The bifurcation of DJ/producer pay and a case for unionizing

There has been a lot of writing (including our own) about the ‘clowns’ of the industry and the damage they cause to the dance music scene by way of their shenanigans, ghostwriting, overpriced ticket sales, lack of respect, lack of general talent, so on and so forth. However, there is a bigger problem that these so called celebrity DJs and producers are facilitating: the bifurcation of pay amongst dance music artists. There is an ever expanding gap between the DJs that get paid tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars per gig and those that are lucky to get offered a gig for anything more than “good exposure”. A gap that will only get worse as corporate entities become more and more involved with dance music.

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The problem

Advances in technology and automation as well as the ever dwindling price of gear and music have created a level of access that has made it easier than ever for anyone and everyone to call themselves a DJ. Combine this with the pop culture spotlight that is increasingly shining down on our once intimate world and we have the homogenization and saturation of DJs and producers that plagues us today. A plague that has no comparison to any other genre of music, and this includes the 80’s and 90’s when everyone picked up the guitar and called themselves a rock musician or stood in front of a microphone and called themselves a rapper.

The end result of this saturation and homogenization is a detrimental bifurcation of pay,  causing the middle class DJ to disappear, which is on par with what is happening to the rest of the American population. Many argue that it is simply a case of “the cream rising to the top”, but for those that factor in corporate involvement, investments, marketing, saturation, access, ghostwriting, celebrity DJs, and a multitude of other factors, know that it is very rarely the case that someone rises to the top of the financial ladder just because their music is the best liked. When it comes to the big money in the music industry, many hits are more a product of marketing success, investments, and heavy exposure/repetition campaigning than a result of something being simply the best liked.

On one end of the spectrum an elite few find support by way of investment and promotion that gets them heard by the masses. On the other end, a flooding of entry level DJs who want a shot at the new celebrity status that has been bestowed upon the namesake flood the market and are willing to work for very little pay, or for that all time favorite perk offered by seasoned promoters and club owners, good exposure. Naturally this is a better financial move on the promoter’s end, but this reduces the opportunity for all DJs as there is now a flood of local or regional talent that is satisfactory enough, at least until the headliner comes on, and ultimately removes any need or desire to pay for the expenses and fees that come from more seasoned talent that may or may not be from the region. It also puts the promoter into a position to move on to the next freeDJ as soon as the first one starts asking for more than just good exposure, which is bound to happen.

This is just one area where a union could come in handy, to not only protect the DJ but the longevity and quality of the dance music scene as well. Further, if the union was able to develop into something that even remotely resembled the Screen Actors Guild, (the longest running and most successful entertainment union) DJs that didn’t make millions of dollars throughout their career could feasibly have access to emergency funds, medical insurance, retirement options, and a wealth of other benefits and protections.

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How it could work

There is no question it would take a tremendous amount of work, organization, and coordination. There is no question that there would be a tremendous amount of push back from venues and promoters. But, with some support from a few of the major players it could actually be quite achievable. We would first need the support of promoters like Pasquale Rotella (Insomniac) and headlining performers like Joel Zimmerman (Deadmau5) to support the union. I call them out specifically because on more than one occasion they have either expressed their love of the scene or their hatred of the garbage it has produced, I’ll let you figure out who said what.

Once a few of the larger venues and artists joined it would naturally start to trickle down to the smaller ones.  Venues would still have the option to use non-union talent, but would’t have access to the headliners and DJs that were in the union unless they could show that they met a booking quota of union talent. Benefits wouldn’t be one-sided, the union could help mediate contract disputes by either party, impose sanctions or fines to violations, and in general, help raise the bar in terms of performance quality.

Aside from membership dues, a certain amount of live show experience could be required to join the union. This wouldn’t prevent anyone starting out from getting gigs, but rather help screen and filter out those that aren’t serious about taking the DJ path as a career, this would ultimately help alleviate the over-saturation in the market. By following much of the system set up by SAG, we could help protect the talent and help relieve some of the saturation that has caused way too many cases of seasoned and talented DJs being asked to play for exposure.

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Why it will probably never happen

As realistic as unionizing may be in theory, in practice it will likely never happen. The two biggest proponents being greed and ego. Venues and promoters are often short-sighted when money is involved. In part because what is popular can change nearly instantly or they work from event to event and they want to keep the revenue flowing, and in part because they want the maximum profit immediately and don’t want to give up those free, exchange for cover and drink tickets, or $50 DJ slots.

Despite much of the unity and togetherness that is promoted within the consumer-side of the scene, the industry-side is rife with competition. DJs are generally not in the habit of helping one another out, unless they clearly see a greater benefit. Despite all the benefits that they would receive from being unionized, it is not unreasonable to think that when something like a call to strike occurred that there would be too many DJs that saw it as their chance to stand out or make a quick buck, rendering any strike meaningless.

Just keep this in mind: unionization has a proven track record for entertainers like TV and film actors, shouldn’t we have the same protections and benefits?

The problem with ghostwriting dance music

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Not long ago, the interweb was abuzz with some potentially interesting discussion regarding dance music ghostwriting. Unfortunately it was short-lived and the parts of the discussion that had any real value never fully materialized. While a few articles claimed to oust some ghostwriters, they did little more than praise artists like Benny Benassi (known ghostwriter) for their hustle. Really, there should have been at least a hint of discussion about how ludicrous the whole enterprise actually is.

No harm no foul

The discussion has since been abandoned with a hastily adopted conclusion that the whole thing falls into the ‘no harm no foul’ category. Something to the effect that if the ghostwriter is ok with the terms of the contract they signed and if the person who attached their name to the work has no moral dilemma with purchasing the illusion that they possess some skill, then there is no problem. Before you subscribe to such monetarily-centric industry behaviors, let’s put a few of the important aspects of this trade into focus.

It should first be made clear that really, the ghostwriter is not to blame. It takes tremendous hustle to make ends meet in today’s economy, especially by way of the music industry. Having talent alone isn’t nearly enough to survive, even for those few of a kind that can produce more than a single potential hit. Ghostwriters alone may not have the infrastructure, contacts, or financial backings available that are needed to make music a successful hit. This is of course assuming that they even wanted to be in the limelight in the first place.

The ghostwriter is also clearly more interested in choosing money over artistic integrity by the very fact they are parting ways with their creation in order to let someone else take the credit for a few (or many) bucks. There is no mistake or confusion as to what their goals or intentions are in regards to their work. They are in it to make money, clear and simple. The person attaching their name on the bought work, however, is a liar. They are living a lie and they are selling a lie.

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The Elton John defense

People often cite artists like Elton John, Elvis, or any of the countless artists who are not only well known for not writing their own music, but also for becoming quite famous as a result of the songs that the ghostwriters provided them. There is an obvious, but unfortunately, overlooked difference in having a ghostwriter provide you with a song that you in turn PERFORM LIVE for an audience compared to a song you simply PRESS PLAY for an audience. Artists like Elton John still perform the song. They bring their own talent to the equation, a piece of themselves, as well as some actual effort to the piece.

Even when assuming the extremely unlikely scenario that a DJ/Producer who is willing to slap his name on someone else’s work in turn actually mixes it in to his own set (and yes some DJs buy premixed sets to play out for ‘live’ shows), are they really bringing any talent to the performance? Wouldn’t this then give him the right to lay claim to every song he plays in his set as his own by proxy? The short of it is that they aren’t selling a track as a result of their performance of it or really anything they are adding to it, as is the case for artists like Elton John.

For a producer to even qualify as having talent they need to actually produce, for a DJ, they need to actually mix (and mix live at that). When you buy either of these tasks and slap your name on it, it just makes you a lying fraud. These credit usurping talentless frontmen that do so are no Elton Johns, rather, they are more akin to Milli-Vanilli than anything else. If we didn’t stand for Milli-Vanilli’s pedantic synchronized dancing and lip-syncing nonsense when they were called out, why should we stand for any of these Jesus posing sky-pointing fakers?

Selling lies

At this point some people might be tempted to spout off some rhetoric nonsense like ‘if the people like the music, have a good time and are none the wiser, what difference does it make? Who gets really gets hurt?’ The industry gets hurt and the consumer pays the price, quite literally. Not only are consumers buying and perpetuating a lie, they are elevating these glorified lip-syncers to millionaire status. Consumers are unknowingly perpetuating a system where imitators keep raising their performance prices, which in turn further gouges the consumers when it comes to performance costs, all in the name of paying for the artist’s increasing cost of their lies and fame greed. Dance music has become increasingly caught in a vicious cycle of paying for lies.

As always, Not Your Jukebox seeks to remain a champion for art, truth, consumer awareness, and to encourage others to do the same. Don’t pay for lies and fame greed, demand better.

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Why PLUR is part of the problem

On the surface it sounds great, an idyllic call to the masses: Peace, Love, Unity, Respect. It was, in part, a response to the hammering the underground/rave scene was receiving from the media and government in the late 90’s. Parties were being shut down with extreme force, DJ’s were being arrested, the RAVE ACT was threatening to destroy everything we had worked so hard to build, and the media was fanning those fires. PLUR was meant as a flower in the gun of all the misconception and hatred aimed towards the culture.

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By the turn of the Millennium the small candy kid based movement started gaining traction and went from joke fodder to one of the most commonly used phrases within dance music culture. While it may have originally had the pure and innocent intentions of creating a utopian environment it has instead become a gateway for the apathy that plagues the culture. Further, it has opened the doors to those that demean and destroy the quality and meaning of the electronic music world. I am speaking specifically of the ‘unity’ portion of the concept.

As a generic concept unity is fantastic, the idea of the music bringing people of all backgrounds together by way of a common ground is admirable. But when we start to examine the kinds of people that have been ‘unified’ into the culture, we see that the music and culture did not change them for the better as was intended, but rather they changed the music and culture for the worse. This is not a unique phenomenon, history is littered with various cultures and peoples opening their arms to newcomers only to be slaughtered by those very people that they were welcoming. It really is ok to not want some kinds of people in our culture.

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Had we been a little more xenophobic we wouldn’t have news alerts like Paris Hilton securing an Ibiza residency, or SFX buying up every promoter they can with the philosophy that (and I quote) “…it’s not really based on dance music, as much as the event.” Had we been a little more discerning we wouldn’t have a saturation of mediocre talent that cares more about money than art and craft, little kids running around in their underwear more concerned with how many people pay attention to them rather than actually dancing, or end up being asked to pay ridiculous sums of money to hear posers auto-play and/or sync the same five songs all night.

Sadly, because we trusted that the music could and would enlighten everyone the way that it did us, we have allowed our culture to be bombarded with douches and sluts who have created a world where the music is no longer the important part of dance music culture.  Maybe the U should have stood for ‘Underground’ or ‘Understanding’ because ‘Unity’ didn’t do us any favors.

DJ schools and other scams

Over the years quite a few people have offered me money to teach them how to DJ, a few have even suggested that I start my own DJ school. My answer is always the same, I can’t in good conscious charge people money to teach them what they should teach themselves for free. Now that DJing has saturated the mainstream there have been an abundance of people looking to learn the trade and an increase of organizations willing to take their money. In theory, DJ schools seem to have value, but in reality they are generally not worth the money they extort from eager would-be DJs.

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Why you are wasting your money

DJ schools are exploiting the belief that you will get at least two things of value from attending. One is exposure and time spent with gear, the other is having someone to walk you through the basics (assuming you lucked out and actually have a competent instructor who has a successful DJ career). Sounds like a great deal, especially if you aren’t quite sure if DJing is right for you or if you are looking to fast-track your way into the spotlight, right? Wrong. They are ripping you off. Even if there is a promise of some sort of fancy certificate or a “live gig” at the end of the course, you are being charged for a short period of time that will not allow you to obtain a skill level worthy of a paid DJ. Unless you happen to have unlimited funds for hundreds of hours of training, you are better off saving your money. You’d be hard-pressed to find a successful DJ that attributes their success to a DJ school.

What you should do instead

If you are unsure of whether you want to be a DJ, then go do something else. Don’t waste your time, effort, or deal with the unlimited hassle of the lifestyle. Download a fun little DJ app and have fun with your friends. If you are stubborn and still want to see if it is for you, throw a rock, you will hit a DJ, ask them if you can check out their gear and if they will show you a thing or two. Stroke his or her ego a little bit and you can guarantee they will give you some dedicated attention that you wont find in any classroom setting.

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If you know with obsessive certainty that you do want to be a DJ, invest that money you would have spent on classes and get gear. Then use that gear a lot. Play with it, explore it, record your work and listen to it. Go out, watch other DJs, watch videos, documentaries, absorb everything you can, and practice some more. If you want to DJ, you need to spend a lot of time on that gear, more time than what any DJ school will offer as part of their “curriculum”.

Your desire to DJ should borderline obsession, not some casual hobby you want to do now and then. If you put in the effort that comes with obsession versus throwing a few bucks at a hobby, you will develop your own voice and your own style which is way more valuable than sounding like someone teaching at a DJ school. Don’t pay for what you can get for free, or could put toward the cost of your own gear.

Competitions

Another scam that preys on eager young DJs and producers are competitions. While some competitions offer some actual value to the participants, ultimately they are all asking a large group of people for free work. Even if there is a monetary prize for the winner, think of all the unpaid hours of work the host of the competition is receiving and is not accountable for financially. There is a wide spectrum of ethics when it comes to competitions; from the whole thing being rigged and there is already a winner in mind before it starts (which is more common than you may realize) to an actual weighing of skill and talent where someone will actually be awarded something for their efforts. Make sure you really look into the specs of the competition, never be afraid to ask questions. Never fall for any prize that is based on notoriety, there is no one gig or competition that will make or break you. Competitions are more about ego than anything else.

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Even in the best case scenario that your work is judged purely on its merit, who are the judges? Competitions are decided purely on a subjective basis (even with point-based guidelines) and are dependent on what the judges are feeling at that exact moment. This is of course assuming it is a judged competition and not a vote-based system which is nothing more than a popularity contest and has little to do with actual talent other than talent at self-marketing. Overall competitions aren’t inherently bad, just make sure the prize is something of actual value to you in exchange for your efforts and not just appealing to your ego with the promise of being your big break.

Have friends, will book

There has been a disturbing trend of promoters expecting other people to do their job so they don’t have to. If you are looking for a non-headlining booking and the promoter asks how many people you will bring right off the bat, find another gig. Or at the very least arrange a deal to get a percentage of the door based on head count and have your own person at the door to monitor the numbers. Yes, a promoter should be concerned with how many people come through the door, but as a non-headlining DJ it isn’t your job to fill the club, it’s your job to play to the time slot you are in and support the vibe of the night. If you are being paid a flat rate, there should not be any major concern with how many people are coming to see you. That’s what the headliner is for. That is what the PROMOTER’S job is. Somewhere down the line the job of promoter has been confused with talent booker.

In short, if you are going down the DJ or producer path be an educated consumer, think about what you are putting in, in relation to what you are getting out. If you are new you will have a lot of dues to pay as it is, don’t tack on unnecessary ones.

Taking the message to the dance floor, fakers beware

Want to join the fight against the DJs and producers that fake the funk but aren’t quite sure how you can help? Now you can join the cause and spread the message just by playing a song. I know it’s a bit self-gratuitous, but fellow producer and real art enthusiast Rob Nutek and I did a song on 7Stars Music with the cause in mind. In our response to a certain “h8ers” release, we call out all fakers and give DJ Sneak a proper shout out for heading up the charge. Check it out and join the cause along with other supporters like heavy hitters Roger Sanchez and DJ Sneak. Stay tuned for an amazing remix package as well.

Get it on Beatport!

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Long time dance music veterans Rob Nutek and Sean Ray have teamed up again to give life to a dance floor monster with a message in their “FAK3RS” song on Seven Stars Music. Aside from the undeniable groove, the lyrics address some of the current rumblings in the scene involving the calling out of various artists for faking their performances.

Sean Ray who is no quiet voice on the matter, runs the very popular notyourjukebox.com, which is dedicated to keeping art as the focus of dance culture. “When Rob approached me to collaborate on this track,” explains Sean, “It was a no brainer. Of course I wanted to put a beat to a message for which I’ve been fighting for years.”

No one ever mistakes where Rob Nutek stands on the issue, as he too has been a champion of keeping things real. “DJ Sneak put a huge voice to what many of us have been saying for years. He helped people to pay attention and listen, now it’s our turn.”Rob and Sean work together to produce both a powerful track and a powerful message. Don’t them catch you faking it lest you find them on the receiving end of their cause.

Lesson two

Fads end, talent remains.

 

 

Are DJs artists?

In light of recent challenges to various dance music performers’ abilities (term used lightly, see Why old-school DJs are complaining), it has been demonstrated that there is still quite a bit of misunderstanding as to what a DJ does, should do, and how to tell the difference between the skilled and unskilled. I think this merits a bit of examination, as do these topics when applied to producers.

The good, the bad, the jukebox

Some argue that all a DJ need do is play whatever the crowd wants and make them dance. This view is clearly held by certain groups, who say, buy bottle service and feel DJs like Mark Farina, Dennis Ferrer, and Calvin Harris should be thrown off the decks when they don’t hear what they want, when they want and how they want. Let’s call this crowd the ‘crybaby douchebag’ group for short. Crybaby douchebags consider the DJ their personal jukebox. There are plenty of DJs that make a living as a jukebox, focusing on playing the top hits and playing requests, I have nothing against them personally, but let’s keep the perspective clear. As this action can be fully automated by a mechanized jukebox this brand of DJ really is at the bottom of the artistic spectrum. In fact, being a living jukebox can hardly be considered a DJ in the modern sense, but for sake of argument we can call this a DJ by technical standards, or ‘jukebox’ for short. Crybaby douchebags generally have this definition in mind when they think of the word DJ.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is much more artistry and creativity involved. At the artistic top end, DJs can really be considered musicians, live remixers, and live producers as they take sounds, layer them, program them, and present them in such a way that it becomes something entirely new from the original pieces used. The original songs are used like instruments in a orchestra, they cease to be ‘just playing other people’s music’. They can take a song and make it a hit, they can take noises and turn it into music, they can make you dance when they want to, and make you stop and think when they want to. There is often a message and a purposeful idea in their sound, there is a creation of a new song by connecting disconnected pieces. DJs on this end of the spectrum are artists.

Now I know there is a natural tendency to cry out that art is subjective. Yes, there is quite a bit of subjectivity, mostly on the receiver’s end in terms of whether you like it or not. There is however, quite a bit of objectivity as well. For example, you can’t drop a book on the ground and call it a painting. Nor could you call yourself an artist after filling in a paint by numbers piece, or in DJ terms, playing a pre-recorded set that was put together using computer automation to arrange and mix it for you. There has to be a certain amount of manual labor, purpose, effort, and representation for something to be considered art. I know a lot of people are going to cry about how I am professing an anti-technology stance and I’m not keep up with the times, blah blah. I am not anti-tech, I embrace it, I use it, but I use it to enhance my art, not to increase convenience. I am anti-convenience at the price of artistic vision and intent. That isn’t to say that tech can’t create new opportunities for artistic expression, but like I always ask, are you pressing start or creating art? Are you just playing other people’s music, or are you re-imagining it and creating something new with purpose and a message?

There are a lot of elements that come into play between the spectrum of jukebox and artist, each having a different level of value based on its difficulty to perform manually and live. For example, beat matching is an element of the art, but of lesser value than say, beat-juggling which requires much more effort and skill to do well. Good programming is essential for an artistic DJ, but pre-programming a set is of less value than being able to program on the fly and adapt to the moods of the crowd in front of you. A good place to start when you are evaluating where in the artistic spectrum a DJ is, is to ask yourself, are they creating something new with the songs/sounds they are playing and are they doing it themselves or is it automated? A DJ that does live what a DJ does automated or pre-programmed, is just artistically better. Now if you don’t care about art, just money, then none of this need apply to you. But believe it or not, there are a lot of people that care about art over money. I also think people should be rewarded for the pursuit of art over the pursuit of money (see Hate vs Education). What would you rather pay for, the paint by numbers piece or for the same (or even a lesser) dollar amount get an original piece of art?

Not all producers are artists

Just as there has been a recent saturation of DJs, so has there been of people creating dance music. Just as there is a spectrum of artistic value for DJs, there is also one for producers, in fact they share many of the same elements. A producer on the bottom end of the spectrum takes pre-made loops, samples, and synth presets, slaps them together and calls it a song when really it is more of an extended loop. We can call these ‘drag and drop producers’ for short. On the other end of the spectrum; thought, representation, structured pieces, carved sounds, layers, arrangement, purpose, original sounds and note composition are key elements of work found on the artistic end of the spectrum. These are ‘electronic musicians/artists’. Some of them even play traditional instruments, truly making them artists in a classical sense.

There is also a difference in artistic value between a producer that can make music in a studio and then play it for a crowd and a producer that can write music in a studio then perform it live. Certain producers may make crowd pleasing music in a studio, but others of a higher artistic caliber can please crowds while creating and performing that music live. Live, manual efforts that have a higher difficultly of skill to carry out and that are performed well always have higher artistic value than automated and pre-recorded efforts. Just because the masses like it doesn’t make it art, but to be fair, just because it’s art doesn’t mean people should like it.

And just to be especially clear on the matter, if you are creating a “mash-up” of two or more songs, don’t kid yourself into thinking you are a producer. At best you are a pre-recorded DJ which would put you near or even below the ranking of jukebox as you aren’t even doing the most basic of DJ tasks, mixing, live.

DJ vs Producer

There has also been some recent dialogue of some producers calling DJs middlemen, and DJs calling producers hacks and sellouts. The truth of the matter is that DJs and producers need each other. Producers make the music that DJs play; DJs help get that music to the people. There is a natural symbiosis, whether or not you are making and playing the music yourself.

Can’t we all just get along? No. Nor should we, DJs that pursue artistic goals should support producers that seek artistic goals and vice versa. Let’s all work to push the artistic end of the music spectrum further and further from the jukebox and the drag and drop end. Let’s make millions off of art, not convenience and hype. Let’s give the people something meaningful and beautiful and not just fill their lives with more and more inferior products led by profit margins. Art over convenience. Let’s be amazing together.

Do your homework

If you are still skeptical that DJs are or can be artists, check out any one of these guys (keeping in mind this is a very short and incomplete list of artistic DJs) and compare them to your average top 40 jukebox:

John Digweed
Z-Trip
X-ecutioners
Sasha
Mark Farina
DJ Shadow
RJD2
Cashmere/Green Velvet
Richie Hawtin/Plastikman
Josh Wink
Deep Dish
DJ Swamp
DJ Sneak
Chuck Love
Q-Bert
Colette
Frankie Knuckles
Juan Atkins
Derrick May
Carl Cox
R.A.W.
Terry Mullen
Jo-S
Nick Warren
Ralphi Rosario
DJ Dan
Stanton Warriors
Doc Martin
Sven Vath
DJ Heather
Barry Weaver
Norman Cook/Fat Boy Slim
Armin van Buuren
Pendulum
Bad Company
Frankie Bones
James Zabiela
Jazzy Jeff
Mixmaster Mike
Kool Herc
And countless other artists.