Why are DJs turning away from free music? Having spent time as both a DJ and journalist, Gavin Herlihy sheds some insight from both sides of the DJ promo target market.
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If you’re a fan of Ibiza Voice’s podcast series you’ll notice that every week contributors are asked the same questions about their digging habits. One subject that constantly arises is the effectiveness of record promotion. On looking back at a sample range of these response, over the last twenty episodes, when asked where they get their music from, half of the podcast's DJs declared that they didn’t listen to promos. And most of those who said they did listen to promos, followed their answer with a ‘but.’ Many cited the fact that the promo pools were over run with too much poor quality music and that shopping for music the old fashioned way proved to be a much more effective route to the good stuff.
Benny Rodrigues for example looks through promos from “time to time.” “Honestly I prefer looking out for music instead of the other way around,” he said. Julian Alexander’s response was also typical of many of DJs, when admitting he only checks promos if they have been sent by friends, personally. More common, however was a blunt approach to ignoring promos. “Promos don't work for me as someone else decides what you listen to and that will never match what I am looking for,” Voigtmann told us. “It's just not effective.”
It is of course a divisive topic. There are plenty of DJs who still diligently scour the promo universe for music. But there are plenty more who avoid it like the plague. So is the DJ promo world still worth bothering with?
In my own time as a DJ and a journalist, I can offer a view from both sides of the promo pool audience. When I first started working in dance music in 2001, the industry was in a very different space. Vinyl promo was very much still well underway. When I became Music Editor for Mixmag at an absurdly young age for such a role, my desk was usually surrounded by stacks of vinyl, most of it average at best, and tainted by the idea that all that PVC required to make each 12” was probably leaving a nasty dent on the environment.
DJs and journalists at the time were sent stacks of white labels which they often diligently reacted to. If you spent any time in a good record shop on a Friday or Saturday afternoon, you’d get a taste for just how much the industry was orientated towards getting your hands on the hottest new slabs of wax.
In the 90s and early 2000s it was all about chasing the hottest new records. Droves of aspiring or jobbing DJs listened intently to the fresh batch of music that the record shop guy was auditioning over the shop’s PA and if a banger found its way under the needle, you had to be lightening quick in calling for a copy. It was in stark contrast to today’s climate where many DJs obsess instead over uncovering gems from the past.
Then came digital promo and instead of my desk being under siege, the promo companies turned their attention to my email inbox instead. As a music fan submerged in free tunes, I felt like the luckiest person in the world. With so much music coming at me each day, it never occured to me to reach beyond the constant stream of music that I was being drip fed. And it’s only now looking back on that period that I realise what a slave to the music industry’s PR rat race that I had inadvertently become.
There was of course plenty of exceptional music in amongst the nonsense. But as I have since realised, there was so much more gold being buried outside of the promo circuit that as a still wet behind the years young journalist, I was completely unaware of. Now of course DJs like Nicolas Lutz or Andrew James Gustav have built careers out of mining the rich vein of vinyl-only techno and house that emanated from the late 90s and early 2000s. My vinyl collection from that era would probably be worth a lot more if I'd spent my time back then searching through record shops and not promos.
A taste of record shopping culture in the 1990s: Blackmarket Records in Soho, London.
When I jacked in my job as Mixmag’s Features Editor in 2007 to move to Berlin to produce and DJ full time, the digital promo era was in full swing. Like many other DJs I spent most of my time while not in the studio or travelling, endlessly listening to promos. As the number of labels releasing music increased spurred on by the ease of releasing music in the digital music era, so too did the volume of bland music. Labels faced with increasingly greater competition were desperate for the endorsement of DJs. But as anyone familiar with reaction sheets from that time can agree, most of those endorsements were completely pointless.
The biggest fish didn’t waste time going through promos, they had their assistants do it for them. ‘Downloaded for R Hawtin ’ became a recurring futile presence on each sheet. And the detailed responses that DJs gave in the white label vinyl era had quickly slid down the pole to becoming one word, meaningless keyboard grunts.
Faced with so much music, many DJs spent as little time listening to the music as possible before thumping out a hasty one word response in order to enable the download as quickly as possible and move onto to the next promo in the queue. Reaction sheets weren’t worth the cost of the paper they were being printed on.
As a DJ, sifting through promos became a quick way to waste what precious time I had in between the studio and travelling. I began spending more time buying music than listening to promos and I gradually began to return to the record shop, albeit this time mostly online, for help in wading through the vortex.
I realised a few valuable truths in doing so. The first was that buying music is a much better way to quality filter my selections. Whether you’re flushed with cash or counting your pennies, we are all trying to keep our carts down if not for the sake of our purse strings than for the sake of our sanity! And the process of elimination when your hard earned cash is at stake is much more reliable.
Perhaps it’s just me, but that simple difference in how I perceive music quickly separates the good as I perceive it, from the bad. Those records that make the cut have an entirely different spell cast on them. They have a quantifiable value and worth. And the vinyl that I am lucky enough to own has a physical presence that makes them easier to find and remember.
If you’re engaged in the world of hype, where a play on Annie Mac’s Radio One show is your holy grail, or a feature interview in Mixmag is your endgame, promo still has a purpose. Reaching those journalists tethered to the end of the promo drip feed still requires the assistance of a press agent and a promo pool.
If you simply require the attention of the DJs out there, promo is a futile game in my opinion. For labels, it's a cost that in the age of social media, is probably better spent on advertising to reach the right audience.
It’s not a hard and fast rule, but those labels who use promo pools often do so because they really need to. And those labels who do not need to rely on PR, don’t need to for the very simple reason that their music speaks louder than any PR can. The music itself is the promo.
To be releasing music at that standard is of course a very admirable position to be in for a label and not every label A&R is so blessed with such an attentive audience and to be working with such gifted producers.
In record world, it is a clear cut example of natural selection at work. Good music will always find a way to reach its audience, even if takes years to do so. And if it doesn’t, perhaps it just wasn’t meant to be. Like a roast slow cooking in an oven, perhaps time is what music really needs to develop the audience that it truly deserves.
And...the Podcast series, in the (virtual) flesh: