Why PLUR is part of the problem

On the surface it sounds great, an idyllic call to the masses: Peace, Love, Unity, Respect. It was, in part, a response to the hammering the underground/rave scene was receiving from the media and government in the late 90’s. Parties were being shut down with extreme force, DJ’s were being arrested, the RAVE ACT was threatening to destroy everything we had worked so hard to build, and the media was fanning those fires. PLUR was meant as a flower in the gun of all the misconception and hatred aimed towards the culture.

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By the turn of the Millennium the small candy kid based movement started gaining traction and went from joke fodder to one of the most commonly used phrases within dance music culture. While it may have originally had the pure and innocent intentions of creating a utopian environment it has instead become a gateway for the apathy that plagues the culture. Further, it has opened the doors to those that demean and destroy the quality and meaning of the electronic music world. I am speaking specifically of the ‘unity’ portion of the concept.

As a generic concept unity is fantastic, the idea of the music bringing people of all backgrounds together by way of a common ground is admirable. But when we start to examine the kinds of people that have been ‘unified’ into the culture, we see that the music and culture did not change them for the better as was intended, but rather they changed the music and culture for the worse. This is not a unique phenomenon, history is littered with various cultures and peoples opening their arms to newcomers only to be slaughtered by those very people that they were welcoming. It really is ok to not want some kinds of people in our culture.

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Had we been a little more xenophobic we wouldn’t have news alerts like Paris Hilton securing an Ibiza residency, or SFX buying up every promoter they can with the philosophy that (and I quote) “…it’s not really based on dance music, as much as the event.” Had we been a little more discerning we wouldn’t have a saturation of mediocre talent that cares more about money than art and craft, little kids running around in their underwear more concerned with how many people pay attention to them rather than actually dancing, or end up being asked to pay ridiculous sums of money to hear posers auto-play and/or sync the same five songs all night.

Sadly, because we trusted that the music could and would enlighten everyone the way that it did us, we have allowed our culture to be bombarded with douches and sluts who have created a world where the music is no longer the important part of dance music culture.  Maybe the U should have stood for ‘Underground’ or ‘Understanding’ because ‘Unity’ didn’t do us any favors.

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Where Avicii went wrong

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Avicii recently came under fire after premiering some new music from his upcoming album during his set at Ultra Music Festival (UMF). Many complained it was an awkward and confusing session of country rock. Ultimately, it was by large not received well and it prompted him to respond to the criticism via his Facebook page. Defending himself, he claimed that people didn’t understand and that his upcoming album is not ‘country’ but rather “something fun and different” and that it is about “experimentation and about showing the endless possibilities of house and electronic music.” Did he make a career-killing move as many suggest, or is he right and people just aren’t getting it? Let’s examine.

Avicii went wrong overall thinking he could go experimental after entering the industry via the Pop market. He speaks of staying true to his sound, which if was the case, he shouldn’t have tried to experiment. The Top-40 of any genre isn’t generally known for it’s uniqueness, but rather for the tried and tested mainstream sounds. Experimental sounds are just that, they brave new waters, push something forward that hasn’t had mainstream exposure. UMF is a Top-40 dance music event, not exactly the best venue for something that isn’t mainstream. He would have been better off taking any experimentation to the Winter Music Conference pool parties, which historically are a good source to discover new sounds, ideas, and talent.

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Avicii made the mistake that many people make these days, thinking that if it is dance music it automatically falls to the underground. Long gone are those days. Dance music, for better or worse, has entered the mainstream. There is still plenty of underground music within the culture, but nothing that I have heard Avicii make would fall into the category. He entered the dance music industry consciousness through the mainstream, and he will need to stay there if he expects to keep the number of fans he has become accustomed to.

People, by large, are resistant to change. Expecting them to be open-minded and capable of adapting to something they didn’t expect is an oft-made mistake. Avicii went wrong in thinking that people who spent a ton of money to see a Top-40 show would be open to something they didn’t expect. Had he previously spent some time in his career demonstrating an experimental side, or even producing a variety of styles, his attempts might have been better received. Instead, he built his name upon a single sound/style and that is what people now expect from him.

Ultimately I applaud him for thinking outside the box, I hope he continues to embrace the experimental, we could definitely use more of it to prevent the inevitable failure of the scene we are currently facing. But seriously, Avicii, you have built your fans from the mainstream, kiss them good-bye if you step out.

P.S. – Another common mistake that Avicii made, which is a bit of a pet peeve, just because your music is 4/4, don’t automatically call it House. Avicii, more power to you, but your music is not House.

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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.

Taking the message to the dance floor, fakers beware

Want to join the fight against the DJs and producers that fake the funk but aren’t quite sure how you can help? Now you can join the cause and spread the message just by playing a song. I know it’s a bit self-gratuitous, but fellow producer and real art enthusiast Rob Nutek and I did a song on 7Stars Music with the cause in mind. In our response to a certain “h8ers” release, we call out all fakers and give DJ Sneak a proper shout out for heading up the charge. Check it out and join the cause along with other supporters like heavy hitters Roger Sanchez and DJ Sneak. Stay tuned for an amazing remix package as well.

Get it on Beatport!

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Long time dance music veterans Rob Nutek and Sean Ray have teamed up again to give life to a dance floor monster with a message in their “FAK3RS” song on Seven Stars Music. Aside from the undeniable groove, the lyrics address some of the current rumblings in the scene involving the calling out of various artists for faking their performances.

Sean Ray who is no quiet voice on the matter, runs the very popular notyourjukebox.com, which is dedicated to keeping art as the focus of dance culture. “When Rob approached me to collaborate on this track,” explains Sean, “It was a no brainer. Of course I wanted to put a beat to a message for which I’ve been fighting for years.”

No one ever mistakes where Rob Nutek stands on the issue, as he too has been a champion of keeping things real. “DJ Sneak put a huge voice to what many of us have been saying for years. He helped people to pay attention and listen, now it’s our turn.”Rob and Sean work together to produce both a powerful track and a powerful message. Don’t them catch you faking it lest you find them on the receiving end of their cause.

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.

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.