Pretty Lights: Making the Walls of the City Quake
Derek Vincent Smith is a city kid—if you consider Denver, Colo. a city. Its expansive landscapes, oversized sidewalks, Lego-like architecture, party atmosphere, permissive attitude and high altitude certainly all come into play in the music that Smith makes under the tag Pretty Lights. He concocts his electronic audio mosaics—which paint the numbers between hip-hop, soul, grime, dubstep and dance music at large—in a sound lab in Denver’s warehouse district. The studio is housed in a rented loft space inside a reconstituted factory whose bricks were originally shipped from the East Coast in the 1940s. Vintage.
The loft, located just 15 blocks away from the apartment where Smith has lived with his photographer girlfriend since moving from Fort Collins, Colo. at the end of 2009, also serves as Pretty Lights’ headquarters.
“We have about six different desks,” Smith explains, taking me on a virtual tour of the office, noting designated areas for his production manager, office manager, social media manager, lighting designer—yes, the one who makes the lights so pretty—and even a video station where the Pretty Lights team can work on multimedia content for the tours.
At first glance, none of what Smith and his team have done seems all that revolutionary. But if you so much as scratch the surface, then you’ll see that—if Plato was right and the walls of the city really do shake when the mode of the music changes—Denver may be ground zero for an electronic music-based earthquake whose prenatal ripple effects can be found in virtually every corner of the music industry right now.
Pretty Lights has sold out Colorado’s Red Rocks amphitheatre (twice), performed at almost every major U.S. rock festival (including the holy trinity of Bonnaroo, Coachella and Lollapalooza) and has served more than one million downloads from his official website alone. His current popularity reflects similar trajectories of other major electronic producers such as Bassnectar, Skrillex and Girl Talk.
But while many rock fans may look at the exploding electronic dance music craze as something foreign, cut from a different cloth and appealing to a different demographic, Smith is revolutionizing the genre by—almost unbeknownst to himself—adopting techniques and philosophies first employed by rock bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead generations earlier. While Smith admittedly knows little about those bands, he shares more things in common with them than he does with many DJs in the electronic dance scene.
For one, Smith is not a DJ. He improvises live and, like Phish, his career owes a lot to emerging Internet cultures. He even embraced the ethos of the Dead’s tape-trading community when he decided to start issuing all of his music for free online. In fact, Smith has taken the notion of free music even further by establishing his own record label, Pretty Lights Music, which offers his and other acts studio releases for free.
“I haven’t really thought about the connection between the Grateful Dead and my own free music model,” Smith admits, when I suggest a similarity between Pretty Lights Music and the Dead’s tapers’ section. “They really started getting big in the ‘70s, right? That’s interesting. It’s the exact same thing.”
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