Preview: Pretty Lights Music elevates the digital playing field


Gramatik plays with your attention span this Saturday as part of Pretty Light Music Spring Tour at the Jefferson. (Publicity Photo)

Give it away for free and they will come. That’s the philosophy behind Pretty Lights Music, a label and touring brand founded by Derek Smith. It’s a simple philosophy, albeit one that sounds a bit contrary to the big-money aspects of the music industry. But Smith is used to betting against the odds.

Now a self-made, one-man-band/label mogul, in his freshman year at the University of Colorado, he took himself out of school to play beat-driven “sound collages” under the moniker of Pretty Lights and broke with industry rules by giving away his music for free. The result? An exploding fan base and, eventually, following years of successful touring, Pretty Lights Music as a label.

“PLM was a natural fit for Derek to harness the power of fan loyalty via this new label model and expose his friends’ music,” said Adam Foley of Pretty Lights’ management team at Red Light Management.

It helps that Smith’s friends include talented electronic artists Gramatik and Break Science, who, with Smith, are ushering in a new era in the music business: producing, sharing, and contributing to a scene that is about “the feel” of the music. Fans flock to these shows for the communal experience—as participants in the sonic fabric that is uniquely woven at each live show. There is freedom in this music that doesn’t follow rigid set lists and frequently produces a gift of new grooves, created on stage while the audience writhes.

Gramatik, a Slovenian-born producer, has been perfecting his craft since childhood, when he got into American funk and jazz. He began his career by producing a mix tape series, and—you guessed it—giving it away for free. In the early 2000s, he used sampling as his main form of artistic expression, chopping up and remixing old funk, soul, jazz, and blues tracks into new creations.

“I always looked at them as hip-hop beats on steroids,” said Gramatik. ”They are still raw, sample-based beats, but with evolved arrangements, and wrapped in a fine layer of live instrumentation.” Live instruments, Gramatik says, keep the listener enthralled through the whole track. “Classic hip-hop beats without vocals lose me after two minutes.”

As for Break Science (a.k.a. Adam Deitch and Borahm Lee), the Brooklyn-based duo has already released two EPs (the latest, Monolith Code, dropped earlier this year) and boasts an impressive list of collaborations to back their talent. Deitch and Lee have produced and performed around the world with The Fugees, Wu Tang Clan, Lee Scratch Perry, and Miles Davis collaborator John Scofield. “He’s a bad boy that’s for sure,” Scofield recalled of his time working with Dietch. “He’s got that jazz mentality and a take-no-prisoners type of creativity. All combined with the groove of death.”

PLM Spring Tour featuring Gramatik and Break Science
Jefferson Theater
March 31, 2012

Electronic music stands on the platform of traditional sound, while positioned as the harbinger of sonic evolution. Pretty Lights understands this, so it’s easy to understand why Break Science shows up on the label. Dietch, who grew up with two professional funk-drummer parents, was sitting in on his father’s gigs by age 8. ”They made it look fun,” he said, “and that’s what got me hooked on doing it.” Lee learned piano at age 4, scaling the ropes of classical music while digging hip-hop, reggae, rock, and pop sounds on his own. He later discovered programming and is now an accomplished keyboard player, sound designer, and producer.

In many ways, electronic music is most susceptible to evolution due to its inherent connection with technology. That isn’t to say that technology wholly drives its innovation, but it does influence the creative and production culture at its core. What this new age of career-oriented musicians have learned is that it’s about the experience, and it’s more important to have legions of dedicated fans than to sell one recording at a time.

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