Well, now that I opened that can of worms… half of you are ready to skin me alive, with the other half shouting “Amen, brother, glad someone was willing to say it!”

The dictionary gives two definitions for “musician”:

  • One who composes, conducts, or performs music, especially instrumental music
  • A person who plays or composes music, esp as a profession

Do DJs conduct? After all, all that means is to manage, control, or direct the course of music. Do DJs perform? Certainly some of them do. Do DJs play music as a profession? Well, I think that one goes without saying.

It gets a bit convoluted; it could be argued that a conductor is directing other people’s playing of music, or that playing music means to play an instrument. Conversely, the DJ could argue that a turntable is his instrument.

And if people aren’t allowed to be qualified as musicians because they are playing other people’s music, that also eliminates most modern day producers (especially in hip-hop, which is often sample-based). Using the same logic, it would also eliminate collage artists (because they use other people’s photos), or any other art form in which you take someone else’s work and turn it into something new.

How far down this rabbit hole are we willing to go? We could certainly get more nitpicky than that.

Perhaps this post would be more appropriately titled, “Why DJs Are Not Necessarily Musicians”. You see, the issue is in the term DJ itself. A DJ is simply someone who plays pre-recorded music to an audience… that’s it. Just like a photographer is simply someone who takes still pictures with a camera. But that’s not to say that there aren’t photographers who are also artists… whether it’s a product of their photography or not.

DJs can be musicians, they are just not musicians inherently. You don’t need to be a musician to be a DJ, but some musicians are. Can it help? Certainly. It’s just not a prerequisite.

A driver is someone who operates a motor vehicle… nothing more, and nothing less. There are some excellent drivers and some bad drivers. There are some drivers who have mastered a certain level of technical excellence, such as Mario Andretti or Michael Schumacher.

And then there are those who focus solely on “artistic” driving, like drifters. Check out this old video of a motorcycle vs. a Mazda RX-7. Notice how they are driving simply to give a performance, not to meet a specific goal? People who drive (and compete) like this are interested solely in the sensory experience. Drift events are judged more on what is appealing to watch than measurable statistics such as lap times. Who amongst these drivers are the “artists”?

I don’t think that someone qualifies as a musician simply by how they do something, but rather, by the reasoning behind what they do. To call someone a musician or an artist is to imply that they are creating something for its own sake, using whatever tools at their disposal to make it their own. Sometimes, musicianship is best recognized by other musicians, but it should be appreciated by all.

“I don’t think that someone qualifies as a musician simply by how they do something, but rather by the reasoning behind what they do. “

A DJ does not have to be a musician to be a good DJ. But DJs who approach their sets with a sense of musicianship, will be more apt to put other people’s pieces together in a way that creates a standalone work of art.

Any time we get in to terms like musicianship, artistry, creativity or expressiveness, we are imploring our senses. None of these terms can be entirely objective. But, the fact is that it really doesn’t matter. If you’re a DJ, you should be the best one that you can be. Whether or not you want to call yourself a “musician” is up to you.

DJing and musicianship are two distinct ideas, which can be combined if one so chooses.