Why do white DJs make all the money?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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?