Air quotes optional at ‘live’ dance festival

GigCity Edmonton Calvin HarrisHow to be a “live” DJ:

Step 1: Show up

Step 2: Push play

Step 3: Collect $50,000

Just kidding. Fifty grand might be a little low for Calvin Harris’s guarantee. But how diabolically clever. DJs are among the few recording artists who can still make a living by making records – i.e., making them at home and then “performing” them at “live” gigs, air quotes optional.

GigCity Edmonton BassnectarA lot of people are into this. There’s another sold-out dance music festival happening this weekend at the Shaw Conference Centre: The Northern Lights Music Festival, starring a DJ who has at least as many hits on the radio and is as rich as, say, Rihanna. With 12 acts in a non-stop sight and sound fantasia of house, bass, trance, name your subgenre, Calvin Harris will draw just about 5,000 fans when he performs Friday night, with a like number expected when Bassnectar (right) hits the stage Saturday. Not too shabby.

The same question keeps getting asked: What the HELL are those DJs doing up there that they’re treated like rock stars? They sure look busy with their headphones and whatnot.

Electronic dance music enthusiasts will tell you that DJing is as much a performance as playing a musical instrument. When a DJ “mans the decks,” he can select songs, adjust sound levels, maybe take out the bass track for a few bars, pop in a new drum track, trigger enhancements and special effects, make loops to repeat, and so on. But seeing as it’s pre-recorded raw material and all the beats are canned, NOT doing any of those things wouldn’t lessen the impact of the music at any given moment. It’s optional. The show could run on autopilot. Same for all the special effects. Bassnector will have 10 techs to help run his show.

At least the dance scene has come to value DJs that play their own, original music. So there is that.

“The days of the DJ that just plays everyone else’s music are gone,” says Northern Lights producer Justin Pandos of Connected Entertainment, same people who put on the Elements Festival last year. “People are pretty excited about this,” he adds.

Efforts to expand dance culture into other arenas should be applauded: Like the Boonstock festival, which goes for a mix of DJs and rock bands; or rock bands like Korn or Linkin Park that employ DJs; or DJs like Calvin Harris who employ rock bands and pop singers. Yet electronic dance music (abbreviated as EDM everywhere except YEG to avoid confusion) still remains in its own little world. The whole scene still faces disdain from purists who insist that a DJ isn’t a “real” musician.

Pandos says the DJs aren’t so picky about the distinctions, “I bet rockers are probably on the more sensitive end when it comes to being purists about music.”

As usual, Europe is frightfully ahead of the game on this sort of thing. An event called Tomorrowland, coming up in July in Belgium, is expected to attract up to 200,000 ravers from around the world. Pandos talks about acts like Sasha and Digweed that could draw thousands of fans at a gig overseas, but barely get 200 people if they came to Edmonton. Still, events like Northern Light do pretty well here. They usually sell out – despite some bad press about the “Dangers of Raves” here and there.

And there’s always something new. There are always fresh sounds. There isn’t much call for “classic” dance music at these events. DJs have a very short shelf life, Pandos says.

“I know that the electronic music scene, the music scene in general, is fickle,” he says. “If you’re not constantly producing new, current music, then you can go by the wayside. I think the reason Calvin Harris is so successful is that he’s constantly producing and constantly putting out hits, whether it’s by himself or with a major pop star.”

He also sings and writes some pretty good pop tunes, too – so could that perhaps have something to do with his longevity?

Anyway, there’s little point in live music purists banging on dance culture anymore. Half of the touring arena rock shows use pre-recorded backing tracks anyway – to say nothing of the lip-syncing pop divas. What deserves to be called a “live” concert in 2013? It just depends on where you want to draw the line.