The DJ Dilemma

Innumerable opportunities for creativity obviously lead to a plethora of pathways for production. As such, genres both conflate and dissipate their musical stylings amidst a sea of sounds. While most styles of electronic music retain a core characteristic – such as the overlapping feature of the 4×4 beat prevalent in techno, house, etc- the subcategorization of many genres leaves the music industry confused and misguided; these subtle categorizations hinder listeners’ ability to participate in both consumption and production of these styles. As the boundaries of genres expand, so too does the scope of music which shares many features yet lacks a common name. Alongside these unclear definitions come ambiguous interpretations. Exclusivity creates an obvious framework that both fosters an intimate community while also limiting others who might want to enjoy the music. The expanding categorizations create subgenres, and subsequent subcultures, which limit access to those who can first and foremost identify the distinctions amongst the various umbrella genres. Regardless of how one perceives such distinctions, they exist as a cultural dichotomy that allows for distinctly positive or negative critiques – these styles of music are a love or hate affair; an all or nothing venture.

At this juncture, two pathways for electronic musicians (“EMs”) arise: DJ or producer. Arguably, one must possess the ability to function as both if they want to “make it” as a professional musician. This breakdown arises, however, to address the stigma previously mentioned regarding EMs; “outsiders” conflate the two identities to the extent that it devalues the talent of both irrespectively. Consumers often assume DJs also produce as well as assuming that producers also DJ; while this might inevitably be the case, it limits entry into either of the respective pathways as a launchpad for a holistic vision of electronic musicality. Furthermore, the advances in both production capabilities as well as DJ kit allow for direct overlap; DJs sometimes live produce which fulfills both roles simultaneously. In Madeon’s infamous video, what role would one assign to him over the course of those three and a half minutes? Surely, he showcased his talents as an EM rather than merely a producer or DJ. Recognizing such distinctions, further explanation would derail this article entirely (as opposed to just minorly). On the other hand, some DJs consider their live mixes innovative enough to warrant the title of either remix or production. While these “productions” arise out of spontaneous recreation of sounds, producers generally create or recreate sounds through software designed for it rather than software designed for mixing. Again, another avenue of discussion arises which warrants exploration at a different juncture.

Looking back to the misrepresentation of dance music, the recent surge of DJs and producers can be traced back to a variety of societal trends. The most obvious stems from the ability of individuals to access technology; the technological generation enjoys an increasingly prominent exposure and familiarity to computers, the internet, and everything that accompanies those powerful tools. Living in this technologically revolutionary age of music technology grants individuals an enormous scope to create and enjoy an overwhelming amount of spectacular advantages. When at one’s fingertips the internet provides music of all varieties – whether through legal or illegal acquisition – producers and DJs share the “burden” or sifting through the seas of information to utilize it rather than get lost in its difficult terrain. Unfortunately, a lack of understanding and apathetic interactions with “DJ culture” spark a counter-intuitive fear mongering which has DJs and producers slandering one another more often than encouraging them. Pop culture jokes such as Portlandia’s skit “DJ Night” (satirizing exactly what some view the rise of DJ culture as) or the recent “What DJs Do These Days” (where Art Department pokes fun at a live performance by Sander van Doorn, Laidback Luke and Steve Aoki) which went on to spawn a rebuttal, “What DJs Do These Days Pt. II” all feed into this malicious cycle of slandering. The balance must exist somewhere, for to move forward the prominence of this music will dictate an acceptance in one format or the other. The question remains, however- just exactly where and how people might come to understand it.

A more positive history of DJing coincided with the genesis of dance music. The relationship between a venue and its “resident” provided both the club owner and DJ with access to a creative space to a greater extent than many contemporary clubs do (although exceptions surely exist around the world in Ibiza, Germany, Amsterdam, London, etc); the shift from artistry to consumerism witnessed DJs straying away from employing their musical knowledge and adapting to the crowd more often than not. As music grew, and the club environment lost its intimacy, the familiar faces drowned in a sea of club goers which diminished the capacity of a resident to interact with patrons. Unfortunately, this trend culminated almost simultaneously to the emergence of “DJ culture;” the question of who came first – the DJ or the resident – remains a core component for the future of DJ culture. Thus, as both familiar consumers of “electronic music” and “dance music” continue to find their place in a maze of uncertainty, so too do artists struggle to strike the appropriate symmetry between DJ and “resident.”

Moving towards some iota of a conclusion, a pivotal point remains: does the disdain for electronic music not mask the underlying privilege that such a platform grants to listeners? Often times electronic musicians (namely, DJs) are equated to a “human iPod.” In some cases, this analogy holds true – individuals might lack the technical ability to do more than simply play one song after another without offering any unique interpretation of the sounds at their fingertips. Other times, an iPod would better fill the role that some DJs fail to effectively undertake. Without falling back into a cyclical debate, the implication of such a statement presents an interesting thesis: iPods are bad, pushing play is harmful. How can this notion hold true while the main forms of listening stem from Soundcloud, iTunes, Spotify, 8tracks, YouTube, Mixcloud, etc? The ability to play a song – which an artist recorded over a presumably lengthy period of time, with great difficulty, and inspired by various ideas – at the touch of button ought not represent such a disdainful attitude. On the other hand, the disdain might be traced back to the initial presentation of acoustic musicians against electronic musicians. Some might discredit an electronic musician for regurgitating a trendy sound that does not introduce anything unique into the scene; at the same time, however, surely this problem exists throughout music as opposed to only within music production.

One extension of this argument stems from the rise and “fall” of Dubstep. A recent graphic sparked controversy over genres and their relevance. Dubstep, it was argued, came into existence as an innovative emergence of sounds which had not previously exist; whether these sounds produced correlated to harmonious or melodic tunes is not relevant, the argument here lies in the authenticity of their originality. Ten years after the rise of Dubstep, these sounds (or “samples”) became so accessible that it created a cycle of stagnation where the only differentiation amongst songs came from the distinct application of filters and effects to preeminent soundscapes. In other words, the innovation disappeared just as quickly as it appeared, or so some might argue in confrontation with Dubstep fanatics. In addition, a “button-pushing DJ” does not seem as engaging (or engaged) with the music as a live band might. The more engaged a DJ seems to be with both aspects of his/her music certainly grants them a greater scope to perform, but one must also tread the line between performance DJing and technical DJing. Utilizing the overwhelming number of tools available to most DJs with a certain standard of introductory equipment allows for a beautiful reinterpretation of sound which allows one to develop his/her own style; one could recognize that as what separates “button pushers” from “DJs.”

While many ideas have been introduced throughout this piece, very few conclusions have been met. Ultimately, the beauty of music stems from individuals’ access to its creative space. Thus, conclusions must stem from rather than pervading from without. Applying the distinctions between DJ and producer to the blanket term of “EM,” one begins to better comprehend the various complexities of the electronic music industry. Furthermore, by glancing at the “problems” of genrefication, specifically within electronic music, accessibility comes into question as a pivotal part of the discovery process. Conflated against the backdrop of the innate technological responsibilities of any “EM,” one ought to see the coherent motif of this article: the extent to which rapid technological innovations mitigate or ameliorate the electronic music industry.

Words: Austin Bell

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