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What Went Wrong with Electronic Music?
Accelerating technology and the advent of the "performative" personality destroyed an entire hobby
The intellect has one thing in common with his art. His art is both sophisticated and expressive. This isn’t just an “expression” of his own personal emotions or insecurities with regards to peer pressure, subculture, or status quo. But rather, the intellectual’s art is complex, logical, and a meaningful machine for curious learners and scholars to appreciate. This is radically different from those who try and chisel an abstract feeling made of clay, while the intellect chisels the body of Adonis.
Expression alone is a fleeting emotion, but the sophistication that follows is related to the difficult disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math. However, the latter disciplines are missing from the evolving, yet regressive genre, of popular electronic music.
At one point, electronic music was a novelty. Perhaps records by Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Beaver & Krause, Morton Subotnick and Wendy Carlos were novelties among the “new age” class of the late 1960s to 1970s. Owning an actual synthesizer at this time was expensive, and it wasn’t until the creation of the commercialized and condensed version of the modular synthesizer, namely the Moog Model D, was able to provide every professional rock musician the sound of something cosmic and futuristic. Still at the end of this hippy era, electronic music was always for the upper class. Creating electronic music immediately labeled the musician as an avant-garde artist. Those who undertook the duty to create pure electronic music, like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, were fighting an uphill battle. Technology wasn’t there to proliferate electronic music for the masses or for the curious musician.
As of 2021, electronic music became the norm. All dance oriented music is considered to be “EDM,” or “electronic dance music,” for short. This term did not exist until the beginning of the 2010s. By default, all of black American music is dependent upon computers, samples, and digital synthesis. The same could be said about any white rock album created in ProTools or through realistic sounding VSTs. The artificial has blurred the lines between reality and computer technology.
Something happened to the electronic music hobbyist in 2021.
Note, I wrote “hobbyist.” This isn’t to say the hobbyist is an impulsive consumer or someone looking to get high on drugs everyday. A hobby can be defined not only as an activity of leisure, but as a craft and intellectual pursuit one accomplishes.
Because electronic music is so abundant and proliferating, there is not room left for esoteric interest or deep studies into programming. There are now synthesizers for kids and smartphones that become a “digital audio workstation.” (More on that later). The interest in the sophisticated, analytical machine is gone. In other words, the interface to create electronic music has became “elegant.” Easy to operate, all while resulting in random, awe-inspiring noise.
The electronic musician in 2021 is not interested in technical aspects of what I call “the programmer,” and instead is interested in something called “the performative.” The hobbyist has turned into a decadent actor, wooed by the schizophrenic music industry and non-stop supply and demand interests of likes and dislikes on “social media.” The story is about technology, accelerating past old trends and making those older art forms obsolete.
Is there any point to be a hobbyist anymore?
The Days Before Microsoft Computers
I classify electronic music distribution, and practice, into three phases:
The Programmer (the Hobbyist)
The Streamer (Somewhere between the two)
The Performer (the decadent actor)
I am personally nostalgic about the programming days of electronic music, where the appreciation, inspiration, and pleasure from electronic music came from a deep interest into limited capabilities, self-containment, the data used to construct the music, and from the honing skills and tricks used on old platforms like ProTracker, OctaMED, FastTracker 2, Scream Tracker, Impulse Tracker, Cubase 1, ReBirth RB-338, and Reason 1 through 3. Musicians did not have access to the computers we have today. The introduction of the Atari ST and the first midi program, Cubase, helped musicians sync their gear to create perfectly timed electronic songs. And the Amiga 500 on the other hand, was about 8-bit sampling and “tracking.”
In the late 80s to mid 90s, there were many unique methods of sharing electronic music on the internet. These limitations did not rely on “digital audio workstations” or fast-speed download servers. Rather, people shared music through .mod files, custom midi files, or even files related to contained music programs, like in ReBirth RB-338 (from the progressive PC, or “personal computer” by Microsoft). The internet did not exist, and there was no way to directly download music in a fast manner. Musicians traded electronic music files through floppy diskettes. Only a courageous few “downloaded” music files. The concept that all music is raw audio is misleading. The birth of the .mod file in 1987 changed the electronic music scene.
Electronic music at this time did not rely on affordable or readily available hardware at a local music store or online retailer, but the electronic music scene was motivated by nerdy, introverted computer intellects who enjoyed computer music, which at it’s heart, is the hobbyist, akin to the analytical philosopher or mathematic professor. For my own definition of a hobbyist, I am not including those who already had hardware in the 80s and early 90s. Those with money did have access to the Akai MPC and multitrack recorders. Most casual electronic musicians at that time couldn’t afford these pieces. Because sharing home recordings during the 80s and 90s was rare among hobbyists, working with early music trackers and sharing .mod files on the internet, or through mail catalogues or at “demoparties” was a special experience. My focus is on the programmer and the internet communities that were being made around electronic music.
In the mainstream, “techno” entered the popular imagination, as a term to refer to all popular electronic music. Rave was the rage in Europe, and the American scene was too focused on post-rock “grunge.” Electronic music was still alien, and it still echoed the popular sounds of Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, and the girl pop of Madonna. Suddenly, more kitsch “raver” hits would come out of the blue, from “Cotten Eye Joe” to “Sandstorm.” The synthesizer and drum machine, once used as realistic-sounding devices in the 80s, suddenly transformed into futuristic dance toys of the 90s. Electronic music found a new purpose. It became popular among the masses. It wasn’t just for the technical nerd, but now new music that sounds unlike anything heard before.
And when technology advanced, an entire hobbyist scene became obsolete.
The period between the late 90s until the early 2010s, “streaming” electronic music was at its peak.
As technology advanced, “streaming” was now possible, and the sample rate increased in sound quality. Musicians could actually dump exact audio recordings onto the internet, and by the early to lates 2000s, a new scene of musicians began sharing their music on platforms like Myspace Music, Mp3.com, and even Newgrounds. This was “the streaming” phase, and was the tail-end of the hobbyist scene. If anything can be streamed, what’s the point working with music trackers anymore?
The .mod file was devalued. It was all just raw audio now.
In the late 2000s, people were uploading experimental breakcore and e-grind on Internet Archive, MediaFire, Rapidshare, HostGator, and Megaupload. Perhaps this was a cultural message about the internet becoming the new “DIY” platform. That seemed like it made sense, until most of these so-called breakcore and e-grind acts started to fade away and had little to no success. I remember acts like 50 Ways To Kill Me, xRotten Noisex, Battlefield Gorezum, Breakdancing Ronald Reagan, Dizzy Phizzy, Original Hamster, Animassacre, B! Machine, and Kamikaze Deadboy, who uploaded a majority of their noise in the late 2000s. There is no way to find any of this music anymore. The servers are gone. Passing “netlabels,” like Dramacore.com, bit the dust as soon as the 2000s were over.
I also remember websites like I Hate Breakcore.com, where users would upload their noise music through its web player. I remember back in 2006, I would get into political arguments about Nouvelle Droite and National Socialism. Most of the users tend to be shitlibs from Europe who will get arrested if found flirting with far-right ideology. It goes to show even political correctness invades so-called spaces of “punk music.” This was my first experience with an internet community which flirts with reactionary politics, yet worships the Eurocentric, neoliberal paradigm. All of them I would say are bourgeois cowards who play into the fake game of power electronics insecurity. I’m glad the website is dead.
It’s also cringe and embarrassing during the 2000s period, there was a novelty of pre-micro-genres. Other than breakcore and e-grind, I clearly remember the infamous “dubstep” fad of 2008. By 2012, the mainstream media became obsessed with creating a commercial genre around dubstep, which would lead into the dooming nature of “EDM.”
No longer was it about “self-containment.” Fruity Loops became FL Studio, Ableton Live became a “performative DAW,” and everyone with a laptop had access to recording audio tracks with an affordable audio interface through Audacity. Music trackers and multitrack cassette recorders became obsolete.
For most musicians, there was a fine line between the hobby and performing. All this free noise music became useless, and was soon dwarfed by connecting everyone on the internet.
The popular electronic duo Boards of Canada spoke in a 2005 Pitchfork interview, that they wished to become a normal “band” then simply an electronic one.
Mike Sandison argued,
“We knew that we had to break away from this thing. It bothered us that if you go into the big stores our stuff is always sitting in the dance music section. We never made a dance record in our entire career but our stuff still gets thrown in there. Our drive with this record [The Campfire Headphase] is to try and get us out of the dance section and into the main section with all the others bands, like ABBA and A-Ha. We're just a band. Not an IDM band, not an electronic band, and not a dance band.”
The Pitchfork interviewer replied back, “But this will not happen. It's a losing battle.”
And Mike said, “Maybe not now, but in five or 10 years— if shops are still selling CDs.”
And that’s where we are today.
With the creation of YouTube and the internet celebrity, a new Jean Baudrillard style of “hyperreality” or “meta-viewing” has emerged. Everyone on social media agrees to belong in an “imagined community” and advocates the fictional subculture of “the electronic musician.” It is no longer about the programmer’s skills, talent, or the emotional and intellectual vigor behind popular music, but of the performance, in that everyone is an actor faking it until they “make it” under late capitalism.
Think about how technology transformed the consumer mentality. Video frame rates vastly improved, internet speed increased, streaming became possible, and everyone with a smartphone now has a video camera in their hand. Consumers can film themselves, and pretend they are the star of a movie no one is watching. Becoming an actor and movie director has a drastic consequence against the inspiring musician. Film made the musician obsolete.
I argue that the performer has ruined electronic music and the hobby itself. I am not a gatekeeper or someone interested in saving what etiquette there is left. A majority of hobbyists came from introverted activities like the “demoscene,” and not from the extroverted and decadent party scene of becoming a black House DJ. I am rather yearning for similar-minded intellects who authentically make great electronic music as a hobby and as a passion.
For example, the demoscene focused on self-contained, sometimes extremely small, computer “programs” that produced both audiovisual and musical presentations. The purpose of the demo is to show off the programmers skill in all areas related to the computers limit. The dance genre of IDM, or “Intelligent Dance Music,” has roots in the demoscene, and popular electronic musicians like Aphex Twin, Autechre or Squarepusher continue the tradition of pushing electronic hardware to their limits. However, much of this “pushing” has transformed this trend into the decadent habit of the performative, or of a shady actor trying to impress friends with his generic magic tricks.
Some of these so-called musicians work under ideological names, like “Dawless Jamming,” “Look Mum No Computer,” and “allmyfriendsaresynths,” and are insisting that there is something icky and despicable about making art on a computer, or that working with the bland and minimal are for uneducated philistines. Already a semantic about “digital audio workstations” is in bad faith, stating something is wrong with people who work as programmers. Other myths include “the workflow” of making electronic music, as if there is only one good way towards “elegance.” There is a whole scene of electronic musician “performers” that show off the latest gear, and produce nothing with it. They use clever rhetoric to deracinate themselves towards an egalitarian model. For example, they are “music makers” apart of the “music making community” and they talk about the problems of “G.A.S,” or “Gear Acquisition Syndrome,” to further blur the lines of electronic music and the musician itself. A genre of “synthwave” fetishizes the synthesizer as an object, mocking and emulating a John Carpenter film soundtrack. Music becomes a subculture, or a useless collections of Funko Pop dolls, Sega Genesis games, vinyl records, and comic books. Nothing more than a hobby to show what their meaningless profit is spent upon.
The salesman and the act of consuming becomes more important than the musician who creates art.
No one wants to be a radical outsider anymore.
Perhaps a greater invasion was done by Avicii, also known as Tim Bergling, who became a poster child for Silicon Valley DJ events. Google worshiped his death on September 8th, 2021 by issuing a “Google Doodle” of him on the front of their website (see first image above). In the Google promo video, Bergling is just an ordinary musician who has big dreams of “making it big,” creating music, “in front of a computer.” Here we have an idealized way to be successful with electronic music. If the elites can get their way in 2021, they want the average American citizen to “eat the bugs, stay in the pods, and don’t have kids.” Avicii is selling the dream of a performative electronic musician to every nitwit plugged into the system. Make music on a computer, go to EDM parties, and don’t have kids. Bergling committed suicide not out of “depression,” but realizing how much of a tool he was for the elites.
This was a soft invasion, where those who desired to be an electronic musician, could not align with the desire to create electronic music. Imagine a musician becoming a rapper, because that will get him both famous and signed onto a label. Hobbyist electronic music is dead because it became prey to childish subcultures, immature noise making, and status quo narcissism. So much of the latter has became central to the performative, all because an older generation of electronic musicians wanted the “acceptance” of normal people.
But what is Generation Z learning from this behavior? They too are becoming narcissistic TikTok stars, yearning to be the next DeadMau5 or Marshmello, and roleplaying the desire to become a gear demonstrator. We have to ask if YouTubers like “Gabe Miller Music” is really an electronic musician, or a confused kid that desires to become the abstract model constructed in his subjective mind. (Basic reading of René Girard theory does wonders for critical thinking).
The death of the hobbyist electronic musician comes directly from accelerating technology and through the slow cultural change of consumer behavior. Once technology becomes proliferated and targets the masses, a historical erasure appears. A popular myth aroused that technology could help and enrich the lives of the most unfortunate, but has instead gave entry to the most decadent and depraved people who will do anything to survive the decline of American capitalism, and to exploit those who don’t know any better.
A focus on “gear fetishism” became center to this hipster behavior.
“Get Used Gear, Man. It’s Cheap!”
Often there is an argument, held by the very performative social media celebrities, that it’s all about "the price” of the music gear, and that an electronic musician should not spend too much money on electronic instruments and equipment, and instead focus on some kind of bizarre, “DIY” revolution, of the cheap musician making nationwide popular hits. That includes buying “grooveboxes” of the the late 90s to 2000s period.
This isn’t the case, as the average price of a trendy and fully-operating Eurorack can be around the price of $1500 to $4000, and that on average a high-quality synthesizer is still $1000. Also what is ironic, is that most popular hits are actually made in FL Studio and Ableton Live, the very “performative” programs that have a single entry cost and nothing else. But the actor desires the most sought-after tools to flex their fashion attire.
The fetish around “used gear,” is a misguiding one. These devices still have ugly interfaces, outdated connectivity, and a nostalgia that the older generations have. The past is still relevant, as Roland still manages to create a 2021 Mk2 unit of their Roland SP-404 sampler released in 2005, and Korg still reissues the MicroKorg that has been out since 2002. In simple terms, supply and demand does not go out of style with nostalgic consumers.
The origin of this “cheap argument” comes from several notions. It argues that common people cannot afford expensive equipment, that musicians should only use with what they have, and ultimately the demoscene is about “showing off skills” with the said gear.
None of this actually happens.
Like the cliche of a hipster who prefers to listen to music on vinyl records, the electronic musician buying older gear is not about “saving money,” but about “the authentic,” that the instruments possess “a certain sound quality” that newer machines cannot produce. However, the law of accelerating technology dictates that clone machines, or machines that are exactly the same as they were in the past, will appear as common products becoming widely available for the masses of consumers.
This is extremely ironic, as one of the most hated electronic music manufactures is Behringer, a Swiss-German-Chinese manufacturer of cloned instruments. Older synthesizers and drum machines produced by Roland fetch for $1300 on eBay, while Behringer makes exact replicas and clones of their brand, selling those instruments for a mere $400. Meanwhile, these authentic hipsters scream at Behringer for avoiding IP laws, practicing “unethical” business, while critics mock the clone instruments as “inferior.” Again, this is ironic, coming from the very said actors who prefer to buy back-catalog instruments of outdated technology. When the natural law of capitalism is to be unethical in competition, its loyal consumers share common guilt among each other.
Behringer gives the common people a chance to make affordable electronic music. Why is this so offensive? As if the very people who advocate a “DIY revolution” are actually arguing for gentrification instead, in that subcultures and etiquette belongs to the educated class of vanguard “artists.” Electronic music as a hobby was carved up by hipsters long ago.
If all of this is nothing more than chasing fashion, what’s the point of it all?
What Happened To The Hobbyist?
My argument stands is that electronic musicians are no longer the nerdy hobbyists that were once dedicated to the pursuit of engineering, logic, and science. The performative has replaced these values with the abstract, the emotional, and the fleeting.
In other words, compare continental philosophy to analytical philosophy, and survey, which one of these groups were the ones to advocate extreme liberal and regressive policies based upon “the individual,” or some kind of egalitarian philosophy?
It’s the former.
And no matter how much creative writing and “expression” is within electronic music, it can still uphold the values of the performative.
Think about rule-based art movements like Dogma 95 and Oulipo. A hobbyist is interested in how machines work, the logical outcome of an algorithm, the sophistication of the code, and appreciates the programming skills to construct such an art piece. Others go by these rules and share it amongst themselves. The performative likes these interests in a class-condescending manner. For example, the hobbyist might say, “of course that is a Roland TB-303, but how was it recorded and does the melody make sense?” Meanwhile the actor counters, “Hell yeah, I love the sound of that wet cut-off filter and harp noise!”
Notice, one is talking about the technical, while the other is interested in texture. The intellect cares about its autonomy and structure, while the performative is interested in the ideology and expression of subculture. Just like the analytical and continental, the continental is too absorbed into his own feelings.
Ask, what is so special today about someone uploading music, right this minute, what they did in FL Studio on lunch break? The concept of a “digital audio workstation” implies the “content creator” is organizing raw audio files in a sequence, like an abstract cut-and-paste collage art, until the final “soundscape” is made. The DAW was never music-centric in its implication, yet has became the de facto “industry standard” method towards the creation of all electronic music. This can eventually be automated by an artificial intelligence!
The electronic music hobbyist is crushed by the over-abundance provided by an automated luxury “communism.” As if the creation of art itself becomes useless, where each day, the simple craft is being degraded by the common consumption of TikTok surfing and by the unsurprising nature of print-on-demand products. All of that film and media is useless in a consumer society who degrades values as nothing more than of fleeting desires. Electronic music has became a social control opiate for the yuppie class of insecure millennials.
As this egalitarian philosophy flourishes and invades the artistic mind, silly arguments like “all music is electronic music,” becomes popular. Provocateurs argue that the guitar will eventually become synthesized, creating a virtual reality stimuli dependent upon the computer. Hence the performative is interested in “sound textures,” or “soundscapes” then actual music. Pathetic genres based upon the performative, like vaporwave or hypnagogic pop, continue to accelerate Western imperialism, all while celebrating the materialistic nature of bourgeois man. Irony and eclecticism are traits of postmodernity, and itself against any hobbyist insisting there is coherent logic and craft within art. Electronic music thus serves the postmodern trend, and can only be liberated by the analytical (dare I say, “truth seeking”) hobbyist.
These subcultural fools tend to forget that electronic music is, or at least was, a hobbyist craft. Not a list of “preferred” sound waves and techniques of presets to satisfy an ignorant audience of socially-hungry, yet class-chasing consumers for wallpaper noise.
“Post-Elegance,” or The Fad of It.
In graduate school, my main thesis was arguing that this interest in “elegant” design, is an impossible task, because of a huge personality difference between the hobbyist and its socially controlled user. After studying the works of Erik Erikson, Dick Hebdige, Fredric Jameson and Rene Girard, I have came to the conclusion, that this late capitalist interest in subculture is decadent.
There is now a hybrid between the hobbyist and the performative. Such culprits, like Polyend, based in Poland, wants to create art toys for a generation interested in IDM music, but as well advocating the paradigm that “the electronic instrument is like a guitar,” mainly for the upper-class Brooklyn kid crooning about how his Asian girlfriend broke up with him. Bogdan Raczynski (from the Raczynski family who runs the company) is its main spokesman. From all the Jamie Stewart stans I have encountered, Bogdan has to be the cream of the crop. He even has his own Polyend Tracker with his name on it to boost his own ego and “credibility.”
As if the queer hobbyist is being deliberately pushed to become a profound Elliott Smith (or a James Dean type) figure who just happens to make heart warming electronic music centered around a complex, yet “elegant” machine. Polyend, with the creation of their Tracker machine, insists a new subculture can be made through an elegant interface.
A new fourth phase is happening after the advent of the performer. The performer will keep acting like in this cyberspace, but will eventually forlorn the days of actual authenticity. The act of being pretentious will arise out of a new neo-sincerity movement. There is nothing authentic about neo-sincerity. Instead, mainstream electronic musicians will still be locked into a performative state, all while trying to hark back to a level of a hobbyist authenticity from the past. This ironic, and deeply inauthentic movement will be advocated by Polyend and other like minded publishers of “portable” gear. New synthesizers and drum machines will be portable, or like laptops with extended battery life, where the performative can take these small, but complex machines, to the park or the beach.
This neo-sincerity hybrid between the performer, wishing to be the hobbyist, will continue as a fad for the next decade. The nature of being or acting as a hobbyist will now be sought after in the electronic music subculture.
“Elegance,” however, is still being implemented into the design of the electronic instrument. Perhaps “post-elegance” could be defined as “elegance without order,” in that elegance no longer is smooth in aesthetics or with operating clarity, but instead, returns back to the autistic, the complex, and the confusing, all while retaining the Dieter Rams-esque order of control. Thus the portable maybe the start of the post-elegant fad of “west coast style” insanity and avant-garde art toys.
While I don’t have a concrete answer to this problem, these are my common observations with people into expensive art toys, eccentric music programs, and false micro-genres. Sometimes, art is not meant for everyone. It is not in the same vein as “object oriented ontology” alone that defines electronic music, like the obsession of a Roland TB-303 or a Polyend Tracker.
The focus should be on the craft itself, not the object.
Only a niche group of hobbyists will understand what they do. Instead of being caught up into the Heideggerian concept of “the chatter,” why not break from it, and focus on logical hobbies outside the world of the performative? It’s not that hard to actually read books and do something incredibly anti-social.
I just don’t want YouTube losers, like Wolf OS X, continue to gatekeep electronic music creation and subculture. To believe that electronic music is nothing more than a “sound collage” or nostalgic wallpaper is a regressive attitude, and an attack against music. Even Reason 12 goes by the slogan, “sounds like you.” The music industry produces popular rap not for subcultures, but as a method of decadent social control. Music no longer liberates, but instead confines the status quo. Electronic music must liberate the soul, not advocate Soma.
My advice for you dear reader, “Experiment with multiple mediums until you find the right set. Don’t settle for emulation and imitation.”
Ask, whatever happened to Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Information Society, Cause & Effect, Anything Box, Red Flag, Camouflage, Noel Pagan, Seven Red Seven, Elegant Machinery (as ironic as that name sounds), and all those great synthpop bands that defined an entire, electronic pop opera era? Maybe I am being biased and suggesting you should make synthpop and emulate these acts. I don’t think this is bad music, but actually good music that is totally forgotten in an age of “experimental noise” celebrated by Pitchfork.
Rise above it all and actually learn music theory and make synthpop songs for once. I really don’t care if the bass is a Juno-106 or this slowed-and-reverbed song reminds you of your childhood in the 90s.