Electronic Musicians Shouldn’t Feel Bad About “Hitting Play”

If artists are transparent about what they’re doing on stage, we shouldn’t feel ripped off it they’re using pre-recorded tracks.

Steve Marcus / Reuters

When we go to a music show, we’re conditioned to expect that the artist – regardless of genre – is somehow making the sound that we’re hearing live on stage, and if we find out otherwise, we often get totally indignant about it. Pop fans argue about who does and does not lip-synch, EDM fans quibble over how much of a DJ’s set is mixed on the fly, and old-school rockers regard anyone using pre-recorded tracks with distrust, if not outright contempt. This makes sense, at least in that despite the steady growth of electronic music and DJ culture, the concert industry is built on a foundation of live instrumentation. But now that computers have become the dominant instrument of pop music, should we keep encouraging musicians to disguise what they’re doing on stage in order to conform to what are arguably very dated expectations?

James Brooks, an electronic musician who records under the name Elite Gymnastics, wrote a long, thoughtful post on his Tumblr last week that doubled as an argument in favor of artists being open about using pre-recorded music in their shows and a series of blind items about acts who front as live bands but are, in fact, “just pressing play” on a laptop or iPod. In this bit from the post, Brooks all but outs a popular group as being something of a sham:

there’s this band. they are one of the few bands currently active that is both generally very critical successful and very commercially successful. you almost always find this band’s name very near the top of the bill on festivals. like, they are not the xx, but they are basically at that level of popularity/critical acclaim.

onstage, this band presents itself as a live band with a drummer and guitars and keyboards and stuff. in reality, 90% of the music you are hearing when you go see this band is coming off an ipod, and nearly everything that’s happening onstage as far as people looking like they’re playing instruments is completely inaudible.

Given these hints, it sounds like it could be M83, or possibly Animal Collective. But the identity of this mystery band is beside the point. Electronic music – and more specifically, using laptops as a means for both creating and performing music – has become so widespread that it could be about a third of the artists likely to perform at major festivals. Brooks suggests that it’s “very common” for acts who start off as bedroom producer types to fake a live show if their music is getting some buzz. “People want to hear the music on it over a big system and they want to see people doing stuff onstage,” he writes. “So sometimes people just play the record over the PA and have people onstage pretending to be the ones making those sounds.”

The boldest idea put forth by Elite Gymnastics is that artists should not be going through with this charade at all. If a popular band is mostly using prerecorded sounds on stage, they shouldn’t have to put a drummer and guitarist out front to make the audience feel like the live experience is legitimate, and more purely electronic artists shouldn’t pour money into expensive gear when they can just do the same thing on their laptop. “I think it’s so dumb when i see a laptop act onstage hitting play on an SP404 or an MPC instead of a computer,” he wrote. “Like, you just spent like 1k so you could hit play on something that says “Roland” or “Akai” on it instead of something that says “Apple.” And do you know why you did that? Because people in the audience probably own things that say “Apple”, so things that say “Roland” or “Akai” will seem less familiar and more mysterious and impressive.”

Brooks’ post was an answer to a fan question about how they felt about Deadmau5’s extremely candid comments about how much of his performances are “live” on his own Tumblr back in July. The EDM star sketched out exactly what he’s doing on stage, but was open about how much of his show is pre-programmed, and emphasized that the success of any given gig was dependent on the enthusiasm of the crowd. “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,” he wrote. “We just facilitate the means and the pretty lights and the draw of more awesome people like you by our studio productions.”

If artists are transparent about what they’re doing – or more importantly, not doing – on stage, there’s no reason to feel ripped off if a show is mostly or completely pre-recorded. As DeadMau5 suggests, a lot of the experience of a show comes down to the communal experience, spectacle, and the chance to hear the music played much louder than we’re used to hearing it on headphones, laptop speakers and stereos that have to be kept at a reasonable volume to avoid pissing off family members and neighbors. EDM’s massive popularity in recent years is a testament to the power of this sort of experience, and a sign that we’re collectively at least part of the way towards getting over the idea that every type of musical performance has to be judged on the same terms. There is something theatrical about watching a person pluck strings or pound on a drum, but a lot of electronic music is programmed, or shaped in the studio. Would you really rather observe someone as they program a drum fill, or just dance to the beat?

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