WMC 2013: Panels Overview

Written by: Dewight Barkley

The panels at this year?s Winter Music Conference seemed to have a running theme focusing on independent labels and the undeniable influence of their entrepreneurial spirit on the methodology of the industry as a whole, particularly seen in recent years from the EDM community as it crossed over into mainstream pop. Dialogue was passionate, and the interest of attendees was apparent from the full rooms at each of the many panels regarding the different related subjects.

Future Retro Panel
Future Retro Panel – Image Courtesy of Dewight Barkley

In the ?Future Retro: Shades of House & EDM? panel, an assortment of DJs and producers from the international stage presented a full-spectrum discussion on how the sounds of the ?analogue generation? are re-emerging in modern production, creating a sort of renaissance in the latest EDM releases from much younger producers and remixers. On stage were unannounced panelists Ralph Falcon and Oscar G (Murk Productions), moderator Greg ?Stryke? Chin, perennial underground house legend Oba Frank Lords and two influential DJs from South Africa, DJ Euphonik (Themba Nkosi) and DJ Fresh (Thato Sikwane). Most had roots in the pre-digital days of analogue production, but balance in the argument was achieved with the presence of the South African DJs who emerged after the digital revolution. The contrast led to an intriguing approach to the subject that had the audience lined up with questions and comments at the end of the panel. The discussion opened with background from Frank-Lords on the emergence of Freestyle in the early ’80s that eventually evolved into the House genre we still embrace today when DJs and producers started putting Latin and African rhythms into 4/4 time to create a hybrid sound that took hold of clubs internationally. Many of those classic early Moog and Juno basslines are now being discovered by young producers, which is spawning a revival of the old analog sound. The quality and variety of the sounds produced by that old equipment are impossible to duplicate with today?s digital gear, and up-and-coming producers and remixers are learning that the feel of programming an old 909, 808, or LM-1 over their MIDI box gear simply makes the end result more authentic and rewarding. With so many new producers using the same programs and equipment, the only way to differentiate your work is to go back to the old methods that produce unique sounds which simply can?t be recreated by the ?icy? feel of modern digital programming, even in their best plug-ins that attempt to simulate the old style. Those sounds were influenced and controlled differently, giving endless possibilities to producers that aren?t set inside the confines of a digital software?s capabilities. DJ Euphonik chimed in a defense for the digital side of the argument here, stating that necessity became the mother of invention in his country where new records were almost impossible to find, driving him to produce his own music using the modern techniques that were available. Those productions were inevitably influenced by the music he grew up with, which were old soul records by the Spinners and the Manhattans, and his attempts to learn how to make his productions have that ?feel? led him back to the old equipment and production techniques that were the heart of this discussion. A reference was made to the new track ?Phat Ass Drop? by the DJs From Mars, which lyrically mocks and reduces the entire process of making a hit dance record to an absurd cut-and-dried process. The renaissance currently being experienced is the antithesis of that, with experimentation being the new norm as compared to staying within the confines of the modern production process. ?There were no rules in the analog days,? Lords quipped, ?but the limitations of digital production has robbed the process of its sense of adventure. The more live elements you include, the more original your production has a chance to be.? All members of the panel agreed, and the audience was in unison with their line of questioning that seemed to embrace this opinion.

Indie Culture Panel – Image Courtesy of Dewight Barkley

In the ?Indie Culture: What?s Next?? panel, moderated by Marci Weber, Ramon Wells of Eightball Records, and recording artist Lauren Flax, emphasis was placed on the process of getting recorded work label-ready in an industry where major labels are taking less chances with upcoming artists than in the past. Each spoke about the importance of the chart system, starting with the now defunct CMJ (College Music Journal) that eventually shifted to an almost monopolistic emphasis on the Billboard charts. Flax spoke with authority on the process of turning your concept into a demo and the importance of getting input and ideas from others, warning ?not to be too precious with your art? to the point of not hearing or seeing everything that could possibly make or break your demo. ?No one wants to be told their baby is ugly,? added Wells with one of the more memorable one-liners of the panel, ?but you need input to move forward, appeal to others, and find success.? Weber stressed the importance of a concise, finished demo that represents you as an artist ?without trying to be all things to all people.? Create a buzz about yourself without being obnoxious, which might even mean you start out with giving away your music for free, not being so overprotective as to stifle your efforts to create an impact and demand for your work. Wells stressed that the concept of ?Do it Yourself? does not mean that you have to work alone and that concepts like image and goals are not the kinds of things a new artist should be doing on their won. ?Find like-minded artists, make an outline, and a plan of what you want to do,? he offered. ?Make contact, cast a wide net, and have something to offer. Don?t ever burn a bridge, even when you are getting successful. Handle what you can on your own until it starts to get out of control, THEN bring in managers and others to help keep the control.? In short, this panel stressed that the labels are no longer making their money off of physical or sometimes even digital product. They are thriving on new ideas and new ways of marketing an artist and their work as seen predominantly with small independent labels who don?t have the budgets of a major label. This ?next generation? is making the rules and creating the next movement. ?It?s like a repeat of what happened with Disco as it evolved into the New Romantic movement in the early ’80s? said Wells, ?which then evolved into the British Invasion that became international pop music and defined the generation ? it started out as a small movement that was spawned from independent labels.? Innovation is coming back in vogue and is poised to take over pop radio again, as seen today as the EDM movement is becoming more and more mainstream.

The Remixers panel (?Re:crafted, Re:modeled, & Re:mixed?) is always one of the more popular panels of the week, with its lineup of big-name talent, moderated this year by Lee Dagger of Bimbo Jones, remix duo Sick individuals (Joep Smeele and Rinze Hofstee), Jason Nevins, and Dutch remix team Disfunktion (Barteld Frech and Mike Tielemans). Discussions began with each giving their input on the types of programs they use for production, varying from the industry standard ProTools and Ableton Live to Cubase, with continued debate over the advantages of Mac vs PC production. The discussion began with discussion of the ?importance? of the remix in terms of artist development and radio airplay, with Nevins heating things up a bit by suggesting that sometimes a remix will actually be better than an original production and end up ?competing? with the original track, getting it blocked or rejected by an artist or label management. The argument then shifted to the concept of ?European vs US? sound and how European remixers have to submit mixes with more vocals for their US clients, often doing dubs or instrumentals to satisfy their less vocally-inclined Euro market. These often end up becoming separate tracks altogether with little relation to the artist or original track, leading to debate on whether this constitutes a remix or an original production with a licensed topline vocal. The question was raised, what depth of production qualifies a ?remix? for publishing rights, and when do you opt for a flat fee for your remix production work vs royalties? Dagger contributed to this argument with the example of the wildly popular Bimbo Jones rework of Rihanna?s ?Diamonds,? which had little or no resemblance to the original downtempo production at all but was key to the overall success of the song in the US market. ?Labels know the power of a remix,? he said, ?so you have to put a value on what you think you?re worth and not be afraid to ask for it.? Nevins discussed the old days when labels would pay $60-80,000 for remixes that created an unsustainable environment of exorbitance, which has since deflated to labels almost being afraid of even commissioning them due to budget restraints. Discussion shifted to getting credit for ?ghost production? behind names of producers who ?don?t know squat about production but are good at the business side of the remix transaction,? without any names being called but with some suggestion to the prevalence of the practice in the industry. The final topic was the need for a manager for securing remix work from labels. Nevins sought commentary here from Dagger, whose skill as a remixer is enhanced by his prolific DJ career. Dagger stated that he manages himself for his DJ gigs, but relies on management for approaching labels with remix projects because their clout in the business helps secure more work and ?many labels prefer to hear from a ?mouthpiece? than the artist directly.? Remixers are now doing ?swaps? of production in exchange for vocals from artists for their own work, or mixes on ?spec? (essentially for free) to help get their names established. Many get their start doing bootleg mixes or mashups to ride on the name of a major artist. ?You may not get paid,? Dagger pointed out, ?but you get the loyalty of the fanbase of that artist which can be more valuable than any fee you may have charged in the long run.? Nevins stressed the importance of working with independent and somewhat obscure artists and not being ?resentful? that you aren?t just producing remixes for major artists, because all of your productions end up being promotional tools for getting DJ gigs based on your work.

There was a full room for the ?Pushing Buttons: Laptop vs Traditional DJs? panel, and understandably so as contenders like Markus Schulz, Tommie Sunshine, and Disco Fries weighed in on the topic. The conversation was ablaze with debate over the sound comparisons of vinyl to CD, and the loyalty that follows each format. Tommie Sunshine brought the young audience into a long-gone era of record stores where he spoke fondly of the sense of community they once represented, where DJs and music lovers shared their culture and ideas and where the very expense of buying vinyl helped to ?weed out? those who weren?t serious about becoming a DJ. ?Digital,? he explained, ?made it possible for anyone to become a DJ overnight, it flooded the market and made it harder to be taken seriously.? Schulz shared his take on the convenience of CD and digital, remembering days when carrying vinyl was not only cumbersome, but risky when traveling. Digital brought the freedom to have a more extensive, almost endless vocabulary for you crowd, allowing for edits and remixes on the fly as needed. Oscar G of Murk productions chose to ?ride the fence? on the topic, taking pride in embracing both formats in his sets. ?Whatever method is going to give my crowd the best performance that I can give, that?s what I use because that?s my job,? he said. ?There?s nothing wrong with using a drum machine instead of a live drum track, the technology has enabled a new sense of creativity.? Tommie Sunshine agreed as he declared ?It doesn?t matter what this guy or the other guy does or how he does it, it?s about YOUR personal passion. I mean I?m GLAD there?s a Steve Aoki out there doing his thing, but I don?t want to jump into an inflatable boat and throw cakes at people ? I want to be ME.? In the end, the panelists and everyone in the room seemed to be in unison with this opinion, that the format you use is a personal CHOICE, and that neither is truly superior to the other so long as the crowd gets what they came for.

Producer Panel – Image Courtesy of Dewight Barkley

The Producers panel is another favorite among delegates of WMC, hosted this year in conjunction with the Grammys and Recording Academy. With talent like Sander van Doorn, Jimmy Douglass, and Laidback Luke on the panel, it?s easy to see why the room was packed to the hilt. Attendees listened eagerly as each explained how they got their start, with stories about becoming friends with record store staff, local caf?, and disco managers as a means of leverage into securing a job in the field. ?You had to have the balls to be aggressive against the struggle to get heard,? van Doorn mused, ?and you have to be ready to take the chance when it comes along.? Laidback Luke gave insight into how he created a small community around himself with his now-legendary forums, from which major talent like Afrojack and Avicii got their start. ?If you have this community growing around you, much like Tiesto did in the Netherlands before anyone had heard of him,? he continued, ?then it?s much more likely to happen. At least 50% of your career will depend on people being willing to give you a chance based on what they see happening around you.? There was much discussion amongst the panel of the increased focus on content over technique, which has shifted artists away from over-production and has found many of them using the simpler techniques of yesteryear. Jimmy Douglass contributed to the argument here by bringing his most recent project ? the new Justin Timberlake album ? into the discussion as a perfect example of the renewed use of analog synths and a Moog Voyager for the final production process. ?When you have less use of digital presets and more hand-tweaking of sounds through analog,? he shared, ?then they will rarely sound the same way twice ? that?s originality.? He also spoke of using reference tracks as a means of gauging your intended sound, as a way of comparing your intent against a known sound to have a better idea of achieving your goal. Laidback Luke agreed, but also stated that he tends to produce his tracks in mono first, then move to full stereo near the end of his production process to avoid the confusion of the full stereo sound. When the floor was opened up to audience questions, the topic shifted towards the blending of genres in the new EDM movement, the combined elements of freestyle, house, techno, and trance that have become a more universal form of music as seen in the popularity and success of mainstream artists like Rihanna and Usher, whose tracks tend to defy classification in one genre or another. Many audience members asked for advice on getting started in production, to which Laidback Luke gave a universal answer: ?You can?t be a follower, you can?t want to emulate or be like any one of us up here on this panel. You have to have your own goal and go for it no matter what.?

LGBT Panel – Image Courtesy of Dewight Barkley

For the first time this year, WMC hosted a gay and lesbian-themed panel with ?Living For This: LGBT Artists in EDM.? The meeting was one of the largest in terms of participating panelists and perhaps one of the most structured in terms of the moderator Mickey Weems keeping the topic focused and fully addressed. Represented on the panel was a full-genre spectrum of recording artists, label personnel, DJs, and managers, each with a unique view on how sexuality influenced their role in the industry. A great deal of attention was given to how the gay music scene ? the ?circuit? ? has become very isolated and co-opted by money and becoming stagnant within its own context. ?Music has become so prevalent and accessible that almost anyone can become a DJ in the scene by mimicking a chart,? said DJ Pride, ?but we?re now pandering to aesthetics over talent, it?s all about looking great on a flyer or ad. In the meantime, the scene we?re in is getting smaller while a whole new music scene ? mainstream EDM – is exploding around us.? There seemed to almost be an air of resentment in the room about how pop culture has now ?embraced? the gay dance culture as if it were their own discovery or creation, and how the EDM movement that was spawned from the subculture of gay clubs is now mainstream and cultivated by predominantly straight venues and crowds. Much heated discussion was tossed about regarding the gay community?s need to embrace this and use it as leverage for up-and-coming artists and DJs to have the same opportunities in this predominantly-straight mainstream culture. Many of the artists on the panel discussed their decisions to be ?out? as an artist and the influence it had on their careers, with straight artists like Jessica Sutta of the Pussycat Dolls and Lee Dagger of Bimbo Jones proclaiming their genuine gratitude for the gay community making their careers possible. Managers and label personnel like Bill Coleman of Peace Bisquit offered advice to upcoming artists on the panel and in the crowd on how to label yourself as what feels comfortable to you, because consumers will be able to sense if you aren?t being ?true? to yourself in the long run. Towards the end of the panel there was a return to the palpable sense of community in the room, and a returned focus on what it means to support and stand by one another to cultivate the strength and unity needed to survive in the difficult environment of the music industry.