Deadmau5 might want to take off that mouse head and look around a bit more often.
But give the artist some credit: he’s brutally honest about his own music. In a set entitled “we all hit play,” he has this to say about his own performances: “I think given about 1 hour of instruction, anyone with minimal knowledge of ableton and music tech in general could DO what im doing at a deadmau5 concert.”
we all hit play. [deadmau5 “united we fail” blog]
Not every artist in his position would admit as much, and that’s admirable. He goes on to explain why he makes that decision. The reality is this: it’s not in spite of the massive fees Deadmau5 commands that his performances are so conservative. It’s because of them. With tens of thousands of people ready to hear your tunes the way they sound on the album, you simply can’t afford screw-ups. So, Deadmau5 concerts are largely pre-baked sequences, running SMPTE clock to other devices and lighting, and a lot of visual effects and Deadmau5 pulling off creepy, light-up Jack Skellington-goes-to-a-rave-at-Disneyland chic.
It’s a decent guess that some artist in particular set off this rant. (One reader suggestion: Ean Golden at DJ Tech Tools laments the lack of EDM rock stars, which seems to suggest reader Bas is correct when he says in comments this whole affair is a collision of DJ and band culture.) And when he complains that other big acts aren’t doing much on stage, either, when top-flight DJs are doing pretty predictable, pedestrian sets, I think it’s completely fair.
The problem is, Deadmau5 goes further, extending the reality of his set out to the realities of everyone’s sets, everywhere. It’s as if the universe somehow exists inside that mouse helmet of his.
It’s no secret that the American market has again embraced big music acts in a way that’s racking up dollars, both in live venues and on the charts. Such things seem to be cyclical – electronic sounds ebb and flow in the coveted US music biz. One portent of such things: you start hearing the acronym “EDM” again. With the additional business success, more of the mainstream press shines the spotlight on artists like Deadmau5. (Some of these outlets are, sadly, not as preoccupied as CDM with the latest advances in using JELL-O as a musical instrument.)
Whatever the meaning of that pendulum swing, Deadmau5 seems to have appointed himself spokesperson for the resurgent “EDM scene,” investing faith both in the idea and his own unique ability to speak for everyone else in it.
And so, we get this narrative from Deadmau5:
“let me do you and the rest of the EDM world button pushers who fuckin hate me for telling you how it is, a favor and let you all know how it is.”
And as for the push-play sets:
its no secret. when it comes to “live” performance of EDM… that’s about the most it seems you can do anyway.
Deadmau5 rails against the whole idea of “talent” in playing live, whether for a DJ or live act. As a critique of some acts, it’s fair. But to go as far as to say that it’s not possible to do anything else — that’s too much. The key line is here:
because this whole big “edm” is taking over fad, im not going to let it go thinking that people assume theres a guy on a laptop up there producing new original tracks on the fly. becausje none of the “top dj’s in the world” to my knowledge have. myself included.
A lot of resentment of people in positions of success stems from jealousy. But here’s a reason to truly question Deadmau5, and I think fairly: whether consciously or not, he’s using his success as both a platform and a filter. Whereas some artists use mainstream popularity to champion unknown artists (think Radiohead with Sigur Ros, for instance), Deadmau5 defines the “EDM scene” purely based on success, and then makes pronouncements about everyone else.
Many artists are doing “something special” outside of the studio. There are DJs doing more than just twiddling knobs, configuring elaborate loops that allow them to rework music as they play. There are people scrambling to patch modular synthesizers onstage. There are people who sing or add vocals or instruments, live, over their sets, while still maintaining enough underneath that people can dance. There are people who can play entire techno dance sets, live coding or live patching entire compositions improvisationally. There are artists on instruments like the monome, cutting up patterns as they go. There are controllerists and scratch turntablists, finger-drumming percussionists who toss all the loops and play beats from one-shots, multi-instrumentalists and beatjazz maniacs. And the list goes on.
I saw Deadmau5 at SONAR – and, sorry, while I found his production talent to be as evident as always, I wound up skipping part of a set I found inert, or certainly, to be fair, not my taste. (Simultaneous venues made hopping about desirable.) At that same festival, there was an abundance of live performance and improvisational DJing. Flying Lotus’ live set was vigorously imaginative. Daedelus was dynamic as always, slicing up sounds on his monome. The Native Instruments-sponsored Mostly Robot delivered, as promised, everything live: Jamie Lidell singing live, Mister Jimmy playing keyboards live, DJ Shiftee playing turntables live, Jeremy Ellis playing all the beats from his fingers live, Tim Exile mangling sounds in Reaktor live. Bigger festival acts, too, turned out live and improvisational productions, including Richie Hawtin’s heavily-parameterized Traktor set, which is a bit like being in a 747 cockpit when someone turns off the autopilot. (I mention those examples only because I’m familiar with the specifics of those sets; there are many more.)
All of these people have two things in common. First, people dance to their music. Second, they don’t know what will happen at the beginning of the night. Whatever it is you do, not knowing yourself what will happen can be part of the pleasure of playing.
These performance techniques are not always reliable, or even advisable. Part of the reason some of us seek out smaller venues, crowded clubs and experimental music haunts, is because we’re excited to see stuff break. There’s something thrilling about watching a set on the verge of a meltdown, about seeing someone try something that then really doesn’t work – all for the chance to see someone produce something really new. People wouldn’t gamble at horse tracks if they always won. Somewhere in the repeated agony of defeat, you hone the taste for real victory.
Ironically, unpredictability, the exchange of energy between performer and crowd, is supposed to be part of the legacy of Electronic Dance Music or whatever you want to call it. In these bigger shows, with crowds craving predictability, “EDM” seems to have acquired some of the worst tendencies of “just like on the album” replication that has plagued other acts.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Laptops have still only been capable of playing onstage for a short while. It can still be “The Right Stuff” era of laptop music, in which daredevils risk unlikely and unwise feats of death-defying insanity. Deadmau5 may not see anyone doing “something special” with their laptops live onstage. But a lot of us go out to watch people live in the hopes that we will.
Side note, illustrating that the world is bigger – you can now read about controllerism – erm, Kontroleryzm – in Polish, if you like!
Updated: Some kudos to Deadmau5 – he’s up for a debate and discussion. Within minutes of posting this piece, he recommended it to his fans as a “counterpoint” to his story. And that’s the quite of conversation we like to have. Better to get frank opinions and ideas out there so we can learn something from each other. (Speaking of reliability, though, I’m in the middle of some hardening and load balancing on CDM so that we can be a bit more “reliable as FUCK” and less, “oh, fuck! 1.2 million Deadmau5 Twitter followers just hit the site at once.”)