That is a pretty big question I have been asking myself over the last few months. As the Editor of Decoded Magazine, I am exposed to many new and established artists daily, varied opinions and a tonne of amazing new music (a few slip through and raise a few eyebrows) but for the most part, I am pretty happy and content with working with such amazing artists, promoters and lovers of underground music, be it House, Progressive or Techno, so why do I keep asking myself, what is wrong with the industry? Am I and others to blame?
By now, you are probably wondering what the hell I have been smoking to throw that sort of question out in the public, well, I aim to explain. For all the love, talented artists, random parties and backslapping that is flowing through the underground, there is a level of bitching and criticism like no other. I am talking about new DJs playing on laptops, (Plug n Play DJs we used to call them when I worked for Decks.co.uk many years back), clubs and promoters asking DJs to sell tickets or my personal favourite, Vinyl vs. Digital debate. If I had a pound for every time some keyboard warrior who thinks they are some DMC champ from 1995 who proclaims real DJs use vinyl blah blah blah, I would be a rich man, but this article isn’t going to be about how stupid they sound (I love vinyl too, I began my career very early 90’s on decks, times have changed, get over it) but it is the divisive nature of the content that bugs me.
You see, the way most DJs learnt ‘back in the day’ (I feel old now) is that usually we teamed up, discussed music, techniques, events, industry talk and was a community. In a sense, we nurtured each others careers (and ego’s) we helped each other out, lent records to each other (except that rare white label gem that no-one else has) and pretty much, we walked shoulder to shoulder and created the scene together. Sure, there were politics, any scene that nurtures creative thinking and pushing boundaries, is always going to see differences, but we were insulated by our towns, cities and lack of technology to spread that anywhere but between our mates.
So, lets fast forward to the release of the CDJ. Still relatively in its infancy in technology and expensive, it was pretty much dismissed by the majority as a toy, was plastic, had no soul and so forth (was so long ago to remember all the gripes) and to be honest, I was one of them that was a purist. A lot of the arguments that it was all just push a button and you are an instant DJ, there is no skill etc (Where have you heard that before?) but over time and once the cost came down, clubs started to install them, DJs could afford to buy them (if you think they are expensive now, try the late 90’s) and although there was still gripes from the purists, for the most part, it became an accepted technology, DJs found they could do things never before able to do on decks without being a DMC champ and for the last decade, all seemed good.
So what went wrong?
Well, nothing and everything. On one hand, we had an evolution of music, its model of distribution to DJs from record stores to digital (beatport, trackitdown etc) and technology which enabled DJing to the masses (a good thing in my opinion) to the rise of new forms of communication – MySpace, Forums, Facebook etc (or ICQ if you are as old as me). The dance music scene had matured; no longer did it exist in basements, dirty clubs and back paddocks. You could now hear it on radio, it became accepted and commercialised. It crossed over and more people wanted to be a part of it. These are all good things, it opened new clubs, brought more people to the dance floor and yes, some DJs got very rich, perfect right? Yes, but what happened to us?
People do strange things when they feel threatened. Some embrace change, adapt and move on as if nothing happened; others freak out and go back to a place in their mind that makes them feel safe, warm and comfortable. This is what happened to the DJ industry. Some moved on, others threw their hands up in the air and lashed out at anyone who dared ventured into their bubble. Quickly it became apparent that a divide was happening across the dance music world. You either played commercial or didn’t, you used turntables or you used CDJ’s (lets not even touch on Digital yet) What categorised you in either category, well, it is subjective only to you and your peers. The cracks started appearing and a good percentage of the old guard didn’t like where things were moving. How so? Leaving aside the stupid and inane debate of digital vs. vinyl, it really came down to if you changed styles to move with what is popular or stayed within the underground.
Music and DJing no longer belonged to us, it was anyone’s now, it became fair game and so did those who dared venture to take up DJing. On any given day, you can safely bet that someone will bemoan a DJ using sync on Traktor, not knowing how to use turntables (I have always wanted to ask those who shout from rooftops that a real DJ uses turntables, if in fact they have ever mastered it themselves or even touched one). Why have we become so divided and why do we care so much if someone wants to take up DJing using a laptop? Surely the real art of DJing is not what medium you use, but the skill of reading a crowd, track selection or even being a community?
How did it get to where it is now?
Well, many factors really. Generations are inherently always different to the next one. I am sure you have all heard your parents talk about your grandparents not liking the music they listened to, or how good you have it now compared to them and you know what, we are, but a fundamental change in society is how we communicate and how we now live in a disposable society. We are a product of our own desire to be connected, that the value of information or music is disposable to most and we want things instantly. If you had grown up before this new age of connectivity, you will always view it differently than someone who knows no better. You cannot expect them to be graced with the wisdom of working hard for something if they have only ever known that they can get it instantly and most of the time, for free.
A new generation of DJ who has only ever known skills behind a computer, will for most of the time, use a computer to learn how to DJ. They can download and install a cracked copy of traktor and 100 songs in under an hour, press sync and done. Is it wrong? In my opinion, sure, can you blame them? NO! So why do we continue to berate them, set up pages to shame them, talk behind their back or just be downright rude?
So why am I to blame?
Have you ever heard the saying, it takes a village to raise a child? Same applies to those entering the world of DJing. It takes an industry to set standards, standards of professionalism, standards of DJing, standards of promoting and so forth. Is there any? Well, define what the standard of DJing should be and you are bound to get differing opinions and usually is they should learn on turntables (where they can buy some new decks and vinyl is never thought of, let alone the cost) but what is the standard? Should they sit an exam, should they just simply respect the old guard or should we as an industry, nurture them, guide them through the pitfalls of their actions, music composition, track selection, how to promote (i.e.: stop spamming my wall with tagged images of your party in Essex) and perhaps teach them a few vital points on how to get away from your computer and network? Surely this can only raise the standards of what we have now, rather than bitching and moaning that they are doing all the wrong things.
The blame does not lie squarely on DJs, the media has a lot to answer to. Polarising celebrities as DJs, glamorising the top 5% of DJs without detailing the 10 – 20 years of hard graft to get there, not being part of the solution of setting industry standards. Magazines that only feature DJs in return for payment. I.e.: a PR company will pay for X DJ to be featured, leaving us scratching our heads to why they feature such a nobody. Using popularity polls as an indicator of success or skill to the new generation, thus turning them to buy likes as they see this as being successful.
We have created a generation of narcissistic people who gauge success from likes, plays and hype, rather than success measured in knowledge, skill, and respect by pushing boundaries. It is a vicious circle with each trying to out do each other, whilst systematically pissing us off, calling them out and thus fuelling the fire
Lastly, promoters, you do not get off lightly. The play for pay system that has destroyed the fabric of the industry, loss of skills and circle jerking of new DJs has turned away the old guard, who spent years honing their craft, dedicating their lives to the music and industry, which in turn, has left a void, that has only been filled by the new DJs who know no better or have the skills. Promoters need to learn the basics themselves, but that is for another article later.
So when does it stop?
When we embrace the new DJs, stop berating them, set boundaries and standards is a good start. It is very easy to shout down a new DJ who posts on your wall or spasm your inbox with ‘hey, check out my mix’ without actually striking a conversation and building that relationship, but if we keep doing that, they will never learn. I don’t proclaim to have all the answers, but a good start is a well written response with something along the lines of:
“Thank you XX for your message. As part of a campaign by experienced DJs and promoters in the industry, I would like to share with you some great advice that helped me at the beginning of my career. When wanting someone to listen to your new mix, it is always best if you can develop a friendship with them first and try to come down and support their night. One of the hardest but most rewarding parts of the industry is to network, establish professionalism and support each other. I would be most happy to listen to your mix / demo when I am free, but it would be great to meet up and we can discuss it more over a beer or two”
Feel free to change it how you want, if they are rude or not interested, you have at least provided a boundary to behave, it is a small step in the right direction. If we all started with some small steps, then it will gradually change. I will over the course of the year, interview various levels of DJs from beginner to touring Internationals on advice, tips and hoping to set some standards for years to come. I welcome feedback, your thoughts and some tips for anyone willing to learn. Lastly, I would like to thank those that do work tirelessly day in day out to bring amazing parties, DJs, music and professionalism to the industry. You know who you are and way too many to name here, but thank you.
I hope this sparks a bit of debate, I am interested in where do we go from here as an industry.
Photo credits – James Chapman Photography