Step 1: Don’t take yourself too seriously.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On the surface it sounds great, an idyllic call to the masses: Peace, Love, Unity, Respect. It was, in part, a response to the hammering the underground/rave scene was receiving from the media and government in the late 90’s. Parties were being shut down with extreme force, DJ’s were being arrested, the RAVE ACT was threatening to destroy everything we had worked so hard to build, and the media was fanning those fires. PLUR was meant as a flower in the gun of all the misconception and hatred aimed towards the culture.
By the turn of the Millennium the small candy kid based movement started gaining traction and went from joke fodder to one of the most commonly used phrases within dance music culture. While it may have originally had the pure and innocent intentions of creating a utopian environment it has instead become a gateway for the apathy that plagues the culture. Further, it has opened the doors to those that demean and destroy the quality and meaning of the electronic music world. I am speaking specifically of the ‘unity’ portion of the concept.
As a generic concept unity is fantastic, the idea of the music bringing people of all backgrounds together by way of a common ground is admirable. But when we start to examine the kinds of people that have been ‘unified’ into the culture, we see that the music and culture did not change them for the better as was intended, but rather they changed the music and culture for the worse. This is not a unique phenomenon, history is littered with various cultures and peoples opening their arms to newcomers only to be slaughtered by those very people that they were welcoming. It really is ok to not want some kinds of people in our culture.
Had we been a little more xenophobic we wouldn’t have news alerts like Paris Hilton securing an Ibiza residency, or SFX buying up every promoter they can with the philosophy that (and I quote) “…it’s not really based on dance music, as much as the event.” Had we been a little more discerning we wouldn’t have a saturation of mediocre talent that cares more about money than art and craft, little kids running around in their underwear more concerned with how many people pay attention to them rather than actually dancing, or end up being asked to pay ridiculous sums of money to hear posers auto-play and/or sync the same five songs all night.
Sadly, because we trusted that the music could and would enlighten everyone the way that it did us, we have allowed our culture to be bombarded with douches and sluts who have created a world where the music is no longer the important part of dance music culture. Maybe the U should have stood for ‘Underground’ or ‘Understanding’ because ‘Unity’ didn’t do us any favors.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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, in no particular order) and compare them to your average top 40 jukebox:
Norman Cook/Fat Boy Slim
Armin van Buuren
And countless other artists.
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