Blame it on Afrojack, dance music’s answer to Nickelback. He made it all so easy, and so lucrative for how easy it is – to mask a fundamental lack of skill, knowledge and creativity under a metric fuckton of technology.

The simplest way to make a million dollars today is to borrow a million dollars. And the simplest way to success in big time electronic music today is to sound, act and play just like everyone else.

EDM clowns aren’t the only ones. The lack of creativity even infects the underground, from the multitude of bands and DJs that adopt a slightly skewed version of a celebrity’s name (Boe Jiden? so hashtag-clever!) to the PR hype machine that manufactures generic Deep House DJs playing generic Deep House tracks until they drive Deep House into the ground. And then they mass produce insta-star DJs that play something else.

But you’re not supposed to hate the player, you’re supposed to hate the game. While some people delight in exposing clowns, phonies and clones, it’s that “metric fuckton of technology” propping up EDM that makes this whole magical experience possible.

I’m not against technology; I’m not a Luddite. But it’s been our fear of this silly accusation that’s kept us standing by, observing the steady erosion of standards for skill, knowledge and creativity in DJing.

There’s something very wrong with a scene in which those three things – skill, knowledge and creativity – can be so blatantly faked and jived and you’re afraid of being called “close-minded” if you point out what everyone can see.

“I just roll up with a laptop and a midi controller and ‘select’ tracks ‘n’ hit a spacebar…”

 

Pushing Your Buttons

There’s an obscure word in German, hardly every used. It’s schlimmbesserung, and it has been translated as meaning “a solution to a problem which makes the problem worse”.

In other words: the sync button.

In the last 10 years, over and over again in dance music, we’ve seen solutions that make our problems worse.

Digital distribution was a great concept, but the middle men are the only ones who made any money from it.

The “100% legal rave” sounded like an idea whose time had come – except when it was thrown by 65 year old corporate raiders whose last great venture was turning modern American radio into a pile of shit.

The “100% legal rave” sounded like an idea whose time had come – except when it was thrown by 65 year old corporate raiders whose last great venture was turning modern American radio into a pile of shit.

And digital DJing solved just a billion problems while creating two billion more.

The sync button – in all of its manifestations, from tempo sync to beat sync and across multiple devices and platforms – isn’t the cause of all that has gone wrong. But it’s a nice symbol for it.

For the first time, technology directly replaced a previously indispensable element of human control. And, finally, after years of technology’s “solutions that made the problem worse,” DJs got mad.

The furor over that button caused, for the first time, a dramatic split. Most media characterized it as “old school vs new school” but that wasn’t it. It was a rift between the underground and it’s sanitized, suburban child: EDM.

The sad thing is that this revolt against the sync button is a lost cause. You can rip the sync key out of every CDJ2000n you find and mount it on the wall of your club to warn outsiders. It won’t make any difference. The button will remain, because Pioneer is not in business to sell CDJs to the thousands of people who hate everything the sync button stands for. Pioneer is the Levi Strauss of the EDM gold rush, making a fortune selling tools to the fools that think there’s gold underneath their feet.

These are kids who grew up not knowing any other way. For them, beat sync is a shortcut to learning something they don’t see much need for. For them, it’s using a calculator for multiplication – and there’s no teacher to force you to learn the multiplication tables beforehand. And that shortcut is exactly what they’re looking for.

 

Everyone Can Become A DJ In 15 Minutes

If Andy Warhol were alive today, he’d say it with us:

In the future, everyone can become a DJ in only 15 minutes.

The famous part? Not so much.

Every day I hear from him, another 18 year old with a custom “DJ name logo” made out of Metallica fonts and a new EDM mix on SoundCloud. He wants me to hear his music but mostly he wants me to tell him that he’s great, and in the loudest voice possible.

I don’t know what to say anymore. I’m sent two hours worth of DJ mixes every 30 minutes. And it’s not like there are more people seeking me out because I’ve become a really popular guy. There are just too many DJs.

It’s all about selection. And every DJ shopping in the same record store.

The money in becoming the next Jon Bon Afrojack is surely a prime motivator – but it’s motivation to promote, not to improve their skills. It’s not like these kids are sitting in their rooms “practicing” pressing the play button for 12 hours a day.

It’s just that it’s relatively easy to become a DJ today. A thick layer of 2014 technology will not make you a great DJ, but it will go a long way toward making you a passable one.

And it has real world implications, most notably in income that has remained frozen at best but is more likely in freefall for most DJs in most of the country.

Call them “dance music’s middle class”. And then chant about being part of the 99%, because that middle class of DJs doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been decimated. Destroyed.

You don’t need to be old to remember a time when there was a strata of DJs between the headliners and the bedroom DJs. Call them “dance music’s middle class”.

And then chant about being part of the 99%, because that middle class of DJs doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been decimated. Destroyed.

It used to be that a person could grow their career locally and then regionally. From the vantage point of Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis and the cities of the Midwest were popular destinations on a local circuit. The East Coast cities are obviously an even better example. You couldn’t live well off of it – a part time gig at a local record store was helpful to stay buoyant – but you could live.

That’s mostly gone now. There’s not much advantage to investing in the middle class, for some promoters, when you can throw a rock and hit a kid who will DJ for free.

 

The Great EDM Brain Drain

None of this is terribly original. The standard argument against it is that too many DJs will somehow lead to “world domination” (but for whom?); that beatmatching is an easy skill to master; and that if computers can automate sets so the DJ can do more, then go go beat sync!

That’s how Pioneer sold the sync button: the machine would handle these “mundane tasks” to free the DJ to “hold performances with mixing, effects, etc., greatly expanding the range of DJ performances”. One imagines a DJ with the 8 arms of a Hindu God, handling a billion tasks at once instead of simply twisting knobs on a mixer that often isn’t even plugged in. Or as Deadmau5 describes it: “I just roll up with a laptop and a midi controller and ‘select’ tracks ‘n’ hit a spacebar…”

Electronic music once had a reputation of being unpredictable and a bit dangerous. We’ve hit the point where machines make flawless tracks which other machines flawlessly mix into flawless sets, and it all has the taste and texture of aspirin.

There’s a reason DJ skills are important. Someone that’s practiced with records and played that many records probably knows many things about records – and that’s a pretty useful skill for a DJ, isn’t it? It’s not a certainty, but it’s a pretty good indicator that their set is backed by a whole encyclopedia of music in their head.

That knowledge is irreplaceable, but it’s already being drained, diluted and lost in an enormous and still growing pool.

Some will also argue that selection trumps technical skill altogether. And that could be true – if the vast majority of the too-many-DJs weren’t shopping at the same corner store and taking home the same bestsellers. If you don’t live near a record store, Beatport is your local record store, the Top 100 is probably your crate. It has all of the diversity of a dance music WalMart.

We’ve hit the point where machines make flawless tracks which other machines flawlessly mix into flawless sets, and it all has the taste and texture of aspirin. Electronic music once had a reputation of being unpredictable and a bit dangerous. But everything exciting and inspiring about DJing is being bleached right out of it.

 

FFWD & PRESS PLAY

Of course, one risks being called bitter…

And insular. House Music has always been a sanctuary for all, but truth be told, people in the scene can be elitist pricks to newcomers and newbloods.

At some point in the future – it’s critical to remember this – all of this is going to end. Kids will leave their CDJs in the attic next to the guitar amp they got a few years earlier. Everyone will be an ex-DJ. Hopefully not you.

Will there still be a DJ craft that we can identify as such in 5 years? or 10? What will it look like? Without a gazillion dollars of hedge fund money sloshing around, will we get back the healthy middle class of DJs who can make a living off their craft?

If they’re told they won’t make money from selling music – and they can’t make a living off DJing either – just what kind of people do you think are going to be left to “press play”?

  • Neil Wright

    EXCELLENT article. well said.

  • Very true! Good perspective.

  • Uhhhh Ok Then

    Wow this article is so well written. You are so informed and just right about everything. You clearly know what you are talking about and must have an English Degree from Harvard or Stanton. Thank you soooo much for this article……

  • John Auman

    Sure that’s why you wrote this, because you are not intimidated by the 15 minute Dj…what are you 32..yeah…”old school” got it..change with the times or die out…you think video game designers get pissed when new software comes out? “hey man, I made all of my call of duty levels in 16 bit, because I’m old-school”….. line of thinking idiotic, this article is..

    • Obe

      Something is telling me you’re one of those 15 minute Dj’s he was talking about.

      • John Auman

        If I was, he would be intimidated by me. Which is still why he wrote the article. Here`s the deal. DJs are for weddings, bar mitz vahs …and the 1990`s….Every dubstep artist is a 15 minute hack with a few video game sounds thrown in…I like music. Not a dickhead with a couple of records. So for this guy to think that he is a better DJ than someone who can use a computer twice as fast as him, just makes him a whiny little bitch, not a better artist.

    • Jaeden Idleman

      But you’re comparing a time where the bar was raised to a time where the bar was lowered. When new software comes out for game designers, it usually means they have to learn more about their craft. This is the opposite.

  • Gabriel Rodriguez

    Didn’t like this article.

  • cantgetnosleep

    Yeah, it’s really a shame. Most deejays are so bad these days that I’m pretty surprised when I hear one that has any sense of building a set, creating energy on the dance floor (beyond just cutting over to the latest breakbeat remix of some previous decade’s hit), or building a mix that works with a songs phrasing, not to mention (GASP) creating a mix of two songs that actually creates something new.

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  • DJ & Producer

    This is just bullshit. Nobody can be a DJ at 15 minutes. And you CAN’T be famous in that time too. DJ’s are not getting famous at this time. The PRODUCERS get famous (and most of them are DJ) If you are only DJ, you are not going to be famous my friends. This article is absolute crap. DJ is a skill that you have to learn (and not in 15 minutes -_-)

    • jim

      “The PRODUCERS get famous”….what producers? that billion of kids that connect ready loops to make house music? who give a shit for them? who pay for their “songs”?…

      • Lina Kushnir

        agreed

  • Aj Reddy

    While you are right that there are kids working for free or drink tickets, let me tell you what it is doing to the clubs that hire them. Nothing. No one is going to those clubs. Go and see a club with established DJs that know what they are doing (and getting paid for it) vs the DJs you described. In the end the customers are smart. They know when they are getting a good deal and when they are getting ripped off either with drinks or with entertainment AKA the DJ music. Give them credit. Cause I trust my audience and they follow me for my music no matter which fly by night club comes along with some cute ass DJ. They will check it out for a week or two and come right back to the real deal. So if you are a good DJ, you have nothing to worry about technology or anything. And good DJ doesn’t have to be have a gazillion years old experience. Either you are born with it or not. Some skills are aquired over the years. But some basic musical genes are inherently inbuilt in you. It cannot be bought or aquired.

  • patroklos

    This is true in the same sense that anyone with a keyboard can become the managing editor of an online magazine in 15 minutes.