Press to Make Music

Disclaimer: Some dates and figures have been approximated.

The opening scene is an interpretation of my experiences with EDM shows and festivals.

It’s nighttime. Stars dapple the sky but nobody notices. Over the rolling hills softened by greening grass, hundreds of people, mostly ages eighteen to twenty five, crowd together. A cacophony of chatter and laughter rises from the crowd. It mixes with the smoke of spliffs and cigarettes and drifts away on a lazy breeze. Some are drinking beer while others sip water from thin rubber hoses attached to their backpacks. Some are sitting cross-legged on blankets and a few are even dancing. Some are quiet; some are still. Waiting, watching the world through widened pupils.

Everyone is happy.

A certain tension fills the atmosphere. Not the sort that makes one want to run, to get away, to escape. The type felt after already getting away, after having escaped. It’s anticipation of the good times just over the hill.

Before the mass of people stands an enormous stage. On either side of it, massive speakers stacked atop one another. One could follow the cables wrung out behind them to a table at the center. Objects are clustered on top it, but they’re only silhouettes in the dim light. A drum set on one side, black boxes scattered around it. Something stirs on stage—figures, moving about in preparation—or not. A lot of us are too high to tell.

A scream rings out from somewhere ahead. Not panicked, not shrill. Its source is a petite brunette in a tank top and spandex. She’s riding the shoulders of a tall black dude sporting blacker shades. Their arms are extended high above their heads, fingers outstretched. They look ecstatic with their wide smiles, and their joy spreads over the people around them. The enthusiasm infects the crowd, which tightens as patrons flock forward.

Bass.

One long, heavy note floods through the speakers and into the ears of hundreds of yelling festivalgoers. Dense beams of light flash from the stage’s rafters, illuminating the field in the vein of an epic Super Bowl half-time show. A DJ stands behind his tabletop setup consisting of a MacBook Pro, a MIDI controller, and a line mixer. Surprisingly simplistic. Synthetic blips join the bass line along with hard 808 kicks and snappy snares. Enter CounterPoint.

*

Electronic dance music, EDM for short, has been a part of music culture since the early 1970s. The phenomenon took off when disco music began to embrace the usage of synthetically produced sounds. Prior, disco consisted of electric guitar and bass. In the 80s, disco music began to lose its popularity. But while disco died, synthetic sounds found new life.

DJs and producers started experimenting with this exciting new way to create music. They borrowed sounds from genres like blues, funk, and reggae to create post-disco jams. By the 90s, acid house—a genre of EDM that featured “four on the floor”, or a kick on every beat—became wildly popular in Europe. Thanks to the introduction of Musical Instrument Digital Interfaces (abbreviated as MIDI) to the public market, scores of wanna-be musicians of every genre were finally able to afford equipment that would help them compose the music they’d always imagined.

Across the world, fans of EDM suddenly had the ability to create music. They didn’t need to depend on agents, deals or contracts with record labels. Perhaps more importantly, most could get by with lighter wallets.

Fast forward to 2014, where the EDM scene—after roughly fourteen years of influence and evolution—showed no signs of fatigue.

It wouldn’t be farfetched to suggest that most young adults in North America had at least heard of the monster-bass music that is dubstep. Dubstep stormed the North American music scene in 2005 with its half-step drum lines (kick on the one, snare on the three), synthetic melodies and, most famously, its oscillating bass. In 2008 the dubstep artist Skrillex raised the genre’s popularity to new heights. Thanks to the simplicity of the Internet it spread and claimed its place at EDM festivals across the continent.

Despite dubstep’s stellar popularity the sub-bass music seemed to peak in 2012, according to some fans deeply entrenched in the scene. By 2013 the EDM machine had birthed a new beast: “Real Trap Shit.”

Trap music was a new breed. Taking note of one of dubstep’s most popular aspects, trap utilized the half-step drum line. However, the chaotic, “wompy” sub-bass so prominent in dubstep had been mostly replaced by a simpler, cleaner bass style. Less sounds competing at their respective frequencies meant more room for new musical elements like vocals—not to say vocals were completely absent from dubstep.

The capability to produce high-quality EDM extended to essentially anyone with a computer. Take Hucci, for example. Hucci is the stage name of a UK DJ/producer who recently played for fans outside of Atlanta, Georgia for CounterPoint 2014. At the time of the show he was seventeen years old. He has produced electronic music since the age of fifteen.

Not every new EDM producer got to cross oceans to show off their stuff.

Eric Ugland, a twenty-two-year-old SCAD graduate and hardcore basshead, became interested in EDM production after attending the first CounterPoint in 2012. Before CounterPoint he only listened to electronic music casually.

Ugland said, “I was listening to people like The Dear Hunter [and] Manchester Orchestra.”

Post-hardcore indie-rock bands.

Ugland grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the punk, metal, and indie scenes were fairly well developed. Every weekend the lanky, longhaired high school version of him attended a concert. The shows were usually held in a small venue, sometimes a bar, always in a sketchy part of town.

“A big part of the music that made it so fun was the live energy that came with it,” he said.

Bands like The Junior Astronomers, some members of which Ugland knew personally, could put on a killer show.

“I really only cared about seeing them live. That’s what was fun about it.”

Everyone sang, danced, and jumped to the tunes. If that sounded like the typical high schooler’s party, that’d be because it probably was. Yet Ugland honestly enjoyed the music. Contrast to the common household bash, these parties provided no music. Instead, music would deliver the party.

In twelfth grade, Ugland developed an interest in hip-hop. After hearing Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon, Ugland turned his attention to, as he put it, beat-oriented music.

“Not only lyrically, but the music itself—the beats—were really unique.”

He’d never heard anything like it. In discovering hip-hop, Ugland unwittingly took his first few steps toward EDM production.

During his freshman year at SCAD, Ugland befriended Puffy, a Painting major.

“He had a MIDI controller,” Ugland said. “He was showing me Reason, the [music] software…I had never touched anything like that before.”

Reason, developed by Propellerhead, was music production software that mimicked analog machinery (synthesizers, drum machines, mixers and etc.). Ugland’s experience with Reason informed him of the concept of signal processing and the generation of electronic sound. This curiosity eventually lead Ugland closer to the EDM scene than he’d ever been before.

One year later Ugland purchased a ticket to his first EDM festival. CounterPoint was a brand new festival in the Atlanta, Georgia area. It saw over 12,000 guests who paid close to $200 each. The festival was hugely successful, enough so to prompt the mega-festival Tomorrow World to assimilate the grounds in 2013 for its premiere in North America (and see a headcount of over 20,000 attendees at $260 per ticket for CounterPoint’s return in 2014). Evidently, it was enough to officially hook Ugland, and probably others, onto EDM as well.

CounterPoint was nothing like the small-time shows back in Charlotte. It was a real festival. A three-day campout in the woods of northern Georgia with twelve thousand EDM fans, several cases of beer, more marijuana than the DEA could sic a dog after, and close to ten water jugs.

“I’ve been to big shows before,” Ugland told me, “but I’d never seen anything even remotely this big.”

The biggest event he’d attended prior to CounterPoint cost him $30. CounterPoint’s size alone did not overwhelm Ugland. The music itself impressed him.

“Those shows were really, I mean…” He paused and his face lit up. “It’s different hearing things on the sound systems of that scale. It just sounds fucking great.”

At the shows Ugland frequented in high school, bands would bring their own amps. The crowds, if they could be called that, rarely filled the venues to capacity. At CounterPoint the music blasted over the hillsides. Ugland quickly pointed out that someone could stand one hundred yards away from a stage and feel the bass shake their body.

“The acoustics and the sound design that goes into that kind of setup is on a higher caliber,” he explained.

And it doesn’t end there. A lot of EDM artists composed their music beforehand, so when performing a live show they wouldn’t always have a lot to do. Even when occupied they’d usually be hunched over a laptop or fiddling with dials on an analog machine.

Ugland stressed that part of the thrill of live acoustic music was the chance to witness artists perform their craft. As if to see Jimmy Hendrix or Van Halen shred the guitar.

But with electronic music, “…no matter how close you get to the stage, you can’t tell what the fuck they’re doing up there.” His voice’s reflection promised genuineness. Understanding. It was impossible to see what exactly an EDM artist was “playing” onstage, and Eric Ugland could not have cared less—for good reason.

To make up for what otherwise might have been a lackluster performance, most EDM artists employed immersive visuals and vibrant, flashy stage lighting. The visual effects leant a lot to each performance’s strength.

According to Ugland, “Lighting as well as video is something that can enhance music and is easily incorporated.”

The stage lights, food-dye colored high beams, were synchronized with the music. When an artist used video graphics—see Bassnectar, who Ugland adored—they were often synced with the music as well. For Ugland, the CounterPoint experience wasn’t about seeing the artists or even hearing the artists. It was about experiencing them. About receiving each performance with every available sense. The good shows were not only audibly pleasing, but visually and physically satisfying as well.

Unfortunately, not everyone agreed with Ugland’s EDM philosophy. With the rise of DJs and live electronic music came harsh backlash from critics. They targeted the fact that EDM was commonly made preemptively and claimed that meant the most work an artist had on set was shifting their fingers to press a few buttons. In some cases this was true, but Ugland would not concede.

“I don’t think they [the critics] understand what goes into the performance up there. It’s really a different skill set.” He spoke precisely and with an air of articulacy. “DJ’ing, for a person who isn’t familiar with the software…you put them on it [the software] and they can’t do shit.”

He would know. As a fan of EDM and hobbyist of its production, nothing aggravated Ugland more than to hear EDM producers accused of doing little more than pressing a button labeled, “MAKE MUSIC.”

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