SF Music Tech: More About the Business, but the Music Lives On.
SF Music Tech is a conference in its eleventh year, that brings together musicians, developers, educators, businessmen and tech geeks from across the musical spectrum. These people are gathered together to discuss, predict, and in some cases show the direction of the digital music world in the next few years. I found that a lot of the attendees were more concerned with new ways of discovering and marketing music, than with making or performing music, but as an independent musician, I need to be involved in this aspect of the modern music as much as I need to be involved in the creation of new music. If you are interested in hearing the panels from this year’s summit, they are all available for streaming HERE.
There are many events throughout the week. Including the very inspiring Music Hack Day on Wednesday, and a huge amount of presentations on Tuesday, so it was impossible for me to make it to everything. I did try to make it to the panels that seemed most interesting to me as a performer, producer of music, and controllerist. Notably, Ean Golden and Mad Zach’s discussion and demonstration on controllerism. Of course that’s not to say other panels were not enlightening and interesting. I noticed some parallels between the philosophy on developing new tools and techniques for marketing, sharing and listening to music, and the development of new musical practices both in the studio and on stage. I sat in on a panel consisting of Mike Masnick from TechDirt, Mike McGerary from Engine Advocacy, and Zoe Keating an independent artist that knows how to be successful in a niche market. She stated (and I paraphrase) “New media needs new creators, and new music demands new approaches”. I think this is a mantra that, we, as controllerists, all carry to some degree, but most of us haven’t put it in such an elegant phrase.
The panel on Controllerism, led by Ean Golden, the founder of djtechtools.com started with the statement of “We All Hit Play”, in reference to the now famous blog post. Of course we all hit play, but the difference is in how many times we do it.
Some may just hit play once, or at the start of each song. Others may be hitting play hundreds of time in the course of one track. With a sample based way of performance, we are just hitting play a bunch of times in a musically interesting way. This brings new challenges and opportunities for the presentation of music. As Ed Goldfrab said during his demonstration of the Continuum, (I dug into the audio archives from 2011 for some of these quotes, which I think are still highly applicable a year later), “When there’s a real moment of panic…that’s when your real artistry is going to come out.” The word panic may be unfamiliar with a lot of today’s electronic performers. The tendency has been to take chance, panic, human error, and simultaneously musicality out of the performance of electronic music. Geert Bevin said while demonstrating the Eigenharp, “There’s always this element of chaos…of personal interpretation.” It occurred to me that there isn’t always an element of panic in electronic performance. It seems to be getting forgotten, overlooked, or ignored. There are many artists out there that don’t wish to ignore the chaos, but to embrace and attempt to control it. I think that is our duty. And it is one that we shouldn’t take lightly. As Roger Linn said, he wants to “let the beautiful and expressive qualities of music survive”. I think that in an ideal world, all musicians would pursue that goal.
Even Mad Zach’s performance, which Ean describes as “totally off the grid” (and can be heard HERE), is still a performance that is very prepared. All the sounds were created in a studio environment, and mixed to play nice with each other. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with that approach. My own performances use loops (a lot of loops), and choosing when to use loops, and one shots is something that I struggle with every time I prepare a track for live performance. Too many loops, and you loose freedom of expression. Too few loops, and your performance might not be able to accurately reproduce the original musical idea. “We can sit down and do an almost jazz-style, fully improvised EDM-like performance.” I think Ean is using the words jazz and improvised pretty loosely and without proper disclaimers. I enjoyed Zach’s performance and think that he is exhibiting some fantastic ideas and musicianship, but I don’t really agree with throwing these comparisons around, and I don’t think they are very useful. We should be calling it what it is.
This doesn’t even approach a fully improvised performance due to the amount of preparation, and material that is fixed to some degree or another. Again, I see nothing wrong with this, but comparing a sample based performance to jazz, and calling it fully improvised is a bit of a stretch. I don’t think that we should be striving to create a musical form that resembles jazz, we should be trying to create a new musical form. One that has elements of improvisation, chaos and unpredictability but still takes advantage of the unlimited sound palette and ability to orchestrate complex arrangements as solo artists in a live setting.
One other panel that will hit close to home for most of us in the Controllerism community was the panel on EDM. I am sure that most of us produce something that we could put under that umbrella term, and that most of us are involved with the EDM community in one way or another. Something that really stood out to me was the fact that “anyone can DJ now”. With technology where it’s at, we can all accept this statement as true, at least to some degree. Of course anyone can DJ, but there a lot of electronic musicians who don’t want to DJ, they want to create their own art, and create their own way of performing their art. The fact that the market is so inundated with music, because “anyone can do it” it makes it harder for us to rise to the top and be noticed. I think that performing is the one ace that we have up our sleeve as Controllerists. We want to perform, engage with an audience, and work our asses off on stage to provide an interesting musical performance, not just a dance-worthy musical presentation.
Alexis Giles, from DJZ has a good point, “There is difference between a Dj, who is playing someone else’s music, but most of these guys are playing their own music….Doing things on the fly, the same way someone might strum a guitar, people can’t get their heads around that unfortunately.” This is huge to me. The fact that there is no standardized way of performing with a computer and the plethora of control options available to us makes it difficult for us to make immediate impact as a performing musician on the audience. Eventually, seeing an electronic performance will be familiar to most audiences, but that time has not yet come.
The Music Tech Summit was a good experience, despite most of the information being geared towards the business side of things. I was able to take away a great deal of philosophy about performing electronic music. I was also a little discouraged about the state of electronic music performance in general. I don’t see any big shift in the mainstream acts to embrace musical performance, but they will continue pressing play and creating huge spectacles of the concert experience. But then again, I don’t write mainstream music, and I am sure most of the people reading this don’t either. The community of Controllerists continues to grow, and there are artists who are doing great things in electronic music performance.
All we can do is keep creating new ways to perform, and continue to get better at what we do .