Dumbing down music, one location at a time

Unsurprising news, DJ Shadow was kicked off the decks at Miami nightclub Mansion for playing music described as “too confusing”. Yes, this is the same place that kicked Dennis Ferrer off the decks for not playing “commercial enough”. While some will defend the move claiming that the promoter shouldn’t have booked him at a top-40 club to begin with (and there is some truth to that), or that DJ Shadow should have adapted to the crowd, or that this is simply the nature of the game in today’s music industry; in reality it calls attention to a much bigger problem. Dance music is being dumbed down.

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Every genre of music has its share of crap flooding its respective market. As electronic/dance music finds its way to the mainstream, however, our culture is seeing an unprecedented flood of sophomoric tunes unlike any other genre of music. Naturally there are many factors for this. Music creation has never been as easy, cheap, or convenient as it is today. Anyone with a computer and a little Internet savvy can find the software to make a rudimentary piece. With the plethora of musical templates out there, making a “song” can be as easy as selecting which preselected sounds you want to plug in,  sometimes even easier than that. Further, once your masterpiece song is finished, it doesn’t take much effort to find a label to get your song up on music distribution sites, or even do it yourself. Music has become a volume business and the industry favors quantity over quality.

With push button production methods along side push button DJ options, it is no wonder that many seek dance music as the route for a quick buck and 15 minutes of fame. Make something easily accessible to the masses, easily consumed, throw some money behind it, create as many opportunities for repetition as possible so that people become accustomed to hearing it and boom, hit track. That’s not to say that this formula is how every song becomes a hit, some actually make it to the top because they are legitimately good. But let’s be realistic, that is becoming more and more rare. It has gotten so bad that people constantly scramble to new sounds en masse just because they are new, trying to feed their desire for something more meaningful, never truly realizing what they are actually hungry for. No matter what wrapping you put on a rice cake, you’ll never find yourself satisfied.

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While there will always be those that appreciate and push for the more complex and heady sounds, sadly, those people are clearly out numbered in today’s culture. Even what is left of the underground environment is buckling to the pressure of playing the more accessible sounds for the sake of the numbers game. So who cares? Anybody who sees the value of this music as an art form. Anybody who wants to see our music have any continued longevity. We applaud DJ Shadow for taking a stand and maintaining artistic integrity, not only for himself, but for all of us.

The sad part in all of this is that you can make art and money at the same time. If more people understood and valued that concept, we would not reward the people who flood the market with an inferior product. Less formulaic sound-a-likes, and more sounds from the heart please. I am not naive in all of this, nor am I unrealistic. I know there will always be those that just want to get drunk, listen to a jukebox, and play the mating games. I also know that just because something is called art doesn’t mean it is good, but neither does a song’s popularity. I just want to encourage as many people as possible who see a better path for our music to push harder. I want the consumers of music to challenge themselves and see past the easily consumed, develop your palate. Let’s all have artistic integrity, no matter what sound drives us.

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What antics ultimately get you…

Feel free to post any antic fails in the comments, I know there are a lot.

Trying to defy physics and nature generally doesn’t work out.

 

Maybe less jumping and more mixing?

The sync button strikes again

Pioneer recently announced their new CDJ-2000nexus which, not only adds a lot of new (if not gimmicky) features to its industry standard player, but also adds the ever controversial sync button. CDJs have now officially bridged the gap between traditional hardware technology and current DJ software and controller technology.

To sync or not to something something

For those of you living under a rock, one of the biggest beefs CD-jockeys have towards software/laptop-jockeys is the availability of the sync button which allows for one-click beat matching. CD-jockeys cite (often unknowingly ironically) that they are keeping it ‘real’ by not using this automation and relying on skill and art to mix tracks. Meanwhile software-jockeys claim (ignorantly so) that beat matching isn’t really a skill, that the sync button is just a tool that opens them up to be more artistic in other areas that actually matter, and that if you don’t like it don’t use it. Vinyl-jockeys just shake their heads at everyone. So who is right?

First, I think it is important to clarify the huge difference between getting two songs to be at the same tempo for a 16 count transition and riding the pitch in order to keep two or more songs sync’d up for several minutes. The latter takes a tremendous amount of skill and practice over the former. Not to mention the fact that how the artist approaches this task will give create a unique sound and style. Automating this process removes the human element and creates a more sterile feel and experience. Proponents of the sync button argue that beat matching isn’t really an art to begin with and is only a minor part of the DJ process at best, citing that selection, presentation, and other qualities are the true art form. This isn’t quite correct as they are all components of a bigger picture. You can pull out and focus on several aspects of DJing and defy that they have any artistic quality when in actuality it’s how they all fit together as a whole. It’s like saying the stroke of a paintbrush is just a quantifiable ratio of force and requires no real skill and has no real bearing on a painting. If we were to automate the brush stroke process of a painter we would reduce the artistic quality considerably, despite the fact the artist still having to know the placement and kinds of paints used.

Yes, automating the beat matching process saves time and can allow one to focus on other forms of expression, but at what cost? If someone is doing their own beat matching and are able to do these other tasks, isn’t there a higher artistic value? Does a painting with automated brush strokes have a higher or lower artistic value than a hand painted one? There is value in effort alone, the doing something in a way that is the unique result of that manual labor itself.

The “don’t like it then don’t use it” argument

“Keep up with the times, besides, if you don’t like the sync button you don’t have to use it.”  A common argument that sounds fairly straight forward, but like much else in life, there is a deeper issue.  DJing and dance culture as a whole are already saturated fields where quality is being replaced by quantity in every aspect. Making tasks easier at the expense of artistic expression and skill only makes things worse. There isn’t much quality control going on to begin with, so how many more overpriced headliners that are faking their way on stage do we have to endure? Why are we making it easier to flood our lives with the mediocre? I’ve always been a proponent of art over convenience and this is no different. Even acknowledging that a some people will use the sync button to expand other artistic areas (and I suspect people profoundly overestimate this number) the flood of people using the sync button to achieve status as bookable is just not worth it. Even those of you concerned with money over art should at the very least be concerned for this reason alone as a flooded market drives prices down.

Realistically, love it or hate it, it seems the sync button is here to stay. With any luck however, we can shame people away from using it and keep the art alive and well in what we do.

Don’t be a dance scene dick, yes this means you

While we all eagerly await DJ Sneak to point out the next batch of fakers to take cause against, I thought it would be a good time to point out some easy things everyone can avoid doing that will ultimately improve our scene.

Headlining DJs

Don’t be dicks. Yes, we know that the night is all about you, that you are being paid well, and that you think you are the rockstar. Even assuming that you are there as a result of hard work and talent and not money and circumstance, you are not a god. Every day that you are still relevant should be spent thanking one not acting like one. Keep your ego in check and remember that just because your name is at the top of the list of talent doesn’t mean manners cease to exist. Also, cool it with the crazy artist riders. You are already charging an arm and a leg, you could at least buy your own damn booze, inflatable boats, and blueberry infused water from some island of which no one has ever heard.

Opening/Supporting DJs

You are not the main event, this is not your big break, the night is not about you. Get over yourself. You may very well be a better, harder working, and more lovable DJ than the headliner, but the gig isn’t centered around you so stop with the attitude. You are in a supporting role, your job for the night is to support, so support. Don’t be a dick and play a set like you are in the headlining slot. If you don’t have music for a supporting role, or that isn’t the music you play, don’t accept the job. The headliner shouldn’t have to clean up your mess, they should be able to play what they came to play, you should lead the crowd into it. Go get headlining gigs if you think you deserve them. Until then, support.

Female DJs

You have it tough, you really do. We all know this is a male dominated scene so don’t be dicks to other female DJs by using sex to sell yourself. If you can’t get gigs because of your talent and hustle, your tits and ass shouldn’t be your back-up plan. It demeans your gender, it makes you look like a cheap slut, and it keeps people from taking female DJs seriously. Be sexy, be proud, but keep it about art and talent behind the decks. Go do an “art” film if you feel the need to exploit yourself.

Promoters

Your job is to create an experience and to get people to that experience. Do your job. Don’t be a dick and expect everyone else, i.e. the DJ, to do your job. If you are booking DJs based purely on how many people you think they will bring, and expecting “sub-promoters” to bring the bulk of the crowd, you are redundant and an unnecessary cost to the people. Know what the DJs you are booking play, what they are capable of, and then give them time slots appropriate to the overall arch of the night you’ve designed. This will highlight the headliner you are “over-paying and didn’t even draw that much of a crowd” which will make for a better night and people will feel better about how much you overcharged them.

Venue Owners/Managers

Let the people you hired do their job. If you don’t like what they are doing, then don’t hire them again. Don’t be a dick and start telling everyone how to do their job, especially if you have never done that job yourself. You just be cool, tell all the girls you own the place, and spend your profits up your nose like your master life plan dictates. If you do anything, do quality control, make sure the people you have hired are providing a good environment for the people you are overcharging for beverages.

Go-Go Dancers

Let me start off by saying, girls, I love you. I really do. You are fun, pretty, and full of great energy. But stop being dicks. You aren’t performers, quit calling yourself that. Unless you are the 3% that actually choreograph a routine or are a part of a choreographed routine you aren’t performing anything. Quit thinking people are coming specifically to see you dance (even the ones that tell you they are, are lying). If you think you are anything more than eye candy, try to be a go-go dancer at 40. Have fun, be half-naked, but leave the delusions of grandeur at home.

Attendees

There really is no scene without you, but don’t be dicks. Don’t come up to the booth to make requests, don’t waive your phone around to make requests, don’t try to use some tired old line you think you just invented to make a request. Just don’t make a request. If the DJ is the kind of DJ that takes requests, you can be sure he will let you know. If they don’t, just let them do their job. Even if they are the worst DJ you’ve ever heard they are the one working, not you. Also, yes, you will know about music they don’t, don’t be a dick and start acting all superior about how you can’t believe they have never heard of this track before and how “everyone” knows about this song, it’s not a competition, just go dance.

If you or anyone you know suffers from any of these behaviors you have my permission to take a rolled up newspaper and smack yourself or them on the nose with a firm, “NO!”

Lesson two

Fads end, talent remains.

 

 

Are DJs artists?

In light of recent challenges to various dance music performers’ abilities (term used lightly, see Why old-school DJs are complaining), it has been demonstrated that there is still quite a bit of misunderstanding as to what a DJ does, should do, and how to tell the difference between the skilled and unskilled. I think this merits a bit of examination, as do these topics when applied to producers.

The good, the bad, the jukebox

Some argue that all a DJ need do is play whatever the crowd wants and make them dance. This view is clearly held by certain groups, who say, buy bottle service and feel DJs like Mark Farina, Dennis Ferrer, and Calvin Harris should be thrown off the decks when they don’t hear what they want, when they want and how they want. Let’s call this crowd the ‘crybaby douchebag’ group for short. Crybaby douchebags consider the DJ their personal jukebox. There are plenty of DJs that make a living as a jukebox, focusing on playing the top hits and playing requests, I have nothing against them personally, but let’s keep the perspective clear. As this action can be fully automated by a mechanized jukebox, this brand of DJ really is at the bottom of the artistic spectrum. In fact, being a living jukebox can hardly be considered a DJ in the modern sense, but for sake of argument we can call this a DJ by technical standards, or ‘jukebox’ for short. Crybaby douchebags generally have this definition in mind when they think of the word DJ.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is much more artistry and creativity involved. At the artistic top end, DJs can really be considered musicians, live remixers, and live producers as they take sounds, layer them, program them, and present them in such a way that it becomes something entirely new from the original pieces used. The original songs are used like instruments in a orchestra, they cease to be ‘just playing other people’s music’. They can take a song and make it a hit, they can take noises and turn it into music, they can make you dance when they want to, and make you stop and think when they want to. There is often a message and a purposeful idea in their sound, there is a creation of a new song by connecting disconnected pieces. DJs on this end of the spectrum are artists.

Now I know there is a natural tendency to cry out that art is subjective. Yes, there is quite a bit of subjectivity, mostly on the receiver’s end in terms of whether you like it or not. There is however, quite a bit of objectivity as well. For example, you can’t drop a book on the ground and call it a painting. Nor could you call yourself an artist after filling in a paint by numbers piece, or in DJ terms, playing a pre-recorded set that was put together using computer automation to arrange and mix it for you. There has to be a certain amount of manual labor, purpose, effort, and representation for something to be considered art. I know a lot of people are going to cry about how I am professing an anti-technology stance and I’m not keep up with the times, blah blah. I am not anti-tech, I embrace it, I use it, but I use it to enhance my art, not to increase convenience. I am anti-convenience at the price of artistic vision and intent. That isn’t to say that tech can’t create new opportunities for artistic expression, but like I always ask, are you pressing start or creating art? Are you just playing other people’s music, or are you re-imagining it and creating something new with purpose and a message?

There are a lot of elements that come into play between the spectrum of jukebox and artist, each having a different level of value based on its difficulty to perform manually and live. For example, beat matching is an element of the art, but of lesser value than say, beat-juggling which requires much more effort and skill to do well. Good programming is essential for an artistic DJ, but pre-programming a set is of less value than being able to program on the fly and adapt to the moods of the crowd in front of you. A good place to start when you are evaluating where in the artistic spectrum a DJ is, is to ask yourself, are they creating something new with the songs/sounds they are playing and are they doing it themselves or is it automated? A DJ that does live what a DJ does automated or pre-programmed, is just artistically better. Now if you don’t care about art, just money, then none of this need apply to you. But believe it or not, there are a lot of people that care about art over money. I also think people should be rewarded for the pursuit of art over the pursuit of money (see Hate vs Education). What would you rather pay for, the paint by numbers piece or for the same (or even a lesser) dollar amount get an original piece of art?

Not all producers are artists

Just as there has been a recent saturation of DJs, so has there been of people creating dance music. Just as there is a spectrum of artistic value for DJs, there is also one for producers, in fact they share many of the same elements. A producer on the bottom end of the spectrum takes pre-made loops, samples, and synth presets, slaps them together and calls it a song when really it is more of an extended loop. We can call these ‘drag and drop producers’ for short. On the other end of the spectrum; thought, representation, structured pieces, carved sounds, layers, arrangement, purpose, original sounds and note composition are key elements of work found on the artistic end of the spectrum. These are ‘electronic musicians/artists’. Some of them even play traditional instruments, truly making them artists in a classical sense.

There is also a difference in artistic value between a producer that can make music in a studio and then play it for a crowd and a producer that can write music in a studio then perform it live. Certain producers may make crowd pleasing music in a studio, but others of a higher artistic caliber can please crowds while creating and performing that music live. Live, manual efforts that have a higher difficultly of skill to carry out and that are performed well always have higher artistic value than automated and pre-recorded efforts. Just because the masses like it doesn’t make it art, but to be fair, just because it’s art doesn’t mean people should like it.

And just to be especially clear on the matter, if you are creating a “mash-up” of two or more songs, don’t kid yourself into thinking you are a producer. At best you are a pre-recorded DJ which would put you near or even below the ranking of jukebox as you aren’t even doing the most basic of DJ tasks, mixing, live.

DJ vs Producer

There has also been some recent dialogue of some producers calling DJs middlemen, and DJs calling producers hacks and sellouts. The truth of the matter is that DJs and producers need each other. Producers make the music that DJs play; DJs help get that music to the people. There is a natural symbiosis, whether or not you are making and playing the music yourself.

Can’t we all just get along? No. Nor should we, DJs that pursue artistic goals should support producers that seek artistic goals and vice versa. Let’s all work to push the artistic end of the music spectrum further and further from the jukebox and the drag and drop end. Let’s make millions off of art, not convenience and hype. Let’s give the people something meaningful and beautiful and not just fill their lives with more and more inferior products led by profit margins. Art over convenience. Let’s be amazing together.

Do your homework

If you are still skeptical that DJs are or can be artists, check out any one of these guys (keeping in mind this is a very short and incomplete list of artistic DJs, in no particular order) and compare them to your average top 40 jukebox:

John Digweed
Z-Trip
Jeff Mills
X-ecutioners
Sasha
Mark Farina
DJ Shadow
RJD2
Cashmere/Green Velvet
Richie Hawtin/Plastikman
Josh Wink
Deep Dish
DJ Swamp
DJ Sneak
Chuck Love
Q-Bert
Colette
Frankie Knuckles
Juan Atkins
Derrick May
Carl Cox
R.A.W.
Terry Mullen
Jo-S
Nick Warren
Ralphi Rosario
DJ Dan
Stanton Warriors
Doc Martin
Sven Vath
DJ Heather
Barry Weaver
Norman Cook/Fat Boy Slim
Armin van Buuren
Pendulum
Bad Company
Frankie Bones
James Zabiela
Jazzy Jeff
Mixmaster Mike
Kool Herc
And countless other artists.