It’s easy to dismiss James Murphy, formerly of LCD Soundsystem and now a solo act, producer, and DJ, as a hipster who never grew up. But despite ties to Brooklyn and producing Arcade Fire’s latest album, Murphy has some cogent observations about dance music and DJing that all performers – from the underground to Las Vegas – ought to take note of.
Specifically, when Murphy spoke at the Red Bull Music Academy Couch Sessions at III Points Festival earlier in October, he compared DJing to making a sandwich — therefore, watching him do a set is like seeing him make “200 sandwiches” on stage, he explained – and that the format of modern dance music appeals only to those with short attention spans.
Murphy’s somewhat right in both regards, but he’s not the first one to come out and express these notions. Simian Mobile Disco called electronic music the lowest common denominator for focusing on just one style within a rock concert format, while Boys Noize, in an interview with Gawker last year, described the genre as “dumb” for regularly recycling sounds.
So, even with the producers calling dance music “dumb” and mainstream U.S. news outlets dismissing it as something frat boys have an affinity for, how can the genre appeal to a more intelligent crowd?
More Emphasis on the Music
These days, ragging on the visual aspects of dance music festivals and club shows is easy, especially as every performer seems to come with some sort of display.
Although flashing lights and bright colors might make David Guetta and Swedish House Mafia sound better than they actually are, part of Murphy’s discussion at the Red Bull Music Academy Couch Sessions focused on the pacing. Specifically, DJs these days go through everything too fast, and the audience in response expects one buildup to a drop after another – there’s not an opportunity to actually linger. Murphy told the crowd:
“Because we’re in a time now, with dance music especially, people are being treated as if they’re really dumb and have incredibly gnat-like attention spans and need to just be tickled all the time. The music’s just like, ‘It’s exciting! It’s exciting! It’s exciting! It’s exciting! It’s exciting! Oh, it stopped! It stopped! It stopped! What’s going to happen?! What’s going to happen?! What’s going to happen?! Oh, it’s really quiet! It’s really quiet! It’s really quiet! It’s exciting! It’s exciting! It’s exciting again! They’re jumping up and down. And I’m watching. And it looks like there’s a lot of energy in the room.”
That’s not to say that DJs don’t pace themselves well; the phenomenon is primarily heard in the hour-long festival sets where DJs attempt to get through several tracks and keep the crowd entertained. Instead of hearing the sounds and feeling the changes between beats, listening to a festival set (or even a two-hour club set) feels like a frenetic aural assault. And when a night opens with a traditional DJ, such as Carl Kennedy at All Mixed Up last year, the difference between a DJ gradually progressing through the sounds, carefully considering the builds, and viewing the three-plus hours of organically-moving electronic beats, glitches, and melodies contrasts starkly with the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am of the under two-hour festival set.
Of course, the “get the crowd excited and get it over with” trend extends to visuals – and you can’t deny it. This is partially why Simian Mobile Disco called out Steve Aoki in their 2012 DIY interview: “And it’s just, literally, lowest common denominator stuff. The thing that scares me is that it pushes just one way of appreciating dance music, and that’s as you would a rock concert, but for me that’s missing a lot of the point.”
As Aoki these days is known more for his cake-throwing at shows than actual music and DJing skills (really, if spend your set tossing sheet cakes into the audience, do you have time to beat-match?), Simian Mobile Disco does have a point. But while making a spectacle and a mess has served Aoki well, his antics as a mainstream performer give the vibe that all electronic dance music is about is throwing a party – actual sounds be damned.
Simian Mobile Disco’s solution, according to statements made in their interview, is going back to a show format in which the DJ’s not the entire focus – just the music: “The way a lot of European clubs and festivals operate, where the DJ isn’t necessarily the focus – he could be off in the corner somewhere – it’s more about the music and the communal experience, usually over a longer period of time as well.”
The faster pace of DJ sets gets mirrored in production: With so many tools and plug-ins at a producer’s fingertips, a song – and one that’s possibly a hit – doesn’t require as much effort as it used to. Now that analog gear and sessions musicians aren’t entirely in the picture, all a producer just needs is his computer.
As we observe here, trends for electronic music quickly come and go. According to a piece about retro revival in Attack Magazine, the speed isn’t solely due to the internet and social media’s influence on EDM. Instead, because production goes in cycles, newer generations of producers discover the older sounds, attempt to replicate them, and then may or may not continue from there. In many cases, this gives rise to new sub-subgenres, which quickly disappear when producers move on.
“The cycle for a new sub-genre – or whatever you wanna call them – is so short nowadays because everyone has the capability to replicate it, sometimes in a sub-standard way, so it dies in a matter of months,” explained producer Eats Everything. “Because of the internet and software and stuff, up and coming producers of the day can almost perfectly replicate what their heroes are making, and so real creativity is forever diminishing. It’s easy to become a producer these days, but I think it takes years to become an artist.”
The result, however, of this “bang it out with existing tools” approach is that a good deal of EDM does sound the same, especially a fair amount of hit-making material.
When producing loops back around to DJing, higher-profile performers get caught in the rut of catering to promoters, who expect the hits to be played. “Now it’s at the point where promoters are playing it super safe,” DJ Brandon Moeller told Attack Magazine. “I’ve been asked a number of times, ‘What the f–k are you doing? Can you play some tech house?’ Promoters are not afraid to do that. I’ve heard DJs of significant power being told what to do and this doesn’t help