The week of August 31, 2014

Teenage producers and the SoundCloud EDM revolution

By Andy Hermann

Noah Bennett was 12 years old when he heard dubstep for the first time, on the soundtrack of a Minecraft modification. Intrigued, he looked up the track on YouTube and soon found himself plunging down the rabbit hole of EDM.

Just three years later, Bennett has released over a dozen of his own tracks on SoundCloud under the name PastelEarth. They span a variety of styles, from chillout to “robostep,” which is basically dubstep with robot voices and sci-fi sound effects. “Lately I’ve been more open and experimental,” the 15-year-old Indiana native explains, “because I don’t want to be too repetitive.” He’s already amassed over 400 followers.

As SoundCloud’s user base has exploded—to over 40 million registered users and a listening audience of 175 million—so too has its population of young producers like Bennett. According to SoundCloud, its community of “creators” post 12 hours of new content every minute, and although the company doesn’t track content by genre, it’s safe to say that a significant percentage of those 12 hours is EDM. Thanks to the widespread availability of digital audio workstation software like FL Studio and Ableton Live, more and more young EDM fans are now engaging with the music directly, remixing their favorite artists’ tracks and producing their own original sounds.

What was once a culture built around the DJ is increasingly a culture built around the producer. And SoundCloud, which doubles as both a streaming service and a social network, is where producers go to share their music.

For Bennett, who lives in a small town an hour outside Chicago with “hardly any established EDM scene at all,” SoundCloud supplied the community of fellow fans and producers that he lacked in real life. After joining the service about a year ago, he connected with an 18-year-old named Tony Ketcham, also from Indiana, who produces dubstep and its more experimental cousin, bass music, under the name Lynxclowder. With his older friend’s encouragement, Bennett graduated from simply posting playlists of other people’s tracks (a popular SoundCloud pastime) to uploading some of his own material, which he had been tinkering with since “before I’ve even had my own computer.”

“Before I took it seriously, I would make music for little Flash games and things. I mean they were nothing special, but that’s how I got into making my music.”

One of the first tracks he uploaded was a 16-second snippet, a spoof of dubstep’s formulaic bass drops called “proof I’ve run out of ideas.” Just six months later, he was compiling his three best tracks into an EP, Malicious, showing off his increasingly sophisticated use of melody and a distinctively staccato style of synth programming. He uses FL Studio 11 and an array of sound design software and plug-ins, including Native Instruments’ RAZOR and T-Force Alpha Plus.

Like a lot of young EDM producers, Hogen rarely uses the word “DJ” to describe what he does. “I’d consider myself a producer above all else.”

“I improve best I can,” he says. “I love learning about music.”

Bennett rattles off a list of other producers he’s met through SoundCloud, most of them also in their teens: Aephex and Vixl from the U.K., Clowntwerp and Chroma from nearby Michigan City, Zaita from Vermont, and his two best friends, Ketcham and another 18-year-old producer from the Chicago area named Jack Everett, a.k.a. Ch3t. Without their feedback and encouragement, he doubts his PastelEarth material would have progressed as far as it has.

“I really like talking with other producers,” he says. “We all make music for the love of music and I think we all understand that about each other.”

Like most teen EDM producers, Bennett remains (for now) a talented amateur. But more and more young producers are turning their precocious skills into careers.

Palmer Hogen is an 18-year-old from Los Angeles who creates dubstep, electro-house, and pretty ambient tracks under the name Vexare. Hogen joined SoundCloud about three years ago, shortly after he first began producing his own tracks. He’s since amassed over 18,000 followers and begun releasing original material and remixes via the popular EDM e-commerce site, Beatport. He also does live gigs occasionally, though he suspects his age (and lack of a manager) may hold him back: “I figure that being young makes me seem like a liability to promoters.”

Hogen belies the stereotype that most young producers are just using their software’s built-in sounds to string together cookie-cutter dubstep (although it’s certainly possible to do so). He grew up taking classical piano lessons and studying music theory, and he applies those skills to his EDM productions, which often showcase complex melodies and layers of lush piano and synths. Still, he acknowledges “the gist of the stereotype.”

“The digital age makes it much easier to stumble upon an attractive sound,” he says. “But at the end of the day, music theory can make writing cool progressions less stressful.”

Like a lot of young EDM producers, Hogen rarely uses the word “DJ” to describe what he does. “I’d consider myself a producer above all else. I didn’t grow up with CDJs or vinyl.” When he plays out, he uses the laptop mixing software Traktor to construct sets made up mostly of his own original material and remixes. “I’ve always got some new works in progress that I love playing.”

As much as Hogen loves playing shows, live events weren’t his focus when he was just starting out, either as a producer or as a fan.

“I got into EDM through the Internet above all else,” he says, reflecting another sea change in dance music culture: Most major electronic music festivals, like Electric Daisy Carnival, are now 18-plus, an age limit that’s been more strictly enforced since a notorious 2010 incident when a 15-year-old EDC attendee died of a drug overdose. Though all-ages events still exist, they are fewer and further between, and typically take place on a much smaller scale than the underground raves of the popular imagination.

Already, even fragmentary sketches with throwaway titles like “Orchestral Dubstep 2.1” boast complex arrangements and a dynamic range that would have been almost unachievable on an unmastered home recording only a few years ago.

So instead, most kids under 18 now listen to EDM at home, alone, or with small groups of friends. And here again, SoundCloud (along with YouTube) is at the center of the listening experience.

“I mostly listen at home, but I’ve been dying to go to shows,” says Travis Austin, a 16-year-old originally from California who now lives in Durban, South Africa. Through SoundCloud, he’s formed many friendships within the Durban EDM scene, including with older producers whose local gigs he occasionally “tags along” to. “But never anything too big,” he adds.

Austin has been producing tracks and remixes under the name Alameda! for two and a half years. Already, even fragmentary sketches with throwaway titles like “Orchestral Dubstep 2.1” boast complex arrangements and a dynamic range that would have been almost unachievable on an unmastered home recording only a few years ago.

Software like FL Studio helps, but the learning curve is still steep. “The stuff I did in the beginning sounds like complete trash,” Austin admits. But the feedback he gets via SoundCloud’s clever social tools, which allow users to comment within each track’s waveform, has accelerated his growth.

“I met all the other producing friends I have in real life through SoundCloud, and I’ll always be so grateful for that,” says Austin. “I’ve also met many overseas producers, and we give each other comments to how we can make this better, what we like, so it’s very effective concerning progress in your sound.” (Sample comment on an Alameda! track, from a Canadian producer: “this is fucking sick chillstep man.”)

“I still got my studio in my bedroom because it reminds me how I got started.” — Julian Jordan

A 19-year-old from New England named Bailey (he declined to give his last name) agrees. “I have done some crucial networking with SoundCloud,” says Bailey, who produces dubstep, trap, and electro-house under the name Aylius. He also uses the service for “submitting my work to promotion networks” and the all-important goal of getting his material in front of “other, larger names than myself.” Though he’s only been on SoundCloud for about two years, he’s amassed over 3,000 followers from such far-flung locales as Germany, Argentina, and Australia who pile hundreds of enthusiastic comments onto his most popular tracks.

When Bailey talks about his “Aylius brand” and using “fan-gating” to garner more SoundCloud followers and Facebook likes, it’s easy to assume that he’s getting ahead of himself. But for those young EDM producers with a combination of social media savvy and genuine musical talent, all it takes is one break to launch a career.

That’s how it happened for Julian Jordan, a baby-faced producer from Amsterdam who just turned 19 but was still in high school when he got signed to the popular Dutch EDM label Spinnin’ Records. His first track for Spinnin’, an impressively sophisticated electro-house anthem called “Rock Steady,” recorded when he was just 16, found its way onto British DJ Pete Tong’s influential BBC Radio 1 show. It also caught the ear of one of Spinnin’s biggest names, Sander van Doorn. Van Doorn, 35, invited the younger producer to collaborate, resulting in Jordan’s breakthrough track, “Kangaroo,” a combination of electro-house and the more mainstream “big room” house popular in the Netherlands.

Jordan’s sudden success forced him to drop out of the prestigious Herman Brood Academie music school, which he had been attending with fellow Dutch EDM wunderkind Martin Garrix. But he’s happy to be living the dream and inspiring countless other young producers looking to follow in his footsteps.

“I get a lot of tweets and Facebook messages from young guys who are producing in their bedroom trying to make it big,” Jordan reports. He’s more than happy to dispense advice and encouragement—especially because he himself is not far removed from their experience.

“I still got my studio in my bedroom because it reminds me how I got started,” he says. He even sometimes still uses FL Studio, the same software employed by Noah Bennett and Travis Austin.

Photo via Carter Merrill