Jun 2012
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Deadmau5: “We all hit play”
– why DJs aren’t the new rockstars.

Deadmau5 recently kicked off quite a discussion on Twitter and Facebook with a controversial articled titled “we all hit play”, published on his personal tumblr blog, promisingly named “united we fail”. It’s not the first time Canadian-born Joel Zimmerman has rocked the boat by speaking his mind: earlier this year he called Madonna a “fucking idiot” on Facebook after she made a reference to ecstasy on stage at Avicii’s performance at Ultra Music Festival, Miami. On a side note, he also wore a T-shirt with Skrillex’ personal phone number on it on TV at this year’s Grammy awards – but that’s another story.

Once again he’s brutally honest here, exposing the (mainly US-American) EDM scene’s pretentious idea of “live” shows: in order to perform a typical dance track live (and by live I mean live as in live with real instruments, not live as in Ableton Live) you’d probably need 10 drum sets, twice as much percussionists and a whole army of people on keyboards and synthesizers. It’s all about the show, the lights, the pyrotechnics – but most definitely not about performing “live”. He’s obviously not breaking any news to you here if you have a bit of an idea about music production and DJing – but I highly doubt that the 16-year-olds in the first row have already realized this:

I think given about 1 hour of instruction, anyone with minimal knowledge of ableton and music tech in general could do what im doing at a deadmau5 concert. Just like i think any DJ in the world who can match a beat can do what anyone else […] is doing on their EDM stages too.

Okay so here’s how it works: somewhere in that mess is a computer, running Ableton Live, and its spewing out premixed (to a degree) stems of my original producitons. And then a SMPTE feed to Front Of House to tell the light / video systems where I’m at in the performance, so that all the visuals line up nicely and all the light cues are on and stuff. Now, while that’s all goin on, theres a good chunk of MIDI data spitting out as well to a handful of synths and crap that are / were used in the actual production, which I can tweak “live” and whatnot – but that doesnt give me a lot of “lookit me I’m Jimi Hendrix check out this solo” stuff, because I’m constrained to work on a set timeline because of the SMPTE.

Basically, what he’s saying here is that (most) “live” shows in electronic dance music are about re-arranging premixed parts of the artist’s tracks and adding some effects (at best), which brings us to an inevitable question: why don’t play a DJ set instead? There are two simple reasons for that: First, there’s more money in live shows. Second, people expect more than just a simple DJ set. Let me explain. At the moment, the EDM scene is rapidly taking over concert venues, festivals, radios, etc. (I’m talking about the US here; the situation over here in Europe is a completely different one). To an entire generation, DJs (producers, to be precise) are their new rock stars, when in fact they’re not even performing live. People go to Avicii or David Guetta shows just as they would’ve gone to a Limp Bizkit or a Red Hot Chili Peppers show ten years ago – and they’re paying the same price for it, or even more. For that kind of money, people don’t want to see a DJ on a big stage playing his tracks on two CD decks. They want a “live” show, with a “live” setup, meaning having lots of synthesizers (real or not) and other undefined stuff with lots of buttons, lights and knobs on it standing around on stage. That alone wouldn’t be a big deal – there are lots of rock bands that have guitar amps and whatnot on stage that they wouldn’t actually need as well.

The real problem here is that these shows create the false impression of EDM artists being musicians who perform their tracks live on stage with real instruments – when in fact they are more or less just DJs, playing their own tracks on a laptop, with some possibilities of live modulation. They are real musicians – not on stage though, but back home in their studios:

My “skills” and other producers’ skills shine where they need to shine: in the goddamned studio, and on the fucking releases. That’s what counts. I’m not going to let it go thinking that people assume there’s a guy on a laptop up there producing new original tracks on the fly, because none of the “top DJs” in the world to my knowledge have. Myself included.

Having said that, there are of course artists in electronic dance music that do real live shows – think Squarepusher or Soulwax, just to name a few. Artists such as these have proven that it’s possible to successfully perform electronic music live on stage.

And then again, there are the real douche bags who give the entire scene a bad name by snorting so much white powder that they don’t even know anymore what they’re talking about (unrelated):

I think the Beatles made something that’s kind of melancholic to sad and happy combined, and that’s just amazing. I kind of analyse music a lot, and I think that what the Beatles have done is what we do today. It doesn’t matter that we do dance music.

Sebastian Ingrosso of Swedish House Mafia