As people from around the world converged on Miami for the Ultra Music festival it seems Electronic Dance Music(aka EDM) has taken a severe dip in popularity. The Miami Herald recently highlighted the closing of multiple venues that used to serve as bastions of the club scene and how the money surrounding those venues has shrunk as well. However, as the local market shrinks the Ultra Festival is sold out and in full swing! On the edge of this festival which has grown to Epic proportions, Sirius XM celebrated their 10th Anniversary year hosting The Sirius XM Music Lounge with a three day broadcast of live mixing from some of the world’s top DJs. This event offers proximity and talent that rivals most fringe events held in Miami during Ultra. Located at 1 Hotel in a sandy grove behind the hotel, complete with three bars, there were an average of 250 people at most in attendance- There was plenty of room to move and dance.
I have not been silent on DJs and their place in the heritage or history of music, and this makes me a particularly odd match for an EDM concert. My colleagues and friends were more excited about this event than I was. Some even called me a “bitch” out of jealousy when they learned of my attendance. So suffice it to say I knew I would be hard to impress.
I am also not the most unlikely attendee as I have been a frequent club goer and have an appreciation for electronic music and what it offers to us all. I frequently attended clubs where DJs spun actual vinyl and have listened to a decent amount of synth and electronic based music from Kitaro and Dave Lynch to Deadmau5 and Benny Benassi.
I AM BIASED! I fully question the idea of a “concert” of DJs and have frequently laughed off the idea of paying hundreds of dollars to go to a concert of mixed prerecorded music. What exactly is a DJ performing? Step back a little over a year from this experience and I watched DJ Lord of Public Enemy work his turntablist skills to a group of twenty people, with Chuck D as emcee, not even six feet in front of me.
I expect more than what a DJ does at a wedding or prom.
I respect the time, skill and effort it takes to produce mixes and the creativity involved. So here I am a StoneRocker standing ten feet away from a stage with millionaire DJs. I attended Friday and the heat was intense- despite that there were 200+ attendees and several stars came out to mingle during the day- to name a few- Niki Minaj, Miles Teller and Chris Bosh (who sat lounging in the back on one of the many large cushions under an umbrella.W&W was playing when I stepped In towards the very beginning. At that point there were probably 30 people milling around. The set was good and a bit contrived. Blasterjaxx and DVBBS kept things moving smoothly along and DVBBS really seemed to connect with the crowd and although he appeared busy my proximity allowed me to see that there wasn’t a lot of movement, but the hand-off to Tigerlily was genuine and smooth.
Tigerlily got people up of their feet and moved seamlessly blending beats into tunes easily hyping the crowd with her skills. Even though she didn’t engage the few people that were there with requests for hand-raising, or ceremoniously waving her hands, people did anyways. She spent most of her time trying to create vibes and get the audiences ears twinkling. Meanwhile millions of listeners plunged into our experience on Sirius radio. Laidback Luke gave us a good flow and about the time of his set more people sauntered in and it began to look and feel like a party. Here though is the key to understanding this- it felt more like a party than it felt like a concert. A DJ often has time between songs to dance or hype the crowd. This is often dependent upon the DJs genre and the methodology they are using as they mix.
Unexpectedly as Laidback Luke was mixing Benny Benassi hopped into the mix. It almost appeared as though he was taking over. Maybe Laidback Luke had an interview? People around me were excited and Benassi didn’t disappoint, but didn’t stay that long before Steve Aoki came in and the crowd swooned and stormed the front of the state which is an overstatement due to the smaller size of the crowd. it wasn’t a pressing throng more than it was a gathering of proximity. His set was full of melody and he was masterful at engaging the crowd. Getting people to wave their hands and hyping the crowd up (which consequently means that he frequently ceased mixing and let his set play). However from my standpoint this is exactly what the crowd needed. People had begun to mill about watching but seemingly disinterested.
He completely changed the level of energy surrounding him. His mixes were masterfully crafted beforehand and he even played a new song he worked up for Lil Uzi Vert ‘I Can’t Lose’. This song however was plagued by the typical over processing of vocals that has become unfortunately ubiquitous in modern anthems. Cher probably had less processing in her famous(infamous?) ‘Believe’. For all the hype that Aoki caused he spent more time dancing behind the mixer than manipulating it. I feel as though it is incumbent upon me to reiterate that I have respect for the process of engineering a mix. Aoki deserves credit for having done just that. He also deserves credit for having gotten the crowd to engage and feel entertained. Dmitri Vegas and Like Mike appeared on the edge of the stage.
Within moments of their appearance and some discussion it appeared as though Aoki was handing off the stage. Instead what ensued was a set mostly mixed by Dmitri Vegas and Like Mike with some subtle tweaks by Aoki. Dmitri also acted as emcee for a few moments. The crowd responded and waved their hands back and forth to several “Hey-Hos”. They spent a considerable amount of time together on the stage.
Behind the scenes Afrojack was posing for pictures and people were getting excited not only by the set in motion, but by the mere presence of Afrojack. Afrojack jumped in and quickly got started. His set was vibrant and built very well. Several times he engaged in manipulating the timing of the mix to shift the vibe of the crowd slowing it down to a crawl and then seeing it up.
He wasn’t the only one who had done this throughout the day but he definitely had mixing chops and wanted to show them. What was most impressive for me was how his set crescendoed to an almost operatically proportioned multitude of ending cadenzas. whirling and juggernauting sounds and motions of waving blips and beeps. He didn’t pass off his set; he finished it with a definitive sonic statement unlike any heard that day. His pants were also brighter than any seen that day. Props for not only his fashion sense, but for the fact that he was really working the table and wanted us to hear that he was mixing and creating something. He came the closest to turntablism. It was a set worthy of the cheers that greeted him as he finished. Hardwell followed with a decent set and I admit by this time I had to take a step back and head to the bar for refreshment. The 90 degree heat was taking its toll on everyone. On my way back to the staging area I ran into my own doppelgänger. We paused to take a few photos and by then Eric Prydz and Deadmau5 were ready to take the stage.
The set by Eric Prydz and Deadmau5 was a B2B set. They spent an entire hour combining and combing through complex beats and for some it appeared that the heat, the weed, the drink or the complexity was too much for them.
A few people moved their heads around and at a few climax moments people engaged. It was a dense and deep set and in conversations afterwards my group of cohorts agreed it was inaccessible for many of the people assembled and I myself was impressed by their set. They and Afrojack showed the most acumen in their choices as to how to sculpt and shape the soundscape in real time. Was it that the other DJs were conserving energy? Was it the time constraints? Afrojack only had a half hour of scheduled time. Deadmau5 and Eric Prydz had a little over an hour. They crushed and crescendoed and dipped into building repetitive forms. There wasn’t musical tonality to their set in general. It was drum and bass ambiance and a continuous flow of currents. I went skeptical and I left… well… less skeptical, but still wondering if we have vaunted the DJ beyond the realm of healthy thought and appreciation.There is no doubt that they work hard and spend hours mixing and they deserve respect. However, I still don’t feel like I can say that a DJ performs the way I would say Paramore, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Lauryn Hill, Public Enemy, L.L. Cool J, Prince, Michael Jackson, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Alvin Ailey, Miami City Ballet, B.B. King, Justin Bieber and even Rihanna have performed. There is still a clear difference between a concert, or dance concert even, and a DJ. That being said some here came as close to performance as I think any DJ can get. I still maintain that a DJ alone is progress trap. It takes jobs away from the industry and has closed the door to greater and more talented musicians that the arts so desperately needs. This is not to say that their music isn’t exciting or that it doesn’t deserve respect and a seat at the table. So much more music happens without a DJ table. Harkening back to the jam bands of the past and really listening to how they manipulated and played with (and for) a crowd seems like an unfair comparison. Or is it more markedly unfair that we think a DJ deserves millions of dollars while we squander our rich musical heritage by turning the radio over to machines and computer programmers? Personally I think Ultra should keep on going, but I think people deserve more than just Ultra. They deserve Woodstock.