CMU Weekly Editor's Letter

Editor’s Letter: How live do you need to be?

By | Published on Friday 29 June 2012

Andy Malt

Debate has raged in the world of dance music (or EDM, as we’re apparently supposed to call it now) recently following comments variously made by Canadian producer Deadmau5, real name Joel Zimmerman, about how live (or not) his contemporaries’ sets may really be.

Appearing on the cover of this month’s Rolling Stone, Zimmerman said: “David Guetta has two iPods and a mixer and he just plays tracks – like: ‘Here’s one with Akon, check it out!’ Even Skrillex isn’t doing anything too technical [live]. He has a laptop and a MIDI recorder, and he’s just playing his shit … People are, thank God, smartening up about who does what, but there’s still button-pushers getting paid half a million. Not to say I’m not a button-pusher. I’m just pushing a lot more buttons”.

Although not actually named by Deadmau5 in said interview, Swedish House Mafia have come in for similar button-pusher criticism in the past – in particular the group’s Steve Angello is accused of miming his DJ sets, which he has both dismissed as unfounded and insisted to be necessary – so someone from Rolling Stone duly bounded up to his bandmate Sebastian Ingrosso, at a recent show where he was DJing, to quiz him on Deadmau5’s comments.

“That’s interesting that he said that, because that’s exactly what he does – but we don’t”, said the Swedish producer. “We have four CD players [and] six hands, so we’re going in and out all the time, otherwise we would be bored and take our fuckin lives”.

Now whether or not having more hands (collectively) than Deadmau5 really means the Mafia are automatically doing more on stage I’m not sure, but I think his point is that, even if they’re not performing the tracks truly live, they are recreating them using DJ skills to play and beat-match the various parts, so that fans get something more than just the studio recording through big speakers.

Ingrosso’s remarks, and various other critical voices (some following his set at the Hackney Weekend on Saturday), led Deadmau5 to publish a blog post on the issue. Entitled “We all hit play”, it’s possible the producer wanted to knock the debate on its head, though instead he just stirred the pot further.

He wrote: “When it comes to ‘live’ performance of EDM [just pressing play is] about the most it seems you can do anyway. It’s not about performance art, it’s not about talent either (really it’s not) … I think given about one hour of instruction, anyone with minimal knowledge of Ableton, and music tech in general, could do what I’m doing at a Deadmau5 concert. Just like I think ANY DJ in the WORLD who can match a beat can do what ANYONE else (not going to mention any names) is doing on their EDM stages too”.

When he performs his full live show, Deadmau5 continued, there is a small amount of live tweaking, but much of what he plays is pre-mixed tracks (or portions of tracks) that he just drops into Ableton Live to mix. And even if he wanted to do more of it actually live, he added, he’s constrained by the fact that the music is synced up to lights and visuals.

For more low key shows, he added: “I just roll up with a laptop and a midi controller, ‘select’ tracks and hit a spacebar. Ableton syncs the shit up for me… so no beat-matching skill required. Beat-matching isn’t even a fucking skill anyway as far as I’m concerned. So what, you can count to four. Cool. I had that skill down when I was three, so don’t give me that argument please”.

Justifying his views, he concluded: “My ‘skills’, and other PRODUCERS’ skills, shine where it needs to shine… in the goddamned studio, and on the fucking releases. That’s what counts … But to stand up and say you’re doing something special outside of a studio environment, when you’re not, just plain fuckin annoys me”.

Which is all well and good, except that I’m not sure saying “I do my work in the studio, the live show is secondary” is actually that good an excuse. I mean, all artists – whatever the genre – utilise a different set of skills in the studio, and often employ different techniques on recorded music, but that doesn’t mean studio sessions are by definition more important than live shows. And besides, if your focus is 100% on getting the most out of the recording studio, why bother performing live at all? It’s not a prerequisite that every studio artist must also have a stage show. Though, of course, you might find that the live shows are generating bigger cheques these days.

Now, for the record, I’m not someone who thinks artists should always play everything totally live. I’m completely fine with people – from any genre – using backing tracks and pre-programmed stuff where they feel it’s necessary, whether for logistical or artistic reasons. The key is how it comes across to the audience. In his post Deadmau5 adds that it’s “the people who came to appreciate the music, the lights” who make the show great. Which may be true – and if the punters are happy, and the box office pays out, then what’s the problem? Button-pusher critics should shut up.

But it’s not helpful for Deadmau5 to suggest that he takes the easy route because it’s pretty much the only route that works, or matters. Electronic shows do not have to be just about pressing buttons, and numerous artists in and on the peripharies of the genre have proven that with great live shows. Some on a massive scale, some achieved in small venues on zero budgets. Some focusing on the lights and visuals (which can be awe inspiring), others on finding ways to actually recreate their electronic sound on the fly, whether with collaborators or a clever use of technologies. The latter way often means accepting a sound that is somewhat less polished than the studio recording, but often that enhances the live experience, in much the same way a garbled lyric or mistaken chord can at a rock gig.

As I say, if your fans go crazy for a simple button-pushing show, and if you have the budget to provide the lighting and visual extravaganzas that often complete such concerts, and if you’re happy to just stand there waving your arms night after night, well that’s fine. And perhaps Deadmau5 is right that it’s better to be honest about such things than to pretend you’re doing more than you really are on stage. But it would be a shame if such an attitude puts off those artists who do have ambitions to recreate their electronic music totally live, or a vision to do something truly amazing on stage.

Andy Malt
Editor, CMU

PS: The dates for next year’s Great Escape festival have been announced. Clear 16-18 May 2013 in you diary and book your Super Earlybird tickets for just £80 now.

It’s back! Did you miss it? It’s OK, no need to answer that, I know you did. On this week’s podcast Chris and I discuss Glastonbury’s split from Festival Republic, OfCom’s shiny new three-strikes code (or incomplete draft thereof), the cover star of Placebo’s debut album threatening to sue, and Deadmau5’s distaste for live performance. You’ll be able to hear it all (well, not the rubbish bits we’ve edited out, but the rest of it) later this weekend on or iTunes.

Last weekend would have been Glastonbury Weekend. Thankfully it happened to be taking a year off, so 180,000 people avoided being caught up in what would have been an inevitable mud bath given the awful weather (maybe some of them enjoyed the mud at the Isle Of Wight festival instead). Still, you need to mark the passing of Glasto Weekend somehow, which Michael Eavis and co chose to do by announcing the end of the event’s decade-long relationship with Melvin Benn’s Festival Republic.

Also announcing something this week was OfCom, which wandered in with its brand new draft code on how that whole three-strike anti-piracy system is going to work. Well, it laid out how strikes one and two, the sending of warning letters to alleged file-sharers, could work, as well as outlining the initial appeals system for the falsely accused. There’ll now be some more consultation on the new draft, which will take at least another six months. Still, lots of people in the music industry seemed pleased about things.

Not at all pleased was the Musicians’ Union, which hit out at the London Organising Committee Of The Olympic And Paralympic Games (LOCOG for short) over accusations that it was asking musicians performing at events relating to the Games to do so for free. There were also reports that musicians were being offered very low sync fees to have their music played in the Olympic Park.

In acquisitions news this week, it was confirmed that Global had put in a successful bid to buy The Guardian’s GMG Radio business. However, the UK radio giant’s competitors vowed to object to the deal.

Elsewhere in controversial purchases, Live Nation’s Irving Azoff criticised the opponents of Universal’s proposed purchase of the EMI record labels who spoke in front of US Congress last week. Then the boss of independent distribution and marketing company Mark Chadwick said that Universal CEO Lucian Grainge had used quotes by him out of context to make it look like he supports the merger, when he does not.

With regards the other big EMI deal, the Sony-led bid to buy EMI Music Publishing, the European Commission published a summary this week of why it approved that takeover earlier this year without undertaking an indepth investigation. And then the US Federal Trade Commission announced it was also approving the deal (that bit of news has only just occured – more in Monday’s CMU Daily), meaning the Sony acquisition of EMI’s publishing business will now definitely go ahead.

In the ongoing MegaUpload saga, this week the defendants scored a win when a New Zealand judge ruled that the police there had not had proper warrants when they raided the home of MegaUpload founder Kim Dotcom earlier this year and ordered the return of data seized. Dotcom himself also racked up a PR coup when Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak confirmed he was a supporter.

Artist-focussed court news this week saw the boy (now a 28 year old man) who appeared on the cover of Placebo’s debut album threatening to sue the band for ruining his life, and One Direction countersuing One Direction for suing One Direction for using the One Direction name when in fact, say One Direction, they have more right than One Direction to use the One Direction name in the US. Got that?

Finally, it was announced this morning that just six months short of its tenth anniversary, The Word magazine will close next month. Good luck for the future to all those who have been involved over the last (almost) decade.

For this week’s interview we spoke to Future Of The Left frontman Andy Falkous, while former Postal Service member Dntel put together a playlist for us (specifically to be played while floating down a river on a rubber ring). The Beef Of The Week this week concentrated on a dispute between photographers and The Stone Roses ahead of the band’s Heaton Park shows, and in his column Eddy Temple-Morris handed over to Embrace frontman Danny McNamara. Plus, of course, we had all the latest festival line-up updates.

In the Approved column this week we had alt-rap troupe WHY?, serial indie collaborator Chris Cohen, new indie-pop type Igor Volk and Japanese dream pop producer Cuushe.

Elsewhere, we had the utterly ridiculous new video from Lana Del Rey, a Fleetwood Mac cover from Lykke Li, a new track featuring Emmy The Great from Dan Le Sac, a new video from Rita Ora, and new tracks from Com Truise, Toy and Tashaki Miyaki. Plus, Mumford & Sons, Efterklang, Tame Impala, Rancid, Erased Tapes and Blur all put out videos this week previewing various things.