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CONFESSIONS OF A DJ
The early twenty-first century will be remembered as a time of great forgetting. As so many of our ways of communicating with each other and experiencing the world translate to the digital and dematerialize, much is lost, and many new possibilities emerge. When people look back a hundred years from now, this time will be seen as a crucial turning point, when we went from analog to digital. Much of what is special about this transition gets articulated by music, those waves of magic that happen when the human spirit joins with technology to create vibrations that enchant us regardless of language or age, afloat between novelty and tradition and always asking to be shared. Zeitgeist heartbeats. A three-minute pop song can stop time, as sure as a three-second sample can conjure up decades of history. Music clocks the speed of our age—then runs it down or winds it up or makes it funky as the moment requires.
In the last twenty years digital technology has without question changed all aspects of music: inspiration, production, distribution, performance, reception—everything. Some of this has been for the bad, but plenty has been for the good. And these profound electronic transformations are only part of the picture. When I reflect on my life since I started DJing internationally in 2000, my head starts to spin. Who knows how many cities and time zones I’ve passed through. My wife sometimes calls me “the jet-lag king.” I’ve taken easily a thousand flights, and in each destination I’ve been surprised by on-the-ground details that complicate or outright contradict the standard media narratives about how music is changing. The more I traveled the more I saw how the ways in which we make, access, and value music have shifted, creating new social meanings that get at the heart of what it means to be alive in our wired and unpredictable time.
I’ve DJed in more than three dozen countries. What I do isn’t precisely popular in any of them, but enough people knew me and my music, and were happy to show me what mattered in their scene and why.
* * *
It’s hard to reach North Cyprus—the top slice of a tiny island in the Mediterranean that seceded after a war with Greece in 1974—not least because only one country, Turkey, officially recognizes it. Yet there we were, whizzing through arid country past pastel bunker-mansions, the architectural embodiment of militarized paranoia and extreme wealth, en route to an empty four-star hotel. We were going to rest for a day and then play music in the ruins of a crusader castle. It was the year 2000. I was the turntablist for an acid jazz group from New York City. The band didn’t really need a DJ, but it did need someone to signify “hip-hop,” and that was me. There were six of us, including our saxophonist leader, a bassist, a drummer, a Haitian sampler-player, and a singer, Norah Jones, before she was known for anything besides being Ravi Shankar’s daughter.
When the cab dropped us off at the hotel, it was practically vacant: four liveried attendants were in the hotel casino, bored behind the empty gaming tables, and a grand total of two other paying guests—elderly British pensioners, holdovers from remembered pre-1974 days when Cyprus was undivided. I unloaded my gear and sat beside the pool, making small talk with our host, trying to figure out exactly why our band had been imported all the way from New York to play an opulent deserted island. Down the coast, thirty miles away in the haze, a tall cluster of glass-and-steel buildings hugged the shore. “What’s that city?” I asked. It looked like Miami. “Varosha,” she said. Completely evacuated in the 1974 conflict. A ghost town on the dividing line between North and South Cyprus. The only people there were UN patrol units and kids from either side who illegally entered the prohibited zone to live out a J. G. Ballard fantasy of decadent parties in abandoned seaside resorts.
If North Cyprus represented the forgotten side of a fault line of global conflict, how were we getting paid? Who owned those scattered mansions that we saw on the way from the airport? Was our trip bankrolled with narco-dollars, to please the criminals hiding out in an empty landscape, or with Turkish state funding, to win tourists back? I never found out. I played the show, bought a laptop with my earnings, quit the band, and moved from New York to Madrid.
* * *
A few years earlier, I had been living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, attending college while trying to teach myself how to be a DJ. Friends and I began throwing events in nontraditional club spaces—an architect’s studio, a cafeteria, the Boston Children’s Museum. We were actively mixing things up against the segregationist logic of Boston’s dance scene, doing such things as inviting dancehall reggae DJs to perform alongside experimental guitar bands and stocking a room with “noise toys” for audience members to participate in lo-fi electronics jam sessions. It was a fun, heady time. We were starting to draw regular crowds, and gradually I was getting competent on the decks (though I shudder to recall the spectacular mistakes I subjected everyone to in those first few years when my ideas outpaced my technical abilities by a long shot). I was able to develop my style precisely because our little scene was born from frustrations with the standard club experience: we wanted an exploratory, open space.
As I look back on those Boston days, I’m proud of our unspoken belief that if a supportive network came first, exciting musical moments would follow. Journalists love to crown royalty; magazine covers and website banners practically demand it. Yet as I’ve traveled, time and time again I’ve found myself in places where musical innovation and excitement emerge from a community experience, wherein the most groundbreaking or influential artists are rarely the most lauded.
* * *
In 2001 I recorded a three-turntable, sixty-minute mix called Gold Teeth Thief. It was deliberately all over the place: I opened with R&B futurist Missy Elliott and ended with Muslimgauze, an obscure one-man band from Manchester who layered field recordings from the Middle East over trancelike electronic beats. I uploaded the mix to the Internet so my friends could listen. Who else would? One magazine reviewed it, then another, and soon a lot of magazines, leading to hundreds of thousands of downloads. Meanwhile, I had moved to Madrid, happily going about my days without regular Internet access. I didn’t know what was up. A few months after the mix went online, I got a phone call from a large European independent label. I’d used one of their songs on the mix. They loved it! It was the best DJ session they’d heard in ages! They wanted to license the Gold Teeth Thief mix and give it a proper release, assuming they could pay the various labels a fee of $1,000 per track. “That’d be fantastic,” I said, “but pretty expensive. I use forty-four different songs on it. Some of those are major pop tunes, and a bunch are unlicensable bootlegs. It’d be a nightmare to do legally.” They insisted that I send a complete track list so that their legal department could get cracking. Result: “Impossible. Our lawyers laughed at us.”
As a process, DJing is inevitable and necessary for our times, an elegant way to deal with data overload. As a performance, it’s what the kids are grooving to the world over. As a product, it’s largely illegal. If I were a band, and Gold Teeth Thief an album, not a mix, that would have been my big break. A powerful label, big advance fees, well-connected publicists, a coordinated tour. But it’s more common for even a popular DJ to receive a cease-and-desist order than to get a mix-album deal with a large label.
It’s hard to care. Viral culture doesn’t play well with intellectual property laws. I knew Gold Teeth Thief couldn’t enter the commercial world when I did it. I didn’t need it to. Word-of-mouth buzz and bootleg mixes are the DJ’s symbolic currency; live shows provide the cash. A few months after Gold Teeth Thief was posted online, I received my first real gig offer. A choreographer in Berlin wanted to fly me there, house me for a night or two, and pay me €500 to DJ. Good that he didn’t haggle over the fee—I would have done it for free. Being paid the equivalent of a month’s rent back in Madrid to mix my favorite records! My head spun. Little did I know that this was to be the first of many such offers; Gold Teeth Thief ended up being a great calling card.
In the years to come I would start performing in far-flung locales and cosmopolitan megacities: a sprawling, multitiered nightclub in Zagreb, a tiny gallery in Osaka, a former brothel in São Paulo, the American Museum of Natural History. All the while I was crossing paths (and in many cases collaborating) with a huge range of musicians, producers, fans, visual artists, technological visionaries, and fellow DJs from all over the world. Some of these were industry veterans who had toured the globe many times; others were teenagers leaving the confines of their sub-Saharan villages for the first time in their lives. The bottom line? I saw and learned a lot more than I would have had I stayed put in Massachusetts. Without realizing it, just as the music world was making its fitful, uncertain transition from analog to digital, I was getting a frontline education in the creative upheavals of art production in the twenty-first-century globalized world.
* * *
In 2009, almost a decade later, I appeared on a New Yorker Festival panel about the state of the music industry. The magazine had assembled delegates from every cross section of the music biz to weigh in. The panelists included a major-label bigwig, the owner of a prestigious downtown New York independent label, a veteran studio session musician (he’d played bass for everyone from Caetano Veloso to Henry Rollins), and a marketing guru who’d discovered Nirvana—and then me, I suppose as the representative of burgeoning digital culture.
I was the last to speak that afternoon, and I was a bit surprised by all that was said before I had my turn. One by one, everyone else onstage told his or her personalized version of the same story: that in the last decade the sky had fallen—the rise of digital culture had pretty much killed off every aspect of the music business, and we were left to react, defensively, to these harsh changes. Granted, I knew things were bad in a lot of ways. Around 2003 I started to see all my favorite record shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn shutting their doors. CD sales fell dramatically, and distributors and record labels were taking fewer artistic risks. Visionary musicians who for the last decade or two had been able to survive—barely—on a trickle of record-sale royalties were forced into silence and bad day jobs. As the money hunkered down around concerts and merchandise, corporations such as Live Nation started buying up independent venues across the States, replacing fan-built booking networks with a more streamlined, profit-maximizing approach. Ticket prices went up, and while live gigs continued to flourish, those profits didn’t necessarily reach the musicians sweating onstage each night. Everyone was a bit worried.
But, at the same time, my experiences have shown me that for each of the avenues closed down by the proliferation of digital technology, unexpected new pathways have opened up.
BIRTH OF A SOUNDBOY
Dancing is a form of listening.
And I wouldn’t be a musician if it weren’t for nights spent on the dance floor of an after-hours club in Boston called the Loft.
DJs spun house on the first floor. The smaller upstairs room was dedicated to faster stuff, loosely grouped under the category rave music, which mostly meant techno, but at some point they started playing hour-long sets of jungle. It was an epiphany. When I first experienced the Loft DJs’ transition from techno’s thump-thump-thump clockwork to the percussive mayhem of jungle, it felt as if music had unfolded into a new dimension. Jungle was spacious, edgy, and sudden, built from sliced-up breakbeats spiked with hip-hop and reggae samples. Those bits of other records (many of which I had in my collection) offered concrete footholds into musical history, while the genre as a whole flung itself forward, with fresh mutations and reinventions each month.
I remember feeling submerged as bass lines, blubbery and whaleish, rolled around the room. Sonic activity in the midrange frequencies was often sparse, stepped back to let the low and high ends of the spectrum hit with maximum impact and clarity. Unpredictable kick-and-snare combinations skittered high above the bass, programmed into machine-gone-wild levels of complexity, at twice the tempo. This meant that the dancers could choose which rhythmic time frame to follow: the busy percussion (the speed of fast techno) or the half-time bass line (the speed of slow hip-hop). Mostly we did our best to embody both dynamics, fast and slow, in acknowledgment that this new music was asking us to move in new ways.
During all of this the DJs were nowhere to be seen. Surely they must have been tucked away in some booth somewhere. I never bothered to look for them. It was dark, and who wants to be a wallflower? And what was there to watch even if we found them? The focus was on the sound, as activated by us dancers. We didn’t need a figurehead onstage pulling in our attention. There wasn’t even a stage. This was music without heroes. We were what was happening.
Those late nights at the Loft taught me never to take an audience for granted. It’s not something that just materializes and passively consumes your creation. Especially in the visual arts, there’s the sense that an artist makes his or her work, installs it in a gallery, and that’s it. Little consideration is given to who’s going to see and how they might engage with it. Whereas up in the Loft, engagement with the audience was everything: the crowd responded to the energy of the mix, and the DJs fed off that, creating a tight feedback loop. The audience became a form of intelligence and expression in and of itself. The people in the room were never entirely separate from the performers.
These experiences inspired me to become a DJ. The Loft showed me that I didn’t need to jump around onstage or even play an instrument to be a musician. I didn’t even have to be seen! Perfect for a shy soundboy. Besides, I’d fallen in love with jungle, and back then the only way to access it outside of the club was to listen to hard-to-get twelve inches, which meant buying them, and if I was gonna do that, I might as well go all the way. I scraped together savings for months to be able to buy a pair of secondhand Technics 1200s turntables from DJ Bruno, one of the residents at the Loft. It turned out to be one of the best purchases I ever made. Two decades later they work as well as they did the day I bought ’em.
* * *
Near the beginning of my career, I did a DJ set at the Montreux Jazz Festival, up in the mountains of Switzerland. For me it was crazy. I was DJing in front of a thousand people for the first time, and it was working, they were following me. I was doing what I would do at home, no-holds-barred. Even on that big stage, I stuck to the no-frills performance attitude I learned at the Loft. I don’t throw my hands in the air, pump my fist, wave at cute dancers, or yell shout-outs into the mic. I kept my attention trained on the mixer and the turntables, swallowed up in the work, only glancing at the crowd every so often to gauge responses.
Montreux was a predominantly white, European crowd, and I’m a black DJ. (The festival program said I was a woman of Egyptian Italian descent, but we all make mistakes.) A lot of security was up front, and I saw this one other black guy, trying to reach me.
“Hey!” he yelled. “Hey, DJ!” I didn’t look up. Ten minutes later he was still there, still gesturing.
I asked security to let him get close so I could hear. “‘Back That Azz Up’!” he shouted. “Play ‘Back That Azz Up’!” Ten years later, it’s no longer a Juvenile song, but perhaps a song featuring a kid from Juvenile’s crew—Lil Wayne—that somebody will still shout for, every night, anywhere in the world. That people remain comfortable barking orders at DJs to play this or that song (often fully out of touch with whatever the DJ is mixing at the moment) speaks to the lingering confusion about what a DJ is. Jukebox or creator? Something you become when playing YouTube vids at a house party or a life path that takes years of specialized training?
While this lack of consensus about the role of talent and technique in DJ culture is part of what I find so compelling about it, I like to explain what’s going on whenever possible.
Bands perform songs; DJs perform records. With the old techniques—scratching, cutting, beat-matching, and blending—DJs synchronize two records around a common tempo, using a mixer to blend the songs together. The basic mechanics developed in the hip-hop scene of the South Bronx in the 1970s and haven’t changed much since. The workhorse turntable, standard in clubs the world over, is still the Technics 1200. The design of this twenty-six-pound behemoth has remained the same since its 1978 debut.
For years I used three turntables. These days my setup has evolved to incorporate two turntables, a laptop, and a robust CD player designed for turntable-like DJ use called a CDJ. Either way, the multiple sound sources playing at once makes the mixing more delicate than the standard two turntables setup. One slip will send the pattern from harmony into trainwreck, so-called because the arrhythmic clatter of beats will derail the dance floor. But if you mix right, you can get a single “new” totality whose individual elements can still be heard clearly if you know what you’re listening for. A fan who’s been watching comes over and says, “I really like that song. What is it?” I can only ask, “Which one?” The DJ’s job is to make disparate records sound like a whole, and the more successful you are at it, the less likely the novice onlooker is to know it. DJs have to work to avoid silence and make things appear seamless. You build things up. One of the paradoxes central to the DJ’s art is that some of the most demanding, virtuoso work is the hardest to recognize. And some of the highest-paid, most in-your-face DJs do the least amount of actual onstage work.
Fact is, whether you’re using record players or CDJs or a tablet, it takes about an hour to show someone the fundamentals of DJing. Live electronic music performers, streaming their own recorded music from laptops, do things differently. They follow the basic template given to us by dub reggae. Take a preexisting song, add effects, momentarily remove (dub out) parts. Live electronic dance music (EDM) acts basically mess up their own music, which is prebuilt and then disassembled. The more active they appear, the more the original piece is being interrupted.
Nearly all of us DJs try our hands at making original electronic music. It’s tricky. Good DJs must have great taste, but great live DJ mixes are exciting in precisely the way that great original albums aren’t: they’re heterogeneous, unanticipatable, improvisatory.
Which program you use can affect the product and sometimes nearly determine your genre. The most popular music software in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and their counterparts across Latin America is ACID (what I started producing music on), a simple application for making sample-based music—great for folks without much musical training. A program called FL Studio, aka FruityLoops, powers most amateur (and plenty of professional) electronic music production across the globe. Max/MSP tends to produce tone clouds of granulated noise. While it’s certainly possible to go against the grain when creating with any of these programs (that’s how you get the good sounds more often than not), they are comparable to different musical instruments, the way someone strapped into a tuba will be inclined to write different songs than someone bowing the erhu, a two-string Chinese fiddle whose characteristic sound derives from its python-skin resonator.
Just as there’s a limited number of computer programs that let you make beat-based electronic music, only a few let you perform it. In the past dozen years, nearly all have been supplanted by a popular upstart—Ableton Live. The majority of “live” dance music acts now use Ableton, won over by its performance-optimized stability. I grind my teeth when I recognize Ableton’s built-in F/X. That ping-pong filter delay algorithm is so obvious! It’s like pouring ketchup on everything! My friends tell me to relax. Besides, when I make music I use Ableton more than any other program.
HAVE RECORDS, WILL TRAVEL
DJed music develops in the great centers: London, New York, Paris. But the artists make much of their living in forays to the periphery. And increasingly styles from far-flung corners of the world are migrating into the Western mainstream. To state culture bureaus, our music sounds like art and the “avant-garde,” a means of prestige. To kids coming of age in a world of technology and unhinged capitalism, our music seems to sound the way global capital is—liquid, international, porous, and sped up.
Yet our sounds are also a vocabulary for those who detest the walled-off concentrations of wealth and steal property back: the collectives that build their own sound systems, stage free parties, and invite DJs to perform. The international DJ becomes emblematic of global capitalism’s complicated cultural dimension. On flights and at the free continental breakfasts in hotels, often the same soul-destroying chain hotels in each city, we get stuck chatting with our fellow Americans and Western Europeans, the executives eager to find compatriots. We make small talk with these consultants and deal makers in the descending elevators in the evening—then go out to the city’s dead-end and unowned spaces or its luxury venues to sound-track the night for the region’s youth, hungry for something new. DJ music is now the common art form of squatters and the nouveaux riches; it is the sound track both for capital and for its opposition.
Economics favor the DJ. A club can make an event out of one big-name DJ plus local support and pay just the headliner. A popular indie band would need a much higher fee for each member to walk away with similar earnings. Plus it’s only one plane ticket and one hotel room for the DJ; each band member ups the cost, and groups often need to drive, need gear rental or roadies, et cetera. Paying marquee DJs six figures for a single performance is not unheard of, especially ever since Las Vegas casinos realized they could cash in on the EDM boom.
The secret of Vegas is that money is boring. Hence all the bluster. Unfortunately that applies to the music nights there too. But only a few dozen DJs worldwide can command those fees, just as only a handful of venues can afford to pay them.
While the dudes at the very top (a woman has yet to enter the Forbes annual list of the highest-paid DJs in the world) get paid upward of $2,000 a minute, the much more common scenario is that of the DJ who plays for free drinks and cab fare, never earning more than he or she spends on records or audio files.
At the other end of the spectrum lie the improvised venues, the semilegal warehouses, the microcommunities. These anarchic spaces are best understood as alternative social centers, especially in Western Europe, where property laws offer squatters a modicum of legal protection. A thousand people came to the last party that my friend Filastine and I threw in La Makabra. La Makabra sprawled across half a city block in the Barcelona district called Poblenou—“new city,” in Catalan. The squat had a gymnasium, library, nursery, skate park, two concert halls, and space for at least thirty people to live. They even had a lawyer. At our party we met Swiss gallerists and homeless kids, all dancing. Six months later the cops evicted the residents (illegally) and bulldozed the place within hours. But Makabras exist all over Europe—in Milan, Paris, Ljubljana.
* * *
Between the rich and spiritually vacant venues and the poor and illegally occupied ones are all manner of spaces, from crazy artist-run clubs such as Hamburg’s infamous Golden Pudel to countryside festivals with temporary populations the size of a small town (including the teknivals staged by travelers, a European hybrid of itinerant ravers, anarcho-punks, and off-the-grid nomads). Not to mention loopholes where economic rules are suspended. Government money for cutting-edge parties? It happens. Impossible things become possible. Dead of winter, somewhere in Austria: we’re playing outside—well, technically we’re playing inside a subzero refrigerated truck parked near an industrial canal. We, the performers, are in one vehicle, and the speakers—and the audience—are in two adjacent trucks, where the thermostats are set as low as they can go. “To avoid possible frostbite and colds,” ran the invitation of the art collective that staged the event, “hot mulled wine and baked pea soup are served.” I don’t remember if the refreshments were free. I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t have been: everything else was funded by Austrian taxpayers. Arts funding in Europe is like magic dust.
When you’re back home, a different kind of magic accompanies the DJ’s aura: the easy money of remixes, corporate events, advertising. Twice I’ve been scheduled to play a gig with a well-known DJ. Twice he’s canceled to do a private event. Global brands fly him around the world to entertain at their in-house parties. Since these events pay so well and are so fundamentally uncool, some DJs’ corporate earnings far exceed that from their public gigs—but they’ll never admit it. A couple of years ago a magazine even flew me across an ocean to play for forty-five minutes. Naked girls on pedestals got their bodies painted, and everybody else shouted at one another over mouthfuls of free sushi.
I do receive plenty of remix offers, courtesy of everyone from an Algerian raï singer to a Spanish girl group asking me to “improve” their number one hit. You can’t improve a number one hit by making it better—not in these people’s world. When people request remixes, what they really want is to attach a DJ’s name to theirs. Aura is contagious; aura rubs off. The music tends to be secondary. So the more money a label offers me to remix, the less time I spend on it. For remix offers of $1,000 and up, my time limit is eight hours of work, start to finish. If I spend any longer, the track will inevitably get more personal and the label people will be less likely to accept it. Besides, eight hours is a lot of time to spend on something that you won’t necessarily get paid for. If a label rejects your remix, you can’t release it elsewhere, since the label owns the music.
* * *
On tour, life becomes simplified. Travel, wait, play, sleep, repeat. Nations blur. Languages splinter; all you need is English. Few musicians bother to learn about the countries they perform in. We’re the opposite of tourists. All cities look the same when you arrive at night, get driven to the venue, and leave the next morning. But DJs understand rooms as few others do. You can walk into an empty venue and instantly envision how that night’s crowd will react to the architecture of that space.
Both DJing and electronic music production are learned in an artisanal way. One is generally either self-taught or apprenticed. The mechanics of DJing are simple to demonstrate. All you need to do it right are years of practice and the sensitivity of real listening. For the DJ, the actual performance is never just about the musical selection and mixing, something you can work out in advance. The dynamics of the sound system have to be contended with, and how the bodies are reacting to what comes out of it, and what you then have to do about it. When I DJ, I almost never pick out individuals in the dancing crowd. At a good party, the temperature will noticeably heat up when you put on a song that makes people move. You can feel it on your skin even if you don’t look up from your decks.
You have to be watchful for the pieces of musical culture that don’t translate, even when they come from the places you’re playing in. A few years ago I performed in Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates. I’d mix in a big Arabic tune, but blend it with other rhythms, so that people would hear my mix style cutting up and overlaying the Middle Eastern source records. I slipped a dancehall riddim underneath Egyptian cabdriver chaabi, then used a hip-hop breakbeat to bulwark Rachid Taha’s remake of Dahmane El Harrachi’s exile classic “Ya Rayah.” The Lebanese contingent went wild, but a concerned Emirati came up to the booth. “Could you play less Arabic music?” He pointed to two blond Western girls he was getting down with. Arabic language alienated them, whereas the niggas and bitches of my rap a cappellas made them want to party. I changed course. Toward the end, however, I decided that it was time for a little techno from Morocco’s Rif mountains. This high-energy, jubilant stuff takes more than a few nods from Bollywood film music. The song prompted the Scottish club manager to come over with the same request: “Too much Arabic music. Do you mind ending with something in English?” “It’s not Arabic,” I said, “it’s Berber. From North Africa.” He shrugged. He later told me that nobody had ever played Middle Eastern music on his night. He’d be able to spin the whole thing into an example of his ecumenical curatorial slant.
* * *
In 2006 I moved to New York City after seven years in Spain. My quality of life ratcheted down several notches; my living expenses doubled. I no longer live next door to an active bullfighting ring and have views of the Mediterranean, Gaudí’s Sagrada Família cathedral, and the mountains beyond. (At the start of my time in New York, I lived in a room in a shared loft, complete with stunning vistas of the elevated subway line right outside the window. Rent on that Brooklyn room cost approximately as much as that of a family-size apartment in Barcelona.) Staring at my bank account, a strange fact hit home: as an international DJ, the scale of my income is completely uncoupled from the costs of wherever I live. It’s inadvisable to live in one of the world’s most expensive cities when your workplace is global. Money burns faster here.
Music has always confounded value, although never more so than now, as it sheds its material scarcity and transforms into downloads and streams. It charts a surreal asymptotic curve. At the zero end lie endless amounts of music from artists self-promoting via free downloads and sites such as WFMU’s Free Music Archive (exactly what the name says). MP3 shops ask for around ninety-nine cents a song, and while streaming that same song on YouTube is free, subscription streaming services try to pry $10 to $15 out of your wallet each month. For much of the world, music sales happen largely outside of any organized industry. If you want to own some recording, it’s the bootleggers or bust. Those transactions usually mean picking up a shaky CD-R or getting a hundred songs beamed to one’s device via Bluetooth by some guy in a market.
The album-as-major-statement seems less viable nowadays, anyway. Between the “shuffle” function on MP3 players and the single-song downloads of iTunes and audioblogs, the album’s heyday as a sequentially ordered object of contemplation is ending. Two or three laptops died on me this decade. With each death, I thought of the various MP3s lost—and felt lighter. Relief outweighed anxiety. I know stockpilers who download more music than they can listen to. For some, the most beautiful song is the one they haven’t heard yet.
It’d be easier to dispense with the notion of albums (and album sales) if Americans were more hip to DJ culture. Unless you’re playing weddings or megaclubs, this is a bad country in which to be a DJ. The fees tend to be lower than in Europe, despite the EDM money mirage, and the treatment by venues is almost always worse, not to mention the ubiquity of rock sound systems ill-equipped for dance music. It’s not uncommon for DJs and electronic musicians who can draw substantial crowds in middle-size European towns to face half-empty rooms in U.S. cities.
Things are wacky now. We know this. Anyone interested in what comes next must look further afield then the latest listicle on the viability of streaming or the career of Justin Bieber. The giants—the major labels, the indie labels backed by majors, the RIAA on their leash, and so on—took up a lot of resources. I don’t want to haggle over how many micro-cents I get paid per stream or other token gestures toward compensation. I want the giants to fall even faster so we can see what weird flowers start blooming in the spaces left vacant.
And whatever the cost, a truly great song is priceless, tapped into something much larger than itself. Deep emotional resonance, the unbuyable sublime. Perhaps you heard it during your first kiss. Or maybe you licensed it for a flavored-beer commercial and got paid six figures to transform a piece of your artistic persona into corporate shill. A great musical experience exceeds any monetary value you could assign it precisely by immersing you in a world where worth is created in radically different ways from what the market teaches us—therein lies the freedom and the rub. If it were otherwise, these sounds we’re all chasing would be a lot less beautiful.
Music is a social act. And it’s never been healthier, or more chaotic. It’s harder to make generalizations, even about the popularity of pop music; instead, people talk about money. Money runs to the people with the least imagination. Power is not creative.
Let’s be honest: it’s not terribly difficult to get a few years of relative success as a DJ, earning enough money to scrape by, provided you don’t mind borderline poverty. A lot of DJs are dabblers, mere hobbyists, so the more you take it seriously, the faster you’ll rise. Even in a city such as New York, which has more DJs than Starbucks, a bit of focus and a reasonably fresh musical approach (or invented backstory) is enough to set you apart from the rabble, and you can coast on that for a while.
The difficult thing is to extend that initial impact into a sustainable career. There’s no secret recipe for that. Music gives voice to its time, and as the times are always changing, so are the ways to make that music make money. Media attention cycles shorten as musical trends accelerate, with each new flavor yielding a clutch of artists who offer free material online, their sheer numbers slowly pulling entry-level booking fees downward. Hot DJs spend less and less time in demand, especially ones tied to a particular style. As the industry professionalizes, getting close to institutional power, anything from a well-connected manager or Twitter-famous friend makes more difference to one’s prospects than any aesthetic moves. MP3 and streaming revenue doesn’t compensate for plummeting album sales, which prompts record labels to make highly conservative decisions when signing artists. And let’s face it: even if you can survive all this to scrape out a living, do you really want to be playing raves when you’re twice as old as the average attendee?
Sometimes I hear musicians talking—grumbling, really—about leaving music. Quitting. Stopping. “This will be my last album,” they say, “this will be my last tour, my last big push.” It sounds like a threat, but it’s never clear to whom the threat is directed if not the musician saying it. Part of me sympathizes: music is the province of the young, and often the more dedicated one is to music, the more difficult it will be to make that music pay in the long term. It is one thing to be sleeping on couches and receiving barely-above-break-even pay as you tour across Europe in your twenties, and entirely another to do the same thing in your forties.
Yet more than anything else, experiencing music as a DJ has proven to me that the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, is constantly on the move, manifesting in unanticipated ways. Music exceeds us. That’s a beautiful thing. There will always be songs to make the world new again and DJs needed to spin them.
Copyright © 2016 by Jace Clayton