Fads end, talent remains.
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
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.
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.
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.