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CNTRL: Beyond EDM: Education for the Electronically Inclined

Asked for observations at the dawn of the CNTRL: Beyond EDM Tour, Ean Golden does not hesitate.

“Roughly 70 percent of the people at the seminars say they want to be producers,” DJ Tech Tools‘ founder says, grinning broadly. “Fewer people want to be DJs. It’s a paradigm shift in terms of what people want to be.”

It’s the same sea change that made this tour a reality. Conceived by minimal techno legend Richie Hawtin (aka Plastikman), his M-nus Records artists Loco Dice and Paco Osuna, and Golden, CNTRL is as much an educational roadshow as it is a concert tour. Each of the 17 North American shows is preceded by a college-campus seminar, featuring an artist panel discussing music technology and the past and future of dance music. The events are saturated in social media coverage, allowing dance music fans around the globe to tune in and learn.

As Glow DC staff set up the stage at Washington’s American University, Hawtin and Loco Dice gush about the previous CNTRL dates in Upstate New York. The crowds vary in age and experience. Seasoned producers sit alongside the beat-curious, while grizzled veterans of the 90s rave wave mingle with new fans fresh off their first electronic music show.

“A lot of new kids are getting into EDM and getting bored by what they’re hearing,” says Hawtin. “Our goal is to show them that electronic music is an ocean to dive into. There are so many other genres and music types.”

It’s clear that music technology is akin to religion for Hawtin and co. Like all good prophets, they feel compelled to share new means of making and sharing music with the masses. Golden, who designed bestselling MIDI controllers for Traktor and Novation, won’t play shows that lack an educational aspect. When Hurricane Sandy forced the cancellation of their Buffalo show, the team fittingly overcame the adverse weather by live-streaming their sets from a hotel room.

“We’re not here to say you have to use this program,” says Loco Dice. “We’re different DJs with different controllers. We just want to show what we do and encourage people to discover their own unique pathway into electronic music.”

Sitting before the packed lecture hall, Hawtin cites the American EDM (or what he calls EPM – electronic pop music) explosion as an impetus for the tour.

“This is a pivotal time in the development of electronic music,” Hawtin says with palpable urgency. “There has been a slow acceptance of the sounds we have produced for years. We felt if we didn’t speak up, then EPM could become the definition of that kind of music.”

As the focus transitions to live performance, Loco Dice gestures toward a vinyl turntable on the table.

“Some of you know what this is? I hope?” he asks with a sly grin.

After Loco Dice demonstrates his live setup, Hawtin advises DJs not to go overboard in minimizing their risk of failure.

“I very rarely listen to tracks again after the first time,” he says. “The next time I hear them is onstage. When I prepare too much, it feels contrived. I want people on the dance floor to be surprised.”

As the music technology segment gets underway, each artist is asked to name a piece of analog gear they rely on. No surprise that Hawtin picks the Roland TB-303 that played a crucial role on his Plastikman albums. Coming from a hip-hop background, Loco Dice names the classic Roland TR-808 drum machine, while Paco Osuna picks its successor TR-909.

The ensuing discussion is largely drive by audience questions, many of which concern making it in the music industry. The artists stress the importance of treating one’s passion as a profession; all three M-nus musicians mention their respective labels and the discipline that running them requires. Soft-spoken Paco Osuna owns a record store in Barcelona. Hawtin describes his long tail model for growing a fan base, explaining that there is no way for fast sustained growth.

The importance of collaboration becomes a recurrent theme. Loco Dice recounts how a record store employee who passed him the latest vinyls eventually became his manager, and how an enthusiastic dancer at his shows is now his booking agent.

“All of the people that work with me,” he says.  ”I found by looking over my shoulder.”

“Look to your left and to your right,” Golden echoes. “The people sitting around you are very likely to be the people that assist you in your journey.”

Perhaps the most poignant moment comes when Hawtin recalls his humble beginnings trying to break into the Detroit techno scene with his friend John Acquaviva.

“We started Plus 8 because we wanted to release a record and no one wanted to release it,” Hawtin says. “We maxed out John’s credit card for $5,000 and printed the records. They sold, so we maxed out the credit card again. After some time, we found we didn’t need to max out credit cards anymore. Some more time passed, and we found we could even afford to have a nice dinner once in awhile.”

As the event draws to a close, a local DJ asks Hawtin how to stay true to one’s musical vision while appealing to the masses.

“I’m not worried about losing the masses,” replies Hawtin. “I’ve never really cared for them, and they’ve never really cared for me. I’ve found fans are open to seeing the bigger picture. From a business angle, the more unique you are, the more you have the power to sell that. Embark on your own path.”

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