Episode 75 is all about two important virtues which many DJs disregard: restraint and patience. Today is a short solo show, where David first discusses the latest happenings in DJ news before getting on to this beefy topic.
We live in a world of instant gratification. Everything we do is “now, now, now!” And anything that doesn’t deliver instant gratification is pushed off to the wayside.
It wasn’t all that long ago that a cross-country trip would take years (if you were lucky enough to make it). Now, we get irritated if we get held up an extra 20 minutes for our 4-hour flight. Oh how quickly we gain a sense of entitlement!
You used to have to go to this place called a “record store” and search through crates or shelves of music, buy it, and bring it home. Then that wasn’t fast enough, so services started sending you 10+ CDs at a time for you to evaluate… they came right to your doorstep! But that wasn’t fast enough, so then 56k modems and services like Napster came around… and so on. I think you get the point.
Technology has done great things for us, but it has also made us impatient. And, like many things, this has affected the way many people approach DJing. Because of things like tempo sync buttons, digital music distribution (legal or otherwise), and ultra-portable all-in-one DJ solutions, it’s super easy to get started in the realm of DJing without “putting in your time” in the way that many people once had to.
The benefits are obvious. Some of the barriers of entry have been broken down, and many more people have discovered something that they love… which they may not have otherwise done. This is true of many “crafts”: photographers, designers, producers, etc.
But what are the negative effects of having such accessibility within the DJing world? What areas does it affect, and why?
The (Luke)warm-up DJ
This one is not necessarily due to any recent technological advances… it’s probably always been a problem. However, this problem is magnified by the simple fact that everyone and their brother is a DJ who is willing to play for free for exposure.
The warmup DJ has a very specific and, seemingly, obvious job. He is supposed to prepare the room for the headliner… akin to a local band opening for a national act. When we’re talking night clubs, he (or she) is supposed to start getting people interested in what the night will have to offer.
The problem is, today’s typical warmup DJ is more concerned about “rocking out” than supporting the night as a whole. They want to play all their banger tracks in the hour or two that they have been given, in order to impress whomever may be listening. The funny thing is, I (along with many DJs and promoters with much more experience than me) am rarely impressed by someone who goes all-out to a room of people who are not quite ready to dance yet.
This DJ is impatient in two distinct ways. Firstly, he’s advancing the energy of the night too quickly (how can you find room to ebb-and-flow when you’re already starting at 10?) Secondly, many of them are simply not willing to put the time into their overall DJ career. In other words, they want to be a superstar without merit.
Non-headlining DJs need to build anticipation for the rest of the night. If it’s a packed room and the crowd’s ready, it’s important to give them a little of what they want. But, don’t build the energy higher than the crowd is ready for. Exercise patience as a DJ, and your audience is sure to follow. Note: that’s distinctly different from boring them.
Promoters Are To Blame, Too
Oh yes, you can’t put all the complaints towards the DJ. Promoters (in this context, meaning, whomever has organized and advertised the event in question) are the ones in charge for putting all the puzzle pieces into place. Just as DJs should be curators of music, promoters should be curators of entertainment.
Many younger promoters are guilty of trying to jump on whatever trends are hot that particular week, and run with it. Most of them take a half-assed approach, because they think jumping on the latest bandwagon is all they need to do to sustain an audience. This is why most club nights seem fairly “watered down”.
A good promoter knows how to pick-and-choose their DJ lineup… not just because of what genre that DJ is known for, but because they know that their values line up. It’s not always the case that well-established promoters will only book well-established DJs… perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they will only book DJs who have proven to them that they know how the timeline of a successful night should look.
Lazy and Functional
The best way I know how to describe 99% of today’s DJs and promoters is lazy and functional. You can’t throw a stone without hitting a DJ in the head who is able to mix two tracks together without trainwrecking.
But, think of it this way… you also can’t throw a stone without hitting someone in the head that knows how to cook something edible. Does that mean there’s no such thing as a good chef?
It all comes down to how passionate you really are about this whole thing. Are you satisfied with relying on the function provided to you by today’s technology? Or do you demand more? Wouldn’t you rather know more about the psychology involved? Wouldn’t you rather know what makes people “tick” in the club or at your special event? Wouldn’t you rather engage with an audience on some sort of human level, rather than just telling a computer or piece of hardware what to do next?
Today’s technology is already perfectly capable of stringing together a list of songs with gapless playback and perfectly in sync. Give your crowd a reason to have you as their selector.
If you’re listening to this podcast, it’s likely that you’re already interested in being more than just someone who presses play. And you owe it to your audience (whether you have one now, or want one in the future) to be the best DJ you can be. That’s how to stand out in today’s sea of noise. Put in your time, perform your craft with conviction, and be patient. It’s not the only way… just the best one.
It’s Okay To Embrace Technology!
All of this is not to say that advances in DJ technology are of the devil. Tech has done worlds of good for the DJ community… just because a lot of old-schoolers like to focus on the bad, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to gain!
The point I’m making here is that the entry barriers that used to exist for DJing also served as filters. You had to have at least a little more drive and spend a little more money if you were doing this 10 or 20 years ago. That served to at least filter out some of the less serious fly-by-night DJs. But now, if you have an iPad, you can play a functional gig.
Embrace technology, but don’t use it as an excuse! Just because you no longer “need” to learn how to beatmatch, and you can find and instantly download any track in the world, doesn’t mean that there isn’t tremendous value in developing yourself as a DJ! How are you taking advantage of the doors that technology has opened to you? Does it enable you to be lazy, or does it allow you to develop the more important aspects of your passion?
Ever see those prison shows where they show the weapons people make out of toilet paper or a spoon? They’ve learned to make do with what they’ve got. It really puts some perspective on how to focus on what’s truly necessary to accomplish a goal.
Obviously, I’m not suggesting that you go out and shank somebody, nor am I comparing a night club or wedding reception to a prison yard. But if you focus on being creative instead of on what kind of gear you have, you’ll be amazed at what you can do or make with just a little.
It’s Not About Gear
Most of us internet-savvy DJ and producer types are quite familiar with RGAS – Rapid Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Sometimes, part of the fun of being a performer in the digital age is the fact that fun new pieces of gear are coming out all the time, and sometimes they are actually affordable.
We all like our toys, and that’s fine. But if you have an audience, consider the following question before clicking the “Buy Now” button: “What problem am I solving by buying this new item?” If the answer is “to keep my sets from being so boring”, it’s highly likely that you’re already doing it wrong. If you are unable to hold people’s attention on a dance floor using nothing but a no-frills DJ controller or a pair of turntables and a bare-bones mixer, you’re probably only going to annoy them when you try to make up for it with overused tricks, gimmicks, or effects.
Don’t polish a turd — consider fixing your boring sets before adding gear. Throwing hardware at it won’t fix that problem.
Writers have been using intentional constraints for hundreds of years, to great effect. Haiku, limericks, and sonnets all have strict rules that lead to very creative results. Good writers find that forcing themselves to use simple, clear language helps to deliver maximum impact. Twitter is based entirely around the philosophy of “less is more”. Focus on what you want to say, and the most direct and impactful way to say it. After all, you only have 140 characters to do so. Or, in the case of a DJ set… an hour or however long your time slot is.
Before you start singing the blues about how you don’t have enough music, or good enough hardware, or a big enough following… try shifting your perspective. DJing should always be about using what you’ve got to provide the best enjoyment and entertainment value for yourself and your audience. Try to see how far you can get with what you have.
Adding something is easy. Adding value is hard. Don’t put ketchup on a steak… make a better steak. Sometimes the things that you think are adding value (overuse of effects and filters, looping 12 tracks on top of each other, bringing 3 additional laptops to the booth) are really subtracting from it.
“Don’t put ketchup on a steak… make a better steak.”
Good DJs Shine On After Gimmicks Fade
It’s the people who understand the cases in which “less is more” applies that will shine through the fads and trickery, and be able to be called “good DJs”.
In today’s digitally-influenced world of sync, quantize, feature-rich software and affordable hardware, it’s easy to want to cram as much sampling, finger-drumming, knob twisting action into a set as you can. In my opinion, today’s DJ struggles with wanting to feel “legitimate”, being that software does a lot of the work for them.
But, the things that make for a good DJ have stood the test of time, regardless of technological innovation: the ability to read and react to a crowd, the ability to play the right tracks at the right time, and the ability to tell a story through the presentation of recorded music.
How do you provide actual value as a DJ? Could you still do it if all you had was two CD players and a crossfader?