In a facebook post from last year, David Morales vented his frustration at the current state of affairs, complaining that “…unfortunately DJ’s are “required” to have a record charting in order to get recognized and get gigs. WHAT A FARCE! There’s so many nn DJ’s getting paid just bc they made a record…”
Overgeneralisations aside, Morales’ post touched on something: do DJs need to be a published producer to have a career? In theory no, of course not. But the reality, as you may well know, is different. A well placed record released on the ‘right’ (read in vogue) label can throw the career of a relative or total newcomer into the spotlight – like
did for Danny Daze back in 2011. From here the media machine springs into action, penning reviews and interviews whilst certain promoters fall over each other in a bid to bag the new star(let) for their night. This understandably pisses people off as it ridicules the idea of a meritocracy in bypassing the years of experience and graft that presumably warrants such a standing. Credit where credit isn’t due? Possibly and in certain cases definitely. But it would be unfair and totally misplaced to point fingers at individual producers for this turn of events . As in essence, this is a systemic problem – a problem with the industry and the wider marketplace it belongs to – and by virtue of this it’s hard, very hard, to pinpoint exactly where the problem lies without bringing into account factors such as the underlying economic system and the effect this has on individual psychology. Tricky, and there’s neither the personal knowledge nor room to do this proper justice (several books could easily be written on the topic) in a way that wouldn’t be reductive or resort to oversimplifications.
Now as I don’t work in the industry everything here is said from a position outside, looking in which has its obvious advantages and disadvantages. This is not intended to be comprehensive by any stretch of the word and for any likely omissions to come, I apologise; time and space only permits so much. The aim of this piece is to take stock of the current landscape as I see it and ponder over a few of its crucial features.
Anyway, in theory being a DJ shouldn’t mean you have to release music and being a producer needn’t mean you have to play out in order to have a profession, but what’s true in theory is rarely true in practice. Natural human imperfection has its way of flouting, confounding and generally fucking up what’s theoretically perfect. The fact is DJs who release music – particularly those who release a flavour of the moment tune- are more likely to receive bookings than those who don’t, regardless of their ability as a DJ. To my mind there’s something inherently unfair about someone landing slots over other, possibly more experienced, DJs purely on the basis of a well received record, regardless of ability. But it’s not as clear cut as this. The world being as it is, most aspiring ‘artists’ –in this case producers/DJs- have to spend a large part of time working at a day job (if they’re lucky it’ll be something they don’t mind doing) which physically limits the hours they can put into honing a craft. It’s unlikely then they’ll be able to put the hours into developing both the technical and creative skills needed to excel at DJ’ing and producing which leads to a scenario where the two (DJ’ing & producing) seem to be mutually exclusive. After all, it’s a rarity to have someone like Ricardo Villalobos who is as an accomplished producer as DJ and even then, it took him several years from becoming a full time musician to begin releasing a truly singular body of work. But these cases are few and far between as nearly all full time DJs have, hard work aside, gotten to a professional level through an association of some kind such as a label, party or record. There are only a few very notable exceptions to this like Nicolas Lutz who has based his decades long career purely on discovering and playing records. As you might expect, he has only very recently begun to gain a wider recognition outside of the niche sphere of cratediggers he moves through (something aided in part by an excellent RA podcast and an ensuing scattering of bookings at large clubs). Though it’s possible Lutz has been keen to play mainly to a smaller crowd of enthusiasts than to a larger one that may not necessarily appreciate his selections, it remains a sad fact that a talented DJ may be totally passed over in favour of a less capable DJ purely because they don’t have that seemingly crucial association with a label, sound, party etc.
This invariably creates a tension in aspiring DJs who may feel pressured to release a record as they can see the difficulties of becoming professional by not doing so, but at the same time don’t want to ‘sell out’. Ideally music, like all art, should be made for its own sake and the commercial trappings that come with success should be a byproduct , not the end goal. But this is idealistic and I can’t entirely fault, a producer or promoter who chooses the easier compromise so to launch their professional career. As said before, the blame isn’t something to be placed on these producers who find themselves getting bookings on the basis of a record, nor really on the individual promoters who facilitate this in booking acts that promise a higher turner out regardless of whether said act can mix. At the end of the day, those involved at every level of the industry want to make a living from music (and not presumably from something else) so they are justified, within the skewed logic of business, in making these choices. If this seems wrong it’s because they’re working within a structure that is inherently wrong. Like so many, the allure of money eclipses their integrity.
This isn’t a new phenomenon by any means but it does seem that in recent years the balance has shifted and ‘hype’ is becoming ever more dominant. Why is this? Initially I was at a loss. Myriad reasons appeared, vague and half formed which wasn’t really satisfying so I thought a little more in my dozy, scattershot way on what was unique to this part of the century. Again numerous aspects of modern life suggested themselves but the one that stuck was the internet, specifically the development of high speed broadband. How exactly? Today there is a visibly wider interest in electronic dance music than there was fifteen, twenty years ago which I feel has been greatly aided by the ubiquity of broadband internet. This might seem a little tenuous or far flung but to my mind the effect of the internet on how we experience the world and each other can’t be understated.
To make the case through a tangent…It can list as some of its achievements: an instrumental role in collapsing distance and time; serious changes in social relations; an archive containing nearly every published book and recorded piece of music; rendered the underground/overground divide irrelevant; offers access to a digital marketplace where you can buy anything from records to automatic machine guns; an effect on the way news is reported and most sinisterly, the creation of new methods of control (through surveillance). A source of anxiety and paranoia for some, a chance for further development for others, regardless of your opinion the internet has affected nearly every aspect of life.
In the case of electronic dance music, the internet has given people immediate access to the material of a subculture that would have previously been very hard to find except through association or good fortune. Now, anyone with a workable internet connection can within thirty minutes reasonably come across not just a digital archive of this music, but the means – through cracked software – to make it themselves. Great, for a variety of self-evident reasons, but it’s also indirectly been a catalyst for a boom in electronic dance music as an industry and from this, the gateway for some pretty negative repercussions. The fact that there are now more people wanting to produce and DJ it takes more to be heard above all the extra noise than it did before, where presumably graft, passion and perhaps a little bit of nifty PR was enough to set you up as a professional DJ. Has much changed? In one sense no, these elements still play their vital role in taking an aspiring DJ into the professional circuit, but as said before the PR aspect, that association with a label, party etc. does seem to be increasingly dominant. As the worlds of House and Techno have becomes less niche, the smaller industry of before has given way to a structure resembling the Rock or Hip-Hop industry and with it has come the increase in careerism. This of course is not true across the board as there are many successful and respected independents like the Perlon roster or the Romanian House scene that have flourished in spite of the shifting industry and not because.
But, for better or worse, and I’m of the opinion it’s for the worst, this change has meant that some DJs feel that they are putting themselves at a disadvantage in an increasingly competitive marketplace by not releasing music. In this light, the idea of releasing the ‘right’ record on a trendy label becomes the promise of a career and a string of well received releases a great thing to flesh out a budding DJ’s ‘CV. To clarify: this is not to say that all music is made cynically with the sole intent of boosting a career, but it’s true in some cases whether that’s conscious or not. A distinction should be drawn between those who make music for ‘its own sake’ with little thought of commercial gain and those who do it primarily for commercial gain. In some cases it’s clear to say who is in it for the money – the Aokis, Guettas & Calvin Harris’ of the world- but within the purer realm of House and Techno it gets a little trickier but still possible. I can think of a fair few DJs who have made tunes or enlisted the help of full time producers that seem to be pretty desperate bid to cash in on a certain sound so to boost their profile. Like the promoters who book these overnight successes, it’s case of weak ethics but we shouldn’t expect any different from them; it would be very difficult to bring about a real change as there will always be those who choose the easier compromise. On the flipside, there are the cases where promoters take a chance on a producer/DJ which happens to be well placed. The ideal equation here is tracks leads to gigs, these gigs showcase their records and skill, the money from the gigs then affords them the time to make more music. The problem of course is that hype tends to rubbish this and the notion of skill figures less. However there are cases where this equation rings true like with Suciu Laurentiu – Alexandru aka Faster. Since 2011 he has released a steady stream of great records with a little more
than some of those made by his countrymen. With each successive release his records have ( to my ears anyway) marked his development as a producer. In the short time his Faster project has been active, Alexandru has found himself receiving more bookings and gathered wider acknowledgement (for instance, dance tabloid Mixmag featured his latest record Amprente in their ‘Big Tunes section). Or to take another example, consider the earlier career of Ricardo Villalobos. As captured nicely by Jasper Grosvenor in a piece for FACT, before releasing Alcachofa Villalobos was a well respected but relatively unknown DJ – albeit one with a smattering of interesting and in some cases brilliant, releases. On releasing Alcachofa, Villalobos’ profile was pushed rapidly upwards and from there, as they say, the rest was history. Aside from the fact there’s something nice in seeing someone deservedly get fair recognition, these cases prove it is possible (and it might seem a moot point given the state of the world at the moment) in today’s age for the DJ/producer to maintain their integrity whilst having a career.
The problem however remains for those who solely DJ and don’t have that party or professional association to boost their profile. The upshot of this, is that there are still scenes, as you see in Romania, where a certain type of skilled DJ’ing is highly valued, that run counter to the monetised, ‘big name’ cyclical trends that characterise the industry elsewhere., I find it hard to envision an environment outside of a grassroots one -based on mutual respect and support with no PR – that can offer an even ground for someone who purely DJs’ to establish themselves, in and of their ability. Outside of this, the aforementioned problems of the industry figure too heavily and uneven the playing field. As to the future, I’m not entirely sure. Though the past few years has seen reactions against the trend and hype orientated flows of electronic dance music appear, it’ll be a while from now before any serious changes occur given how deeply embedded these problems are in the wider sphere of society.
Words by Neto Light-Lopez