Sorry for the lack of updates over the past six weeks. I’ve been quite busy with a lot of random stuff, including Conference activities. Also, for whatever reason, the writing bug didn’t bite me in any real fashion. But, Conference has passed, and I do have something to write about…
Happily, I also got quite a bit of video gigs in over Conference. Several notable DJ talents were made aware of my burgeoning, re-emerging video skills, and contacted me to shoot some footage of their parties this year. It was a challenge, but also it gave me an excuse to rent some equipment outside of my ordinary kit. The one item I can totally recommend is the Redrock Micro Captain Stubling follow focus rig. One of my biggest challenges in DSLR video has been keeping focus on moving objects. A follow focus simplifies this enormously, by giving a more natural and intuitive feel (for video) to a lens’ manual focus ring. Now, at $1200-$1300 (depending on options), the Stubling is pricey, but it’s definitely one of those items I’ll justify the purchase of when I get more frequent video gigs. But, in a nutshell, if I took one thing away from Conference this year (other than the self-aggrandizing nature of a lot of club personalities and DJs), is that follow focus mechanisms rule.
But, I’m guessing you guys aren’t here to listen to me ramble about the merits of follow focus.
After all, the title of this post is about Winter Music Conference.
As is well known, Winter Music Conference, or “WMC” as it is known, started off in 1986 as just that, a conference. Along the way, since it was related to music and nightlife obviously, a whole party ecosystem grew up around it. Belatedly, the WMC organization tried to take control of the parties, but the clubs and promoters proved too powerful and pretty much went their own way. And, with the advent of digital distribution of music, DJs and producers no longer had to wait until March “at the pool” to trade records and mixes.
So, with that, the changeover of Conference from a serious gathering of industry professionals, to an excuse to party for ten days in Miami began.
This year, it was even more so evident. The whole “EDM” movement has taken America by storm. DJs and dance music producers whose careers once began and ended in the nightclubs are now commanding six-figure fees for 90 minute performances in front of tens of thousands of people at music festivals around the country. David Guetta is as much of a household name as Jay-Z is. Even Avicii, at the ripe old age of 23, had a “pop-up hotel” with his brand on it during Conference.
It’s actually that hotel that represents the pinnacle of what the whole industry has become. DJs and dance music producers almost have to become “brands” to succeed. Mere musical merit and talent matters not.
At it’s root, most dance music is a variation of the four-on-the-floor beat of disco. If there’s lyrics, it tends to be a few phrases or samples repeated. It’s made for dancing and socializing, not critical listening. Some tracks are even produced to be part of a larger set, and not stand-out songs on their own. Techno is rife with these tracks actually.
And, obviously, most of these songs are produced with electronic instruments, or, more likely, with prerecorded samples and loops on the laptop or workstation of the producer. Thus, the tracks do not easily lend themselves to being performed live, without having an array of keyboards and drum machines present. So, the DJ/producer “performs” his or her work by playing it back via a CD player or a sound file on a laptop. There’s not much to be seen in this performance method. That’s where the whole “brand” steps in. DJs now travel as a whole package. Music, video loops, lighting arrays, and merchandise galore. The top-grossing DJs in the world are pretty much traveling bazaars. You can go to a Tiësto show, hear his music, buy it, buy a T-shirt with his name on it, and even buy Guess! co-branded jeans and watches emblazoned with his face on it. And to think he was the guy I had a drink with at Space in 2005 while we talked nonsense about the re-emergence of techno.
As much as the commercialism is strangling the roots of the club scene (show up, play some good music, make the people have a good time), it’s an unfortunate side effect that the “brand” is needed to keep the masses fixated and entertained. Most people are usually smart enough to realize that the DJs are really just playing back songs on a massive stereo system. So, the producers and promoters realize they have to build an “experience” around the DJ, since inevitably people will see through the facade. Nothing scares them more than the man behind the screen suddenly being revealed. We’ve gone from live bands, to “track acts”, to the mere playback of music at a loud volume as the modern concert experience. The club scene and it’s focus on the party rather than the DJ wasn’t good enough for the promoters and producers I guess.
And with that, Conference has changed from an industry gathering into Spring Break with pretty lights and dance music. The real “Conference” still happens with a few seminars and product demos, but most people don’t bother. The digital age makes product demos so much easier, since dance music “products” are mostly software now.
Thankfully a few clubs, mainly the Downtown Miami venues such as Space, the Vagabond, and Electric Pickle keep the torch of “real” club culture burning (Spring Breakers looking for drugs typically give up at 3 AM, just as Space starts to get good) for the people of the dance music world. As with most years, I had the most fun “afterhours”. The kids are gone, and it’s pretty much crews of lovable freaks and pissy industry veterans like myself, jamming out to the the DJs we know can keep the party going and keep a level head.
I do think there’s hope though. The current “EDM” scene is a fad. The wretched excess of mass-produced clothing lines, jets with DJ logos on them (I’m looking at you, Nick van de Wall), and branded hotels (come on, Tim, even you have to admit it’s a little creepy to walk into the joint and see your Photoshopped mug staring back at you), will probably represent the pinnacle of the current state of the scene. I don’t think there will be a second Disco Demolition night to finish it off, but more of a long tail decline into a still-viable steady state for those who are in it since they really love the scene and the undeniable fun it brings. I might be crossing into the wrong side of my 30s in a day or so, but I still enjoy a good night out at a club. And the quality DJs of the world like Victor Calderone, Chus + Ceballos, David Tort, Boris, Mark Knight, Chris Liebing (he played borderline industrial!), Harry ‘Choo Choo’ Romero, the legendary Pete Tong, David Morales, Danny Tenaglia, Norman Doray, Steve Angello (he’s amazing when he plays on his own), Oscar G, Patrick M, and my steady crop of locals I love are a huge part of that good night. When the “EDM” craze fades, I know these guys will still be out there. It’s not mediocrity, it’s being true to your art form. I understand the need to want recognition and financial success for your work, but at a certain point, money is money and sometimes it’s not worth it to sacrifice all of your artistic integrity.
Now, did I hate Conference? Not in the least. I had a great time, as I always do. The bizarre sleep schedules, the repeated encounters with clueless Spring Breakers, all that mattered not. The fun was still out there, it just took some doing to find. The kids can keep Ultra, EDC, and whatever “experience” they throw their lunch money at. I’ll be at the clubs once or twice a week with my friends.
The rest of the time I’ll probably be looking for scenics to photograph. I saw some interesting spots near Flagler Beach.