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Friday, Nov. 27, 2009

A revolution off the record

DJ Richie Hawtin explains how vinyl fell to a digital onslaught


Special to The Japan Times

As the clock struck midnight on Dec. 31, 1999, hundreds of thousands worldwide were reveling in clubs and arenas to the sounds of records played by their favorite DJs. Little were they to know that in the space of 10 years the record was to become an endangered species.

News photo
Going digital: Richie Hawtin will perform with laptops instead of turntables at Womb Adventure. The switch to computers from vinyl has allowed the DJ to play around with the linear concept of a song.

They probably had less idea that the entire concept of the song, with a start, middle and an end was also under threat.

"(In 2000,) I would travel the world carrying two or three crates weighing about 50 kg each just to have enough records to play to different crowds," says Richie Hawtin in an interview with the Japan Times. "That would still only be two or three different styles. That's how a set was, you would have to (create it) on two turntables with limited resources.

"Ten years later, I don't use or need or even see turntables in front of me; I just have two computers and around 10,000 pieces of music at my fingertips every time I play. The only thing that has stayed the same is the mixer, and the basic (idea) of what I am doing."

As a DJ and the owner of record label M-nus, Hawtin has a better idea of the scene than most. With more than two decades behind the decks, he has managed to keep track of a technology running wild, leaving behind traditionalists who still perform with just two record players and a mixer. In the course of doing this, he has nurtured minimal techno from an underground music form to a stadium sound. Hawtin has also helped to pioneer a new method for mixing that will only grow in the next decade.

"Ten years ago DJing was a linear art form — you put the record down and let it play," he says. "Other than scratching, that record played from one point to the next point, but now with computer technology, I am able to jump to different points in the song and use loops to create new sound scapes. Really you can do whatever you want now."

It is no exaggeration to say that the face of live music in 10 years time will be completely different from now. After all, who would have thought in 1999 that guitar-band Radiohead would be using synthesizers, effects and dance beats on their tracks.

Hawtin's comments show that the next technological wave to hit musicians is going to change music even more drastically than the synths and production tools that altered the way Radiohead perform.

Gone are the days when a track was simply played in chronological order. Now, like a musical version of the movie "Pulp Fiction," a song can be reordered during a performance. A dance-music set might start with a vocal from the middle of one song set to an entirely different beat created from the repeated sound of another song, which might be played later in the set. This process, taken to extremes, could even result in a single track being entirely deconstructed and rebuilt to create a new song.

How this will effect pop music is yet to be known. One likely change, however, will be in how we listen to music: people are likely to move from being passive to active. As technology develops, making your own mixes from home and remixing songs will become increasingly easy. Today, producing a mashup, a song that combines elements of various pieces of music, is close to impossible for all but those literate in technologies such as Ableton, Reason and Traktor.

However, as the technology becomes more user friendly, and it inevitably will, the norm will become your average person playing with loops at home and generating their own remixes. How this will affect the record industry is anybody's guess.

The move to digital DJing, however, is costly. As well as losing the ability to play years of collected records, the software and hardware needed to set up a DJ system will set you back the best part of ¥100,000. Many DJs here in Tokyo, however, are opting to transfer their collections to MP3 and then DJ via computers.

"I used to be a die-hard vinyl fan — I love the feel and quality — but I also like to be a versatile DJ and carry a lot of tracks with me," says DJ Dante, an events promoter based in Kanagawa Prefecture who can often be found plying his trade in clubs throughout Kanto. "When I realized I could carry many more tracks to the club on CD and buy the tunes for less online, I moved to CDs. Now my CD case is full, and I want a way to be more creative with my mixing, as well as play tracks as soon as I get them (writing on CDs is laborious), so I'm planning to move over to Traktor Scratch in the new year."

The popularity of using computers to DJ has not been hailed by all. As British drum 'n' bass DJ High Contrast told The Japan Times, "At Hospital Records we all believe that DJing from vinyl is far more intuitive and sounds better.

"I play only vinyl, so if I want to play a tune that has been sent to me I'll get it made into a dubplate that usually costs between $70 and $150 (¥6,000-¥13,000) so you have to invest in the music, and so you tend to be far less indifferent to the songs than somebody who plays something they got for free to see if the crowd like it," he adds.

Hawtin dismisses this view as romanticizing the past.

"There is no shortcut in whatever you do. Ten years ago there were a lot of people calling themselves DJs who probably shouldn't have been," he says, arguing that just because the nature of the technology has changed is no reason to dismiss dance music shows using the most up-to-date equipment.

As the trend continues, record-shopping meccas such as Shibuya in Tokyo are changing. Shops are disappearing, notably Cisco and the Manhattan Records house-music store have both closed their doors. Other shops are adapting to remain competitive.

"As the buyer for our shop Gan-Ban in Shibuya, I am somewhat concerned about another aspect of technology affecting music culture," says Alain Bosshart. "It seems that less and less people are going to record shops to check out new music.

"We still have decent sales overall in our shop, but the numbers that a certain release we would like to push would sell (are about) 30 percent less than last year, and this was the same last year as well. We also now see many labels releasing digital releases prior to and for cheaper prices than their physical copies, and I have a feeling that once people begin looking for tracks like this and can find them for free online, both physical and digital releases will sell even less that they are selling now."

Because of this, Gan-Ban has diversified. "I have had to try to become more comprehensive rather than just being the buyer for the Shop 'Gan-Ban' and look(ing) after bookings for our 'Gan-Ban Night' parties," Bosshart says. "I have now started to look after overall promotions of an artist and also do A&R to release some artists together with record labels here to try to build a more comprehensive plan to really be able to develop the artists and help sales here."

Hawtin admits there are downsides to going digital, and he cites his experiences as a DJ. "One of the things I loved about turntables was the tactile feel of putting the needle down and moving the record back and forth. Not only did I like that, but we spent the last 20 years explaining to people (that is) what we are doing," he says.

"But now we have thrown all that away. Now we are saying we are doing all that on computers, and people are saying, 'That doesn't look the same — that looks like you are checking e-mail.' Now I feel my job is exploring how to use this technology and how to connect with the crowd."

To do this, his bigger shows now include visuals, online information disseminated during the performance and audience interaction through microblogging sites such as Twitter.

"At some of the bigger shows, it's a team. I have a support team where, if they do their best work, then it allows me to do my best work," he says.

Womb Adventure is at Makuhari Messe, Chiba Prefecture, on Dec. 5. Richie Hawtin performs along with Dubfire, Josh Wink, Digitalism and more. Tickets are ¥5,500. For more information, visit www.wombadventure.jp

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