Why do white DJs make all the money?

book-your-favourite-djs-1-01I occasionally get to see what search terms lead people to Not Your Jukebox. A couple of weeks ago, the question of “why do white DJs make all the money” led some curious soul to this site. After an initial chuckle, I realized that this is actually a damn good question. When you look at the top earners, per Forbes magazine, 15 of the top 16 are white. The one non-white is Steve Aoki, and well… close enough.

So why is there so little diversity when it comes to the top earners? Why didn’t techno legend Carl Cox even make the list? Especially considering he is frequently booked solid a year in advance. Even house legend Derrick Carter quipped, “Shoot, If I had the answer, I’d be making all the money, too. It would be ‘Why do white DJs and Derrick Carter make all the money?'”

Digging a little further and looking at the DJ Mag top 100 (yes I know, I puked in my mouth a little too), it was not surprising that their list was looking a bit like Abercrombie & Fitch propaganda (albeit not nearly as in shape and much hairier). After some time searching through various lists, the trend was pretty clear: ethic diversity and women (especially those that weren’t dressed like they were about to dance around a pole) were generally scarce among top ten lists.

Black pioneers founded DJing and house/techno music, so why has it become so predominantly white? Sinbad called attention to this very issue during a radio interview earlier this year (fast forward to 17:40).

So what happened? Is it just a standard case of white male dominance and cultural appropriation? I reached out to some of my black DJ and producer friends to see what their views on the matter were. Some didn’t even want to broach the subject, feeling it was not the right time to discuss the topic given much of the issues going on nationally (like in Ferguson) and didn’t want to rock the boat or risk alienating themselves from the promoters they were currently working with. The fact that there was this kind of trepidation made me want to bring this issue to light that much more, why should there be hesitance when it comes to pointing out inequality?

My first call was to Detroit to get insight from friend and manager Cornelius Harris, head of AlterEgo Management and member of the techno collective Underground Resistance. “My general understanding is that on average,” he explained, “black men make about 75% of what white men make. In terms of electronic music, I can say that when you’re talking about ‘names’ the gap is bigger. But that may be because the fees are insane to begin with. Some of these guys are making $40,000 on a so-so show. So yes, that’s a huge jump from what the original guys who invented techno make.”

Devlin Jenkins (aka Vagabond Superstar), a house DJ staple of the Pacific Northwest, confirmed another important point, “It’s about marketability. It’s easier to market a white DJ than it is a black one. It always has been. White men have always been more visually flexible and can fit into more molds and cookie cutters than can minorities. You can be punk, metro, gay, flashy, posh, etc. as a white man and it seems ‘natural’ to the masses, more so than for a minority.” He continued, “Being white is more pliable and versatile than any other race because it’s been burned into our minds, not only in the US, but globally. White DJs are more willing to be gimmicky and trite for money, whereas minority DJs aren’t. Try to imagine DJ Sneak doing what Paulie D does, or DJ Heather doing what Paris Hilton does or any minority doing what Deadmau5 or Skrillex do. Visually it just wouldn’t be taken seriously and wouldn’t get one quarter of the traction. Plus as a minority, you’ll always be a minority first instead of a DJ first. These days it’s more of a surprise to see a person of color seeing the success of a Deadmau5 because no one expects a person of color to make it that far.”

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Everybody I talked to generally agreed with the assertion that the business side of the music industry being primarily white-owned comes into play as well. Success in any business relies heavily on who you have access too. White artists generally have more access to the white connections that have access to the white-owned labels and white-run events. When looking at EDM, which is where the high dollars are currently at, the trend further crystalizes. The crowds that attend EDM shit shows festivals are primarily white, so it is no wonder that the powers that be would want to reflect that on their stage. The real question is what came first, the white crowds or the white DJs?

Even the underground sees its share of imbalance. A longtime mainstay DJ of the Southern California scene (who because of the sensitive nature and local politics of the topic wanted to remain anonymous) points out, “I’ve been dealing with this kind of thing for 20 years,” he says, “When it comes to local talent, promoters book their friends at a higher wage. There isn’t a lot of black rave promoters in the area so unless you’re the exception and extremely close with all the white and Hispanic promoters, you are getting paid less, if at all.”

Clearly there is a problem here, one I find especially out of place for a scene that is supposed to be all about love, peace, unity, respect, and equality. At one point I even joked that the problem is that the moneymaking genre is EDM and there just isn’t enough soul for black DJs. But as Cornelius quickly pointed out, “There are plenty of cheesy black guys looking to make a buck. I guess that’s why there’s Seth Troxler.”

Despite all the possible reasons of why this inequality exists, the question remains: how do we fix it?

Why I’m (mostly) done complaining about celebrity DJs

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When it was recently announced that Jon Gosselin (former reality TV star personality and Ed Hardy poster boy) had attached the title of DJ to his name, I felt the eye-twitching, mouth-frothing, fist-shaking signs of one doozy of a rant brewing. I was all set for one hell of a tirade. My fury was fueled by such insightful and deep wisdom like DJing “is not easy, you have to know what you’re doing, you have to keep the flow” or expressing those universal challenges like DJing weddings and the bride’s guests “start taking pictures of me and it’s not good, it’s an uncomfortable situation.”

Yes, I was getting ready to spew forth an anti-celebrity DJ rant the likes of which even DJ Sneak would tell me to lay off. As I was translating anger, frustration, and dissapointment into words, I realized a very important aspect of the whole celebrity DJ debacle that immediately calmed my rage: douche begets douche.

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Douche begets douche

In reality, the majority of people that are actual fans of celebrity DJs are either douches or just don’t know any better (or worse, both). I understand that curiosity may drive some people to personally witness one of these train wrecks of humanity from time to time, but rubbernecking aside, anyone who is a serious fan may want to earnestly examine their life goals. The sad reality is that the majority of people who continually support these fallen celebrities are really just hoping that some of the 15 minutes will rub off on them so they can get attention as well.

That being said, the celebrity DJ phenomenon has been mostly confined to its own sad, sad little world. Douche clubs book douche DJs and attract douche people. This system works to our advantage as it helps to centralize the douche community away from anywhere that matters (except for an occasional misstep in judgement, *ahem* Paris Hilton in Ibiza). At the very least, these celebrity DJ bookings let me know without hesitation which clubs and events to forever stay away from, which can be a great time and effort saver. The drawback, however, is that it can also occasionally encourage douches that wouldn’t normally take part in DJ culture to start exploring outside their own douche-majority bubble and infect a douche-minority environment. Dance music culture has enough of our own douches without adding any more.

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Ok, they aren’t all bad

Though I stand by what I’ve said in the past about how the celebrity DJ devalues and mocks our culture (and not in a fun and relevant Will Ferrell kind of way), I do acknowledge that not all celebrity DJs are bad or devalue dance music culture. People like Elijah Wood and Rony Seikaly have, so far, proven to be decent role models. I give Elijah credit for maintaining a low-key profile on the matter and actually demonstrating skill, respect, and for using vinyl instead of jumping on any sync-button-look-at-me-I’m-a-superstar-DJ-so-pay-attention-to-me bandwagon. Rony, former center for the Miami Heat, has been quoted more than once with some actual insightful comments that only come from a genuine passion for the music. One of my favorites being, “EDM isn’t house music. EDM is an offshoot of radio pop that’s done with computers. The essence of house music is organic. It’s a sexier sound. It’s not classic, it’s not noisy. It’s smooth, it’s sexy, it’s groovy. It doesn’t have fake energy like EDM.”

While I am by no means advocating the idea of celebrity DJs, as long as they help keep the douches together in their little bubbles, I don’t care much about what they do. Ultimately, celebrity DJs are like glitter and herpes (glerpes), we aren’t going to ever get rid of them so we just have to kind of ignore them when they pop up. But yes, they are just as annoying all the same.

TL;DR: Not all celebrity DJs are bad and the ones that are douches are pretty much staying in their own douche bubbles, for now. They are like glittered herpes: hungry for attention, annoying, and not going away so just ignore them.

Let’s be honest, illegally downloading music makes you a jerk and a commie

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I recently had a discussion with someone who was in the process of scanning books so that people could have “free access to any and all books”. He viewed himself as a champion of the people; offering up his valuable time and effort in an act of a selflessness in order to be a provider of free knowledge. I was a bit surprised when he got offended and denied my assertion that he was ultimately stealing and that he was more thief than champion, especially in the eyes of the authors. The outright denial of his thievery, though took me aback, made me realize that his viewpoint is not uncommon.

Rather than beat a dead horse and speculate on the effects piracy has on various industries, let’s instead focus on the rarely discussed truth of what is really going on when you illegally download media. Let us get honest, shall we?

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You are a jerk and thief

When it comes to illegal downloads, it is easy to forget that you are stealing. Especially since there is no physical object that is taken from the possession of another physical or perceived individual. People come up with lots of arguments to justify their actions: it’s just a copy, it’s not hurting anyone, it’s not like I’m taking a purse from an old lady, I’m helping expose the artist to people, I shouldn’t have to pay for music because I’m a DJ, I’m sticking it to the corporations and big businesses that are ruining the <insert industry here>, blah blah blah. Bottom line, you are taking something that is meant to be for sale and not paying for it. No matter what argument or justification you come up with, you my friend, are a thief.

You are a jerk because you are robbing the creator of the media and essentially saying, “your stuff is worth having but I’m not going to pay you for it because my desire to have it for free is more important than your desire to make money from your labor”. Despite how you feel about whatever corporations or middlemen that have their hands in the process from creation to distribution or in the overall economic pie, you are in fact taking money away from the creator of the media. Even if it is a paltry sum from that $0.99 song you just stole. As for all you DJs that are getting paid gigs and playing illegally downloaded music, you are thieves, jerks, and a-holes.

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You are a jerk and communist

If you take the work/labor of another person and distribute it to the masses (effectively creating common ownership) you are taking part in communism. This is exactly what is happening when you download and distribute digital material. Not only are you a commie but likely a hypocritical one at that, as I highly doubt that you are sharing with the masses the compensation of your labor, your birthday money from grand-ma-ma, or for that matter, the computer you downloaded the media onto in the first place.

Doesn’t it seem like a bit of a jerk move to be like, “I know you wanted to make money from this but I’m overriding your desire to feed your kids with the compensation of your work and deciding that my desire to make it available for free to other people is more important”? I’d like to see how people would react if someone took their paycheck and distributed the money to the masses because they thought they should be working for free. But I guess that is harder than clicking a button, so it must be more wrong.

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The truth of the matter

Even if everyone suddenly decided to be honest with themselves about what they are doing, I’m not confident that much would change. We live in a world where the new generations are increasingly demanding that things be given to them for free, yet that they be compensated for their own efforts. Companies and artists are continuously struggling to find new avenues of compensation for their labor (resurgence of physical media a la vinyl production, advertising revenues, ridiculous pricing for live performance, etc) but so far most efforts only seem to further screw the artists, and the fans for that matter. You may be getting that song for free but you are ultimately paying for it somewhere.

How to become a successful music producer

Step 1: Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Don’t be a dance scene dick, yes this means you

While we all eagerly await DJ Sneak to point out the next batch of fakers to take cause against, I thought it would be a good time to point out some easy things everyone can avoid doing that will ultimately improve our scene.

Headlining DJs

Don’t be dicks. Yes, we know that the night is all about you, that you are being paid well, and that you think you are the rockstar. Even assuming that you are there as a result of hard work and talent and not money and circumstance, you are not a god. Every day that you are still relevant should be spent thanking one not acting like one. Keep your ego in check and remember that just because your name is at the top of the list of talent doesn’t mean manners cease to exist. Also, cool it with the crazy artist riders. You are already charging an arm and a leg, you could at least buy your own damn booze, inflatable boats, and blueberry infused water from some island of which no one has ever heard.

Opening/Supporting DJs

You are not the main event, this is not your big break, the night is not about you. Get over yourself. You may very well be a better, harder working, and more lovable DJ than the headliner, but the gig isn’t centered around you so stop with the attitude. You are in a supporting role, your job for the night is to support, so support. Don’t be a dick and play a set like you are in the headlining slot. If you don’t have music for a supporting role, or that isn’t the music you play, don’t accept the job. The headliner shouldn’t have to clean up your mess, they should be able to play what they came to play, you should lead the crowd into it. Go get headlining gigs if you think you deserve them. Until then, support.

Female DJs

You have it tough, you really do. We all know this is a male dominated scene so don’t be dicks to other female DJs by using sex to sell yourself. If you can’t get gigs because of your talent and hustle, your tits and ass shouldn’t be your back-up plan. It demeans your gender, it makes you look like a cheap slut, and it keeps people from taking female DJs seriously. Be sexy, be proud, but keep it about art and talent behind the decks. Go do an “art” film if you feel the need to exploit yourself.

Promoters

Your job is to create an experience and to get people to that experience. Do your job. Don’t be a dick and expect everyone else, i.e. the DJ, to do your job. If you are booking DJs based purely on how many people you think they will bring, and expecting “sub-promoters” to bring the bulk of the crowd, you are redundant and an unnecessary cost to the people. Know what the DJs you are booking play, what they are capable of, and then give them time slots appropriate to the overall arch of the night you’ve designed. This will highlight the headliner you are “over-paying and didn’t even draw that much of a crowd” which will make for a better night and people will feel better about how much you overcharged them.

Venue Owners/Managers

Let the people you hired do their job. If you don’t like what they are doing, then don’t hire them again. Don’t be a dick and start telling everyone how to do their job, especially if you have never done that job yourself. You just be cool, tell all the girls you own the place, and spend your profits up your nose like your master life plan dictates. If you do anything, do quality control, make sure the people you have hired are providing a good environment for the people you are overcharging for beverages.

Go-Go Dancers

Let me start off by saying, girls, I love you. I really do. You are fun, pretty, and full of great energy. But stop being dicks. You aren’t performers, quit calling yourself that. Unless you are the 3% that actually choreograph a routine or are a part of a choreographed routine you aren’t performing anything. Quit thinking people are coming specifically to see you dance (even the ones that tell you they are, are lying). If you think you are anything more than eye candy, try to be a go-go dancer at 40. Have fun, be half-naked, but leave the delusions of grandeur at home.

Attendees

There really is no scene without you, but don’t be dicks. Don’t come up to the booth to make requests, don’t waive your phone around to make requests, don’t try to use some tired old line you think you just invented to make a request. Just don’t make a request. If the DJ is the kind of DJ that takes requests, you can be sure he will let you know. If they don’t, just let them do their job. Even if they are the worst DJ you’ve ever heard they are the one working, not you. Also, yes, you will know about music they don’t, don’t be a dick and start acting all superior about how you can’t believe they have never heard of this track before and how “everyone” knows about this song, it’s not a competition, just go dance.

If you or anyone you know suffers from any of these behaviors you have my permission to take a rolled up newspaper and smack yourself or them on the nose with a firm, “NO!”

Lesson two

Fads end, talent remains.