With cheap MIDI controllers, “music theory hacks” and cracked copies of Ableton, pretty much anyone can be a music producer now. But for genuine, impassioned electronic musicians, is it actually any easier to get heard today than it was at the turn of the millennium?
I still remember, years ago, listening in the car to an episode of Pete Tong’s Essential Selection in which Pete spoke about music production becoming more accessible. It must’ve been around 2012, because I vividly recall Dusky’s Henry 85 being aired on the show. Avicii’s latest was named Pete’s tune of the week, and as he announced it, he credited new developments in music technology for allowing Avicii to have made the grade virtually “overnight”.
Seven years on, with technology having made further leaps, where are all the new kids flooding the scene with quality new music?
It turns out Avicii had actually done pretty well to spring into the scene in the way he did. Because, while it might be easier than ever to create music, it’s certainly no easier to get it heard. Nowadays, there’s so much music being churned out that it’s incredibly difficult to stand out. Millions are fighting for limited bandwidth in the online space. And you certainly don’t get anywhere without a decent web presence, some contacts and a bit of experience in the social media game.
Let’s get nostalgic
Back in 2005, before the likes SoundCloud, Traktor or even YouTube, I was applying the finishing touches to a remix of Coldplay’s Fix You that I had been grafting over for months in my parents’ attic. Once it was done, I left for university in Birmingham armed with a pile of CD-Rs sporting the track that I would go on to hand out to DJs at clubs around the city. I must have had a pretty naive type of confidence back then, because most of the guys I was handing it to were seasoned in the “student night” pop sound. But it just seemed like a viable way to spread it. Maybe even one of the only ways. Of course, I also sought feedback for my work on popular forums like TranceAddict and trance.nu, where I remember feeling pleasantly surprised by the amount of interest in the track.
In December of that year, as I was knocking back cheap vodka shots in preparation for a Saturday night out in Brum, I got a text from a friend saying, “that’s not your Coldplay remix on Radio 1 right now, is it?” I slammed my PS2 controller on the floor and shouted, “guys, get Radio 1 on now!” And after a bit of fumbling, we had tuned in just in time to hear it being mixed out into Jan Loper’s Energie. This was Judge Jules, a legendary British trance DJ, randomly hammering my track out on BBC Radio 1. Needless to say, a diabolical evening of hedonism ensued.
The following year it went on to get played by DJs across Europe, including Gatecrasher residents Guy Ornadel and Scott Bond. I even remember turning up to see John ‘00’ Fleming one night at The Works in Birmingham, and as I handed over my CD-R to the support act, he told me “mate I already have this, I was planning to close with it!”
The reason I’m telling this story is that I managed to achieve relative recognition, at the age of 18, for a track that had been made under the following conditions:
No computer software. It had been produced using the Korg Triton’s onboard sequencer, with a Roland JP-8000 fed in as an input.
No web presence. No personal website, no SoundCloud profile – nothing.
No marketing. There was no Facebook in 2005, let alone self-service ad platforms (at least, not in Britain).
No industry contacts. Well, I still had my keyboard teacher’s number – does that count?
So, how the hell did it end up on Radio 1? To this day, I still don’t know. Maybe the Judge was trawling TranceAddict for amateur productions. Maybe one of the guys in Birmingham I handed it to was a friend of his. Maybe my mum posted him a copy and told him my birthday was coming up.
None of those explanations would really be any less remarkable than the other. The point is that recognition was so attainable back then that I wasn’t even that surprised about any of it. I had been getting up very fucking early in the morning from the day my brother brought home Coldplay’s new album X&Y. I knew that if I could be the first to remix one of those tracks, it just might get picked up. And that’s pretty much what happened.
The chance of such a story unfolding in the present day is almost zero. Aiming to be a first remixer would still give you a good shout of getting a headstart with YouTube views or SoundCloud listens from organic search. But that would be pretty much where it ends. The magic of a guy you don’t know turning up to a club you’ve only been to twice and dropping your unsigned bootleg to a few hundred people just isn’t something that seems possible anymore without a fundamental level of business acumen.
But there’s hope…
I certainly wasn’t going to leave this post on such a pessimistic note. Getting your music heard in 2019 is certainly doable, but in order to stand out from the crowd you need to start working on some of those things that weren’t important 15 years ago. Learn some marketing, be business-like about it, and if your music is good you’ll start to make some progress.
Here are some quick tips for getting the recognition you deserve as a musician in 2019:
Build a strong web presence – everywhere. SoundCloud is the basic minimum, but you should submit your music to every possible channel for maximum exposure. Think Mixcloud, YouTube, Reverb Nation, just anything you can find.
Polish your demos. Learn how to, uh, master those mastering plugins to give your music a professional finish. If you really can’t figure it out, consider paying someone else to do it. Guys like Cid Inc and Robert Babicz offer mixing and mastering services for a reasonable price, and it could make the difference between a label saying yay or nay.
Advertise. Think Facebook ads. I know it might seem obnoxious hitting unsuspecting Facebookers with timeline ads, but if your music is good and you target the right people, they won’t hate you for introducing them to new stuff. I know this is another ‘money down’ tip, but that’s the age we live in, unfortunately.
Network. Engage with other musicians online. Make friends with the local DJs in your city. Over the past few years, I’ve realised that the electronic music community is relatively small, and there are only a few degrees of separation between you and John Digweed. If you’re active in the scene, someone you know probably owns a label or has good contacts. Find out who it is, and reach out to them.
At the end of the day, the more genuinely talented you are, the easier this process will be. If you’re not that talented, you will have to market yourself more aggressively in order to make the grade, but it’s still doable.
Ultimately, electronic music has gone in the same direction as online business, dating and other common industries – in that the game has become easier to play, but harder to master. We can complain about this landscape all we like, and hark back to the glory days of the past where the early birds always got the worm. But all we can do is learn to love the game. Because if you’re not willing to play it, you are not going to succeed in music.