Plug Ugly

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — They came for the music, but they stayed for the Y2K jokes. The Laptop Battle in San Francisco on Sunday, April 18, promised an evening of competitive electronica. But while the individual performances were occasionally inspired, and the concert’s format intriguing in theory, the night was plagued by technical difficulties.

The Laptop Battle crew has been touring the country, promoting events at which electronic musicians vie for the approval of judges and audience alike. To keep the playing field relatively level, the rules are simple: only laptops are allowed. That means, according to the website, no “external controllers,” like keyboards and mixers. And you have only three minutes in which to prove yourself.

By the time they got to San Francisco, the battle’s organizers had sponsored events in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver. Next up was a gig in Los Angeles at the Knitting Factory, later in the week. The setting in San Francisco was more 8 Mile than American Idol, a long, dank basement named Club Six just south of Market Street. Though it was a Sunday night, the floor was fairly packed by the time the show began. Of course, having 16 acts on the bill provides a lot of opportunity for friends and family of performers to fill the house.

First up came CIA (which stands for “Copyright Infringement Agency”), who played a Hare Krishna-ish chant over a drum pattern. He was pitted against Rydub, who followed with an extended bit of dubby club music, into which he secreted breaks of ska. Some in the audience expressed surprise when the judges awarded Rydub the first win of the night, but CIA’s good-humored track didn’t really do much in its third minute that it hadn’t already done in its second minute — or, for that matter, its first. Had Rydub benefited from a proper sound system (more on that later), the superiority of his performance would have been more self-evident.

DJ Aneurysm appealed to noise fans with a loud opening burst of static and a random assortment of samples, while his unfortunate opponent, named Terrac, had to start his piece several times, so faulty was the sound. Stream723, done up like a Matrix supporting character, danced in place while his laptop emitted poppy music that could have been a Berlin B-side (Berlin the new-wave band, not the techno Mecca). When the tune seemed to stop suddenly, someone quipped that Stream723 had broken a string. Such jokes kept the crowd busy, and in good spirits, during the many long stretches between performances. Y2K references proved particularly popular. A bumper sticker at the front of the stage that read “Vinyl Is Heavy” became less viable as a piece of propaganda as the night went on.

The periodic breaks due to technical troubles also provided opportunity for Sunday-night quarterbacking. One sticking point was that the wide variety of genres being presented — from abstract microsonics to deep techno — made judging almost impossible. A number of people, both at the event and online, have suggested that the series would be improved if the competitors all had to construct their songs, or sets, from a shared set of samples. It’s a cool idea, along the lines of the “Iron Chef of Music” contest run by the website, but it ignores the fact that the Laptop Battle is about performance, not composition.

Winning against Stream 723 was Phiber Optics, who followed the Beastie Boys’ lead by opening with a heaving Led Zeppelin drum sample. His set was plagued with problems, and he was forced to start over, which diminished the initial impact of that Zeppelin quote.

Two hours after the concert began, only eight acts had performed. Allowing the allotted three minutes per performer, this means less than a quarter of that time involved actual competition. The rest was tech support. Another eight musicians were on deck, though much of the audience had already gone home. (I soon followed.)

A post the next day on a blog linked to from the website owned up to the event’s failings: “Sunday nights show at Club Six was a humbling experience,” wrote Kris Moon, one of the battle’s co-producers. “Throwing a laptop battle takes alot of organization and synchronization among a large # of people. … We fucked up by not having the mixer there on time and i apologize to the contestants in those first 3 rounds, and anyone else who wasn’t patient enough to enjoy the smokey hallway or just have another beer.” Copyediting aside, Moon’s post explained that the gig’s appointed mixer didn’t arrive until 11pm. It also complained about the grungy neighborhood and noted that it was a Sunday night. But, as Moon wrote, “those are just excuses.”

Liz Dizon, identified as the night’s local promoter, wrote from the site, “[W]e’re all new to this touring laptop battle bidness,” noting the absence of backup plans and equipment. Ironically, for an event about cutting-edge music-making, the sound issues had nothing to do with buggy software or overextended computer chips.

No matter who is to blame, one thing is clear: the musicians weren’t. Perhaps the worst thing about the night was that this wasn’t always made clear to the audience. As a result, it took a while for folks to stop blaming the individual musicians for the problems, and to start recognizing that the fault lay entirely with the concert organizers.

A fellow named T. Machine reportedly won the San Francisco contest, which gets him a spot at the inaugural national laptop battle at Decibel Festival, a planned four-day event in Seattle in late September of this year. As for whether or not that’s a prize — well, you’d have to ask the San Francisco battle participants what they think.

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