Why Play Live? – Controllerism as a new live standard
A lot of the tracks I produce are designed to also be performed live or recreated using my controller rig. So instead of pressing play and letting the tracks flow, I create controllerism routines out of them. The best example of this is my Live Dubstep Controllerism video, where I chopped the separate instruments and vocals of my track “Waking Up” into tiny bits and then practiced reassembling them into a song, with no quantization or other time adjustments.
My friends sometimes ask me why I don’t use loops that I could just trigger and make my life easier. Or just play the full tracks altogether, since most of the audience won’t be able to tell whether or not I create completely new productions on the spot. I mean, that’s what deadmau5 used to insinuate that he did before his infamous “we all press play.” post, by bashing all DJs as a rule and other such comments.
I can’t remember where I read this (probably somewhere around here), but someone very adequately said that it’s to do with a clash between club culture, or DJ culture and band culture. In DJ culture, people go to shows expecting to dance and have fun rather than watch the DJ “perform”. The way in which the music is delivered doesn’t matter as much as the music itself, hence the accent on track selection and the ability to keep a set going indefinitely, rather than on performance. In band culture, you go to a show in order to watch the band perform. With the rise of EDM in recent years, as well as the context of the turntablism movement (where a performer creates new music with his tools, like any musician), the two cultures have started clashing, and expectations appropriate for one are being thrust upon the other. A good example of this is the subject of this post: musicians expecting DJs and producers to play live.
The thing is, I come from band culture. My first gig was in 2005, playing guitar for a metal band. I’ve gotten so used to this type of live energy and approach to live events that I couldn’t press play even if I wanted to. I’d always feel the need to play something over the track or modify it in some way that it’s never exactly the same every time I play it. I’m used to people watching my hands and seeing the correlation between what I’m doing and the sounds coming out of the amp. Now that I make electronic music there are significantly less people doing that, but I still feel the need to create my music live rather than play an MP3 of it.
There are advantages to this.
I can change any track and switch bits of it around if I feel like it. I can create completely new tracks out of thin air, live, reacting to the audience the way I see fit. The thing is, I’d feel like I’m cheating if I did otherwise. Not to say that all those other people not doing this are cheating, just that I would.
It’s a huge responsibility for a live show, and the hardest approach to live performance there is, in my honest opinion. If I screw up live, I screw up big time and everyone notices. There are no bandmates to lean on, and no tracks to quickly slam into the mix. It’s basically one huge solo, where I’m playing all the instruments, and to be honest, that’s just the way I like it, both because it helps my ego and because of the creative challenges it helps me overcome.
So it’s very good news to me to notice that the music performance world nowadays is heading in such a direction as to make this approach easier. With Ableton Live 9 and Push coming out, as well as Maschine and other existing tools, and rapidly rising artists like Madeon promoting them, it’s becoming way easier for people willing to do this to perform live, rather than take the easy route and press play. I know producers work their butt off creating tracks and feel that playing mp3s of their tracks is perfectly legitimate (it is), but why not go the extra mile and chop them up for live performance as well? It’s getting easier and easier to do this, after all. The huge number of hardware and software tools at our disposal on the market could adjust almost any possible workflow, and if they don’t, you can always make your own.
Finishing the band culture vs DJ culture point, the fact is that the two are starting to merge. Aside from DJs, which have a pre-determined role of choosing music for events instead of performing it, producers playing their own tracks have all the reasons in the world to add live elements to their sets. Otherwise, with the amount of work being put into light shows and non-musical elements of live shows, the leading DJ shows in the world have started to look increasingly like if Ridley Scott decided to screen “Prometheus” and hide behind an editing desk pretending to create the movie as it plays on the screen.
The current justification for live shows is that “people gather in one place with loud music and flashing lights to have fun together”. You can listen to Skrillex in any club and have exactly the same experience as if Skrillex were there himself. For that matter, you can go to any cinema and meet all the requirements: loud music, lights and images, lots of people in a dark room enjoying the same thing. In my opinion, the only thing that could possibly justify a live show for some world-famous DJ like Avicii is if that producer would also somehow perform the tracks. That would make it somehow different from show to show, more organic and human, unlike the pre-recorded experience we’re seeing at the moment.
Controllerism needs more promotion (which it seems that it’s fortunately starting to get). There’s always place for the “press-play” producer, but the current ratio between them and actual performers these days is too heavy on one side. There’s a bit of audience education involved here as well, but I long to see the day when there are as many performing producers in the electronic music world as people that press play.
This article has has also appeared on bandesnaci.com.