What did the demise of vinyl playing DJs create?
There are some messed up contradictions in dance music, which are so glaring that it is hard to believe they literally never get talked about.
Here is one: to break out as a DJ, you don’t need to have any history of actually being a DJ. DJ'ing–as in the ability to perform as a DJ–used to be hard. Imagine that. A pair of 1210s and a mixer were the great test. If you couldn’t do it, you shouldn’t do it and – therefore – wouldn’t do it. Should you have found yourself in a DJ booth, clattering mixes in front of the public, you would have been hauled off the decks in seconds. Game over.
The advances made in DJ tech serve some well (Dubfire, James Zabiela, Richie Hawtin to name three acts that use tech to take DJing to new places) but now that it is easier to perform a basic DJ set--to the point where almost anyone can do it--it only seems to weaken the art form and industry it serves.
Why is that?
In English soccer we have what is known as the Pyramid. At the apex you have the Premier League, where the best players and teams in the world compete and, at the base, you have hundreds of teams spread around the country whose aim is to climb the ladder, ultimately to the top. It is a meritocracy where the ability to perform well is rewarded with promotion to the next level, and poor performance results in relegation downwards one tier. It is simple, effective, fair and will never change. It’s a good system and we can only wish there was something like an equivalent in dance music.
In the 1990s early days, when the UK club scene was in its infancy, DJs usually started playing locally, built a fanbase, and many were more than happy to play weekly at their local night or venue. This was a big deal at the time. Every town and city in the country had at least one big weekly event where hundreds would turn out religiously. Books such as ‘The Life and Lines of Brandon Block’ document these halcyon times in glorious detail.
The Life and Lines of Brandon Block
Moving forwards in time, DJs then started to make connections in other cities and, for those fortunate enough, started to perform nationwide. A network emerged, with key players connecting.
At this point in time, DJs may not have been booked solely for their ability (crowd-pull, a DJ’s connections to promoters etc.. are timeless factors) but certainly the minimum standard back then was far higher, and the risk of being dragged off the turntables greater. As the scene advanced, the idea of mixing as a craft emerged; the Ibiza impact kicked in and this fed demand for more events featuring the DJs you saw on your holiday; festivals started to take place and what became the DJ touring industry started to form. The best DJs rose up and down the hypothetical electronic music Pyramid based on their current performance. Have a good year, go up a few notches. Not so good year, maybe you drop down a level. A look at some of the early DJ Magazine Top 100 polls will tell you that, for the most part, DJ talent was calculated based on… wait for it… DJ talent. How sweet it seems now. Note that, in these days, many jocks were not making or releasing music themselves, save for compilation mixes.
Contrast this with the 2018 scenario, where an artist gets their first major DJ requests after a successful record release. This should be a major cause for concern, but isn't.
Unless the act is playing live, they are requested to perform as a DJ, because of the success they had making music in a studio. This is insane. You could compare it to training someone to be a bus driver and, on the first day of the job, asking them to drive a train. The two disciplines are completely and utterly different. If an act who is booked to headline an event cannot do the job properly, it doesn’t just embarrass them: once again, it undermines the DJ art form.
This is where the technology factor comes in. Can’t DJ? Don’t worry, press Sync. Problem solved. The advent of tech might have let more people have a crack at DJing, but it also made it easier to fake.
This has had implications far more wide reaching than most people realise. A few years ago, at an industry conference, we heard the same mantra more than once: ‘the packaging is more important than the product’. Translated, this means ‘present it well enough and you can sell it'. This ethos is a direct descendant of the demise of DJs performing with vinyl only.
Lets not be naïve. PR is important in any business, but few are the industries where you can completely fake it.
So…since the packaging is now more important than the product and anyone can DJ, why bother how to learn how to do it properly. It doesn’t matter anyway. Get a ghost-writer to make your music for you. Release the music and check the reaction. If it goes well, grab your first agent and/or manager and then get out there with your kit and press a few buttons and pretend you know what you’re doing. Have your mate stand behind you filming the moment, which you share on your social channels. People around the world take notice and off you go. Repeat, repeat, repeat, until you’re getting booked at festivals where it matters even less, because everyone knows the pyrotechnics have to be triggered by your laptop on certain cues, so an improvised DJ set isn’t possible anyway. As covered, memorably, by Radio Slave.
Now yes, of course, there are wonderfully talented DJs out there. The likes of Ben UFO, Nicolas Lutz, Jane Fitz, Lena Willikens, Harvey, and Saoirse lead the way in the new rise of vinyl-only DJs, but can we honestly believe there are not highly successful acts out there living off a cheating formula, protected by a system which condones this way of operating, whilst other way more talented acts continue to struggle? As Ibiza Voice have covered, the 'middle tier' of pro DJs are being squeezed out by festival culture and small club closures.
We hear a lot these days about sexism in music and this is to be taken seriously. Steps should, and are, being taken. However, there is another less talked about problem--more widespread yet invisible to the eye that doesn’t know better--and this is nepotism, and is just as harmful to careers. Now, of course, patronage exists in every industry on the planet but, in dance music in the 2000s, the coming together of 1) an increasingly lucrative industry, 2) the lowering of DJ standards and 3) the proliferation of managers has created a perfect environment for charlatans to come into the scene and take opportunities away from more talented artists.
For opportunities to be placed in the hands of those that truly have earned it, then the highest strata of the business side of electronic music need to make real change. It's not only about 50/50 gender splits on line ups, it is about the the same kind of diversity in the people that run the industry. The old boys clubs need to be broken up, or nothing will really change. Additionally, independents need the opportunity to rise up the ladder without having to sell out. However, managers, agents and operators in the game thrive by creating obstacles for advancement, which only they can help an act navigate. This is their ‘expertise’ and the situation at the moment indicates that, to reach the top, you have a better chance if you jump in and play the game. Thankfully, there are exceptions--Jamie Jones and Solomun for example--who retain their teams from their early days, even now. This proves that talent alone can still win out.
Pre-internet, dance music was a kind of cottage industry with few (compared to now) organisations such as talent agencies and management companies. However, since the early 2000s, there’s thousands of them – and there is no formal training for this role usually. This can be a positive or a negative. Dance music has always (and should always) be a DIY business, that anyone can give a try. At its best, this gives budding young entrepeneurs, from the streets, an entry point into the business where they could go forward and become industry titans (eg James Barton from Cream). At its worst, you have Bitegate.
Many agents/managers start out as friends of an artist that get a taste of success and then go along for the ride. If the artist reaches the top of the tree, then the agent/manager will usually sign more acts and then these secondary acts will find themselves supporting the main artist at their events. As a consequence, the support acts find themselves playing globally and then word gets out that these companies (the agent/manager will now have formed an organisation) have this kind of influence and artists clamour to join. The organisation now finds itself as a major influencer, adds staff, signs more talent and gets financial overheads. With this kind of pressure, these people can not and will not be out there for the greater good. They have one job and one job only, which is to deliver business for their talent roster.
You can take it for granted that these businesses will use their leverage to get their acts into bigger clubs and festivals with the best budgets. Who wouldn’t? But this will come at the expense of more talented, independent acts who prefer to operate outside the corporate side. Sky-rocketing fees mean an adjustment in the psychology of the acts that receive them, as they refuse to play the smaller, provincial clubs that offer less money. Guess what happens next to these venues. Again, there are exceptions which show the battle is not completely lost. Eats Everything and Loco Dice are two acts who, in recent years, have done provincial town / small club tours but, to survive, these clubs need to be open and busy all year round. Support them. If you dont, this is what happens - Dance music is eating itself.
Gender quotas are a discussion point at the moment and, in an ideal world, would be a secondary protection after the primary question is asked – “are you talented enough to perform here?”. However, the Ibiza Voice view is that positive discrimination is the only way to balance the equation. If the male-dominated industry takes this view for x number of years, eventually women on line-ups will be normalised and that high level of representation will rub off on the next generation of artists coming though. Women will see other women and think 'she did this, I can too' - same deal applies with people of colour and people from the LGBTQ+ communities. You can argue, as Nina Kraviz did, that this is reverse sexism and you would probably be right, but the old networks need to be broken up, and the bigger picture demands success of initiatives such as Keychange. However, even these initiatives do not 100% deal with a favours-based industry, they simply change the recipients of the benefits.
If dance music continues to focus less on ability and more on packaging, you will continue to find a too high percentage of lesser or untalented “artists” inside bigger agencies getting unwarranted work, whilst unsigned DJs and producers from provincial towns sit at home rotting away. How many of us look at line ups and say “how the hell did they get on there?” The answer is simple: a patron made it happen for them. “Leverage” is the word. Here's how the conversation goes - “if you want to book this act, then you have to book these three acts as well”.
The whole system needs to change. One option is to have DJs only playing vinyl. You cannot bullshit doing that and we revert to a system where DJ success is fed by skill level. Another outlandish theory would simply to do away with DJs altogether. We have reduced the skill level required to almost zero and if the system is fed by successful record releases, why ask the act to then turn up and perform the different discipline of DJing. Just ask them to perform the record live. Again, this would eliminate the charlatans from the scene.
Rock music, for example, doesn’t have this problem because the records are made by acts that play the instruments and after the record sells well, they are booked to... wait for it... play the same instruments they used in the studio.
Unless you are Milli Vanilli you don't get to fool a rock audience. If you are Ed Sheeran, you go on stage with more or less the same tech you made the record with. We don’t ask our stars of dance music to do anything like that and we are worse off for it.
More like this ::
Don't Forget About the Future
Dance Music is Eating Itself (part II)
Dance Music is Eating Itself (part I)
2018 - Reasons To Be Optimistic