Lego has just introduced its newest toy figure: the Lego DJ. He is part of a collectible series of eight figures that include more common characters in children's media (pirate, alien, football player). The DJ is wearing jeans and a T-shirt with an electronic-looking pattern on it, and holding a thick vinyl record and a sleeve with black logos on it. The drug-fuelled techno club has finally become fully cute.
The media have taken to using the term EDM, for electronic dance music, but they are usually describing a particular genre of electronic dance music (mostly vocal trance and pop with a booming beat), since this particular club style is starting to register on corporate cash registers. Forbes magazine itself just recognized the size of this audience, and published a list last summer of the world's best-paid DJs. (Trance/pop boss Tiesto is No. 1, having made, according to Forbes, $22-million in 12 months; he earns $250,000 a night. Canada's Deadmau5 was No. 6 on the list, at $11.5-million. He disputed the figures in later interviews, saying that most of his reported revenues go to pay his overhead. But still!)
The audience for these big dance-club events is slightly different from what it was in the days of raves. Pop music has been influenced by dance music to the extent that all hit pop music now has a programmed electronic beat and the big echoing kick-drum of house. This conflation explains why young people who would previously have been lining up to see singers like Britney Spears or the Backstreet Boys are now willing to enter the domain previously reserved for the druggy underground: the two concert venues are now one and the same.
But do the house and techno producers feel happy, generally, that the entertainment media are paying attention to club culture after 30 years of experimentation and technological development? No, generally they are annoyed that electronic music is being represented solely as big goopy love songs and cheeseball operatic trance. The David Guettas and the Steve Aokis, they say, don't represent what got them there – years of ultra-geeky basement hardware kludging and an obsession with improvisational techniques using digital loops and samples. And darkly textured sounds without all the vocal wailing. All of that came from sweaty black-box club culture, not from the recording studios of Los Angeles.
To reclaim some of the attention from the stadiums, and to draw the newcomer to EDM into the more sophisticated end of it, a group of its underground pioneers are in the middle of a North American lecture tour, and will be playing a club in Toronto Thursday. The tour is called CNTRL: Beyond EDM, and combines daytime lectures, at universities, about the extraordinarily complicated software and equipment they use, and evening performances in dance clubs.
Richie Hawtin and Loco Dice, both Germany-based musicians and stars of the underground house/techno scene, are behind it, sponsored by some of the tech firms that make the machines (and New York DJ school Dubspot, and the magazine DJTechtools). They have already hit a number of U.S. campuses, and a giant club in New York, and are currently in Canada (they've done Montreal, Windsor and London). A variety of techno stars are performing with them, including Detroit old-timer Carl Craig, and the virtuoso of new digital instruments Ean Golden. They are streaming all their lectures and performances – and daily interviews from their giant, electronics-filled tour bus – live on their Facebook page.
It's revealing that the format of the tour includes lectures, aimed as much at computer science students as at musicians, that explain, using giant projections, just what exactly the hell it is they are doing to make their music. It's just as much about revolutionary software as it is about aesthetics. It's all pretty modern. And the experience of seeing any of these guys perform live will erase, I promise, any prejudices against the genre that you may have acquired from watching footage of teenagers glow-sticking to Deadmau5 in laser-seared football stadiums.
The techno purists of the CNTRL tour may have to admit, though, that they might not have been tempted to reach out to explain themselves to the public in this way, had it not been for the infuriating success of less interesting music.