Max Cooper has been releasing techno and electronica since 2007. He also has a PhD in computational biology. He spent the summer touring EDM-crazed America. This is his dispatch from the frontline.
Write about EDM for NME, they said. Well... I’m sure you’re hoping for damning insider information on how Skrillex abducts Uzbekistani orphans to sample their dying screams as part of his evil empire – one I despise in moral as well as artistic terms.
But I don't see it like that. From my perspective, as a supposedly “serious” electronic musician having just returned from a tour of the States, it's great that the country is opening up to electronic music. All those EDM lovers will filter through into every other genre, hopefully with a healthier scene for all.
All this got me thinking about what EDM is and how it compares to the other forms of 4/4 dance music like techno and house. It seems to me that it's more about instant gratification (check out the video above for an example), in stark contrast to the German-centric trend for subtlety (see below) and drawn out sets and development in techno. It doesn't surprise me that the new generation in the US aren't interested in this, just like when I was 18. They just want to party and care little for subtleties.
The EDM thing seems pretty similar to the dance music of the 90s in its energy and accessibility, only now parts of the incumbent electronic music press deem it not "cool". Sometimes it seems like the cool game has taken over and DJs are trying to be so restrainedly fashionable that their music is just plain dull. No wonder there's an opposite reaction in EDM.
So the merits of EDM are obvious, but what are the merits of subtlety in dance music? Maybe it's just that after listening to a lot of bangers people want something new, and maybe they're old and tired and need something less intense, but I don't think that's the whole story.
One interesting idea is that there seems to be a great value placed on those tracks or DJs in the non-EDM scene, that can yield a maximum party atmosphere with minimal musical obviousness, such as Mathew Jonson's 'Marionette (The Beginning)' below.
People value music that does the least objectively, while invoking the most subjectively (and I’m not talking about minimal). It seems to be a rating of compressibility, whereby the simplest musical forms generating the richest, most complex outcomes are valued most highly. I think this sort of value judgement is deeply rooted in our biology, in that by searching for the most simple rules governing our complex environment we have been able to make sense and take control of the world around us. So maybe we have an evolutionarily driven predisposition to enjoy compressibility in music.
It also reminds me of what physicists often say about searching for "real" laws of nature amongst their countless different theories, in that "beauty" is used as a guide. I think that at least to a degree, more beautiful natural laws are those most simple, yet yielding the richest behaviour, so it seems that our appreciation of this musical aesthetic could be linked to a deep property of nature as well.
Anyhow, all this makes it sound like techno is vastly more sophisticated than EDM, which I don't think is true. This is just a general idea applicable to any musical form.
And as for the response in the US – I found a lot of committed people who travelled a long way to see music they love, and who were amazing to play for. I don't play straightforward 4/4 dance - but audiences seemed to be happy to follow me off-centre.
Sure there are problems in the US: strict party laws that are giving some cities big problems keeping their clubs alive, and some me-too producers or promoters who care more about the money than the music. But there's also a network of underground promoters who are hugely committed to electronica particularly the Decibel festival crew.
What you have in the US right now is audiences with open minds who want to know about electronic music, and who are massively enthusiastic about the stuff.
What's not to like?
'Conditions One', Max Cooper's collaborative EP with Canadian art-rockers BRAIDS, will be released on new live-electronica label FIELDS on Dec 10. Watch the video for 'Pleasures' below.