Deadmau5: Dance DJs Are Glorified Button Pushers

We all hit play. It's no secret. When it comes to "live" performance of electronic dance music -- that's about the most it seems you can do anyway. It's not about performance art, it's not about talent either (really it's not). In fact, let me do you and the rest of the EDM world button pushers who hate me for telling you how it is, a favour and let you all know how it is.

As much as we'd like to think that the DJs and electronic musicians of the world get on stage and make crazy dance music on the fly -- the truth is that most of the time they're just pushing play. Just ask Deadmau5, one of the most popular electronic musicians in the world.

I think given about one hour of instruction, anyone with minimal knowledge of Ableton and music tech in general could DO what I'm doing at a Deadmau5 concert. Just like I think ANY DJ in the WORLD who can match a beat can do what "ANYONE else" (not going to mention any names) is doing on their EDM stages, too. Have a look, then let me explain:

OK, so here's me, in a big silly mousehead... twiddlin' a knob or something. OK so here's how it works: somewhere in that mess is a computer, running Ableton Live… and it's spewing out premixed (to a degree) stems of my original productions, and then a SMPTE feed to front of house (so tell the light/video systems) where I'm at in the performance… so that all the visuals line up nicely and all the light cues are on and stuff. Now, while thats all going on, theres a good chunk of MIDI data spitting out as well to a handful of synths and crap that are/were used in the actual production… which I can tweak *live* and what not… but doesn't give me alot of "lookit me I'm Jimi Hendrix check out this solo" stuff, because I'm constrained to work on a set timeline because of the SMPTE. It's a super redundant system, and more importantly it's reliable as F**K! And obviously, I've done the show a couple of hundred times easily by now, so the focus over the past few runs with the "cube show" has been more revolved around adding new audio/visual content to keep it current.

So that's my "live" show, and that's as "live" as I can comfortably get it (for now anyway). Of course, it'll evolve and change up, but I'm sure a few key principles will always remain the same.

I'm just so sick of hearing the "NO!!! I'M NOT JUST DOING THIS, I HAVE SIX TABLES UP THERE AND I DO THIS THIS AND THIS." I don't have any shame in admitting that for "unhooked" sets I just roll up with a laptop and a MIDI controller and "select" tracks and hit a spacebar. Ableton syncs the shit up for me… so no beatmatching skill required. "beatmatching" isn't even a skill as far as I'm concered anyway. So what, you can count to four. Cool. I had that skill down when I was three, so don't give me that argument please.

My "skills" and other PRODUCER'S skills shine where it needs to shine: in the goddamned studio and on the releases. That's what counts… because this whole big "EDM" is taking over fad, I'm not going to let it go thinking that people assume there's a guy on a laptop up there producing new original tracks on the fly. Because none of the "top DJs in the world" to my knowledge have. Myself included.

You know what makes the EDM show the crazy amazing show that it is? You guys do. The fans, the people who came to appreciate the music, the lights, all the other people who came, we just facilitate the means and the pretty lights and the draw of more awesome people like you by our studio productions, which is exactly what it is. But to stand up and say you're doing something special outside of a studio environment when you're not just annoys me.

Republished with permission from Deadmau5's Tumblr. He'd like you to know that he's got a new track on iTunes that just dropped today. Check it out.

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    Interesting. Obviously it doesn't bother him so good on him, but there is plenty of scope for electronic artists to be as creative as they like. The Jimi Hendrix guitar solo he alluded to, for example, is well within the scope of a pre-programmed electronic set. All that needs to be done is to press those funny looking, black and white things below the rows of knobs that are the "performance" staple of so many electronic acts. Personally I would much rather programme the filter sweep and play the part that it is being applied to but that, of course, requires me to do a lot more practice than just turning a knob would (but it is still a lot easier for me these days than it was before I could afford a MIDI set-up, when I used to have to be able to play two parts and sing at the same time).

      You can still take things in the opposite direction as opposed to straight instrument playing and maintain a level of musicianship with a performance. Ableton has made it possible to get quite granular and 'live' with performance of EDM styled music. I can see what Deadmau5 is saying but I just don't think a lot of EDM artists really want to put in the effort to making the live sound an art form.

      Out of my own curiosity I did a 'live set' so to speak last year of my own music, put together on the fly along with live triggered effects. I only really scratched the surface of what was possible with Ableton - there are a huge amount of possibilities to put on a very artistic, live show without moving away from controllers. - tis a tad rough around the edges (including a controller deciding to stop working halfway through) but it was a lot of fun to do.

        I think we are saying basically the same thing - it is a choice that sheeple make and just because Deadmau5 doesn't bother playing anything, there is nothing to suggest plenty of others don't. The problem with doing what I imagine you did was that whilst it may have been reasonably artistic, its hard to imagine it was very entertaining, which is the other area in which most dance artists fail. Its OK to rely on amazing visuals when you have the budget of Deadmau5 but few electronic acts seem to put too much effort into performance.

    Interesting, and awesome that Giz grabbed Deadmau5.

    I love my dance music and have had epic nights stomping to the likes of Tiesto, Plastikman and even Aphex Twin. There are always notable exceptions for those who really do get further into the live space -- but big examples of this, like Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, Pendulum, Orbital (back in the day) -- even mashup artists like French teenager Madeon -- also do more than straight four on the floor beats.

    I've got musician friends that make the ballet of knobs, sweat and Ableton sonic fuckery akin to Jimmy Hendrix wailing on the guitar -- we're talking crazy talent. But if I want to see a DJ blow my mind with live improvisation, I look to turntablism (beat juggling/scratching, etc).

      Agreed on all counts. Seeing DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist perform live while going through 45's ad infinitum has to be seen.

      Turntablism is a skill, for sure. But it's getting old, you just can't keep most people entertained by doing a 3 minute scratch sesh.... And now days if you want that turntablism feel, most artists would be safe and premix it into the track.

    This is oh so true. DJ's who think theyre musicians.

    EDM was never about the live shows, it was about producing.a track with synths n samples, once it got popular, people wanted to see this amazing thing live, but the effort but into making a song is too much to be played live, hence the pressing play

    As long as the audience understands the difference between a DJ that just pushes play and one that actually works for his coin up on stage, then I think he's just creating controversy. It wouldn't go down very well with most drum & bass listeners, expecially over here - we get people stood down from touring for playing with pre-mixed cd's when they should be beatmatching (*ahem* Mistabishi's NZ Tour *ahem*)

    Brilliant article.

    I love Aphex Twin, Amon Tobin, Venetian Snares and Squarepusher and am under absolutely NO illusions about how they play their live shows. The skill is in their song writing and production.

    Nice to see someone tell it like it is.

      Holy crap -- first time Venetian Snares ever mentioned on Giz -- awesome!
      Aphex Twin and Amon Tobin are also last two gigs I've been to in Sydney ;)

    As a Dj myself, I have never told or boasted about my musical genius because I know I am essentially pressing buttons. I Dj because I enjoy sharing music with people and getting them moving. If a full dance floor doesn't make you smile as a Dj then you need to give it up.

    The real talent when dj'ing I think is the ability to feel your audience, playing the right stuff when it's required. A performance should have an ebb and flow to it, highs and lows. I've seen some technically skilled dj's in my time but heard people complaining about their set due to it just being a boring hour and a half long 128bpm thump.

    I don't think I'm the best Dj going around by a long shot, but I take pride in how I construct and deliver my sets.

    My 2 cents.

      Seconded. I mix vinyl as well as digital and I still believe their is a real knack to mixing well, in a style that people can differentiate. The most important skill is playing what the crowd wants as well as knowing where you want to take them. If Deadmau5 isn't doing that he's doing it wrong.

      In his defence though, hes' a producer first. Mixing is a way of performing the music talented artists spend so much time creating, with an individual take that goes beyond button pushes.

        There is a massive difference - the punters turn up to hear Deadmau5 play, where as a DJ is there to play what the crowd wants to hear. I do both things and the approach is fundamentally different.

    If memory serves me correct chemical brothers at least used to live mix. But yeah it's virtually impossible to mix a lot of tracks on stage, no different to lip sync.

    Beat mixing on vinyl for 5 minutes isn't that easy but anyone can learn it. Many a digital DJ has fallen foul when they've cockily fronted up to my decks only to walk away embarrassed one tune down

    His comments do not openly negate a huge amount of DJ's and electonic artists that perform live but all the efforts of people involved with software like ableton live and over at native instruments. All the engineers hard at work developing and manufacturing the latest wave of MIDI controllers and other hardware like MPC's. While the capability to simplify your performance to just pushing a few buttons to launch prefabricated loops and smoothly blended transitions is there there are plenty of artists out there that go above and beyond. Since a beat sync feature first came out there's been the argument of what skills are required to DJ, some have chosen to not beat sync, some have and (ritchie hawtin) some have taken the extra time beat syncing has alloted them to turn their attentions to other things they can focus on as freed up time and attention can afford them.

    While I'm glad he was open and honest about it, and I know many more artists, especially ones with large light shows and other enhancements go this route this by no means represents where EDM is today. Maybe go see a four tet or daedulus show for reference. Go see jeremy ellis live.

      I'm sorry but it took me 5 or 6 years to learn to play well enough to perform in front of a crowd but it only took me two minutes to work out how to use the DJ equipment before I did that in a nightclub full of punters. DJing is a skill I would rank right up there with being able to tie a bowtie. i.e Really, really easy. The sad thing is that DJing pays much better.

    This would be a really good article if not for the foul language. It's really disappointing to see a blog which I read ALOT use so much terrible language. It's not even necessary. If you need to use this kind of language to portray your feelings, then you shouldn't be a writer, even if it is quoted.

      Are you seven?

      "Republished with permission from Deadmau5′s Tumblr."
      Joel Zimmerman (Deadmau5) isn't a writer.

    Go to the DMC's and tell any of those DJ's that they are un-skilled, glorified button pushers, you Canadian twat!

    It's no secret that the majority of dance DJs choose a track, hit play, beat match, and that is about the extent of their repertoire... BUT

    Don't sell the whole industry short. You can introduce a whole host of elements into a live set to liven it up. In fact in the past few years I have noticed many more getting recognition for this. You still have the classic weekend warrior DJs who do it just to look cool, but there are people out there that bring along MPCs, keys, and other controllers to make the set more 'interactive' to show off other talents.

    For instance, watching someone lay a beat down on an MPC, play out a bassline, hook, pads etc. on a keyboard is quite awesome...

    Then, as lots of people have stated about, you have DMCs which are in a completely different league.

    Let's not forget, lots of people go out to dance and have fun. At the end of the day not that many people who go nightclubbing are THAT interested in who is playing...

    Love seeing all the people butthurt who don't realize how many of their guys 'who really do it live' are actually just pantomiming to dupe the people in the audience.
    Plain and simple if you are at a show and the lights are syncing up with the music perfectly there is absolutely no improvisation or 'on the fly' playing involved. It's push play>dance. There is nothing wrong with that. As Deadmau5 said the real talent is in the production. Some dolt beatmatching two tracks is about as impressive as someone being able to pick their nose.

    Deadmau5 is a wanker. He tries to be funny. No music is easier or harder to make then any other. You complete idiots. One only have two hands, and with two hands, there's only so much you can do, but don't for a minute think that it's easy. Deadmau5 music is overhyped, and so is he as an artist. It does not take much today to make a teen go nuts. Some alcohol and spoon fed views of what you should wear and listen too. You can sell anything with killer advertising and psychology. It's really disappointing that this twaaat is bringing up the nonsense bla bla bla about people just pushing buttons, with they don't. Maybe he does, but who cares?
    Good one, to mock, ridicule,degrade, and lie about an entire scene with very talented DJ's and producers that work with tools and instruments available today. It's hard enough to get acceptance making music not involving a damn guitar, or "real drums" as it is. This whole article is full of lies and incorrect nonsense. Deadmau5, you obviously make way to much money that is good for you. Why don't you just stop your whining ,what you are doing, and give away your money to some people in less fortunate countries?
    Maybe that will fix your pain?

    Interesting article and I consider him to be spot on.
    DJ's in my opinion live are just entertainers.
    If what Deadmau5 says is to be believed they are effectively "lip syncing" whilst making small tweaks they're not as organic as a group of musicians.

    Not saying it's a bad thing as for the majority of people it's a great form of entertainment.
    For my own personal tastes there is nothing better then seeing musicians live because no two shows are ever the same, there is room for improvisation and an emotional connection with the audience, even hitting bum notes can add to the human factor - reminding us that rock gods aren't necessarily perfect.

    Unbelieveable how "Captain Obvious" it all seems and STILL people argue. Armchair experts clearly know better than someone like silly Deadmau5 about how this works and who does what. What are we, kids watching a WWF match? Absolutely go ahead and enjoy it as much as you want but don't argue that it is something it clearly isn't.

    oooh i beg to differ! So many artists do incredible stuff LIVE! The fact that they play on some of the biggest festivals also says that you dont have to give up entertainment value by making live music! These are some examples i thought off in 1 minute, if you want i can give more:

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