Bands vs. DJs – Which One is Better Live?

bands vs. djs which is better live

Photo Credit: Erika Reinsel

Upon returning from an extremely loud and somewhat bizarre Wooden Shjips concert at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, New York, my colleague and I found ourselves struggling to answer a relatively straightforward question: what constitutes a great live show?  Yes, the question may be simple, but the answer is far, far from that. Whether you’re a fan of EDM, alternative rock, pop, or hip-hop, the live experience cannot be replaced, and every genre has its time to shine.

The Live Experience in Perspective: Bands vs. DJs

Electronic dance music (EDM) is not a new phenomenon in America; it has simply taken on a new moniker. Once synthesized drugs—MDMA,specifically—became an integral part of the club scene, the term “techno,” which was EDM’s 1990s predecessor, would simply not suffice. The collective intimacy once found in techno audiences is long gone, and has been replaced by a singular and largely Ecstasy-fueled conglomerate.

The low-key DJ spinning records in the shadows is now a superstar propped up on enormous stages, however, EDM artists have recently been criticized for their simplistic “push, play” method—even from fellow DJs within the community. Naturally, Deadmau5 publicized his opinion via Tumblr (read the whole rant), though the Canadian producer/DJ has also openly criticized his own fans for liking his music, so take his comments with a grain of salt.

“We all hit play. It’s no secret…when it comes to ‘live’ performance of EDM…that’s about the most it seems you can do anyway…my ‘skills’ and other PRODUCERS skills shine where it needs to shine…in the goddamned studio, and on the fucking releases. That’s what counts.” – Deadmau5

Perhaps, EDM festivals have become too big for their own good, and as a result, the connection between the artist and the audience has shrank. However disheartening this may be, it is not the sole fault of the DJ; the culture has eclipsed the music, and it would be impossible to cater to the mood of thousands of individuals. It’s time to move past the “push, play” argument and critique the genre with some perspective, the same way you would critique a rock or pop group—relative to their piers.

On the subject of judging live performance relative to a comparable style of music, it’s worth briefly mentioning the 1970’s British rock group, Led Zeppelin. Despite their drug-induced sloppiness from time-to-time, the band was voted “Best Live Act” at the 2008 MOJO Awards, which is pretty impressive given that there weren’t any legitimate rules or regulations at live shows back then (i.e. The Who’s Keith Moon blowing up his drum kit on stage or Jimi Hendrix literally setting guitars on fire during performances). Regardless, Led Zeppelin were able to connect with their audience and create an atmosphere that other rock bands could simply not match.

Nowadays things have changed, with musicians becoming increasingly dependent on live shows. Bands are playing huge venues more often than ever before. Speaking to this trend, nineteen-year-old folk rocker Jake Bugg humbly told NME in an interview, “It’s a cool opportunity for me to come and play little places like this [The Cavern Club], because I like my intimate gigs and as the shows have got bigger you don’t really get to play them as much.” Clearly, it seems that the size of the venue and crowd at concerts drastically effects the connection to the artist, which could be a large part of the issue in the “push, play” debate.

When it’s all said and done, this “bands vs. DJs” debate boils down to two key factors: perspective and expectation. Given what we know about the electronic music scene today, it would be somewhat irrational to judge an EDM artist solely based on the music you heard at a show. The performances are spectacles; they are just as much about the lights as they are the music. The merits of EDM lie in all of the hard work and dedication that goes into creating these spectacles.

An extremely divisive recent video from Rolling Stone Italy against EDM.

With the focus placed so heavily on the spectacle of the experience, the emphasis on the nuances of the music gets overshadowed. Not to mention, with the use of “molly” so prevalent, it’s safe to say many fans have gone too far down the rabbit hole to make any judgments on the music alone. Yes, the EDM experience can be quite entertaining, but it’s both sad and unfortunate that MDMA has a stranglehold on the movement. This was abundantly clear after two attendees of the Electric Zoo Festival in New York City died due to an MDMA overdose this past year, resulting in the cancellation of the festival’s third and final day.

Conversely, EDM’s opponent in this debate—the live band—embodies an entirely different set of expectations altogether. Fans often compare studio recordings to live performances, the latter serving as a measurement for true musicianship and band cohesiveness. If the band sounds terrible live, it’s a pretty good indicator that they got lots of studio support, yet this cross-comparison doesn’t exist if DJs play exactly what they’ve recorded in the studio. All things considered, next time you’re compiling a list of the best shows you’ve ever been to, I suggest you make two—one for bands and one for DJs.

Article by Josh Cranin

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