DJing – A Service or a Performance?

Any hobby, interest, or career which involves passionate people is a hotbed of differing opinion.  Sometimes, those opinions turn into disagreements, and then into outright arguments (or worse).

I’ve seen it a zillion times – I’m heavily involved in my local music community and my girlfriend is heavily involved in dog rescue.  If you think that DJs and musicians are bad, you ought to check out the animal rescue scene!

Though these disagreements in the DJing realm vary greatly in topic, I’ve noticed that a good deal of them have a common origin.  It’s a fundamental disagreement on what DJing is: a service, or a performance?

The Case for “Service”

When I first started this blog back in February, I was posting on a message forum that I found was largely populated by mobile DJs who operated as a business.

I had made a passing comment about a recurring night that a buddy of mine throws weekly, that I occasionally play for free.  I immediately got lambasted by all of these DJ businessmen about how I’m ruining the craft, devaluing their services, ruining it for everyone, and some things that were a bit nastier.  See first two sentences in this post.

While the mean squeaky-wheels of the forum were not too productive, there were a few people that made some good points amongst the noise.  You see, according to many DJs (especially mobile ones), DJing is a service that you’re providing for other people.  Your sole purpose is to play the appropriate songs at the appropriate times to people, to make yourself valuable, and (sometimes) to make a living doing it.

In the introductory episode of my Podcast, I state that the definition of DJing I use here is “anyone who plays pre-recorded music to an audience”.  The “audience” part would seem to indicate that someone should be enjoying what I’m doing… especially if they are paying to hear me do it.

I often talk about making yourself valuable here on the blog, which inherently implies that you’re providing a service.  And if you view it as a “service”, it will probably involve some level of compromise.  For example, a wedding DJ is undeniably providing a service.  He cannot simply play whatever-he-wants whenever-he-wants if he wants to keep his job (by continuing to get referrals).  These DJs need to know how to handle things like requests, play lists, announcements, and timing.

Can you imagine if a DJ said, “Forget the bride, I really feel like dropping Plastikman – Spastik right now”?

Even if we’re not talking about exchanging money, the argument can still be made that the entire idea of “crowd reading” implies that you are providing a service – that you are doing this for the benefit of someone else, as opposed to “musical masturbation” (as I once heard it called).

The Case for “Performance”

Not everybody lives in the realm of the mobile business DJ, however.    Many people view DJs in the same way that they view bands… most bands don’t “read a crowd” and “provide a service”.  They tell a story through their music, and they play whatever it is that they are going to play.  This guy does this and that girl does that, and that’s the way it is.

People go to see these DJs because they know what to expect.  They want to hear “their sound”.  And what’s wrong with that?  There is both a large commercial industry and a large underground scene which rely on this idea.

Who can deny it?  People don’t go to “see a DJ” expecting them to mold their sound drastically depending on who shows up that night… whether that DJ is David Guetta or Damian Lazarus.

And then there are turntablists, “controllerists”, and live acts… people who are performing rather than playing, much in the way that a band would.  Watch any DJ Jazzy Jeff video and try to tell me that he’s not a performer.

Back in the golden age of raves, people would attend and they would see whomever they saw.  Some of them you would like and some of them you wouldn’t.  Sometimes, you were completely blown away and went home pleasantly surprised.  Many people still have this sense of adventure when it comes to a night out.  This includes me (I was too young for the better part of the rave era and only caught some of the tail end).

People who view DJs as performers enjoy the back-and-forth interaction with the DJ, the surprise of the moment, and being able to attend events that cater to their specific tastes.  Some of them view DJs as trend-setters instead of trend-followers.

So Which Is It?

Both!

Or either!

Why do the ideas have to be mutually exclusive?  I don’t buy into the idea that if you decide to be a DJ, that you have to pick one way or the other.  There are many kinds of DJs, and many reasons for all of them to exist.  This is precisely why I constantly talk about being choosy about what gigs you play.  There’s something out there for everyone.

Some people want to make money DJing.  Some people want to just play tunes in their bedroom.  Some people want to be on a stage and showing off their musical chops, and some people want to be a crowd-pleaser to as many people as possible.  Any of these are valid options!

My personal advice?  Take the best of all worlds and apply them where you can.  And if you have a lot of itches to scratch, try a lot of different types of gigs.  Why not?  Who says you can’t play a genre-specific night at a club on one weekend, and your aunt’s wedding the next weekend?

People who play requests and popular music are not sellouts, and people who play music which only exists in their super specific micro-niche are not pretentious snobs.  Just do what you like, do it to the best of your ability, and do it for as long as you enjoy doing it.  But, be aware… no matter which path(s) you choose, there will always be someone around the corner waiting to hate on you for it.

It’s all about finding the level of flexibility that makes you happy!