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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The hidden costs of MP3s

Now that the great Format Wars of the last decade have been reduced to a few occasional skirmishes, fought with talking points tossed around by both sides, it would seem that, for better or worse, non-physical media is music’s destiny. Even with vinyl making a remarkable spike in sales over the last few years, it is unlikely that we will ever see a physical medium as the norm for housing music again.

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MP3s have forever changed the audio landscape; I mean what’s not to love about them? You can have thousands of songs and the only space they take up is virtual. You can email a song to a friend and they can instantly listen to it just about anywhere on a plethora of devices, and with a little know how and a short internet search you can gain access to just about any song ever made, for free. Considering how much joy the little buggers have brought to the world how could anyone possibly speak ill of them? Aside from, of course, the fact that you can’t ask an artist to sign an MP3.

Whether your music collection consists entirely of free downloads or you took the “moral high ground to support the efforts of the artist” and paid your dollar per song, the fact remains that there have been unforeseen costs with this format change that the $0.99 price tag doesn’t cover.

Music is now disposable

Music has been a consumable product ever since the very first mogul realized that he could record some music and sell it for a profit. MP3s have now taken things a step further and turned music into a disposable product. You can download a song you like (foregoing the entire album if you so desire), listen to it a few times and delete or forget about it as soon as the next hit song comes around. This mentality has caused much of the industry to become even more formulaic than ever in order to turn a profit. There is also less of a risk for labels now as productions costs allow them to throw whatever they can to see what sticks, effectively removing any filters of quality. No longer exists the mentality that you buy an album and treat it with more permanence. Picking out music carefully, intentionally, and spending money only on that which connects most to you. Most of the filtering on the consumer end is gone as well, now it is more a matter of ‘this sounds good right this second, buy it, bored with it, next’. This leads to people being less likely to become genuine fans of artists as they are building a short-term relationship with a song instead of a long-term relationship with an artist’s body of work.

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This has become especially true for DJs. Once upon a time, good DJs tended to be a lot more selective about what they played, if not simply as a result of the cost alone. They would immerse themselves in the music, learning every high and low in order to work a carefully selected song into a set as a piece of the story they were telling and get the most out of that song as they possibly could. Records would continuously make their way in and out of the crate depending on the gig, some never leaving at all. Now DJs often buy a new set for every gig, exchanging most of the tracks in their set for whatever the most currently released version of their cookie cutter music happens to be that week. It is no wonder that so many DJs/Producers resort to putting so much attention on a stage and light show, it has become the only way to tell them apart and keep people interested since the garbage music isn’t doing it anymore. In short, there is very little connection to the music anymore, which seems to ultimately miss the point of music in the first place.

There is no culture

While pop music has always been a part of the corporate machine and void of any substantial culture, dance music was on the fringe, in the underground and rich in culture. The culture is already suffering at the hands of the current transition to the mainstream and subsequent corporate takeover, but at an accelerated rate thanks to MP3s. Interpersonal exposure to music has become much more removed and impersonal. People may in fact be sharing new music more than ever, but really, the quality of sharing is greatly diminished. Sending a file to someone for them to listen to doesn’t have the same impact as people being in the same room and listening to it together, something much more common when music was shared via a physical medium. There is no way to truly gain insight and understanding of how a person sharing the music interprets and connects to the piece without being present. You aren’t just sharing music at that point, you are sharing an experience, which ultimately deepens the connection to a piece or artist.

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Similarly, something important is also lost by way of no longer going to a music store to discover new music, specifically, interacting with people behind the counter or the other people that are browsing in the store. While ultimately music is deeply personal, we only expose ourselves to new music through a very narrow lens. Interpersonal connections play a very important role when it comes to music exploration and understanding, all the blogs, Kazaas, Napsters, and Pirate Bays in the world can’t replace that. It saddens me to think that there is an entire generation out there that has never experienced a boutique music store, being opened up to new sounds by someone who has an unmatched passion for all things underground and rare.

Most importantly, for DJs, with record stores came the ability to create a unique sound for a region and an individual DJ. A store would have a limited amount of space and copies of a track so both shop owner and DJ would have to be discerning about what to buy. While a few cities still have a reputation for focusing on a particular sound, the internet distribution of music has destroyed the possibility of a regional feel as more and more people have access to all the same music and end up playing the same Top 10 tracks. Unless you work for a record label or are good friends with a ton a producers and getting tracks before they are released, finding that secret weapon that is unique to your set/region is an impossibility. In fact, all anyone has to do now is hold up their phone during your set and they can instantly download any song you play.

Quantity over quality

Over all, the music industry has long been lost to the philosophy of quantity over quality. While labels have always been concerned with doing whatever it takes to achieve the highest sales numbers, that system is more prevalent than ever. And don’t be naive and think that music is popular or sells on its own merits alone, good music doesn’t magically fall into the awareness or the hands of the masses, that is just not the reality of the music industry. Record sales have migrated to individual song sales and the labels push individual songs more than albums or even the artists making them. Even worse, labels work harder to monetize songs via ad revenue from sites like YouTube than they do investing in the artist with any real A&R of legitimate value. An album now needs to be a compilation of hit singles rather than a complete piece of art with a one or two breakout singles. There is a reason you can go to a massive/festival and every song sounds the same, the industry is about selling a formula, one that can be duplicated and pushed on to the consumers for the maximum possible sales results. For independent music, digital retail sites like iTunes and Beatport are the only ones making any real money (a third or more of the sales) and they thrive through saturation even more so than the labels. There are no industry filters anymore, anything goes and the mentality is now ‘the more the merrier’ to increase the chances that they get something that actually sells well. In more ways than one, this makes the business side of Top 10 playlists even worse in that it perpetuates the must play mentality, if for no other reason than very few are willing put in the effort to dig through all the crap when ten popular songs are a few clicks of the mouse away. This ultimately prevents a lot of legitimate art from being heard and supported, further ensuring the monotony that is the dance music/Top 40 scene of today.

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I’m not going to drudge up the thoroughly debated quality of digital vs analogue sound issue, as it ultimately doesn’t matter when people are primarily listening to music through earbuds, computer, and portable Bluetooth speakers. People, for the most part, don’t seem to care about the quality of sound anymore, otherwise they wouldn’t settle for MP3s (which by their very function down sample music and remove elements of the original sound) through their cheap headphones. This is already assuming it was originally produced at a higher quality to begin with, which for a lot of electronic music is becoming less and less the case. Again, it is no wonder that we are saturated with a bunch of formulaic sounds, produced by people with no understanding of proper production methods, and are bounced to an MP3 in order to be posted on a digital distribution site by way of their or a friends ‘label’. MP3s have helped considerably to make mediocre music acceptable and standard.

What it all means

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking you to dump all your MP3s in the trash but to rather, at the very least, just recognize that there are valuable aspects of experiencing music that are lost as a result of the format shift. If there is even a solution out there to regain what has been lost, we won’t find it until we first realize that there even is a problem. In the meantime there are always the well known and basic ways to help maintain a higher quality of music experience; support physical releases on CD or vinyl, support full albums, buy music and then actually listen to the music consciously from time to time instead of in the background while doing something else, learn the history behind genres and artists, interact with people and listen to music together in person, dig for music instead of looking at fabricated charts, and support independent, lesser known, and local artists. Let’s work together and make quality matter again.

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.

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.

The sync button strikes again

Pioneer recently announced their new CDJ-2000nexus which, not only adds a lot of new (if not gimmicky) features to its industry standard player, but also adds the ever controversial sync button. CDJs have now officially bridged the gap between traditional hardware technology and current DJ software and controller technology.

To sync or not to something something

For those of you living under a rock, one of the biggest beefs CD-jockeys have towards software/laptop-jockeys is the availability of the sync button which allows for one-click beat matching. CD-jockeys cite (often unknowingly ironically) that they are keeping it ‘real’ by not using this automation and relying on skill and art to mix tracks. Meanwhile software-jockeys claim (ignorantly so) that beat matching isn’t really a skill, that the sync button is just a tool that opens them up to be more artistic in other areas that actually matter, and that if you don’t like it don’t use it. Vinyl-jockeys just shake their heads at everyone. So who is right?

First, I think it is important to clarify the huge difference between getting two songs to be at the same tempo for a 16 count transition and riding the pitch in order to keep two or more songs sync’d up for several minutes. The latter takes a tremendous amount of skill and practice over the former. Not to mention the fact that how the artist approaches this task will give create a unique sound and style. Automating this process removes the human element and creates a more sterile feel and experience. Proponents of the sync button argue that beat matching isn’t really an art to begin with and is only a minor part of the DJ process at best, citing that selection, presentation, and other qualities are the true art form. This isn’t quite correct as they are all components of a bigger picture. You can pull out and focus on several aspects of DJing and defy that they have any artistic quality when in actuality it’s how they all fit together as a whole. It’s like saying the stroke of a paintbrush is just a quantifiable ratio of force and requires no real skill and has no real bearing on a painting. If we were to automate the brush stroke process of a painter we would reduce the artistic quality considerably, despite the fact the artist still having to know the placement and kinds of paints used.

Yes, automating the beat matching process saves time and can allow one to focus on other forms of expression, but at what cost? If someone is doing their own beat matching and are able to do these other tasks, isn’t there a higher artistic value? Does a painting with automated brush strokes have a higher or lower artistic value than a hand painted one? There is value in effort alone, the doing something in a way that is the unique result of that manual labor itself.

The “don’t like it then don’t use it” argument

“Keep up with the times, besides, if you don’t like the sync button you don’t have to use it.”  A common argument that sounds fairly straight forward, but like much else in life, there is a deeper issue.  DJing and dance culture as a whole are already saturated fields where quality is being replaced by quantity in every aspect. Making tasks easier at the expense of artistic expression and skill only makes things worse. There isn’t much quality control going on to begin with, so how many more overpriced headliners that are faking their way on stage do we have to endure? Why are we making it easier to flood our lives with the mediocre? I’ve always been a proponent of art over convenience and this is no different. Even acknowledging that a some people will use the sync button to expand other artistic areas (and I suspect people profoundly overestimate this number) the flood of people using the sync button to achieve status as bookable is just not worth it. Even those of you concerned with money over art should at the very least be concerned for this reason alone as a flooded market drives prices down.

Realistically, love it or hate it, it seems the sync button is here to stay. With any luck however, we can shame people away from using it and keep the art alive and well in what we do.

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.

 

 

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

Why old-school DJs are complaining and you should too

After a slow and difficult push, the Electronic Dance Music scene is exploding exponentially in the United States. Not long ago DJ’s were confined to dark rooms hidden from view and were looked down upon by most of the music community. Now they are the new rockstars and headliners; main stage and front and center. EDM is now a billion dollar commodity, but that in itself is not such a bad thing. I remember dreaming of the day I could live off of music, that is more possible now than it has ever been.

There are more opportunities to play our music, to get paid, and to make a name for ourselves doing what we love. How can anyone be mad about that? What’s the problem? Well…

Like any industry, when the money starts flowing in it attracts people that are after it as their priority. Add attention and fame to the mix and you can get a pretty nasty breed of person mucking up the works. At one time art and passion for the music was overwhelmingly the motive of DJs and producers (for promoters it is a little more debatable), but now we see more and more that money, fame, and less than admirable intentions are what drive a lot of people to our EDM world. The balance is shifting and the art of the music and the dance floor are suffering as a result.

Beat matching tech, gimmicks, and reliance on playing popular music have become the common definition of what a DJ does. It is no wonder that this seems like an easy source of money and fame. The truth of the matter is that these qualities are irrelevant to the art of the mix and in what makes a DJ worth seeing and worth the ticket price. To better understand, let’s take a look at some of the bigger complaints coming from the old-school and why the new-school should care.

David Guetta and Swedish House Mafia

It doesn’t take much digging to find out how old-school head DJ Sneak feels about these guys. He’s called them out for their showmanship antics, elaborate stage setups, and more importantly, for getting caught playing pre-produced sets and not actually DJing during their shows.

First of all it is important to separate the concept of DJ from producer, they are not the same thing. While I applaud these guys for their production skills and developing an accessible sound that attracts lots of people, this does not mean they have the right to charge massive amounts of money to see them press play while they jump around. This would be like paying ridiculous sums to James Cameron to jump around on stage while watching Avatar (actually maybe I would pay to see that). Seriously though, producers either need to put on a live show like Orbital, Daft Punk, Chuck Love, etc., or develop actual DJ skills before they step on stage. Unless, of course, you like paying a premium for gimmicks instead of music and talent.

**Disclaimer – I have seen Steve Angello of the Swedish House Mafia on his own play a great 8 hour set and actually mix, so I know he is at least capable, again it’s about what you are paying to see, demand more. I also know playing pre-recorded sets is nothing new and has been a ‘necessity’ now and then for DJ’s playing nightly on tour (not that I approve), but to use this as a default is unacceptable.

DJ X Factor

Now, in all fairness the verdict is still out on this one as we don’t really have all the details or what the contestants will be judged on, but based on Simon Cowell’s propensity to monetize talent it’s likely this show will do more damage than good. It will further push and expose people to the idea that DJing is more about the show than it is about the music and the art. At one point DJing was about bringing new sounds to the floor and making them hits, now DJ’s play the popular tracks to make themselves hits. They are glorified jukeboxes in fancy packaging with laser shows, not artists.

Just to be clear, I am not anti-showmanship. It’s all part of the bigger artistic package when done correctly, but there has to be art at the core. I am anti-showmanship to cover up a lack of talent. Hopefully this show won’t support that, but I am skeptical. We’ll have a better idea when the judges are selected.

Paris Hilton

I will try to keep the vulgarity to a minimum on this one. Remember not long ago when there was a bit of a scuffle with Paris and a certain house DJ because he wouldn’t play a hip-hop song? Remember all those top-40/hip-hop clubs she was frequenting (even when she wasn’t being paid to be there)? Remember how she has never once mentioned or was seen at any house related event until recent press surrounding her new publicity ploy boyfriend Afrojack? Now all of a sudden house music has always been a passion of hers? What does Paris Hilton and a cow’s colon have in common?

This is the epitome of jumping on the decks for the money and the fame bandwagon. Everything she has done to date has been because she saw it as popular and a way to be famous for the sake of being famous. Do we really expect to believe that passion and art will play any part in this catastrophe in the making? At least I have a new term to call people who aren’t DJing for passion and art. Paris Hiltons. Don’t be a Paris Hilton.

The Point

For all you music consumers out there, I appreciate you, I really do. I just want you to be an educated consumer. Know what it is your hard earned dollars are supporting. Be patrons of art, not ATMs for the money hungry.

You would be DJs, producers and promoters: Create art, don’t just press start. Contribute something to the world and to the people, don’t just look to take their money and attention. Let’s be amazing together.