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.
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!