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Your favourite DJs of the year.
The Resident Advisor Top DJ poll is our annual chance to give RA readers a voice. Voted by registered members of the site, the list puts a global spin on something otherwise personal: your favourite DJ(s). The rules became a little tighter this time around. Selections were restricted to DJs listed in each user’s 2012 event diary, limiting voters to their best experiences this year rather than all-time.
There have been a number of shake-ups as a result. There is a new #1, and a prominent top 20 debut for one of the year’s fastest-rising stars. Some jocks landed considerably higher while others went down a few notches, as newcomers rubbed elbows with the established old guard. So read on (if you haven’t already scrolled to the bottom):
Here’s 2012’s top DJs as chosen by you.
While Margaret Dygas didn’t spend 2012 rinsing the newest records, she consistently played with a kind of finesse few DJs can manage.
With a slate of melodic house 12-inches under their belts, Dusky quickly became the toast of the UK underground in 2012.
Mano Le Tough’s emotive take on house music has made him one of the highest new entries on the list in 2012.
As time goes on, Levon Vincent goes further and further into the rabbit hole of his inimitable sound. Impressionistic, cold and soulful—it only gets better the further he goes.
Few have caused quite the same commotion as Blawanin 2012. He makes his debut on our list this year thanks to his increasingly brutal exploration of analogue techno.
It was bound to happen sooner or later. Anyone who plays Panorama Bar within a week of graduating high school is clearly headed for great things. And anyone with a personality so infectious is going to get a few breaks along the way. Which isn’t to say this was somehow preordained—no, Seth Troxler’s steady ascent to the #1 spot on this poll was very much his own doing. With Visionquest, he co-founded one of dance music’s most well-loved labels and DJ teams. As a solo DJ, he maintained his underground flavour in the face of bigger and bigger gigs—what other DJs at Ultra Music Festival had Analog Solutions or Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir in their bags?
Speaking of gigs, he played more of them this year than anyone else on this list, even with time off and a supposedly scaled back touring schedule. Like anyone with his kind of popularity, he’s got his detractors. But as this year’s poll makes clear, it’s pretty hard not to love Seth Troxler.
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I’m sure each generation of musicians feels they’ve lived through a time of tremendous change, but the shifts I’ve witnessed in my relatively short music career— from morphing formats to dissolving business models— do seem extraordinary. The first album I made was originally released on LP only, in 1988— and my next will likely only be pressed on LP again. But in between, the music industry seems to have done everything it could to screw up that simple model of exchange; today it is no longer possible for most of us to earn even a modest wage through our recordings.
Not that I am naively nostalgic for the old days— we weren’t paid for that first album, either. (The record label we were signed to at the time, Rough Trade, declared bankruptcy before cutting us even one royalty check.) But the ways in which musicians are screwed have changed qualitatively, from individualized swindles to systemic ones. And with those changes, a potential end-run around the industry’s problems seems less and less possible, even for bands who have managed to hold on to 100% of their rights and royalties, as we have.
“Galaxie 500’s ‘Tugboat’ was played 7,800 times on Pandora in the first quarter of 2012, for which its three songwriters were paid a collective total of 21 cents, or seven cents each.”
Consider Pandora and Spotify, the streaming music services that are becoming ever more integrated into our daily listening habits. My BMI royalty check arrived recently, reporting songwriting earnings from the first quarter of 2012, and I was glad to see that our music is being listened to via these services. Galaxie 500’s “Tugboat”, for example, was played 7,800 times on Pandora that quarter, for which its three songwriters were paid a collective total of 21 cents, or seven cents each. Spotify pays better: For the 5,960 times “Tugboat” was played there, Galaxie 500’s songwriters went collectively into triple digits: $1.05 (35 cents each).
To put this into perspective: Since we own our own recordings, by my calculation it would take songwriting royalties for roughly 312,000 plays on Pandora to earn us the profit of one—one— LP sale. (On Spotify, one LP is equivalent to 47,680 plays.)
Or to put it in historical perspective: The “Tugboat” 7” single, Galaxie 500’s very first release, cost us $980.22 for 1,000 copies— including shipping! (Naomi kept the receipts)— or 98 cents each. I no longer remember what we sold them for, but obviously it was easy to turn at least a couple bucks’ profit on each. Which means we earned more from every one of those 7”s we sold than from the song’s recent 13,760 plays on Pandora and Spotify. Here’s yet another way to look at it: Pressing 1,000 singles in 1988 gave us the earning potential of more than 13 million streams in 2012. (And people say the internet is a bonanza for young bands…)
To be fair, because we are singer-songwriters, and because we own all of our rights, these streaming services end up paying us a second royalty, each for a different reason and each through a different channel. Pandora is considered “non-terrestrial radio,” and consequently must pay the musicians who play on the recordings it streams, as well as the songwriters. These musicians’ royalties are collected by SoundExchange, a non-profit created by the government when satellite radio came into existence. SoundExchange doesn’t break our earnings down by service per song, but it does tell us that last quarter, Pandora paid a total of $64.17 for use of the entire Galaxie 500 catalogue. We have 64 Galaxie 500 recordings registered with them, so that averages neatly to one dollar per track, or another 33 cents for each member of the trio.
“When I started making records, the model of economic exchange was simple; now, it seems closer to financial speculation.”
Pandora in fact considers this additional musicians’ royalty an extraordinary financial burden, and they are aggressively lobbying for a new law— it’s now a bill before the U.S. Congress— designed to relieve them of it. You can read all about it in a series of helpful blog posts by Ben Sisario of The New York Times, or if you prefer your propaganda unmediated, you can listen to Pandora founder Tim Westergren’s own explanation of the OrwellianInternet Radio Fairness Act.
As for Spotify, since it is not considered radio, either of this world or any other, they have a different additional royalty to pay. Like any non-broadcast use of recordings, they require a license from the rights-holder They negotiate this individually with each record label, at terms not made public. I’m happy to make ours public, however: It is the going “indie” rate of $0.005 per play. (Actually, when I do the math, that rate seems to truly pay out at $0.004611— I hope someone got a bonus for saving the company four-hundredths of a cent on each stream!) We didn’t negotiate this, exactly; for a band-owned label like ours, it’s take it or leave it. We took it, which means for 5,960 plays of “Tugboat”, Spotify theoretically owes our record label $29.80.
I say theoretically, because in practice Spotify’s $0.004611 rate turns out to have a lot of small, invisible print attached to it. It seems this rate is adjusted for each stream, according to an algorithm (not shared by Spotify, at least not with us) that factors in variables such as frequency of play, the outlet that channeled the play to Spotify, the type of subscription held by the user, and so on. What’s more, try as I might through the documents available to us, I cannot get the number of plays Spotify reports to our record label to equal the number of plays reported by the BMI. Bottom line: The payments actually received by our label from Spotify for streams of “Tugboat” in that same quarter, as best I can figure: $9.18.
“Well, that’s still not bad,” you might say. (I’m not sure who would really say that, but let’s presume someone might.) After all, these are immaterial goods— it costs us nothing to have our music on these services: no pressing, no printing, no shipping, no file space to save a paper receipt for 25 years. All true. But immaterial goods turn out to generate equally immaterial income.
Which gets to the heart of the problem. When I started making records, the model of economic exchange was exceedingly simple: make something, price it for more than it costs to manufacture, and sell it if you can. It was industrial capitalism, on a 7” scale. The model now seems closer to financial speculation. Pandora and Spotify are not selling goods; they are selling access, a piece of the action. Sign on, and we’ll all benefit. (I’m struck by the way that even crowd-sourcing mimics this “investment” model of contemporary capitalism: You buy in to what doesn’t yet exist.)
But here’s the rub: Pandora and Spotify are not earning any income from their services, either. In the first quarter of 2012, Pandora— the same company that paid Galaxie 500 a total of $1.21 for their use of “Tugboat”— reported a net loss of more than $20 million dollars. As for Spotify, their latest annual report revealed a loss in 2011 of $56 million.
Leaving aside why these companies are bothering to chisel hundredths of a cent from already ridiculously low “royalties,” or paying lobbyists to work a bill through Congress that would lower those rates even further— let’s instead ask a question they themselves might consider relevant: Why are they in business at all?
“Pandora and Spotify are doing nothing for the business of music— except undermining the simple cottage industry of pressing ideas onto vinyl, and selling them for more than they cost to manufacture.”
The answer is capital, which is what Pandora and Spotify have and what they generate. These aren’t record companies— they don’t make records, or anything else; apparently not even income. They exist to attract speculative capital. And for those who have a claim to ownership of that capital, they are earning millions— in 2012, Pandora’s executives sold $63 million of personal stock in the company. Or as Spotify’s CEO Daniel Ek has put it, “The question of when we’ll be profitable actually feels irrelevant. Our focus is all on growth. That is priority one, two, three, four and five.”
Growth of the music business? I think not. Daniel Ek means growth of his company, i.e., its capitalization. Which is the closest I can come to understanding the fundamental change I’ve witnessed in the music industry, from my first LP in 1988 to the one I am working on now. In between, the sale of recorded music has become irrelevant to the dominant business models I have to contend with as a working musician. Indeed, music itself seems to be irrelevant to these businesses— it is just another form of information, the same as any other that might entice us to click a link or a buy button on a stock exchange.
As businesses, Pandora and Spotify are divorced from music. To me, it’s a short logical step to observe that they are doing nothing for the business of music— except undermining the simple cottage industry of pressing ideas onto vinyl, and selling them for more than they cost to manufacture. I am no Luddite— I am not smashing iPhones or sabotaging software. In fact, I subscribe to Spotify for $9.99 a month (the equivalent of 680,462 annual plays of “Tugboat”) because I love music, and the access it gives me to music of all kinds is incredible.
But I have simply stopped looking to these business models to do anything for me financially as a musician. As for sharing our music without a business model of any kind, that’s exactly how I got into this— we called it punk rock. Which is why we are streaming all of our recordings, completely free, on the Bandcamp sites we set up for Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi. Enjoy.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the per-play rate was .004611 cents instead of $0.004611; the aggregate figures paid to the band were and are correct as written.
After 20 years, electronic dance music has made it big in the US. And big means big. With Las Vegas’s Electric Daisy Carnival grossing $40m, and DJ Skrillex commanding rock-star fees, the scene is leaving its druggy underground roots behind and being reborn as bombastic super-spectacle
For anyone who lived through the 90s, the electronic dance music (EDM) explosion in America has an uncanny air of history-repeats about it. Massive gatherings of dancing youths dressed in garish freakadelic clothes? DJs treated like rock stars? Teenagers dropping dead from druggy excess? Didn’t this all happen once already? But the phenomenon isn’t so much deja vu as a rebranding coup. What were once called “raves” are now termed “festivals”; EDM is what we used to know by the name of techno. Even the drugs have been rebranded: “molly,” the big new chemical craze, is just ecstasy in powder form (and reputedly purer and stronger) as opposed to pills.
The main difference between then and now is the sheer scale of the phenomenon. Earlier this summer Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC), the most famous of the new wave of whatever-you-do-don’t-call-them-raves, drew 320,000 people to Las Vegas Motor Speedway over the course of three days. The crowds are lured to EDC and to similar dance-fests likeUltra, Electric Zoo, and IDentity not just by the headliner-piled-upon-headliner bills of superstar DJs but by the no-expense-spared spectacle of LED graphics, projection mapping and other cutting-edge visual technology.
Why did it take so long – 20 years – for techno-rave to conquer the American mainstream? Commentators sometimes compare the delay to the 15-year gap between Never Mind the Bollocks and Nevermind: 1991 as the Year Punk Broke America. But in both cases that’s a simplistic view of history: the Clash were stars in America by 1980 along with other New Wave acts, and likewise electronic dance music made a series of incursions into the US pop charts over the last two decades, only to be returned each time to the underground.
In the early 90s, KLF and C&C Music Factory, Deelite and Crystal Waters took house into the Billboard Top 40, while raves both illegal and commercial sprouted on the east and west coasts – an escalation that climaxed with 1993’s Rave America, which drew 17,000 to the Californian amusement park Knots Berry Farm. Then came a lull until the electronica buzz of 1997, when MTV threw its weight behind the Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers, and Underworld. In the immediate years that followed, Fatboy Slim and Moby achieved ubiquity in TV commercials and movie soundtracks, while trance music of the fluffy Paul van Dyk/Paul Oakenfold type spurred a resurgence of raves in southern California, which by the turn of the millennium reached the 20-40,000 range.
Once again, the momentum dissipated. Radio remained hostile to electronic dance music unless it had a conventional pop song structure and vocals (as with the Prodigy’s punk-rave or Madonna’s coopting of trance on Ray of Light ). Major labels couldn’t work out how to develop electronic acts into albums-selling career artists. The next downturn forelectronic music was drastic and for a while seemed terminal. Thanks to nu-metal and cool-hair bands like the Strokes and the White Stripes, rock was in the ascendant again; guitars once more sold more than turntables, a reversal of how things were trending in the 90s. In California, always America’s rave stronghold, large-scale parties all but disappeared, while all across the country, clubs moved to smaller premises and weekly events went monthly. The period from 2004-5 was the nadir: some American DJs even emigrated to Berlin, where the work prospects were better.
Watch footage from Electric Daisy Carnival:
How did the US electronic dance scene claw its way back? Basically, by doing its best to shed the word “rave” and all its associations: drugged-up kids slumped on dancefloors, hospitalisations, and the statistically rare but reputation-tarnishing deaths. Repeatedly through the 90s, governments at the state and city level enacted laws and policies designed to stamp out what concerned parents and alarmist newspapers typically called “drug supermarkets”. In Chicago, people who threw a party for friends in their own loft apartment, with no paid admission and the DJing performed by the host, could find themselves ticketed for a $10,000 fine. In New Orleans, laws originally drafted to close down crack houses were used against raves and clubs where drug taking was taking place, regardless of whether the promoter or owner was involved in selling the substances.
“The association of techno with ecstasy, we really had to overcome that stigma,” says Gary Richards of the LA-based promotions company Hard Events. “If you approach a venue owner or local authority for permits and you use the word ‘rave’, your business model is doomed.” Richards went further than most, actually banning from his Hard Festivals such rave-era “silly stuff” as glow-sticks, dummies, and cuddly toys.
The word “festival” itself represents an attempt by promoters to draw line between today’s EDM and 90s rave. From bluegrass and folk to indie and heavy metal, music festivals take place all over the US. Some have their own problems with excessive drug/alcohol use and rowdy, mob-like behaviour (remember the arson and riots at Woodstock in 1999?). But festivals don’t have the media stigma or face the punitive legislation and policing that raves do. Older and shrewder by the late 2000s, the early 90s pioneers involved in Hard Events and Insomniac (the company behind Electric Daisy Carnival) learned how to work with the system, going through the bureaucratic hoops required to get permits, and providing the level of intensive security, entrance searches and overall safety provisions that would give political cover to their local government enablers. In contrast with the 90s ethos of throwing raves in exotic and out-of-the-way places such as abandoned buildings, remote farms, and desert wilderness, promoters deliberately sought out in-plain-sight sites: ultra-mainstream venues like sports stadiums and motor sports courses.
The big breakthrough came with the 2010 Electric Daisy Carnival, for which Insomniac’s Pasquale Rotella secured the LA Memorial Coliseum: an iconic football stadium that is home to the USC Trojans and also hosted the Olympics. Yet this moment of crossover triumph for the resurgent EDM movement almost turned to catastrophe: Insomniac’s bid for respectability was dealt a near-fatal blow with the ecstasy-related death of a 15-year-old girl who somehow managed to bypass the Electric Daisy’s age restrictions and get into the event. The outcry that ensued forced EDC out of Los Angeles altogether. Insomniac now stage the Carnival in Las Vegas, a much more congenial and permissive environment that has lately become the Ibiza of North America, a place where superstar deejays like Tiesto have residencies.
“I would never want our scene to grow out of something tragic,” says Rotella. “But all that media attention was something that opened people’s eyes to how big this scene was getting. It did, I believe, assist in the explosion. Because we were pulling 130,000 people and no one knew. ” He points out that before the Coliseum, there were no other dance festivals in the US on anything like that scale. Now there’s half a dozen.
Whether or not the 2010 Electric Daisy Carnival really proves there’s no such thing as bad publicity, it’s equally true that the event showed that the link between EDM and drugs still existed. Because it wasn’t just one unlucky teenager. According to the LA Times, “about 120 [EDC] attendees were taken to hospitals, mostly for drug intoxication.”
Madonna was recently lambasted for coming onstage at Ultra in Miami and asking the EDM horde: “how many people have seen Molly?” With casuistic adroitness she subsequently made out that she wasn’t really referring to the popular powdered form of MDMA but to the dance track Have You Seen Molly? Except that tune is blatantly a drug-is-the-love song in the 90s rave tradition of Ebeneezer Goode, Let Me Be Your Fantasy and Sesame’s Treet: it features a GPS-style robot-woman saying: “Please help me find Molly/She makes my life happier, more exciting/She makes me want to dance.”
“Molly is short for ‘molecule’,” explains Nathan Messer of DanceSafe, an organization that provides guidance and pill-testing at raves all across North America. “It’s sold in sachets or baggies. Because pressed pills had gotten so diluted with adulterants, everybody wants the powder.” Molly’s reputation for purity and strength was deserved for a long while, but inevitably dealers have started to cut the powder with other substances.
However determined and stringent promoters might be in their attempts to prevent drugs getting into their events, supply tends to find a way to meet up with demand. According to Messer, the super-size festivals have their own special problems when it comes to drug safety. On the one hand, kids buy dubious substances from dealers they don’t know and are unlikely to see again given the size of the venue. On the other, there are no pill-testing facilities: promoters won’t have anything to do with outfits such as DanceSafe, because that would be a tacit admission that problems still exist, opening them to the risk of permits being denied or even having equipment confiscated.
“We provide Wonderland. You don’t need drugs,” insists Rotella. He talks up the “experience” aspect of Electric Daisy Carnival, from its dazzling barrage of state-of-the-art lighting to its dance troupes whose costumes are pitched midway between harlequin and hooker. “It’s about giving people that fantasy; that storybook experience. I want to create celebrations. EDC is like New Year’s Eve; like Mardi Gras.” Rotella says he has got no interest in becoming a concert promoter, putting on events where big name performers are the main draw. “You can see the big DJs in clubs any time. We’re doing ‘destination festivals’.” But he also stresses the role played by the audience: “I like to say our headliners are the fans. They get dressed up.”
And how! At Electric Daisy Carnival and similar dance festivals, the look has evolved from the child-like “candy raver” of the 1990s, with their pigtails and cuddly toys and pacifiers (dummies), to a slick and sexified yet also kitschy-surreal image midway between Venice Beach and Cirque Du Soleil, Willy Wonka and a Gay Pride parade: girls in Daisy Dukes and bikini tops (or even bare breasts daubed in glittery body paint) but who also wear tutus, giant furry boots in turquoise and hot pink, and fairy wings.
What the EDC ravers most recall are the “nutbags” and “mentalists” who flocked to Gatecrasher, the Sheffield club that was the focus of the trance boom of the late 90s. Not only is the music they dance to similar (a rehash-mash of trance, house and electro) but the style is a similar mix of child-like, cyberdelic-futurist, and fancy dress.
Right from the early days, there’s always been a carnivalesque side to rave culture, from the free party sound systems with names like Circus Warp to the commercial UK raves with their bouncy castles, gyroscope rides, and merry-go-rounds. Clubs, likewise, featured all sorts of eye-candy, from lasers and intelligent lighting to trip-tastic projections of cyber-kitsch graphics. The flicker and dazzle was conducive to hallucinatory drugs and the hi-tech fun ‘n’ frolics found the perfect interzone between futurism and regression to childhood. The new electronic dance festivals in America have taken this side of rave to the next level.
Daft Punk’s set at the Coachella festival in 2006, where they performed inside a huge glowing pyramid, is often cited as a turning point. Soon performers like Deadmau5 were pouring as much effort and money into LED panels and beat-synchronised animated graphics as they did into their music.
What’s different about this new breed of audio-visual entertainer is that what they offer are “custom-branded visuals predesigned to fit specific songs”. So says Drew Best, a prime mover in the US dubstep scene with his Los Angeles club/label Smog, but also the motion-graphics designer behind the fledgling company Pattern & Noise. In the old days, Best explains, what a VJ (video jockey) or lighting director did was provide improvised accompaniment to the DJ’s set. But nowadays Deadmau5 will get a designer such as Best, who worked on the former’s recent tour, to create “Pacman-type ghosts” to go with the track Ghosts ‘N’ Stuff or a “Tron-style” factory with clanking pistons to accompany Professional Griefers. The leading performers on the EDM scene are engaged in fierce competition to out-dazzle each other. Skrillex’s Skrill Cell combined projection mapping and motion capture. “Skrillex wore a suit and he had CG characters rigged to it, these 20 foot monsters on a giant wall behind him,” explains Best. “The monsters would match Skrillex’s every movement as he deejayed onstage.”
Watch Deadmau5 live in the UK:
This A/V glitz-blitz costs a lot, but then artists at the Deadmau5 level earn a lot: as much as $1m for a festival appearance, while hardest-gigging-man-in-EDM Skrillex is reportedly worth $15m. With day tickets selling at around $125 and well over 300,000 attending over three days, the Las Vegas EDC must have grossed in the region of $40m. The big money is attracting even bigger money: the mogul Robert FX Sillerman declared his intent to spend $1bn acquiring companies in the EDM field, while Live Nation, America’s leading concert promotions company, recently purchased outright Hard Events.
The increasingly bread-head and circus-like aspects of EDM have provoked a backlash from those who feel dance culture is swapping underground intimacy in favour of soul-less bombast that stuns and stupefies audiences into slack-jawed submission. The Wall Street Journal, of all places, recently railed against “The Dumbing Down of Electronic Dance Music” . Long time west coast rave watcher Dennis Romero penned a caustic verdict for LA Weekly on this June’s Vegas EDC: “A press-play parade of millionaires going through the motions.” DanceSafe’s Messer, a veteran of the idealistic PLUR (peace, love, unity, respect) oriented rave underground of the 90s, complains that the dance festivals offer a “packaged, containerised experience … These events are all about raging hard, getting as fucked up as you can. Not necessarily even about dancing, just being a face in this giant extravaganza.”
At the core of many of the complaints is the belief that these entertainment spectaculars are tyrannical in their inflexibility. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s preprogrammed,” says Drew Best. “The tracks in a Deadmau5 set precisely trigger the visual and lighting systems. All the imagery is absolutely on beat, and that beat is 128 bpm. If you see Deadmau5 several times in a row, you might see the same show.” Earlier this year Deadmau5 incited a furore with his candid admission that everybody at his level basically presses “play” and his assertion that the true artistry comes into play in the recording studio beforehand, not on the stage. In other words, he’s a producer who chooses to publicly represent his sound in person, but not a DJ in the traditional sense: a selector who responds to the mood of the crowd. EDM today has come a long way from the early days of house and techno, when sound was privileged over vision, an ethos enshrined in the title of the 1992 Madhouse compilation A Basement, a Red Light, and a Feeling. In those murky, atmospheric clubs, the deejay booth was often tucked away in a corner rather than placed up on a stage: dancers weren’t meant to all be looking in one direction, they were meant to get lost in music, and in the collective intimacy of the dancefloor .
While festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival have amplified the fantasy and fancy dress side of 90s rave, other sectors in the resurgent scene have gone in the opposite direction, concentrating on the music. Hard Festival’s Richards wanted to lose the “goofy fashion” side of rave that EDC revels in. “Why do we have to dress up like idiots to listen to this music? All those girls in the furry boots, they look like Clydesdale horses!” As “hard” suggests, Richards presents electronic music as modern rock: an old spirit encased in new digital flesh.
It’s a strategy he pursued through the record industry for years. First he worked at Rick Rubin’s American label, at a time circa 1992 when the Def Jam co-founder was briefly convinced that techno was the new punk, or the new hip hop: a revolution waiting to take the country by storm. Then Richards ran his own major label imprint 1500 Records. But just like with his stint at American, he struggled to find a way to sell electronic music through the conventional rock channels. By 2005, that was becoming irrelevant, as the industry was struggling to sell records in any genre. So with perfect timing, Richards formed Hard, a live promotions company, catching the rising tide of live performances and festivals. And it’s through the live experience – something that can’t be shared or bookmarked for later listening, that you have to be present for in real-time – that EDM has really achieved lift-off. Even artists who sell a goodly number of MP3s and make an impression on the Billboard Top 40, such as Skrillex, make the bulk of their income from live shows.
As much as EDM’s spread owes a huge deal to the internet and the circulation of DJ mixes and YouTubed tracks via social media and message boards, what’s striking about the rise of the leading artists is how much it depends on the old-fashioned rock biz grind of touring. Blood Company, the management team behind Skrillex, specialise in hardcore metal bands such as Atreyu and Revoker. “They used the same strategy with Skrillex, which is putting the band on a bus and going to every town in America,” says Drew Best. Last autumn, Skrillex’s two-month Mothership tour played 55 dates across the US. “He took my partner at Smog, the DJ and producer 12th Planet, with him and they were stopping at middle-American cities and college towns that aren’t even on the radar of your electronic booking agents, whose typical approach is to fly artists such as the Chemical Brothers in to the major cities plus a couple of pre-existing festivals.”
In some ways it’s odd that no one thought to try this kind of grass-roots, hard-slog approach to breaking electronic artists before. “Performers such as Skrillex are incredibly efficient touring operations compared to rock bands, ” says Matt Adell of Beatport, the online music retailer that’s something like the deejay’s equivalent to iTunes. “It’s less expensive than a rock group because there’s just one performer, there’s much less gear and it’s easier to set up because there’s no live microphones. So the support team required is so much smaller.” Hoping to retrace the path to success taken by Skrillex, Blood Company now have several other electronic acts on their roster, including American dubstep artists the Juggernaut and J Rabbit.
Paralleling the rocktronica approach of Gary Richards, the rise of dubstep in America represents a countervailing force of hardness and darkness at odds with the escapist fantasy side of EDM developed by the mega-festivals. Best points to a September 2006 Radio One show by Mary Ann Hobbs as a critical moment in dubstep’s dissemination through North America. “Dubstep Warz was this session where she had all the key DJs on the scene playing tracks, but more importantly talking about the music and the culture. It really painted a picture of what dubstep meant. That show was traded throughout the Internet, to the point where it’s almost a cliche to say that it influenced you. Hobbs also talked aboutDubstepforum in that broadcast. At that point it had a few hundred users. But subsequently it just grew and grew until it now has a million.”
The internet helped to obliterate the time-lag that always used to hamper the US outposts of UK-based scenes like jungle. Because of the dubplate system, whereby the leading British drum & bass DJs played the latest sounds months before their official release, by the time American deejays got hold of the tracks as expensive imports, the UK scene was already six months into the future. But dubstep, as the first fully networked dance scene, is globally synchronized: sound-files are traded more freely and new tracks gets edited out of DJ mixes on pirate radio and posted as YouTube by fans.
By 2007, not only was dubstep accessible in a way that jungle, UK garage and grime had never been, but the music itself was getting more accessible: increasingly in your face, full-on, and hard-riffing. In its formative years, dubstep had been a connoisseur’s sound: deep and dark, moody and meditational, appealing to an audience largely composed of former junglists and 90s-rave veterans. Gradually the sound gathered new, younger recruits, proving particularly popular with students. DJs such as Skream and Plastician found themselves playing bigger halls and, consciously or unconsciously, started gearing both their sets and their own productions to what would make a big crowd go nuts. Some observers say the ban on smoking in clubs played its role: with a sly, discreet spliff no longer an option, punters switched to pills and energy levels accordingly rose. Whatever the case, dubstep transformed into a big-room, peak hour sound: proper rave music.
New populist heroes such as Caspa and Rusko emerged, amping up the aggression levels and intensifying the wobble basslines that drove dancers crazy. In the early dubstep, the bass drop was a tectonic quake of sub-low frequencies. But now it shifted into the mid-range, with intricately edited, brutally baroque basslines that contorted and backfired like the solo of a lobotomized guitarist. Multiple bass-patterns and bass-timbres were layered to form a churning slurry, like a chainsaw shearing through sewage. Track titles and artist names played up the expulsive and repulsive aspect of the new style (Stenchman’s discography includes Puking Over and The Taste of Vomit) and fans enthused about “filthstep”. These abject-yet-inorganic basslines largely stemmed from a single music-making program, Massive. Made by Native Instruments, it’s a synthesizer plug-in that sits in a producer’s laptop or digital audio workstation and allows him or her to slather different synth-textures together to make the sickest, slimiest bassline.
Listen to The Taste of Vomit by Stenchman:
The Massive sound basically made dubstep massive in the US. A key moment wasanother widely circulated mix, this time created by the Vancouver-based deejay Excision for the 2008 Shambalaya festival. “Excision isolated the most aggressive, industrial sounding tracks around,” says Best. “Nothing but the hardest dubstep. People here ate that up.”
Meanwhile, many original dubstep believers were recoiling from the rowdy, macho atmosphere that had descended on the scene. “Brostep” was the derisive term coined to discourage the masculinist tendency, mock it out of existence. According to Best, “bro” brings to mind steroid-stacked frat boys and truck-driving dudes into Monster Energy drinks. But the term began to be embraced as a positive identity. “I’ve actually been sent demo tracks by people who say: ‘I make brostep.’”
Ultimately dubstep’s drift towards harder-and-crazier sounds proved unstoppable. In the UK, many of the scene’s guardians refused to go along with it and dispersed into the milder, semi-experimental or house-ified realms of “post-dubstep”. But in America, outfits like Smog embraced the new direction. For Best, dubstep was moving in to claim the space abandoned by rock, through its retreat during the 2000s into either antiquarian retro irrelevance or the non-visceral gentility of indie, all wordsmith craft and over-embellished arrangements. That space was the perennial demand for a tough, aggressive but forward-looking sound for the release of pent-up frustration.
Choosing venues for their increasingly frequent and well-attended dubstep events, Smog deliberately gravitated to Los Angeles’s rock’n’roll venues. “Before I’d done drum’n’bass nights and whenever we’d booked into anywhere polished, it always ended in flames. Bathrooms got trashed, mirrors had tags etched into them. When we started doing Smog, it was same kind of aggressive crowd, so we avoided fancy nights with a dress code and bottle service and went for dark, gritty basement bars. Then a punk rock club called the Echo hooked up with us. Next thing you know at our Smog nights, there’s kids moshing and deejays stage-diving.”
Nu-skool dubstep has become a locus for generational identity in America, says Best. “The mid-range bass sound just captured the attention of young people. It’s like the high-pitched, aggravating sound of a guitar solo in the 70s. Something your parents are going to hate.” A video on YouTube, Elders React to Dubstep, plays on this idea: various old folk, exposed to a barrage of bass-screech, offer comments such as “incomprehensible”, “like Jackass in a bottle”, and, revealingly, “it make me feel like the future is now”. They also suggest genre names for the music, one of which is even better than brostep: metalla-purge.
Watch Elders React to Dubstep:
Although not a dubstep artist per se, Skrillex incorporates elements from the genre into his own eclectic brand of high-energy electro-dance. (The name Skrillex could almost be onomatopoeia for brostep’s shredded, twisting bass lines.) According to Best, Skrillex attended some of the early Smog nights and noticed the rock-of-the-future vibe, which resonated with his own background as the singer in the screamo band From First to Last.
“In America now, Skrillex is the biggest thing since Nirvana,” says Best. “You’re witnessing a whole new cultural revolution happening.” He thinks the rocktronica tendency is set to intensify with the emergence of artists like Knife Party (two former members of Pendulum, the Australian outfit who turned drum’n’bass into a new form of arena rock) and Mosquito (“Daft Punk meets Prodigy meets Skrillex”). Then there’s a figure like Bassnectar, who can play the big carnival-style festivals but also takes his gnarly-but-trippy version of dubstep to events like Electric Forest, where he’ll play on the same bill as jam bands like String Cheese Incident. Descendants of the Deadhead culture that was left in the lurch when the Grateful Dead expired, jam band fans have turned onto dubstep in a huge way.
Right now the EDM scene is an uneasy coalition between the slamming rocktronica of Skrillex and Bassnectar and the fluffy feel-good trance-house of DJs like Avicii, Kaskade, Swedish House Mafia, and Steve Aoki. On one side, there’s Hard’s Gary Richards who wants to push electronic music even further away from rave’s disreputable and daft past. On the other, there’s Electric Daisy Carnival, which has preserved not just rave’s hands-in-the-air euphoria but some of its subcultural ritual aspects too.
Rituals like “tutting”, which evolved out of the glove-dances performed by American ravers in the 90s but which now enhances the intricate hand-movements with glowing and flickering LED fingertips. Tutting is both a competitive form of creative expression (breakdancing for hands) and a practice inextricably entwined with drug culture (it’s kids putting on mini-lightshows for their tripped-out companions). Hard’s Gary Richards can’t stand the glove-dance phenomenon: “I’m like, ‘look at the stage, not your friend’s fingers”. But by suppressing this element from his events, he’s effectively reducing the participatory aspects of rave that gave it so much of its charm and distinctiveness as a subculture.
“Without the people, it’s nothing,” says Pasquale Rotella. “The day it’s turns into just a concert, I’m not going to be inspired anymore.” What the success of Electric Daisy Carnival shows is that if you provide people with a forum in which they can experience a sense of collectivity and occasion along with sheer sensory overload, they don’t really care whether it’s “underground” or not. Rotella says his dream and long-term plan is to build “an adult Disneyland.”
• Simon Reynolds is the author of books including Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture and Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past
They’ve been indicted by the U.S. government for conspiracy and briefly thrown in jail, but Kim Dotcom and his partners in the digital storage locker Megaupload have no intention of quitting the online marketplace.
Instead the co-defendants plan to introduce a much-anticipated new technology later this year that will allow users to once again upload, store, and share large data files, albeit by different rules. They revealed details of the new service exclusively to Wired.
They call it Mega and describe it as a unique tool that will solve the liability problems faced by cloud storage services, enhance the privacy rights of internet users, and provide themselves with a simple new business. Meanwhile, critics fear that Mega is simply a revamped version of Megaupload, cleverly designed to skirt the old business’s legal issues without addressing the concerns of Internet piracy.
(Dotcom and three of his partners remain in New Zealand, where they were arrested in January 2012. They face extradition to the U.S. on charges of “engaging in a racketeering conspiracy, conspiring to commit copyright infringement, conspiring to commit money laundering, and two substantive counts of criminal copyright infringement,” according to the Department of Justice.)
What Mega and Megaupload do have in common is that they are both one-click, subscriber-based cloud platforms that allow customers to upload, store, access, and share large files. Dotcom, and his Mega partner Mathias Ortmann say the difference is that now those files will first be one-click-encrypted right in a client’s browser, using the so-called Advanced Encryption Standard algorithm. The user is then provided with a second unique key for that file’s decryption.
It will be up to users, and third-party app developers, to control access to any given uploaded file, be it a song, movie, videogame, book, or simple text document. Internet libertarians will surely embrace this new capability.
And because the decryption key is not stored with Mega, the company would have no means to view the uploaded file on its server. It would, Ortmann explains, be impossible for Mega to know, or be responsible for, its users’ uploaded content — a state of affairs engineered to create an ironclad “safe harbor” from liability for Mega, and added piece of mind for the user.
“If servers are lost, if the government comes into a data center and rapes it, if someone hacks the server or steals it, it would give him nothing,” Dotcom explains. “Whatever is uploaded to the site, it is going to be remain closed and private without the key.”
Dotcom’s belief is that even the broad interpretation of internet law that brought down Megaupload would be insufficient to thwart the new Mega, because what users share, how they share it, and how many people they share it with will be their responsibility and under their control, not Mega’s.
Dotcom says that according to his legal experts, the only way to stop such a service from existing is to make encryption itself illegal. “And according to the U.N. Charter for Human Rights, privacy is a basic human right,” Dotcom explains. “You have the right to protect your private information and communication against spying.”
Dotcom says that the new Mega will be an attractive product for anyone concerned about the state of online security. And to address the concerns about data loss of the sort that affected Megaupload customers whose files were seized by the FBI, Mega will store all data on two sets of redundant servers, located in two different countries.
“So, even if one country decides to go completely berserk from a legal perspective and freeze all servers, for example — which we don’t expect, because we’ve fully complied with all the laws of the countries we place servers in — or if a natural disaster happens, there’s still another location where all the files are available,” Ortmann says. “This way, it’s impossible to be subjected to the kind of abuse that we’ve had in the U.S.”
Ultimately, Dotcom envisions a network hosted by thousands of different entities with thousands of different servers, in countries all over the world.
“We’re creating a system where any host in the world — from the $2,000 garage operation to the largest online host — can connect their own servers to this network,” Dotcom says. “We can work with anybody, because the hosts themselves cannot see what’s on the servers.”
One of the more unique wrinkles of the new service may come from Mega’s decision not to deploy so-called de-duplication on its servers, meaning that if a user decides to upload the same copyright-infringing file 100 times, it would result in 100 different files and 100 distinct decryption keys. Removing them would require 100 takedown notices of the type typically sent by rights holders like movie studios and record companies.
While Mega is adamant that this is not the point of their technology, others fear the service may atomize the piracy problem, turning internet policing into an even more elaborate game of Wack-a-Mole. “As we learned from the first iteration of Megaupload, how it describes itself and how it really operates can be two very distinct things,” says one industry spokesman who asked not to be named. “We’d rather not wade in here until we can see the thing with our own eyes.”
Julie Samuels, a staff attorney with the Electronic Freedom Foundation, says that while the new Mega may present an interesting development for internet users, it doesn’t answer the issues raised by the unique and, by her lights, questionable interpretation of Internet law used in the case against Megaupload. “It’s likely to change the cat-and-mouse game that goes on in terms of this issue on the Internet,” Samuels says. “But it’s still a cat-and-mouse game.”
Samuels says that the technology may affect how easy or difficult it is for rights holders or law enforcement to determine exactly what kind of files are being shared. “But there are still some fundamental questions that need to be answered. At this point, it’s not technology but the courts which need to address them.”
Dotcom insists that Mega is not “a giant middle finger to Hollywood and the DoJ,” or a relaunch of Megaupload. And Ortmann points out that if users choose to violate copyright with the new technology, there are already rules in place to address it. “If the copyright holder finds publicly posted links and decryption keys and verifies that the file is an infringement of their copyright, they can send a DMCA takedown notice to have that file removed, just like before,” he says.
As with Megaupload, Ortmann says, Mega will also grant direct access to their servers for entities such as film studios, allowing them to remove copyright-infringing material themselves. “But this time, if they want to use that tool, they’ll have to accept, prior to getting access, that they’re not going to sue us or hold us accountable for the actions of our users,” Dotcom says.
In any event, the Mega team believes that a government takedown of their new service is extremely improbable. “Unless our legal team tells us that the DoJ is likely to go berserk again,” Ortmann explains. “But in my view, they can’t pull off this stunt a second time.”
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