Quality Matters: Lamentations for the “Good Enough DJ”
If you're a DJ who is not chasing a great musical experience for his or her audience, I'm not sure what to tell you.
If you're truly a passionate music fan, you already know which qualities to pursue. These qualities present themselves whenever you get the shivers, or get a huge smile painted on your face, when you experience your own musical moment.
The digital revolution has been constantly flipping the music industry on its head for years now, and what could be viewed as the most accessible way for new artists to share their craft is often formed into an excuse which explains their lack of success as a musician/DJ.
I'd like to present the case that the best way to be a great DJ is by being a fan of great music. By having the empathy and intuition necessary to present music in a way that showcases its greatness, you are creating context. You are forcing an interested listener to say, “wow, I never heard it this way before.”
The music industry used to be restricted to to the elite few, who needed to be discovered. Mp3, broadband, YouTube, SoundCloud, P2P, torrents and Bandcamp changed all that.
So now, we get to hear every little half-assed piece of music that anyone had the motivation to hit record on.
Back in the day, record label execs would check all of the required boxes of a song or album. “Professional production, check. Good presentation, check. History of success, check.” But nowadays, what you really want is to create something that will make your own community say, “Wow, this is good… check it out!” so that a greater music community takes notice.
Ironically, the complete availability and openness provided by the Internet has caused good old-fashioned word-of-mouth to become as relevant as it ever was, if not more so.
It's not enough to make good music or play good sets. You have to make great music and play great sets, if your goal is fans. I mean fans of you, not fans of whatever trend you jumped on in a vain attempt to stay relevant.
You owe it to your audience to wow them, and not just try to serve their needs. Effort, craftsmanship, novelty, surprise… these things all matter, and play an important role which is often largely dismissed.
You might be tempted to say that all that crap doesn't matter. “95% of DJs will fail when attempting those things.”
95% of DJs are already failing.
Even the samey, boring hits that seem to be cloned over and over in the EDM “industry” are enabled by the hit-creators. At some level, quality is important regardless of what end of the industry you're on.
In the DJing context, it's all about presentation, timing, and output. But many view it as a simple lottery. It's like they think that there are a pool of thousands of DJs that play all the same music the exact same (right?) way, and a select handful are divinely-chosen to carry the DJ torch amongst the masses.
There is some truth in that, and it's not necessarily any different than any other style of music or art form. But people making these statements are typically looking at things like magazine polls (aka useless datasets which show the apparent popularity of today's hottest producers) and dismissing the DJs that have huge followings because they are actually good at DJing.
If you're doing it this way, you really are playing the lottery. You're opting to say, “I'm going to fall in line and do what Hardwell does, because he's number one and that's how you get there.”
Congratulations, you're saying the same thing that literally thousands of clueless DJ hopefuls are saying. Put your name in the hat.
Or, you could care. You could craft something because it needed crafting. A DJ should learn how to express themselves and play recorded music in an intriguing and unique way, or they should use their iPod instead.
Check out this Jazzy Jeff video. He's not being particularly obscure… in fact, in this 6-minute clip he plays recognizable hit after hit. But, look at the vibe he creates. Look at the mixing decisions he makes. Look how he takes risks and covers so much ground in just this tiny clip, and how the audience eats it right up.
Jeff says, “screw your top 10 list, I've got something to say.”
My mixing style is so different in comparison to his, and yet I can learn so much from watching it. Do you think this video would even exist if Jeff decided to constantly trend-hop over the course of his career, instead of staying true to his heart and doing what moves him?
If you're a DJ who always latches on to the latest sound, it shows that you are good at identifying trends. But it says nothing about how good you are at finding an interesting way to present that music to an audience. This is a skill that's universal, and quite rare.
Quality is a feature that guarantees no level of success. Yet it is almost unwaveringly crucial to the long game. It's about building relationships with those treasured few who are willing to give you a slice of their most valuable asset: time.
Being a functional DJ who latches on to a new musical trend may work for a while, but do you have the chops to do it with style? Do you have the chutzpa to carry on your sound when the trend inevitably wanes?
The best DJs are just outright, to-the-bone, all-out music fans who have found effective ways to show why a piece of music is so great.
Don't you want to be amongst them?