Are “stems” the future of electronic music?


Last month at the Miami Music Conference, Native Instruments announced a new format called Stems. The concept is fairly simple; the file includes elements from the track which have been extracted from certain frequencies of the mix, if you are a DJ or a producer then you are probably already quite familiar with how this works. In fact its not new at all really, before the digital revolution, Vinyl would often contain an acapella or a dub on the B side which DJ’s would often use to mix with other tracks to create unique live mixes. The difference with what NI have released is that the stem files contain core elements that make up a dance track (Drums, Mid Synths, bass and vocals) which means there is a lot more scope for creating unique tracks from existing ones.


As a producer, when you are asked to do a remix, you will be sent all of the elements that the track has been made up of in separate parts depending on how the original has been composed. The remixer can then choose what parts they want to include in the remix and what new parts they want to add. It’s quite a fun process because it gives you a base and an idea to work from.  The issue I see with this new format is that there is no vetting process from the label or original producer, which means that there will be a tendency for certain tracks or melodies to be overplayed and over used. On one hand I think its great because it encourages more people to create and the opportunity for new, innovative music, but on the other hand I also think there is a big danger of devaluing artists work by overexposing and over using fundamental elements such as bass lines and vocals.


The problem comes not when anyone can make a track but when the average consumer cant tell the difference between something made in 5 minutes and something made in 5 weeks. Its not just the production side either, its the culture of using someone else’s work and then pretending its yours. I have no issue with people using other producers work as long as they credit them and acknowledge the original source. You only have to look in the charts to find multiple examples of the latest boy or girl group singing a track that was made 10 years ago while their fans praise them and sing along blissfully unaware its not an original track. Obviously this is something that has been going on for years and lots of the tracks I loved growing up were covers or samples from original songs that had been released years before. The new parameter that has been introduced into the equation though is the advancement in technologies and formats which make this process so much easier to replicate. I find the lack of originality  less of a concern than the ease at which you can copy and rework music using technologies and formats such as stems.  Obviously the producer and label have to agree to have their song in the stems format but with an ever growing and increasingly crowded marketplace, it seems like producers are willing to do just about anything to get their tracks heard these days!


There is a voice of opinion which will argue that these technologies force people to find new ways to distinguish themselves from mainstream music and art and create new and innovative work, however I am concerned that there will come a point where technology reaches an exponential curve which could mean that by the time the artists has finished creating something unique, someone would have found a way to automate that process so that a monkey could do it.


It may sound a little bit cynical I will admit but don’t worry, I’m not giving up on the music industry. I cant wait to see how people respond to the exponential advancement of technology and how they will use it to their advantage. The way I see it, it has several pretty profound implications; firstly it means we can all express our inner artists no matter our level of skill or technical knowledge, but more importantly it does have the potential to discourage more traditional artists from creating  because they feel as if their skills and identity are no longer appreciated as well as not being able to keep up with new processes and programmes. If technology allows processes that were once complex to be created in a matter of seconds, how do we distinguish between true skill and automated ones?


This is partly linked to a slightly wider debate which focuses on the division of opinions between modern / conceptual art and traditional art. The Monet vs the Duchamp for example, the notion that something is respected and appreciated because no one else has done it before, rather than traditional art which is generally seen as more skilful and requiring greater levels of patience.

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Above – A famous intricately detailed Monet painting next to an equally famous piece of conceptual art by Marcel Duchamp

I say this is part of a wider debate as I feel that a comparison can be drawn between music that is created with the aid of technology such as stems and something that is played like a traditional instrument. I believe fulfilment and satisfaction that people get from the creative process will play a large part in what is created as well as the methods used to create the music. As an artists, there is something extremely gratifying and fulfilling seeing the hours of blood sweat and tears that you’ve poured into your work coming to fruition. A feeling that you are unlikely to get from throwing something together in a few minutes with the help of a new gadget or technology. Its not all about the time it takes obviously, there are things I have created in less than an hour that im very proud of and give me a sense of achievement and there are things I spent months on that I threw in the bin. The determining factor I feel is that I had already developed the skills which allowed me to create the work in a relatively short period of time and therefore the work I created still gave me that sense of fulfilment and achievement as it felt like it was part of a larger body of work.


What do you think? Does it matter what skills you posses or how easy it was to create something? Where is technology taking the music industry and how will it change how we view what is being created? Answers on a postcard please (or in the comment below)


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