Defining ‘real’ music

State of the art

Want to join a $6.2 billion industry?

Grab a laptop. Download a music-production software. Set your metronome to 128 bpm. And make some music.

Electronic dance music has taken the world by storm.

Despite its seemingly recent boom, the genre has actually been around for decades. The DJs of the late ’80s were the first who mixed old disco tracks and beats on drum machines to give their audiences something to dance to. These vinyl mixers put a new spin on traditional music and unknowingly created what would become the massive electronic scene of today.

But how exactly did a small subset of the music industry blow up so quickly?

Modern technology did that.

Practically every EDM show contains some combination of lasers, fireworks and special effects that rival the last Hollywood thriller. A simple DJ’s performance has transformed from a show into an immersive experience.

Most of the industry’s gains — $4.2 billion of its total revenue — come from live performances. The nation’s top raves clock in with attendance in the tens of thousands.

Yet, in addition to its fun live shows, EDM is wholly accessible to artists and listeners alike.

Anyone can make dance music. Everyone loves happy, upbeat songs. There is nothing difficult to understand about EDM.

That, however, is also its greatest criticism.

When we’ve got Paris Hilton DJing Las Vegas clubs alongside Tiesto, many have started to believe that it really doesn’t take much talent to perform EDM.

If anyone can do it, what’s so special about it?

Those who have received the most backlash are undoubtedly the very artists who have devoted their lives to the genre. One particularly funny, if not overly disrespectful, example is DJ Steve Aoki.

A now-deleted article on, “Steve Aoki shocks EDM World By Admitting He Is Not A Real DJ,” falsely claimed that Aoki’s show antics — including stunts such as throwing cake at people’s faces — were just that: distracting antics by a DJ who does nothing more than play pre-recorded tracks.

Aoki eventually released a statement to prove that he was, indeed, an artist and that his craft required a combination of practice and work. He emphasized that EDM was more than pre-recorded tracks and pushing random buttons. When EDM artists perform live, they mix, transition and adjust as they go. They have to read the crowd and react.

But is this as difficult as learning how to master an instrument and make music the old-fashioned way?

Win Butler, frontman and lead singer of Arcade Fire, definitely doesn’t think so. During a 2014 Coachella set, Butler threw a “shoutout to all the bands still playing actual instruments at this festival.” The backhanded compliment provoked a passionate reaction from Deadmau5 — a powerful, influential producer who, on his very own Tumblr, once admitted to the ease of performing EDM.

If even Deadmau5 thinks Butler is being unfair, how much value does Butler’s statement really have?

By some estimates, roughly 90 percent of contemporary popular music is computer generated or enhanced in some way. Finding a song without programmed drums or recorded synths is nearly impossible; I think it’s safe to say that music and technology will become inextricable in the coming years.

It’s nonsensical to think we won’t explore the musical doors that contemporary technology has opened. Sure, making EDM is a more streamlined process than learning an instrument from scratch. Its production is something that can be fully completed with a laptop and YouTube tutorials.

But we’ve always been looking for ways to make old artforms sparkle again with new technology. We can access entire libraries on e-readers or watch movies on screens large and small. Even photography exists primarily as a digital medium these days.

Why is music any exception?

EDM is still a kind of art. It’s not necessarily better or worse than what we have come to define as “real” music. It’s just different.

And it sure does sparkle.

Eda Yu writes the Thursday column on art in the modern age. Contact her at at [email protected].

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