Mid-tier DJ? Meet your new best friend, Imogen Heap.
In the second in our two part series of opinion pieces exploring the electronic music industry’s biggest challenges, we focus on the artists being squeezed out of the industry and ask the question, could hope be at hand?
In 1966, the legendary artist Andy Warhol famously proclaimed that everyone would be world-famous for 15 minutes. The idea became his enduring catch phrase. And as the future trundles towards us, it is a statement that is gathering truth with every day and never more accurate than in the world of dance music.
The phrase “everyone wants to be a DJ,” was an oft-bandied statement that gathered weight in the 90s as the superclubbing boom pushed dance music into the mainstream. The boom in courses worldwide offering tuition on production, DJing and the music business has never been stronger than it is today.
While this level of participation is something to be proud of, the knock on effect on those trying to make a living as dance music artists is taking its toll as there are more people demanding a piece of the pie than ever before. There are more DJs competing for gigs than ever. There are more producers releasing more music than ever but in turn as the means of making a sustainable income lowers, the stakes are higher than they have ever been.
The rise of illegal downloading and streaming has made it impossible for the majority of producers to make a living from music alone. In 2018, streaming is now the most common way to listen to music. This week the world’s biggest streaming service, Spotify filed papers to trade its shares publicly on the New York Stock exchange and was valued at $23billion. It’s a well known fact that despite claims that streaming companies are paying out millions of dollars in royalties, the trickle down effect to underground producers means most earn literally pennies from the streaming of their music.
Spotify’s valuation clearly demonstrates that if streaming is a billion dollar industry, money is being made but the artists making the music aren’t receiving their deserved amount. Defenders of streaming and file sharing argue that these platforms serve as promotional tools for the artists and that their money is best earned on the live circuit.
But the harsh truth as pointed out in last week’s For The Record piece, is that the middle tier of DJs and live acts this is easier said than done. Last week we argued that the growth of festivals and big events is killing the scene for small clubs and weekly events and has created a small hegemony of top tier headliner DJ with absurdly high, market-driven fees.
One of the UK's last great small clubs, Sub Club.
Small clubs are the lifeblood of the scene. They are the bread and butter for the mid-tier DJs that make up the majority of full time, professional dance music artists. Without them we are left with a scene dominated by big parties that can’t afford to gamble on lesser known acts.
If you’re not in that small bracket of artists capable of headlining big events, it is becoming impossible to sustain a career career from playing out alone. This phenomenon has lead to a boom or bust culture for DJs. You’re either in the small minority who make it, or the majority who get ground down.
The strain on DJs and producers has never been more apparent. Mental health is a huge issue that has been heavily debated in the dance music industry as the ever increasing stakes for success exact a heavy toll on the acts trying to make a living from dance music.
If you’re lucky enough to make it to first base by having a big hit track or you’re an artist with that X-factor appeal and a story the media can thrive on, you will experience an intense rush of gigs. By the time your body and life has caught up from last weekend’s travel, it’s time to head out for the next weekend of shows and only the supernaturally disciplined will be able to maintain a consistently successful stream of releases as the gigs come thick and fast.
Making it to second and third base requires incredible amounts of mental resilience and discipline. By this point those remaining in the race have been on the road for years. The loneliness of non stop touring has been recently well documented and for producers, it becomes incredibly difficult to get regular time in the studio.
One of dance music's hardest touring DJs and infrequent producers, Nina Kraviz.
DJs become great at their art because of non stop DJing. It takes repeated practice to reach the skill levels required but to be a consistently great producer also requires consistent time in the studio that many top tier touring DJs just don’t have. For proof of that, check out the discographies of DJs like Nina Kraviz, Eats Everything or Seth Troxler whose production output has hugely dissipated since becoming famous.
On top of that, artists have to run the gamut of an expanding, aggressively fast paced media which is obsessed with new artists and new trends. As an artist, there is always a hot new act or a new sub-genre breathing down their neck. If they are lucky enough to find themselves within a bubble of hype, once their sub-genre is no longer deemed cool, they are faced with the tricky question of adapting their sound to fit the next new trend or sticking to their guns. The former is of course a fast way to dilute your essence as an artist. The latter is an acceptance that your time in the sun will always be short lived.
In order for small promoters to stand out, they are often faced with two options. Appeal to the lowest common denominator who are already being super served by the swollen festival scene. Or be the first to jump on hot new trends. The UK is a great example of a scene whose small circuit is dominated by trends that move so quickly that artists can often only hope to be booked a handful of times before the club scene moves onto the next trend.
Paco Osuna and Marco Carola.
Long term, the only winners are those whose skills in business match or exceed their skills in the booth or studio. Maintaining a career that lasts decades as demonstrated by the likes of Pete Tong, Sven Väth, Carl Cox or Marco Carola is akin to being a CEO of a company and orchestrating your team of PR, managers, agents, sub-agents and event partners accordingly.
This is all of course a very depressing interpretation of the times. But there is hope for the much beleaguered middle tier. While technology seemed to serve them a death sentence in the mid 2000s with the arrival of illegal downloading and peer to peer sharing, the very same technology could prove their saviour.
Blockchain is the term used for the area of technology that includes Bitcoin and it promises to decentralise economies and radically shake up how we do business. A vast network of computers sharing information peer to peer that is impossible crack, it encodes information in coins or tokens with uncrackable encryption. That information could be money. Or it could be a contract. Or it could be a piece of digital music.
Champions of Blockchain technology like UK pop star Imogen Heap foresee an industry where fans buy music coins that contain coding that on purchase, automatically circulates money to the artists, removing the middlemen such as the publishers, distribution companies or collection societies from the equation.
Heap's Mycelia project is leading the way for pushing this idea and the knock on effect could be a scene where it is possible for artists to earn a living from music and not be reliant on the volatile world of live performance.
It is a unique opportunity for artists to opt into a system that protects their interests and not the interests of the streaming companies or distributors and as currencies like Bitcoin become mainstream, it is becoming an ever-closer possibility.
Although the dream of being a DJ has never been more popular, the reality is that for the majority of people who never make it past first base, Warhol’s prediction of everyone enjoying 15 minutes of fame is fast becoming a cold truth. What he couldn’t predict a little further down the line is technology removing the power from the hands of the few and placing it tantalisingly close to the many.
Where things will go in the next few years is incredibly difficult to predict, but for those midtier artists struggling to keep their heads above water, there is hope.
To read the first in our series of articles on the challenges facing the dance music industry click here.