Does a DJ really know how an audience is responding to a set? Beyond a cursory look at the crowd or an unquantifiable number of high fives and #killedit tweets after the show, there aren't a lot of data points to go by. As a DJ, Rana June wanted to change that.
"If you can't measure it, you can't manage it," June explains. "I had no idea if I was doing a good job. I couldn't qualitatively assess my performance."
Now, as a technologist, the Los Angeles-based June is changing the way DJs can not only evaluate their own playing but respond to their audience with a new technology platform called Lightwave. Lightwave's key component is a wristband which visually resembles other wearable technology but goes several steps further than standard fitness wristbands by evaluating people's physical, spatial and biometric responses to music in a group setting. It made its musical debut this past spring at a Pepsi-sponsored event at SXSW in Austin where A-Trak played to a crowd of a few hundred, all wearing a Lightwave wristband.
What began as a technology June invented to use for her own shows quickly became something she knew would be a much more powerful tool in the hands of established artists with bigger audiences. June's experience as a musician and DJ is, in fact, integral to what Lightwave does and how it does it.
June first starting producing music on her laptop in the early 2000s as way to make music to accompany her own guitar playing. Soon after, she became immersed in dance music through summer visits with relatives in Spain and side trips to Ibiza. ("My uncle would burn all his Café del Mar CDs for me," she says.)
DJing became a sort of "secret passion" for the then-university student. Still, it wasn't until 2010 with the release of the first iPad that everything changed.
"For $1400 you can get a mixer and two iPads," she explains. "The day the iPad came out, I bought two of them and hooked them up to a Numark mixer." Unassumingly, she posted a video of herself using the setup on YouTube. Then, disruption.
"I didn't know it was going to get a million views in two weeks," she admits. "I had an idea, I didn't even flesh it out. It was a hack that became a mainstream thing."
DJ software for iPads is now standard, but at the time, using this new technology to mix music was ridiculed as a dilution of an art—though the days of two turntables-only had long been replaced by a cavalcade of other new technologies from CDJs to Ableton Live. June's innovation earned her a considerable amount of positive attention too, including high profile gigs like playing for President Obama at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2012. While it wasn't her intention to start a trend, tablet DJing soon became commonplace.
Unsatisfied with this alone, June dove deeper, and began developing the Lightwave technology two years ago, first as what she describes as the "artist's equivalent to the flight instrument panel that pilots use." During his performance at the SXSW party, A-Trak could monitor the crowd's reaction in real time during his set; how many people were dancing, how loud they were responding, what their body temperatures were. When everyone was handed a free drink, temps dropped. When he played his much-loved remix of "Heads Will Roll," they spiked. Attendees had been invited to provide a little personal data when the arrived, so after the event you could see who had danced the hardest, what age groups moved around the most, and whether or not the men or women in the audience were louder. In a crowd of a few hundred this is an interesting case study. In a crowd of a few thousands this is a revolutionary way to gauge a DJ performance.
"Technology enables artists," June effuses. "If Mozart was alive today he would be using electronics. Why aren't you splicing tape right now? You have a computer. The human powers the machine, not the other way around."
While it's not quite ready for mass consumption (those wristbands aren't cheap!), June wants DJs to see Lightwave as a tool to foster and further their own creativity and improve the experience of dance music in a live setting.
"Lightwave doesn't do anything for you. It's just a platform," she clarifies. "You derive meaning from it and you apply a filter to it. Live music is growing and metrics don't make it less good. Why not have the information?"
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