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

What would Bill Murray do?

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  • http://twitter.com/misha_zam misha

    guilty and i really dont want to do that but the music i make is very glitchy and measured n timelines that i really dont see a way to play it live with real instruments and not transform it into an awful out-of-genre cover of myself thats why im trying to focuse don real live light shows while i play a djset

    • George MacCleave

      there are ways to play electronic music live centered around a band set-up….

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  • ᅠᅠᅠ

    You can always get creative and do some stuff, try out some ideas… seen some shows where artists just ripped out their drumtracks and replaced them with a live drummer on stage, you can do the same thing with other elements, whatever – but of course that’s not even what the kids *want* you to do. They want to hear the tracks sounding as exactly as possible like the studio versions they already know, while watching some bloke jump around on a stage.
    It’s okay, nobody needs an excuse or justification for profiting from that. They’re eager for it and willing to pay, so why not satisfy that demand and make a bundle off it. It would be stupid not to.

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  • George MacCleave

    maybe it’s time to put down the computer and pick up a guitar or a piano or drums, a bass even!

    • George MacCleave

      the problem i have with djs is that they are tricking people during their live shows and they know it. then they go off stage and act like complete egotistical dicks, when all they did was….nothing but throw their hands in the air. woopdy dooooo…not…

      • fox

        riiiiiigt its the djs fault for “lying” and not the dipshit peoples fault for being utterly fucking retarded. seriously when will these knuckledragging fucks start to be accountable for their own stupidity!? like if i told you i thought bleach and ammonia was a good face wash and you went and killed yourself then thats your own fucking fault for being a goddamn moron! learn fucking science and quit being so gullible you little millenial faggots, stop blaming people for your stupidity becausr they arent spoon feeding you every bit of info bitch

    • Okada San

      I know this is an old post but oh well. As far as your “put down the computer…” remark, producing electronic music in a computer takes as much, if not more, skill as playing a guitar. I give intrument playing musicians mad props because it’s not an easy thing to do if you do it well. But when you produce electronic music, it takes a different set of skills a guitar player or drummer may not possess. With electronic music production, you’re not only a programmer who arranges the bleeps and bloops, but you’re also the sound engineer who has to spend possibly hours looking for the right sounds that mesh, you have to program your percussion accordingly (and percussion in electronic music is much more than just a virtual drum set), you have to program your bass line, find your ambient soundscapes, come up with a breakdown, come up with a melody (unless it’s without one), find your stabs, hits, quirks, equalize it, compress it, master it, and on and on. It’s not as easy as one would think. I know this coming from experience. Cheers!