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EDM's Civil War: Just Press Play?

EDM's Civil War: Just Press Play?

by Derek Robertson (Google+), Photography by Adriano Ferreira Borges, 04 December 2012

Do superstar DJs just press play? It is seemingly the controversy that just won't die; the latest chapter consisting of a very public spat between the BBC, currently the UK's favourite whipping boy, and Scottish DJ/producer Calvin Harris. A recent Newsbeat story alleged that Harris approved of hitting play on pre-recorded segments; he responded by claiming that his quotes were taken completely out of context, and that he was considering legal action. At the time of writing, no-one has blinked; the BBC are standing by the report, a libel writ has yet to be issued.

This ugly stand-off is the most recent flashpoint to erupt from the rumblings of discontent that have been bubbling under EDM's surface all year: friction born of a feeling that certain performers are being less than honest with fans over exactly what they are doing on stage to justify the massive fees some now command. It reminded me of a conversation I had with James Ford and Jas Shaw of Simian Mobile Disco earlier this year about the general state of electronic music, and the direction it was heading in. As an example of the lack of focus on the actual music, they pointed me in the direction of a clip showing millionaire house DJ Steve Aoki launch a full size cake, icing and all, at one particularly enthusiastic fan. Watching it, two thoughts occurred: aside from the wisdom or otherwise of throwing baked goods at people who've paid good money to see you, who's actually controlling the music? Is it pre-programmed? On auto-pilot? A week later, Canadian producer deadmau5 seemed to provide an answer (of sorts). According to him, all too many of EDM's star names –himself included – were taking it easy in the spotlight, simply pushing some buttons and relying on synced, premixed Ableton streams to pump out the same stems that album tracks are built from. So what's going on?

As Simon Reynolds noted this summer, EDM's re-emergence and rise over the last few years has been meteoric, especially in the US. Artists such as Skrillex, David Guetta, Aoki, and, yes, deadmau5, have migrated from the fringe to the mainstream, from tents to the mainstage, even at indie institutions like Coachella. In an era of ever-declining sales, these guys are bucking the trend and selling millions of songs; everyone from Rihanna to Madonna to Justin Bieber has been desperate for a sprinkling of some wub wub stardust. And it's not just the charts that are in thrall to the drop; it's flourishing in clubs, illegal raves and, increasingly, huge, spectacular live shows and festivals. A quick look at this list shows just how lucrative EDM has become, especially when bearing in mind that Skrillex has yet to release an actual album. But what prompted such an outburst from someone at the heart of the scene, especially someone with a vested interest in maintaining its growth? Is he right and, more importantly, if he is, does it matter?

In a world where talent vacuums like Paris Hilton and even Pauly D can become "DJs", the answer to the latter would appear to be a defiant "no". The masses are happy (as ever) to lap up "bangers" by whoever happens to be doing the button pushing - fun times, good vibes, and everyone makes a killing, right? Well, as deadmau5 wryly noted, when something has become "as commercially viable as Coca-Cola" suddenly everyone wants a piece, and those who instigated this dumbed down, race to the bottom are part of the problem, not the solution. Surely it's better to take chances live, to push your skills beyond their comfort zone and not simply regurgitate a louder version of what people already have in iTunes? Live, electronic music is at its best as a journey, a "whole" to be savoured more than its constituent parts, and artists should trust audiences to appreciate what they're attempting and forgive any mistakes. Genuine excitement and unpredictability can make for a thrilling gig; if you don't believe me, make time in your schedule to see what the likes of Daedelus and Mostly Robot are capable of.

So what if David Guetta has giant LED robots with laser guns and flamethrowers? Anyone can blow a quarter of a mil on a light show, but that's not talent. It's the triumph of style over substance and, what's worse, a vicious circle of one-upmanship and a self-fulfilling prophecy of mediocrity. Innovation now only entails bigger guns, more flames, and brighter lights, the visual equivalent of turning it up to 11. By relying on spectacle, they've created their own monster, a situation where these "DJs" can’t be allowed to fail. Now that people expect such extravagant shows, they're never challenged, only pandered to so as to maximise profit with the result that much of EDM - the kind where the cash and the kudos reside - has become as homogenised and bland as the average High Street. The new generation of fans, many of whom have nothing to compare it to, simply want to hear "that tune by that guy off that advert," as if a show was just a louder and brighter pub jukebox.

Ford hit the nail on the head when he labelled such gimmicks as "lowest common denominator stuff". It's the DJ as rock star - front and centre in all their fist-pumping, crowd-surfing, attention-seeking glory - and further proof that music alone no longer sells, only personalities do. That cake, those robots; those are the selling points now, the only concept around which to hang an increasingly dull and identikit sound. I don't doubt these guys' worth as producers and facilitators, but the only thing they're at the vanguard of is increasing their bank balance and self-inflated sense of worth. Even DOOM, who once told Rolling Stone "when you come to a DOOM show, come expecting to hear music, don't come expecting to see," has seemingly resorted to sending along imposters, so unbothered is he by notions of performance.

Mainstream success and what passes for originality rarely sit well together, and it's no surprise that no-one wants to kill the golden goose just yet. Perhaps EDM's practitioners are destined to rehash the same, fundamental arguments over and over again, an unbridgeable divide between those chasing commercial temptations and those who maintain, like Ford and Shaw, that "it's more about the music and the communal experience." deadmau5 may well be correct, he may well be a hypocrite, but he certainly hit a raw nerve; witness Harris' ferocious denials. Whatever's going on behind the decks and banks of equipment, predictable, pedestrian sets have become all too common, the energy that should exist between performer and audience bludgeoned into submission by a million watt blaze of hubris. Seeing something special, something unique, is the fundamental idea behind live performance, and it's time that people were a little more discerning to ensure that we do.

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