Live electronic music used to be a rarity. Before the prevalence of laptops, USB audio devices and performance software, there were really only three choices for a live electronic musician: hardware, samplers, or some combination of the two.
The landscape today is entirely different. In fact, live performances are becoming the norm, even for dance music producers who used to DJ. Take a look at the DEMF/Fuse-in schedule for this year and compare it with the one from 2001. While a good number of people performed live in 2001, only one was billed as live, while in 2005 almost 1/5 of the acts are billed as such. Have audiences grown more receptive to live dance music? Are DJs becoming producers? Probably a little of both, but by and large the biggest change is Ableton Live.
Ask any live electronic musician what they use to perform, and they’ll probably respond with something along the lines of, “I play Live… er, I mean Live with Ableton Live.” The two things, performing live and using Ableton to do so are almost synonymous, and confusingly so since they are both the same word. I have seen probably 40 or so live electronic acts over the past few years, and only one has used something other than Ableton Live**. So how does Ableton dominate the market? They designed their software with one use in mind.
To illustrate this point, let’s take my friend Fred Giannelli, a.k.a the Kooky Scientist. Fred has been playing live electronic music in some form ever since he was a guitarist for Psychic TV. Fred really tries to recreate his studio experience live on stage. For instance, at the massive Tribal Gathering ’97, he lugged 2 Alesis MMT-8 sequencers, an Emax 2 rack sampler, an Oberheim Matrix 1000 synth, a Waldorf Pulse + synth, a Boss SE-50, and some homemade Filterboxes all the way from Boston to England. It was so much gear he had to apply for a work permit just to transport it.
Flash forward four years and Fred is playing live at DEMF with a reduced set of gear, shown in the following photo:
Physical audio devices have gotten smaller, and samplers have replaced some of the larger, heavier, rack-mounted synthesizers, but the gear still fills a table. In the fall of 2001, an unheard of company by the name of Ableton released a product called “Live” that was supposed to revolutionize music performance. Fred discovered Live early on, as the one founder of the company (Robert Henke) also produces techno music. Enamored with their product, Fred quickly integrated it into his performance regime. With a laptop and Ableton, in one year, Fred’s setup had been reduced to half its original size:
With integrated effects and a rock-solid sample playback platform, Ableton Live replaced the synthesizers, sequencers and fx boxes that littered the live PA of the 90’s. While many live performers stuck to their roots, those that accepted Ableton Live continued to see their setups dwindle (Fred carries much more gear than most live acts).
In addition to those artists who had been performing for decades, the ease of use introduced by Live has allowed many producers to move their work simply and easily into a public venue. Producers that once chose records over carrying gear all around the world, a live setup can now weigh a fraction of their records.
Right now Ableton Live has almost 100% of the live electronic performance market, and with the introduction of their new version (4.0), they have started to push their way into the music production market. Why haven’t any of the other music software companies tried to compete? Some have tried to retrofit some performance tools on their existing softare (Reason, Sonar, and Logic Audio), but as far as I know few live dance music artists are switching. The reason? Live was built to be a performance tool, and they have 4 years of a head start on many of these new tools. Unless someone else redesigns things from the ground up, I don’t think they have a chance to compete.