Thursday, 7 January 2010

2010 - a random assessment.

State of the A.R.T.

2010. Another decade has crept up on us.

The dance music scene has become truly global. DJ’s can now add Kazakhstan, Dubai, Indonesia, Venezuela and many more to the list of countries on the circuit.

Producers from Chile, Romania, Mumbai have added their perspectives to the dance music template and new forms have evolved.

Music technology in the form of a laptop and – often cracked – software has opened up production to most of the world’s population.

With this democratization has come some demystifying of the music making process and a plethora of freely available releases in digital formats via sites such as Myspace, SoundCloud, BandCamp, etc.

Budding DJ’s no longer need to spend formative years ploughing through crates of vinyl in dusty warehouses to amass a collection worthy of the name.

The music-blogs and file-sharing sites are where most of the ‘digging’ takes place these days. Knowledge once shared over the counters of intimidating record stores can now be garnered from sites such as Discogs, Popsike, Allmusic, etc.

Aspiring DJ’s no longer need to spend formative years practising beat-matching and learning harmonic mixing as new DJ software auto-syncs tracks and works out the key for you.

Even selection skills can be garnered from the internet in the form of perusing DJ charts which proliferate on online stores such as Beatport, Juno, Phonica, etc.

In this new world of easy access to once arcane skills, promoters, distributors and labels have become lost and confused. It has become near impossible to find uniqueness in a scene now so laden with content.

Unable to keep up with the ever-increasing pace of new producers and divergences within multiple dance music genres, consumers and promoters alike mostly settle for ‘representations’ of a scene.

A privileged few DJ’s have worked long and hard to become the ‘representatives’ of this modern dance music scene. In a fragmented culture where confusion reigns, they are the safe bet to fall back on – hence we have a situation where a select few DJ’s headline at every club night and festival with a decent budget.

Without the safety net of the headline representative, paying customers cannot be found in sufficient numbers as ignorance and confusion reigns over expectations from the sheer number of lesser-profile names.

The high fees commanded by the headliners is offset by the large number of DJ’s and live acts willing to fill the remainder of the bill for bare expenses or those who will even pay their own way to gain some profile.

The club and festival format is therefore that of the compilation album. Frontloaded with an expensive high-profile name or two and the remainder filled with cheaply available material the majority know or care little about.

With over-exposure and familiarity comes contempt – especially in an age of blogs, twitter and forums. Just the past few weeks I have read withering criticism aimed towards many high-profile DJ’s that appears to stem from bitterness and envy.

The criticism is mostly unjustified. It takes a certain amount of stamina, determination and sheer will power to travel the world with the stress of security, irregular sleep, the sacrifice of family life, etc – yet still retain the energy and enthusiasm needed to deliver a good performance.

Many paradoxes exist within the dance music scene – not just the most popular DJ’s being the most vilified. Revenue from record sales is at such a level for most producers that releases are often little more than loss-leaders.

Many artists now rely on live shows and DJing to sustain a living. However, it’s obvious that the live circuit has reached it’s capacity, with many club nights and festivals closing due to lack of interest.

Over-booking of the same high-profile names is cited as the main reason for the decline in attendances at these events – but how can we be sure when confusion reigns even over what we expect of DJ’s and live performers?

Misunderstanding of music technology is rampant at present. At one end of the spectrum we have a lot of people assuming that laptop DJ’s do little more than press a few buttons, when infact they are performing something more complex and difficult than spinning with three turntables.

At the other end of the spectrum we have a lot of people assuming laptop DJ’s are doing something extremely complex and difficult when infact they are just pressing a few buttons and pumping their hands in the air.

Nobody really knows what anybody is doing anymore – and I think this is one of the reasons for the anger, confusion and bitterness I read and hear from club-goers and artists alike. But I have little time for such negativity.

Personally, I find all this genuinely exciting! I have been careful just to outline the current situation rather than make any judgments because I am as confused as anybody as to what is going on.

I am excited by technology and tend to be an ‘early-adopter’. I embraced digital DJing very early on – infact I pioneered it - and I have not heard any convincing argument that stands up to scrutiny that it is somehow inferior to the traditional two-decks and mixer approach.

And yet, I still buy vinyl. I still hunt for rare records that have not been released in digital format and I also record for boutique vinyl only labels such as Abstract Forms. My ART label releases in both vinyl and digital formats.

I own a studio with some luxury hi-end analogue gear – yet I’m aware a lot of my music is listened to on small headphones in compressed format.

Paradoxes. Everywhere.

Music technology enables us to manipulate sound in ways previously thought impossible. We can extract separate notes from within a chord and re-arrange them. We can use a plug-in to automatically ride a vocal track instead of relying on a compressor with it’s associate artefacts.

We have loudness maximizers and brickwall limiters to deliver tracks with more average energy than ever before, scale builders and chord memorizers – and yet, the dominant music of the past decade within dance has been minimal house and techno… a genre with a thin sound almost devoid of harmonic or melodic development.

I have never been inspired to make a minimal techno track, but have always incorporated some of it in my DJ sets. With my unique setup, minimal tracks become malleable tools to loop up and layer as added percussion or rhythm tracks.

Minimal is decreasing in popularity – both in it’s pure form and it’s influence as an aesthetic on other genres. Yet it remains popular in its heartland of southern, central and eastern Europe. Along with the recent popularity of ‘ethno-house’, minimal thrives in countries with little or no heritage of dance music’s roots in black American music culture.

Minimal is not concerned with funk or soul – it is more about experimenting with noise and sound. The rhythms are based on machine generated shuffles – as artificially funky as the goat herder and ethno percussion of the ethno-house scene.

Yet, within the same overall scene and often cheek-by-jowl in the clubs, exists the antithesis of this artificial music – artists such as Omar S, Theo Parrish, Moodymann, etc. No wonder the promoters fall back on the tried and trusted representatives when booking the line up.

So, you won’t find much negativity from me as regarding the current dance music scene. Yes, it’s confusing, frustrating, back-stabbing, etc – but ultimately it’s a beautiful adventure into the unknown with a cast of wonderful and weird characters.

A few of us lucky ones were courted by major labels during the ‘noughties’. Artists such as myself and Luke Slater are sort of ‘re-emerging’ from that world back into independence and I know I have learnt a lot from those years beyond skills gained working in top studios with ‘real’ musicians.

Mostly, I’ve learned that the majority of people in this industry just try to do their best and enjoy life with it. There are a few who will screw you over, but it’s easy to get paranoid in this industry and the struggles and competitiveness can be channelled into creativity. At the end of the day – nobody is owed a living just because they make music.

So stop moaning people! Enjoy the confusion! Embrace the technology! Music is life!


slimsk said...

nice piece kirk, respect

(still never see any of your dj sets online.. global record mate ;-))



hehe - I'm still worried about the CPU strain of recording whilst performing a set in Ableton. Especially now I've stacked up the effects on about 8 tracks.

There is a podcast on LWE done in the studio.

Matthew said...

Nice blog!

Any more Beauty Room on the way Kirk? One of my fav albums still on regular rotation.

Matt Phantom

hurf27 said...

Really, objectively, nailled the bizarre current situation on the head there. Spot on Kirk.

Jim said...

very interesting reading kirk all the way from bolivia...

vinyl forever

jim & kerry


@Matt - Beauty Room II almost finished! More news very soon. Meanwhile, two new snippets on our myspace page.

Dayo said...

Briliiant piece (an on point!).



Tom said...

Not a bad piece but be realistic and I'd be more impressed - most of the population have cracked software? I know it's a turn of phrase but still sounds odd to say. Minimal house the dominant music style? Where, your town? Could do with seeing evidence that you pioneered digital DJing, doesn't read well otherwise!

Deixis said...

Excellent read mate, spot on!



@Tom - thx for your comment.

The laptop + cracked software comment was meant to imply that music technology is cheaply accessible to everybody. I think that is quite clear.

MNML house has dominated in the majority of places where there is a significant dance music scene except possibly the UK, US and Japan. ie. countries where dance music has it's roots in black American music.

Yes, I pioneered digital DJing. According to Ableton I was the first DJ to exclusively use their software for DJing back in 2002. I sent them an email to congratulate them on their software and they replied that they weren't aware of anybody else using their software exclusively for this purpose.

Not bragging - just stating fact.

Tom said...

Props for pioneering Ableton DJing, that's very cool.

Although most popular music has its roots in black culture, I'd have to say punk may have played a bigger part in the UK as the film 24 hour party people brilliantly elaborates (it's also hilarious). The people who saw Sex PIstols in Manchester were the ones who pretty much started UK rave culture.

Re: cracked software - okay, that was picky, I knew what you meant. I'm an academic at heart!


@Tom - the origins of rave culture in the Uk is a very different subject.

I was a dedicated clubber at that time and remember it very differently.

No punk influence at all except a DIY ethic - but even that was more a continuation of the warehouse scene than anything punk.

Scott said...

nicely written...

I am thinking, this year I should shoot some video or write some text about how exactly I do a 'live set'. I would like to be able to show people exactly what I am doing, to give them ideas about doing their own setups or just have more of an understanding and appreciation of the entire art.

I'm also going to start giving DJing lessons this year in hopes that I could help pass on the knowledge of the art, inspire youth, and keep vinyl DJing alive. (I have not one thing against digital djing, I just wish to pass on my love of vinyl djing)

This is a great time to be a part of the dance music scene as a DJ, a live artist, a producer, and a mentor.

Cheers Kirk!

KB, said...

"So stop moaning people! Enjoy the confusion! Embrace the technology! Music is life!"

So fucking spot on mate. if only more peeps would get their minds out of hinds..they would be able to enjoy life more..its so short (but that's another discussion..:)

nice one kirk.


Eva said...

Hello Kirk - I like your post a lot and have recently reached a point where I am really thinking about how I want to continue to contribute and have a presence in underground dance music. Sometimes the mission of getting good music out to people seems futile especially recently with all the noise and over saturation. I am starting a dialog on positive solutions for countering mainstream culture if you feel inclined to particpate in the dialog I would love to hear more of your thoughts and happy 2010. And I would love to post a link to your blog on my page because it seems in line with my mission. thx!
~Dj SkyBreaks

Tom said...

Scott, I do this at a youth centre here and it's really good to see people pick up this new tech so quickly. The APC40 has the majority of them sequencing music seamlessly, and they impress themselves enough to stay interested.

I'm making all the planning I did for the studio open source soon, so you can skip the learning curve with financial planning and scheduling. Same goes for anyone else, I'll probably post it at

Kirk, would love to read about your experiences at the time, do you have a post on it?

Paulette said...

Maybe we're entering a new renaissance, where people are djs, producer, writers, runners, bloggers, chess players, all at the same time.

Does beat-matching stimulate your brain enough for you to call it your profession? In my case, it doesn't (yawn).

Nice blog.

Fabio said...

Great reading Kirk and really comforting to start 2010.

I'm 38 and for over twenty years I lived happily with electronic music(as passionate worldwide clubber at the end of
80's and early 90's as a serious music lover and music collector
now after a wedding and 2 children :) ) and yet still find
stimuli for the reasons you mentioned.

I find interesting that in a few years we had minimal and
the rediscovery of deep-house and exploded in the meantime
the dubstep phenomenon and have established various artists from dub-techno area.

Lots of irritating acronyms that confirm however the strong effort of
producers to continue to use this music to convey
emotions and still wider is the audience of listeners.

So I can only agree with you and conclude with
"enjoy the music" in these years of confusion.

PS: Any news about As One realease and what do you think of
the back catalogue archive published by B12 are you thinking to
similar project for your A.R.T. label?



great "article"
i think 2010 - 2020 will be very interesting and a lot of things , unexpected of course will happen , some good things , some bad things too regarding electronic music ...
new genres , new sounds are still likely to pop up , and lines between styles are expected to be blured ...

yes , EDM is trully global and what gather people , whatever their color , race , beliefs are etc ... so i think EDM will become more political and EDM actors will become aware of that fact ...

May there be peace for the next decade ...

Mark Prades

Jeremy Electronic said...

The only argument I have against digital DJ'ing, whether it's via Traktor or Serato, is the same argument I have against live performances involving a laptop: watching someone stare at a screen is just boring. Whether it's controlled via turntables or controllers makes no difference... the laptop screen adds an incomprehensible layer of abstraction to the mix.

Plain vanilla vinyl, especially on more than 2 decks (I'm a devotee to the Mills-camp, or Sven Weisemann if we're talking house), is somehow more direct. The skilled handler becomes akin to a lead guitarist, not simply playing music but performing it. For those attendees who are there to see a SHOW, there is no substitute.

Of course, this is all a non-issue for those who attend clubs/parties without paying attention to whomever's making the music happen...


Hi Jeremy

I'm not sure many people go to a club to 'watch' the DJ. Impossible with some clubs with booths above the dancefloor or on a large stage anyway.

BUT - even then, with the new generation of controllers - such as the Akai APC40, Novation Launchpad, Maschine, etc - I can leave the laptop off to the side and only glance at it momentarily whilst performing.

Compare this to the amount of time a vinyl DJ spends with his back or side to the audience looking in his crates, this is also very boring to look at!

Joe M said...

Damn that was a good read!

Srdic said...

Yep, all this is true with technology and how 'easy' it makes it for a lot of punters to beat & key match etc, but of course it still takes skill to put the right combination of tracks together, and to use effects, errr effectively.

Without pissing in your pocket Kirk your recent LWE 'cast case in point. It sounded oldschool and fresh at the same time. I guess not so smoothed out as a lot of current laptop sets sound.

I love where it's all going find it fascinating. The quantity of crap out there is increasing rapidly, but there is and always will be seams of gold and for me, this is the thrill - finding and mining these seams.

Hell, I'm bloody 48 now, know what I like, but it's really only in the last 5 + years I have become so critically discerning as I have and I think in part it is because technology has forced it. IE either drown in crap or really refine your tastes and seek it out, whilst somehow yet remaining open, to new developments that may emerge, that stroke your passions.

Viva le great music - however it comes I say !

Dirty said...

Interesting read, as usual. balanced and realistic.
Happy New Year BTW, keep in touch..
Rennie Foster

Sleeve Note said...

i'd mention another aspect of dance music: almost everybody moving to Berlin. producers from Paris, London, Canada... every time i read an article it seems they live in Berlin. I mean i love Berlin but what about the local scenes....

dom said...

nice piece matey...


@Sleevenote - producers moving from cities such as London, NY, Paris, etc to Berlin - is simply about financial survival.

Berlin is an incredibly cheap place both for living costs and studio space. Similar to Detroit but for different reasons.

Berlin is giving the world a lesson in how rent controls and sensible re-usage of abandoned industrial sites can ignite creativity.

Most of the successful music software companies are also based in Berlin.

Cities such as London and NY are for the wealthy.

Only producers with trust-funds or wealthy backgrounds can survive for long.

Isabelle said...

great read.


Great column Kirk!


I have30'yrs old and i am a huge fan of the Vinyl and also play on CD'S

Best Regards,


Woz said...

Great read. Much respect ;-)

Stephen said...

I dont think anyone could have summarized the current state of things in music than what you have put down right here. Thank you.


Ka§par said...

Hello Kirk, first of all let me say I know your work very well and all the references you point out to in the article, that relate to stuff you did in the past, I can relate to all.

As to your assertion: yes, I can understand the way you are feeling the dynamic of the situation. But there is a physical reason to the fact vinyl is still around and has been for almost 100 years: it sounds so much better when played in good speakers, than any digital format.

Also, without vinyl it's impossible for new talent to emerge, it'll just get lost and eaten up by the sea of mediocrity and thoughtlessness that characterizes internet free music. Pressing a record shows you care enough to spend money (and lose money) on it, your name only really stands out when there's a record behind your digital release.

As to digital dj'ing: I use traktor for 20%, 30% of the music I play (edits, personal stuff, friend's tracks) but the few times I played the whole set with it, I felt less in control, I couldnt structure the set as easily and think ahead as well as with vinyl. This reflects something I always suspected in straight digital dj's: the set is usually more repetitive and less creative, more linear and overall... a drag.

The quality of the offer and the vagueness of the demand are dropping so, that I am truly very curious as to what will happen. Like you say: nowadays you don't need a vinyl collection - but if you had one, you would know exactly what you where doing (whereas most of the new comers are people with a transitory interest who often get much more attention than they're work's justify).

The problem here is a lack of a self-compensatory system in this industry... that used to be done in part by the investment and dedication that had to be present before the technology cam up... now it's no longer needed, a mere click of a button is enough. That is bound to be either the end of all of this, of the beggining of a new "specialist" set of abilities.


Eric said...

I dropped out of the dance music scene in the early 00's and recently came back into it to find all of my favorite record stores closed and everyone using laptops to DJ. I don't even have CDJs, I have only ever used vinyl.

Regarding the technology I think it can go either way. The software these days can offload a lot of the more mundane tasks that a DJ has to perform (beat matching, etc.) and the net benefit of the software on the set really depends on how the DJ utilizes the extra capacity provided. It can either give the DJ more time to do interesting things or allow them to do a more routine, boring set.

Living in NY I have found that minimal is the predominant style of music here as well. Not necessarily in the clubs but definitely in the parties most of what I hear is minimal. Of course whenever I hear the term "minimal" I think of Robert Hood who's music is very different from what is called "minimal" today.

One DJ friend of mine told me that with the availability of music online now everyone has access to all of the same tracks and the only way to differentiate yourself as a DJ is to play them creatively.

Another friend of mine who recently gave in and bought herself a APC controller said that she thinks that all DJs need to learn on vinyl (or I guess CDJs are largely equivalent) so they know the basics of DJing before they start having the software do all of it for them.

As for me I'll stick with my vinyl. I'm not DJing professionally, I'm just doing it because I love the music.

Anthony Williams said...

As a laptop Dj, I understand your points of view but its not that simple.

It's still not as easy as people would think - even though some beats can be beat matched, it takes some talent to be able to choose the right tunes - no one can do that for you...also you have to have some type of ear - just because two songs are in the same key (sparing a music lesson) they can still clash pretty badly...

used to be afraid that with all the easy tools that the DJ will be commonplace but everybody can't mix still have to take people on a journey.

I tried getting into minimal but its way too boring for a producer/composer it sounds like someone had a two bar loop idea and repeated it for 100 or so measures!!

thanks for the positivity..I still think the true talent will rise to the top and the fakers will fall by the wayside!!!

Francois said...

@ Ka§par

I felt less in control, I couldnt structure the set as easily and think ahead as well as with vinyl. This reflects something I always suspected in straight digital dj's: the set is usually more repetitive and less creative, more linear and overall... a drag.

Sorry you feel this way about digital DJ'ing, but while I agree with you that many if not most people do take the easy road and never even use the tools to their full potential, what you are describing here is the very simple truth that it takes time to migrate and adapt oneself to these new methods of performing. Just the same way it takes a great deal of expertise to make a digital multitrack mix sound as good and kick-ass as one done on an analog console, just because we are using software doesn't mean that there are any shortcuts on the amount of caring and creative techniques you need to adapt to in order to reach an equivalent expressive level of artistry to what probably took you years to achieve with analog media.

While these things are obviously different for everyone, I would argue the opposite, which is that while I have been using Traktor to play all of my gigs exclusively since 2003 (that's seven years) it must have taken at least three or four of them to get completely comfortable with the new performance techniques required, and to develop my own little 'tricks-of-the-trade' which make it that for someone like myself, I truly feel the opposite, that any linear analog media (like vinyl) is truly limiting when it comes to the creative options I have available, which are very much affecting how well I can perform in front of an audience.

In other words, and while respecting individual preferences, I would venture that you may not have really developed enough familiarity with Traktor to make it 'second nature' and stay focused on the creative side of it, rather than worrying about basic tasks, as any of us were when we first started with it. (I could be wrong with this, as I don't know what level of experience you may have with it)

Bearing in mind that when compared to Ableton's way of keeping tempo steady, Traktor functions in a much more organic manner, in that you can still turn 'Master Tempo' off, and play songs are they were meant to be, rather than warped and made to match. (I am aware that Ableton also allows warping to be disabled, but this makes it impossible to DJ mix, whereas Traktor still allows a DJ to mix as they are used to, with quantize and 'snap-to-grid' set to 'off')

Anyway, again... the idea of saying digital DJ tools making for a less structured and coherent presentation do suggest that the person who writes this has a great deal more to discover and to adapt to, in order to fully utilize all of the amazing creative options offered for real-time performance.

No one said it would be easy. Let's abandon stereotypical ready-made answers which are most times merely a reflection of our admission that learning performance techniques takes years of hard work, and that just because the tools have changed doesn't make it any less difficult to turn a stellar performance, as others would argue that it is up to the operator to step up to the challenge and show their inspired command of such instruments to better dazzle the audiences they were hired to play for, rather than making excuses for lack of preparation and not having developed innovative ways to use these new tools to their full creative extent.

Not everyone wants to do that, and I can very much respect that many will be content to let records play as they were originally made, but I suspect that the new generation of clubbers who appreciate this may be increasingly dwindling in numbers, opting to instead favor those DJs who 'perform' a song and make it theirs, with all of the exciting, real-time feel of a live concert, never to repeat again.

Dave Smith said...

Hi Kirk,
A very interesting article. Kind of reminds me of Coldcut's comments sometime ago in which they predicted that the DJ will not just spin tunes but also have more creative control over the whole clubbing experience. I have used Serato for 2 years now and it has offered me flexibility in what I play combining with my love for vinyl feel. Serato's new update will also include a bridge to Ableton which further expands creative possibilities of DJing in ways that have not been seen before. I play mainly house parties at the moment and there is still something great about spinning vinyl infront of others :) Dave