an article talking about how this was great news for all the DJs who use controllers and don’t produce. It seemed to me like the duties of selector and taste maker, or the simple art of the live mashup were clearly marked by Paris as tasks that not just anyone could do. With these criticisms being clearly leveled at so many in the EDM performance scene of late, this had to be good news. The trash talking, non-working, non-producing DJs of flame wars, threads and bulletin boards everywhere had nearly a ten second gap where they could all breathe a sigh of relief as the young hotel heiress proved that there was an art and science to even the simplest side of the DJ’s duties. Ten seconds flew by pretty quickly though, because within no time at all, Joel Zimmerman, aka Deadmau5, put the entire scene on notice.

Eek! A Mau5!!!!

When the emperor walks out and proclaims his own nakedness, as well as the state of undress of all those with whom he holds court, it does not go unnoticed. Maybe that’s why so many online publications and online arms of print publications were so quick to re-post Deadmau5′s tumblr post, titled “We Are All Glorified Button Pushers.” In his post, Deadmau5 calls out the high profit beneficiaries of the EDM scene across the board, regardless of their hardware choice. He states, perhaps brashly, that no one is producing on stage; and illuminates for all those who did not already know, that even the performing producer is simply triggering pre-rendered elements with a handful of options left open simply for the sake of keeping themselves from being bored senseless.

If you are familiar with the technology, it was possibly easier to follow Deadmau5′s description of his own setup. If not, he is basically saying that through deployment of stems, moment MIDI information and some SMPTE data, he is able to have some amount of decision making and live control over the show he has configured using the tracks he produced in the studio, but is by no means making anything new while performing. In short, he is saying he does what he does so people can dance, but is very dismissive of anyone who claims to be producing on stage.

All She Wants To Do Is Dance

I can’t help but wonder how much flack I’ll catch for it, but I don’t think he was wrong. While the Deadmau5 setup, and his derision of the setups of others, may really only account for the deft use of Ableton to drive some synths, some stems, and a hell of a light show; that doesn’t mean that he overlooked some more gargantuan task that is a part of running a set off a modern DJ controller. The fact is, that in the age of Ean Golden and the custom mapping, the controller-ism camp has inherited a number of preconfigured users acting like custom mappings are somehow on par with the hyper configured rigs of folks like Tim Exile. Let’s cut the crap, because they simply aren’t. I don’t know when it became some mystical feat to wire a jog wheel to a handful of Traktor effects, but the premise seems a little absurd to those who have done much time with MIDI, building their own controllers or building their own performance oriented devices in Max/MSP or PureData etc. when something is built to be mapped, it seems a bit of inflated self esteem to act like you’re a genius for downloading the template or cookie cutter mapping just like you saw on YouTube. I’m not saying there’s nothing to it, or no art to cultivating an enjoyable performance, but I will say certain people have been puffing it up a bit.

Also, isn’t the whole juggling and glitching thing becoming a bit like jazz musicians playing for each other? I’ve always maintained that DJing for other DJs is A) boring and B) thankless. Yet, when it turns into the whole “look at what I can do” it often seems to take a lot of danceability right out of whatever is playing. The reason the big names are carrying the big rooms is because so many of them let the song play and don’t kill off the part that cute girls one through forty at the front of the room are waiting to scream the chorus to. That said, let’s just avoid (for the sake of discussion) the whole “controller-ism is the real shit” conversation. There’s a reason certain artists the young and enraged are so dismissive of are successful. To be frank, girls like to dance. Boys follow the girls. Girls go where they can dance. Big artists keep things moving for the girls. Bars/venues/nightclubs/festivals make money, bookings are repeated, and money is made. So rather than going on about how this is or is not the real deal and where the talent is or isn’t, let’s just lock in at: “this isn’t an equipment demo, we’re talking about where the money is right at this moment.”

I’ve talked, ever so briefly, about the death of crowd reading and the dying art of the tastemakers. There’s definitely been a lack of originality in sets I’ve seen from bigger names in the EDM game. A lot of artists don’t seem too concerned with making their name through their selections and the vibe of their sets. I think this could have, should have been the lynchpin in the DJ’s defense. Instead, it seems like the go to has been beatmatching. It’s probably worth mentioning that Deadmau5, if a little harshly, took this on in his own post quite dismissively. More to the point, he mentioned having been able to count to four since he was three. While I think that might be a little abrupt, in the case of the digital DJ, it’s something of a bell and whistle that, to me, has always seemed like someone is saying: “I am choosing not to take advantage of the features built into my technology because I am afraid some vinyl guy will make fun of me.” I say, if you have the technology, take advantage of it. If you can skip one process and expand another, why wouldn’t you own that advantage? Why would you worry about what the old guard will think when you should be braving new frontiers?

How Long Until The Jig Is Up?

So, where am I going here? Well, it seems like people are bound to catch on that there’s not a lot to some of these performances. Right now, the DJ is in a magic moment where the name puts feet on the floor/ sells tickets. What’s in a name? Right now, everything is in the name. It doesn’t matter if the DJs all play the same set , so long as people can say “I saw (insert A list name here) at (insert festival with high priced ticket or club that offers bottle service here) and he/she melted my face.” The traction of different artists in their own scenarios differs. A Deadmau5 or Skrillex are running their own material to an audience eager to hear all their favorites on the biggest speakers possible. With some amount of spontaneity built into the performance, they have a handful of choices available to keep the big fans on their toes.

However, how long does the 3 hits, same set filler DJ have? How much longer before the crowd figures out that they can go watch their friend John drop the same songs and still dance just as hard for a cheaper ticket price? How much longer after that until the bottom falls out altogether and the promoters can’t make back the huge fees that have come to be associated with the big names? Right now, DJs are the moneymakers. When there’s one to two guys on a bill and no excessive need for a crew, yet the ticket prices are high; DJs become the prime movers in a world where bands are struggling to fill clubs, let alone pay multiple members and larger crews.

From my perspective, the real artists always survive the tumult of the shifting scenes. Maybe they go underground a while, maybe they capitalize on the long running market many refer to as “cult success.” Either way, the good win out in most scenarios, and despite all the jaded bitching of people who never got paid, I tend to believe electronic music honors this tendency. Real producers, the guys writing their own hooks; they survive. Sometimes they stay in the spotlight, or make a triumphant return to “the scene.” Sometimes they simply transition to sound design, scoring, selling licensed tunes or video game music or any number of other options that have revealed themselves over the years. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing from Joel and Sonny for years to come, as they both have proven to be capable of hanging with the times and staying in “the biz.” There are plenty of other guys like them too. Right now, some of the most capable hands in the business are quietly DJing, curating their own sets and mixing in their own sounds. This is called riding the wave gracefully.

However, the guys in the highly visible spots, playing the same sets as everyone else, blowing every cent to party like a rock star and treating the excess like it will never end; what will become of them? As the celebrity DJ comes under more scrutiny, what’s more dangerous? Is it worse for Paris Hilton to be the world’s worst DJ, or is it the end of all things when someone like Kim Kardashian comes out and DESTROYS the floor with a set? It’s bound to happen sooner or later. Anyone can come out and play the songs they already know the crowd will dance to because they just saw them dancing to them. With a little rhythm and restraint, the uneducated audience just might see everything they want to see. Hell, I watched whatshisface from Golgol Bordello keep a Chicago crowd wildly entertained by spitting wine on them during massive gaps of dead air. The point is, the audience doesn’t give a damn about your “street cred,”, your time on the scene, or how you get the music up. If they figure out they are over paying and can get their favorite tunes for a quarter of the price and still feel like the drugs are working, the superstar DJ will be in big trouble.

Preparing For Disaster

If someone asked how to survive the eventual DJ apocalypse, I’d probably suggest that they finally got around to doing that producing they talk about every time they get drunk. Maybe I’d encourage them to build a sound by filling out their set with some tunes that aren’t so popular on the floor. There’s a lot to be said for listening to the crowd and ignoring Beatport. At the end of the day, despite the protest and grumbling of jaded old timers, or the “disco will never die, we’re the new shit” optimism of the current crop of upstarts and superstars, this is the music business. Versatility and being cool to work with are the two things that keep anyone working in this business, big name or not. If you can corner that for yourself, stay hungry and capitalize on newer technology, while still refining core skills, or even (gasp) learning a proper instrument; you should be well equipped to transition when the bottom falls out.

Which, I never think EDM or DJing will die. The only guarantee I know of in this business is that waves always crash. Assuming that this one will, the survivors will be the ones ready and waiting for whatever happens next. At the end of the day, that’s all there really is to say: be ready. Nothing changes more than pop culture, and there is no more plastic fashion than this happy little EDM world we occupy. The only certainty is that it looked and sounded nothing like it does now a decade ago. A decade from now, this trend should look the same. The producers, DJs and performers of tomorrow will likely be the diversified players of today. The ones content to grow smug with their success and view the current state of things as good enough, well, with the exception of a lucky few, will probably be the jaded bartenders, doormen and other ex musician cliches of tomorrow.


  1. Christopher Merritt says:

    I wanted to go see Amon Tobin at Tabernacle but the tickets were over $200! I like his music, but I’m not going to pay for a light show featuring his music that I’ve heard a million times.

    1. LonelyPaul says:

      Luckily for A.T. you are in the minority right now- naturally, my question is, how long til everyone gets there?

  2. [...] it’s this market awareness, or inspired by Deadmau5′s controversial post from a few weeks ago, that also inspired them to encourage their market savvy readership to jump in with “How Hard [...]