How to become a successful music producer

Step 1: Don’t take yourself too seriously.

What spinning vinyl has taught me

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When I made the transition from the dance floor to the DJ booth in late 1993 I actually started out by playing CDs. The technology was in its infancy but I could get by. I even matched my first beats with my rudimentary front-loading players. I would like to say that I was predicting the future or that I was an early adopter, but the truth is simply that my all my music was on CD and I was just following the music. As my taste, the scene, and the music developed, I eventually turned to vinyl because that is where the music I wanted to play was.

I have always had a connection to the music; it was what was driving me to get out there as often as I could so I could dance to it and play it. Switching to vinyl brought that connection to a whole new level. I was literally touching the music, manipulating it directly. There was no middleman, no computer translating my manual labor from binary input into mechanical movement and sending it out as digital data. I was in direct contact with the music; everything was analog, organic, and real. I could hear it the instant it came in contact with the needle, whether it was connected to an amplifier or not. I could see the story the artist was telling, where the breaks and builds were. I could almost always tell if a track was worth my time just by the album art alone. It was special. Not only did it enhance my connection to the music, but it also enhanced my connection to life. Vinyl helped me gain a lot of insight into the world and into myself over the years and has taught me some very important lessons.

Perspective

Anyone who has spent any time with a record player knows that as you move your finger closer to the center of a spinning record, the slower it travels. Though the physics makes sense, it is still something that can take the brain a moment or two to really wrap itself around. There is a lesson here: that your perspective can be limited to your position in life. The record is always moving as a whole (as is time, life, society, the universe, etc.) independently of you and your position, but how you experience it is always relative to where you are and what you are doing. It is easy to forget that there can be other perspectives that are accurately experiencing something that is completely different from our own, especially in light of the fact that we can only ever truly know our own. People will often make the mistake of going to an extreme and thinking everything is relative as a result, but this is not the case. Even if we have a truly accurate understanding of what we perceive (which is more uncommon than we like to admit), it is usually only a piece of the whole. Very rare is it that we can fully step back far enough from a perception to see the record moving as a whole, and never can we remove ourselves absolutely. We can, however, do our best to understand other perspectives, which is always a good way to get a clearer picture of the planet that we are all spinning on as a whole.

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Effort

Many a philosopher has claimed that true happiness comes from the effort that one makes as opposed to the end result of that effort. I have to agree. When I have a good night behind the decks, when I am really working hard and the crowd gets it and is connected to everything I am doing, it is like a drug. The amounts of serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline that are released in my body are so high that I have a mild depression from the come down after the experience a good night. It is in the doing that I find the happiness, not in the done. Even the prep work before the gig has a kind of happiness attached to it. From the process of digging through track after track just to find the right one to feeling the full weight of the crates as I lug them to the venue. Just to be clear, I am not saying there is no happiness in a job well done, just that there is no real or meaningful job well done without actually enjoying the effort it takes to get there. One must learn a lot of patience, stamina, and drive in order to even begin to know what hard work is, but it is worth it a hundred fold. Passion truly is when you enjoy the effort more than the result.

Temperance

Nudge a spinning record too hard or too soft while you are riding a mix and you will quickly learn the value of moderation. My experiences in the DJ world have forced me to face the value of temperance as a virtue time and time again. Whether I am over-thinking or not paying attention, drinking too much or not enough, playing too hard or too soft, moderation is always key in just about every aspect of DJing, from the business to the art to the pleasure. Just as in any part of life, playing to an extreme may bring pleasure, but it is short-lived and the pain that follows usually out weighs that pleasure. I have really come to understand that longevity in anything requires moderation. For the most part people understand this concept but so few actually incorporate it into their daily lifestyle, despite professing otherwise. More often than not people push something to an extreme until they burn out or experience some major negative effect. They then pull back and say they are living a moderate life. This is not true temperance. Temperance requires active restraint to prevent an extreme in the first place. Over-working a mix into a train wreck and then correcting it is not temperance, restraining oneself and preventing the train wreck in the first place is.

Presence

Mixing vinyl, especially songs that were recorded with a live drummer, require a tremendous amount of focus. Sometimes this is easier said than done when you have lights flashing in your eyes, people dancing all around you, yelling in your ears, sub par equipment that does not stay consistent, or any one of a number of territory common distractions. Focus is something a DJ needs to survive. Presence is something a DJ needs to stay happy. I have learned that my best nights are the ones when I take that focus and evolve it to a point where I have truly let myself go and I am completely present in the moment, in the mix. I am aware of the lights, the people, the yelling. Not just aware, but using those things, incorporating them into what I am doing, the music I am playing, and the way I am playing it. I never plan a set because how can I really plan for a moment I am not yet experiencing? Every moment is different so every set is different. We only ever really have whatever moment we are currently experiencing, yet, so rarely are we actually truly present within that moment. It can be difficult to avoid being stuck in thoughts of moments past or of those yet to come, but life opens up in wonderful new ways when you pay attention to the moment you are currently in, when you enjoy what you are doing at this exact moment. Of all the wonderful things that vinyl has taught me, knowing how to be present in this one and only life that I have and to truly be a part of the world around me is by far my most favorite, as well as the one I am most grateful for.

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I know this is preaching to the choir for those of you that have a history with records, but I think it is important to remember whatever lessons vinyl may have taught you and, in general, the positive effect that vinyl can have on the music and the artist. Those of us that were there for the beginning and early years of the dance music scene know that the we as a whole have lost our way in many respects. The life and soul has been diminished in so many ways, much of the art has been replaced by automation. The passion for the music has been replaced by passion for wealth and fame. We of the old school have failed the new school by not impressing the connections that brought us into the fold to begin with. It is important for those of us that know the value of vinyl to share with those that only see it as an outdated and cumbersome medium. To share with those that have never been exposed to anything but the digital and that are far removed from the direct analog magic that is near and dear to us. I encourage you to take part in the re-revolution and help keep the education going.

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.

It’s education not hate, so quit whining

Clearly my last article (Why old-school DJs are complaining and you should too) struck a nerve. I am glad it did because these are important issues that need to be brought to the public and discussed. Clearly a great many of you agree. A few people didn’t, but based on their arguments it was primarily because they either missed a key point or defaulted to a standard reply. I think it is important to flesh out some of these ideas a little more so the discussion can take a more productive course.

It’s not about hating

Yes, naturally, there are always examples to the contrary and some old-schoolers are in fact hateful and bitter, but by and large there is no real hate or bitterness. Really it is about passion, love, education and a call for people to demand and expect more. There is such a tremendous amount of passion and love when it comes to music (any genre) that discussions about how it should be done, what people are doing what, and what is and what isn’t art can get quite animated. That doesn’t default it to coming from a place of hate or bitterness, it just means people are passionate, as it should be.

When you have been around long enough you start to see certain patterns emerge. There are certain trends and behaviors in the dance music world that have occurred in other genres that ultimately played a big roll in the over saturation, monetization, and over consumption that led to their downfall. The reality is that ultimately these behaviors and trends are avoidable. Just because an old-schooler is bringing this to light doesn’t mean they are stuck on the past, afraid of change, or bitter that they aren’t in the headlines. Time just gives you a kind of experience and perspective that is hard to understand until you have seen it first hand.

More than likely the source of complaint is coming from a place of passion. The majority of us built the dance scene with certain ideals, not everyone shared them, but it was the majority nonetheless. Now those ideals seem to be reserved for the minority, which isn’t unexpected given todays sheer volume of people that attend dance music based events. The problem is that without a strong enough core of ideals and passion, a culture cannot survive.

Why the money conversation matters

Again I want to make it clear that I am NOT saying that money is inherently evil. It is a tool, neither good nor bad on its own. I also have no problem with people making money or getting notoriety from their art or passion. People have every right to be compensated and appreciated for their hard work and for the benefits they provide others. But I also believe that consumers have the right and the duty to be informed. I believe that people should be aware of what they are paying for so they can decide for themselves what they want instead of being limited to what someone else thinks they should have.

To say the market will decide who should be out there or who is the best just isn’t a complete concept. Throw enough money out there and you can drown out competition resulting in the market not having a fair shot at making a truly unbiased decision. There are six companies that control the majority of the world’s music and how it is distributed, you don’t think they are doing whatever they can to make money on their investments?

In a perfect world the market would be able to purely decide, but in reality, the market doesn’t always get a fair playing field. Consumers often only get to choose from a selection that’s already been decided for them and it’s usually based on how much money can be made from that product. One can argue that they make money on it because it sells and it sells because it’s good. Well that isn’t entirely accurate either. Marketability and branding plays a huge role as well. Licensing, merchandising and product placement are part of that dollar figure and generally independent on how good the product actually is.

There is a certain amount of group think involved as well. This is why we see artists paying people and PR firms to gather likes, votes, or buying their own tracks to climb sales charts. There is even a disturbing trend of DJ’s PAYING large sums of money in order to play events in order to get on good billing. If something is perceived to be well liked, a person is more likely to check it out sand with an open-minded. Except maybe for hipsters.

Even repetition plays a big part in what people like and consume, especially musically. This is why record companies have spent millions of dollars dominating the airwaves and paying (yes paying) ridiculous sums to make sure what hits the top 40, not to mention for just good old-fashioned exposure. I bet you can think of at least one song you didn’t like the first few times you heard it, then one day after the hundredth time, you put it on your iPod. Do consumers have a fair shot at deciding between someone who has no money for marketing to someone backed by millions?

You may very well legitimately enjoy this hypothetical artist, but don’t think for a second they are on that top-40 list purely because the market decided it, no matter how talented or artistic that person may actually be. And don’t think for a second that the market has complete control over what is considered popular. Talent alone is not what dominates a market or gets you to the top, especially when someone in the chain values the dollar over talent and art.

When music becomes a product there are limits imposed on the artist in order to maintain profit status quo. How many artists have left major labels for this reason? Again, there is nothing wrong with making money or fame from your passion, in fact I encourage it. My point is that when passion for money leads you to music and fame, art tends to suffer and the people’s freedoms are limited.

What are you paying for?

If you bought a Mercedes-Benz at full price, but it had a Geo Metro engine, wouldn’t you want to know? If you never knew, you might very well be happy cruising along believing that you had a Mercedes, but that doesn’t change the reality that you got ripped off. It’s a completely different story if you knew it was a Geo Metro engine but you just wanted the flash and the image and you didn’t care about the actual performance.

If you are paying for a live performance, shouldn’t you get one? Is it right to pay for a live performance and get lip-syncing, soundtracks, and pre-recorded sets instead? If you knew for a fact that your favorite singer would be lip-syncing the night you planned on going and you would have to pay the same price as a live show would you? The same standard should be held for DJs and producers selling a ‘live show’. You may not care that you are paying for a premium for something that you aren’t actually getting, you may still enjoy the flash, that’s fine. You should at the very least have the knowledge and the power to choose.

My personal feeling is that if there really was value in paying for the fake, Milli Vanilli and Ashlee Simpson would still have vibrant careers. Regardless, I’m still going to push for the truth, people should know what they are paying for so they CAN decide how the market develops instead of driving a Mercedes with Geo Metro engine just because that is their only option.

Stay tuned for the next installment: DJ vs DJ vs Producer vs don’t care