What Are You Making? Is It “Too Future?”
DJ Shadow was kicked off the decks this past weekend at Mansion in Miami while spinning live in support of his All Bases Covered tour. By all accounts, some of those who paid thirty dollars to get in the door to see him didn’t actually care to see him. Pigeons and Planes probably put it best when theorizing that “the crowd was either not into his set or the promoters were just so amped to get their resident back on to drop more Top 40-inspired tracks that one walked right up to the decks and apparently asked Shadow to stop.” The same thing happened to Dennis Ferrer earlier in the year, as has been mentioned by almost anyone talking about this. I’ll leave it to all those other sources to elaborate on the silliness of booking these DJs if all you need is someone to throw Guetta and the party anthem of the month on for the night. The question it poses for me is more about what the electronic music artist’s reaction ought to be to the current state of affairs. What should we be making? Who are we making it for? Why do we do it? It seems an apropriate year end topic, because as we head into 2013, one thing that seems clearly on the horizon is a separation of scenes, or the end of the “everyone in the pool” period of the supposed EDM takeover.
What should we be making?
This might seem like a silly question to the dyed in the wool artist. However, I ask it, because one of the greatest illusions of electronic music has always been that anyone can make it. “Buy the gear and the tunes will come.” From an equipment sales standpoint, there is little good to come in refuting this supposed truth, but let’s just clear things up right here and now: No, it isn’t as simple as buying all the gear your hero has and watching the machines do everything for you. It turns out that music creation, and true artistry, still require talent, time and vision. Many of you won’t be surprised to hear it, but I am fairly certain a number of folks will be. I know that bringing this up might not seem immediately related to the question of what one should be making, but the “anyone can play” illusion of the EDM explosion has pulled a lot of people into making their first purchases, or stealing their first software. If nothing else, many have been lured to buying DJ controllers and imagining they are just around the corner from becoming a superstar, only to learn that they had just begun a string of purchases that would still require patience and discipline just to get the system to do what they thought it would.
So once they do get around the learning curve, once they do understand MIDI and the basics of beat making and melody, what should the new target be? Well, if they got into this to be a “star,” or make millions, now they get to learn about the moving target. No scene in music is quicker to identify sounds as “stale” than dance music. Dance music is seasonal, it moves like fashion. It often moves with fashion. Where the club charts start and end in a year can sound radically different. Don’t believe me? Well, if you’ve been around, you actually know dubstep isn’t new. You probably also remember when electro was a buzzword. If you’ve been at it for longer than the past few years you probably remember the flash in the pan periods of bands being called “electroclash.” If you haven’t been at it very long, you might well be a dubstep devotee. You might well think Skrillex invented the sun and hung the moon. There’s nothing wrong with being new to the scene, but my point here is that not only is there nothing new under the sun, but the faddish nature of popular dance music leaves artists facing shockingly short timelines within which to capitalize on the “hot new sound” they reckon will make them a fortune.
That said, I ask the question “what should we be making” knowing that there is no one answer. I think the short answer is that if you want to play at Mansion, you’d better go there for a few weeks, see what people like, and grind things out pretty impossibly fast to capitalize on that crowds temporary desire to buy drinks and engage in mating rituals to the music of (insert flavor of the month artist here) as fast as you can. Mansion is, sadly, one of many (or most) clubs that are just trying to sell drinks. The illusion that clubs care about breaking new music can be put to rest in the case of any place that is trying to cater to anyone with a fat wallet that wants to pay their way into a VIP lounge to more easily lure date rape victims in with bottle service. If you came in to the game looking to be the hot new face on the scene at your favorite glitter and glitz dance club, study that club, and be quick about it. The real question of what we should be making rolls (inevitably) around to…
Who are we making it for?
I think this is an artistic conundrum regardless of genre or medium. Who is any work of art for? Is everything an artist does for the benefit of their peers? Is it for ourselves? Are we seeking remuneration? Do we even remember how we started down this road of creating things?
The obvious answer, and the one that may come closest to being “right” (if there is such a thing), is “for ourselves.” Surely we must want to please ourselves as an artist. Surely we want to look back on our own catalogs and be able to kick up our feet while destroying a bottle of wine. However, the truth is often more complicated, and dependent upon our own personal circumstance. Not to take away from the whole art thing, but a lot of folks get into music to pick up chicks. (While that doesn’t account for the ladies who got into it, I am still not ruling out the girls doing it for the ladies, or the men.) Some folks like dancing so much they just wanted their own jams. Some folks had a really crazy drug experience and ended up in music. There’s plenty of people with older brothers, childhood associations and a million other reasons to get into it. I know plenty of people who simply don’t like paying to go out, and play out for the sake of a night out with free drinks.
It isn’t so different from above where I supposed that people might just want to play for the crowd at Mansion. The cadre of stern looking people at the back of the club with arms crossed and brows in frown mode clearly spend time thinking they can do better. In the event that packed Las Vegas pool parties and Miami house clubs are the goal, the target is moving, but that may well be your pursuit. I wish you luck in that pursuit, but there are no guarantees, there is no formula and hard work doesn’t necessarily pay off. It has become increasingly apparent that the current state of EDM has become the usual liquor sponsored marketplace, and now caters to those typically attendant jocks and drunk girls that make so many bemoan the state of what used to be “their” scene. I said it before and I’ll say it again that things change like the wind here, and while that might leave you in the dust one day, it could carry you to superstardom on another. If you can get a check or two along the way it might not be a complete loss. However, the only thing you have any real control over is whether or not you like it.
Why do we do it?
It seems like a lot of people jump into electronic music with a condescending approach (see my “buy the hardware and the hits will come” remark above.) I have encountered too many people during my time in the music business who seemed to regard genres as a dodge or hustle that they reckoned was low hanging fruit. I knew a guy who jumped from years of guitar playing and a love of Phish and the Grateful Dead into hip hop production because he figured it would be like shooting fish in a barrel to throw a few beats down and get the first MCs he could get ahold of to spit rhymes over the top of it. It didn’t work. I’ve known people who cranked out boring house by numbers tracks one after another and they couldn’t figure out why they weren’t huge.
I can’t really speak for everyone, but here’s what I know about my own work:
1) Whenever I have worked for the sake of selling music for licensing, I have found the creative process to be frustrating without a very exact brief that said something like “I want Coldplay’s (song x) on the cheap. Please make something like this that is only so different as to avoid legal troubles.” In other cases, trying to please clients that were being very loose in their description of what they wanted often resulted in me just banging out things and throwing them at the wall until something got a positive email, and then I would pursue that track until either the project was paid for or the client abruptly abandoned the discourse and paid for a track from a library service. It should be noted that this process is similar to the design process when dealing with what I like to call “terrible clients.” It should also be noted that if you regard the populace as your potential clients, they have even less invested in your success and eventual payoff. The music listeners of the world who don’t care about you are, quite literally, the worst clients in the world.
2) When attempting to cater to “the worst clients in the world” during the parts of my career where there were no other jobs running, or I was simply applying the pressure to attain what many perceive as commercial success on some level, I was the most miserable musician in the world. The thing I loved quickly became work. While I fully subscribe to the idea that one must apply themselves daily to their art if one is to be a professional in any sense of the word, I do not consider this pursuit terribly productive. Opinion is fickle and subjective. To simplify what the pursuit of commercial success really amounts to if that is the end goal of your musical pursuit, go to your kitchen and make a grilled cheese sandwich. Simple enough, right? Loads of people can make grilled cheese sandwiches because the ingredients are very affordable and the components have proven to be enjoyable. Now, without completely reinventing this common kitchen item, I want you to get YOUR grilled cheese sandwich out there, to the people. Before you can consider your grilled cheese sandwich a success, you need to get thousands upon thousands of grilled cheese sandwich aficionados to sign off that not only is your grilled cheese sandwich “good,” but it is in fact one of the must eat grilled cheese sandwiches of the year. This metaphor is officially running out of control, but the one thing I can guarantee is that with this pressure in your mind as you cook and review your grilled cheese sandwich, as you taste test it, it will become more and more bland with each bite. Not only are you going to become tired of this thing that is no longer simply for you, but you are going to lose any sense of pleasure as you try and estimate the taste buds of people with whom you have never had any contact.
3) As I have become more selfish over the years, and experienced enough success in music to have seen the world and done things many never get to do, I have lapsed into far more selfish pursuits. I have built a studio that caters to my working methods. I have found myself having fun working on a solo record for which my only expectations are that it pleases me and people who typically like stuff I like. I am also productive, for the first time in years, on a level that I haven’t seen since the early days of being carried along on the excitement of hearing things play back. Pulling the bars away, minimizing the financial accountability of my musical output, and pursuing my art for art’s sake has not only led me to new songs I am quite happy with, but also new opportunities in licensing. With the pressure of making a living eased by having freelance design work and a nice job at a certain music retail web site, I find myself going to the studio for pleasure again.
I have been fortunate enough to be involved with a lot of fun projects over the years, and gotten my rocks off on stage more than many people ever do. I am content with that. The only person who ever gives me any shit about what I have done with my career is the 14 year old DIY punk rocker version of myself that jumped into this pursuit with a pretty ridiculous amount of million dollar optimism. I try not to listen to that kid too much, because he didn’t know a whole lot about the world, and had a lot to learn about talking to girls. I realize these experiences might inform that sense of self actualized satisfaction and you can’t simply tell people to relax and let things happen. However, if anyone asked me why I do what I do with my time and money, I will always say “for me.” If I elaborate I will say “because along the way I fell in love with the digital arts and I like to flex the brain that drives my day to day commercial pursuits with the freedom of creative projects.”
I think it’s clear that I am completely over the majority of the mainstream EDM we are coming to know. If you’ve read much of my stuff here before, you probably know I have attended a good few shows on the job this year and haven’t been enjoying very much of what I have seen. I have watched, over my career, a series of ups and downs for electronic music. The wave crests a little higher each time, and this one may well still be in full swing. However, I think it’s time to accept that there will be a top 40 and an underground walking away from the current state of things. The underground have to make decisions and accept that, as with any explosion in music before, there is no endless cash cow. Eventually the floor closes and new players are not being admitted quite so easily as they were when the gates opened. Just like some athletes eventually realize they will continue to play their favorite game, but may never be in a pro league; many musicians must face the reality that they will never “make it.” So many have before, this isn’t news to anyone. The truth (and good news) of the modern state of affairs is that someone with the ability to create an experience that is enjoyable and can be shared can easily expect the modest success of having something out, getting paid for Spotify plays, or even just being on a cool internet radio station. Is that so bad? Maybe it is if your only acceptable end game is superstardom.
I don’t buy into stardom being much other than a series of pressures. Pressures to live up to your past successes and pressures to remake the same amazing record over and over again without repeating yourself and without alienating everyone who liked the last one by changing too much. I have been close to and worked with some rather starry types over the years, and their existences are often tougher than one might think. They are also far less certain and secure than a lot of people imagine. I am often thankful for the outside skill sets and working relationships I developed in the design and video worlds because they have set me free to not carry the pressure of “how to make money” into the studio with me. Somehow I can approach graphic design and animation with less of a sense of pressure. Recording is the one that doesn’t do as well with these pressures in mind… The different things I do make me think of other things to write about. Different processes in one discipline give me ideas on how to approach music making from a different angle in the studio. The variety works for me. Most of all, it all let’s me stay excited about everything I am doing. When one task gets old, I can go look for fresh air and new perspective while lost in the other. If nothing is cooking in any of them, I can go play Warcraft. Meanwhile, amidst that freedom, and the selfish act of doing music for myself, I get to approach the task with the knowledge that I can still release it. We no longer make the choice to “never do anything with music or go all the way.” We can now go half way, 3/4 of the way, or just a few steps in. We can release things under different names and see how they are received.
The future of enduring music is going to be carried out by individuals and self funded groups who have the vision to see their own concepts from beat to cover art to music video. They will sell on iTunes, play on Spotify and run their videos on Vimeo and Youtube. They will make art and therefore advance the field. You might not know it, but there’s more artists in your current Spotify rotation doing this than you think. There’s a lot of designers, marketing types, bankers and so on in the fast emerging underground of modern electronic music. They’re doing everything from remixes to changing names every time they genre hop. They have the gear they want because they have jobs. They make a lot of different types of music because they like making music. If I had to sum up what I think the next step for an electronic musician really is, it is to find that kind of inner peace. To make it because you must. To enjoy what you do. Some folks have responded to DJ Shadow’s unfortunate night in Miami with tips about how not to get booed off the decks. I say: whatever. DJ Shadow didn’t adjust for those morons and he shouldn’t have to. More importantly, he doesn’t have to. He’s DJ Shadow, and he sure as hell didn’t get there by worrying about pandering to the crowd at Mansion.