I 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.”
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?