Ghosts in the Machine: The dark secret of the dance industry or a necessary evil?

Although ghost producing in the broadest sense of the word is as old as the hills, in the dance scene it’s still looked upon with disdain. The prevailing culture dictates that every self-respecting DJ should release his or her own tracks. And that’s where ghost producers appear in the picture. Decoded spoke about this phenomenon with Onnik Tavitian, founder of the world’s number one ghost producing platform House of Tracks, and with Dutch dance pioneer Robin ‘Jaydee’ Albers, producer of the epic nineties track Plastic Dreams. Where once one’s impeccable record choice defined their popularity, nowadays a DJ is supposed to be producer, promoter, social media expert and entertainer as well. At the very least – quite a curriculum.

Let’s take a peek into history. In the Roman era, the concept of ‘ghostwriting’ was considered totally acceptable. Not every emperor was as good a (speech) writer as he was at conquering the world. In order to appear strong and erudite, he would have a ghostwriter compose speeches and pretended they were his own. Under sworn silence, of course. In politics this is still happening, every day. In conversation with Robin Albers, he cites classic composers Bach and Beethoven as having ghost composers to help with their output.

“In their day and age it was common that wealthy families would pay composers to create a unique track for marriages, births or other special occasions. The only difference now is that composers produce a unique track and make it available for sale. If someone likes it, he or she can buy it and put his or her own name to it. It’s nothing more or less than a business transaction. I’m glad it exists.” – Robin Albers (Jaydee) 

Onnik Tavitian agrees with Robin. Onnik’s company House of Tracks is built on the concept of ghost producing. Tracks that are sold via his platform don’t always end up in the dance industry, he emphasises immediately: “We also sell to the game industry, the entertainment and movie business and advertisement companies.” When House of Tracks kicked off originally as digital marketplace for high quality dance tracks, not everyone was happy with its emergence.

In the beginning Onnik even received death threats, because people were extremely opposed to the idea of ghost producing. Now, two years later, he had brought around most of his skeptics, although ‘the taboo’ concerning the subject of ghost producing seems to stick as an annoying piece of gum under his shoe.

“The general idea in the current dance scene is: ‘you have to produce your own music. If you don’t, you’re a phony’. Why? Whether we’re talking about books or art, ghost producing is as old as the hills. We all know that master-painter Rembrandt van Rijn signed paintings made by his students and subsequently passed them on as his own. Are those paintings less beautiful because of that?” 

Aside from the moral aspect, there’s a whole practical side to ghost producing. As mentioned above, the prevailing dance industry is incredibly labour intensive – to succeed you have to be a caterpillar: a talented DJ, producer, entertainer, marketer, promoter, social media freak and willing to share your life with fans 24/7 – all united in one person. Did anybody call for superhero?! Onnik laughs.

“I believe that DJ’s should DJ and producers produce. Both of them perform an art – each a different one that demands different skills. Being good at either one of them doesn’t necessarily make you good at the other, although it is of course quite possible to master them both. Unfortunately the consequence of the current way of thinking is that non-producing DJ’s force themselves to make records where many of them utterly lack producing talent or have no desire at all to dive into the studio.

The result: lots of mediocre crap flooding the music market. Also a whole new generation of aspiring DJ’s arises, who can’t play beyond their programmed set. The real DJ’s, who don’t care or can’t produce records, are the ones whom are suffering. So thank god for (ghost) producers.” – Onnik Tavitian

Robin Albers remembers how it was in the early nineties, when he produced his anthem Plastic Dreams:

“When I started out in this business you had to have a record of your own. We didn’t have Internet, so obviously there were no social media either. If you wanted to get known by others, you needed a record. Through that record people could find you. These days you are discovered through your social media channels.” Robin has a down-to-earth vision on DJing in this day and age: “Promoting yourself is an important part of the modern dance industry. It’s almost a full time job to create social media content, obtain followers and interact with them to keep them happy and interested. All this promoting takes up heaps of time. And producing is very time-consuming as well. So it’s actually really simple: if I don’t have time to do my groceries, I have them delivered by the supermarket. The same goes for ghost producing: if you don’t have time to produce your own tracks – or if you don’t want to, or lack talent – you have them made by someone who has time and talent and loves to produce music.”

Enfant terrible of the dance scene, DJ/producer Deadmau5, disagrees. He has a strong opinion about almost everything, so it’s no surprise that he also speaks his mind about the concept of ghost producing. In an interview with EDM.com, Deadmau5 not only disses Justin Bieber but also Skrillex and Diplo. We admit, these aren’t Decoded’s favorite names either, but the source of the feud stems from our theme of the day, ghost producing. Deadmau5’s irritation lies first and foremost in the fact that Justin Bieber talks about his last record in terms of it being HIS album. “No, it’s not YOUR fucking album,” Deadmau5 retorts frustratedly, “It’s god knows whose album, but it’s not YOURS.” Getting the root of his anger, he goes on the make the point that: “The fact that you’re paying for it, doesn’t make it yours.” During the same interview Deadmau5 verbally destroys producers Skrillex and Diplo, who worked with Bieber on the album. “I hate that he [Skrillex] allowed himself to be a goddamned tool!” Adding: “What, they don’t pay you enough yet?

But contrary to Deadmau5’ view on the matter, doesn’t the perception of finding the ability to master all musical and social skills conceivable in one single persons sound a little far fetched? It’s not like prodigies grow on trees. Aside from that, many producers yours truly personally knows, are of the nerdy, totally computer minded type who never get out of the dark hole they call their studio. And when they do step out, on rare occasions, they seem almost awkward and out of place. So it’s no mind-blowing surprise that a lot of producers really have no desire to be the idol on stage and attract all the attention.

On the contrary, for many talented composers – some only fifteen or sixteen years old – this image represents their worst nightmares. Yet, dance music in various shapes, runs through their veins, they live and breathe it. They go to bed with tunes, basses, riffs, melody lines and vocals in their head, anxious to get back to their gear and build layer upon layer until they create another perfect track. One that might never reach the world, if it weren’t for platforms where these talents can dust off their collection of possibly amazing productions and actually make money with them without having to deal with the whole DJ existence that scares the shit out of them.

These days there are plenty of opportunities online to sell your music as anonymous as you like. Think of EDMghostproducer and Producer Factory. For the above described boys and girls these platforms offer the perfect solution.  “Every month we publish an interview with one of our top producers.“House of Tracks CEO Onnik tells us, “One of them literally said that he was able to quit his job in a supermarket because producing music and selling it through us was much more lucrative. This underlines what I said before: cobbler stick to your last. Let everybody do what they’re good at and make their own talent available to others.

The world’s most successful ghost producer, Maarten Vorwerk, does just that. Since 2001 he produced over 400 hits for others. This has earned him enough money to live the good life – according to an article on EDMghostproducer.com:

The life is good, especially here on Aruba, where it’s always nice weather and you can always go to the beach. If you combine that with a lot of studio time, you basically describe a perfect life.” He stresses that being a very successful ghost producer doesn’t automatically imply that every day is a picnic. “Being a producer is still a tough career. There’s always some form of pressure. People expect a lot from you and you always have to deliver.” Impassioned, Robin argues that these unnamed producers are merely providing a service that all artists once subscribed to: “I don’t like the term ghost producer. Why the word ‘ghost’? These talents should be called producers. Also: what’s wrong with people making music in the privacy of their studio and subsequently selling it to others? Do you plant your own tomatoes? Do you fabricate your own clothes? Of course not!

“In general, discussions are inherent in the dance industry. People discuss about ghost producing, about laptop DJ’s… everybody has an opinion about one or the other. I do hate prepared sets, but there’s nothing wrong with using technology to be good on stage. I’m extremely amazed though that the audience doesn’t see DJ’s as performers anymore, but merely as celebrity, someone to look up to because of their fame and not because of their skills and/or excellent choice in music. That’s what flabbergasts me. As long as the DJ can mix, has an excellent choice in music – their own or produced by others, who cares? – and does what he or she is paid for – namely to play a great set – that DJ has my vote.” – Robin Albers (Jaydee)

There are signs that in EDM the taboo around ghost producing is slowly fading away. Tiësto revealed in many interviews that he’s a grateful customer of certain ghost producers – even credited correctly – who are responsible for his greatest hits. And where artists in the past gladly ‘accused’ one another of secretly ghost producing for others, nowadays some of the most well paid DJ’s on the planet openly admit to writing and composing for others under an alias.

In November 2013 Hardwell, at that point named the number one DJ in the World (Ed: according to DJ Mag), disclosed to having ghost produced a Beatport Top 10 hit. In an interview with Inthemix he said: “The funny thing is that nobody knows I have a current Beatport Top Ten hit with a track not under my name, a track that I ghost produced, and nobody’s noticing it. But if people listen closely to the top ten, for sure they’re gonna hear which track it is.” Martin Garrix has also openly admitted he ghost produces, as have a number of other EDM artists.

And its not just EDM stars that do this to subsidise their incomes. Some renowned international techno artists ghost produce, successfully selling their ‘leftovers’ online anonymously or under an alias, since the taboo has not quite been lifted in the underground scenes. With the maturing of the dance music industry, it does seem just a matter of time until DJ’s and producers will be open about all their productions. Or rather: that everybody gets the credit they deserve.

The history of house lies in ‘peace’, ‘love’, ‘unity’ and ‘respect’, so it seems obvious that the future will hold transparency in order for all – with the assurance of the right credits – to return to their own cog of the machine in which they excel most: producing or DJing – and occasionally both. Because we can’t all be a Deadmau5…



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