Three days ago my good friend Michael Serafini posted a self proclaimed “Rant” to Facebook. For those who don’t know, Michael is an amazing DJ, a resident of Boom Boom Room, proprietor of Gramaphone Records in Chicago and a strong proponent of vinyl and the classic DJ ethos. His post read…
“Most clubs do not pay their Djs anymore. We Djs have become promoters/party throwers and make our Living from the Door Charge. So is the $5 bucks at the door not worth Our talent?! Sick of people who make 5 times as much money as i do complaining about paying! You want to complain about it? Have the Club pay for you then!”
This post received 127 ‘Likes’ and 82 ‘Comments’ to date including supportive comments from people like Maurice Joshua, Boo Williams, Traxx and Glenn Underground as well as numerous other DJs, event producers and clubbers. While mostly touching on DJ income and the lack of interest audiences have in being a part of paying it, it really speaks to the many problems that are plaguing todays nightlife from modern technology to club management to mediocre sets. I started to write a comment in reply, but realized that it was far too in-depth for a Facebook post. Here is what it became…
The first step in the declining state of the underground music DJ in America deals with the changes in the DJs themselves. As I’ve said before just because a Graphic Designer can use the paintbrush tool in Photoshop or Illustrator it DOES NOT make them a painter. They can never know the fine nuances of mixing paint, the way the brush feels against a canvas or the way each stroke is final and important to the piece as a whole. The same can be said about DJs. If you don’t have what it takes to show up with a bag or two of varied records and CDs and improvise your way through an entire evening of unknown desires and energy levels without the aid of cue-points, loops and computerized-beat-matching than you are just not a DJ. A computer can aid you, but it shouldn’t do your job for you. If you already have your set planned out and you’re just pushing some buttons on your computer (Ableton, Traktor, etc.) you are a PERFORMER putting on a show of what you want to play, not what works based on timing and the mood in the room. Those that don’t take risks and who haven’t utilized the original medium can never truly know the fine nuances it takes to be a great DJ. Sure they may have people dancing, but does a print of a painting speak to the soul the way the original does?
****THE FOLLOWING WAS ADDED ON 02.23.11 TO CLARIFY MY POSITION. CONTENT IS TAKEN FROM MY VARIOUS REPLIES TO COMMENTS AND OTHER POSTS I’VE MADE CLARIFYING MY POSITION ON DJ DIGITAL DJ’ING. IT SEEMS MANY READERS ARE NOT FULLY UNDERSTANDING IT, OR I DID NOT MAKE IT CLEAR ENOUGH AND THE CONTENT OF THE ENTIRE PIECE IS NOT BEING LOOKED AT WITHOUT BIAS.****
“[I am not] slagging digital DJing. In the end, I don’t give a shit how you choose to play music for people, what I do care about is when you’re untrained, unseasoned and your set is boring, mixed badly, cliche, trite or overly mashup-ified and what you do gives what I do a bad name. I care about when untalented and even more so uncreative people get booked because they have a laptop, the Beatport top 40 downloaded tracks and they’ll play for cheap.
The fact is that it’s just plain harder to play vinyl than it is to DJ digitally, plus it was far more time consuming and expensive to build a collection and those that continue to do it deserve more respect. You can’t deny that. It is also a fact that if you show up to a gig with your whole set beatmatched, sequenced and planned out in your computer then it’s not really any different than just playing a CD you made and it’s not really DJing, it’s performing a previously choreographed routine. I mean what else are you really doing at that point? (Feel free to flame me in the comments by the way.)
Shit, I use a computer with vinyl controllers to DJ some of the time and so do a ton of DJs I love and respect. Its a tool we can use, but shouldn’t be a crutch we have to depend on.”
“In the 6th sentence of the ‘TECHNOLOGY’ section I stated “A computer can aid you, but it shouldn’t do your job for you.” I actually use control records and a computer running Serato at most of my gigs. Most of my sets are close to 50/50 vinyl and computer because there’s just some things I can’t get on wax, some records just don’t leave my house anymore and there are unreleased demos of mine I want to play. Had you read my other posts here, you would have read sentences that said “Sure, CJs [Computer Jockeys] can bring the house down and DJ’s can suck” or “After all, there is one thing that a computer, itunes, beatport or blogs can’t show you and that is how to express your soul and do it for a dance floor of sweaty bodies.” My statements had nothing to do with Computer=Bad, Vinyl=Good. My point was that there is a process to becoming good at an artistic discipline. If you want to be an architect you have to first learn basic drafting and physics, if you want to be a painter you have to learn color theory and light, if you want to be a designer you have to learn typography and layout, etc. You also have to put yourself out there, be critiqued and prove yourself amongst your peers and audience.
My problems with the current DJ scene are that people who never paid a dime for their music, never slaved away learning how to beat-match, never made mixtape after mixtape and gave them to every promoter in town, and who have never played a gig outside their bedroom calls themselves a DJ. And those “DJs” go out and undercut pay rates and clueless, dollar-obsessed club management takes them up on it. That’s why my piece was meant to be read as a whole, not just in parts, because one problem is creating another.”
“Computers have made good DJs better but have increased the number of bad DJs exponentially. For real DJ’s, the advent of computer DJing made life easier by no longer having to haul crates and crates of records to gigs. It has even made them better by giving them new options, such as cue points and loops, in order to better manipulate and utilize the tracks they play.
The problem is that this ease and convenience of the computer coupled with the availability of cheap (or free) digital music has also meant an influx of bad, untrained DJs. DJs who never had to dig for records in a record store, hone their ear/hand coordination on the decks and develop their own unique sound and style. This has created an over abundance of mediocre “DJs” and the average listener doesn’t know the difference between good and bad anymore, or care for that matter.
What matters most is the end product, a room full of people sweating and boogying, but the process is how you get there. True DJs can accomplish this by playing music, and playing it their way, regardless of whether or not the dancers know the tracks or not. It is truly an art form…”
Beyond technique, there is the way music is now acquired which contributes to the detriment of our scene. When I first began DJing in the early 90′s I used to spend $7-$10 on a 12″ single or EP containing 2-4 tracks, with most likely only 1 track being “my track.” This cost provided a necessary roadblock to the DJ. It forced a DJ to truly select only the best tracks they felt represented their sound and would work best for the dance floor. Then for every gig you could only bring what you could carry, so you’d again select the best of the best of the variety in your collection. This selective process provided a remarkable music experience for the audience, and a continuous challenge for the DJ to be inspiring, unique and keep people coming back to hear you. Today, tracks are $1 or $2 online, not to mention free for all the thieving blog downloaders, so the DJ has very little constraints. Plus a DJ with a computer can have 1,000s of tracks at the ready at anytime. The passion for music selection is no longer evident, and DJs have the ability to easily acquire the same tracks as one another. The first negative this has created is a fairly homogenized music scene. However, and more importantly, combined with current DJ and performance technology, anyone and everyone can do no more than sit at home on their computer and become a “DJ” without ever learning how to read a crowd, mix by ear or dig through a record shop for unique gems.
The result of these “advances” means the average club going audience has gotten used to mediocre DJs & Performances that don’t truly move them; both their body and their soul. So when music directors, general managers, owners, etc. line-up entertainment for their club, especially in the current economic situation, they go for the lowest common denominator. “Who can give me the most bang for my buck right now?” It is about immediacy of return, not about building a club that will reap dividends over time. However, this is just shortsightedness on the part of management as a club with a defined musical direction and a cohesive stable of 2-3 resident DJs versed in diversity and dance floor manipulation will do far better in the long run than a club that does something completely different every night and tries to follow every fad. This lack of know-how and faith combined with laziness and the ever present quest for the easy buck is why management now puts the full responsibilities on the entertainers (DJs & Event Producers) to promote and sell the event and then only offer what is made as a cover charge as compensation. It’s a no-lose situation for the venue because they have nothing invested, they keep the highly profitable bar sales and they receive tons of free advertising for the venue through the various “entertainers” they use to fill their clubs. However, what these people fail to see is that this system waters down the identity, and in turn, integrity of their establishment and does not foster an environment of partnership between the venue and the talent. For example look at the way Robert Williams supported Frankie Knuckles at The Warehouse and then later Ron Hardy at The Music Box. When Frankie Knuckles first began playing his New York styled disco sets at The Warehouse in Chicago (the venue where ‘House Music’ got its name) it was slow and Frankie was not well received, it has been described as luke-warm at best. However, given the unwavering support of owner Robert Williams based on his belief in the music and Frankie, Chicago became the birthplace of House Music. Imagine for a moment if after the first couple of slow nights Williams had cut Frankie and tried to get something more financially lucrative and successful? The same can also be said of Michael Brody and Larry Levan’s partnership which began at Reade Street and led to the legendary Paradise Garage, or Tony Wilson and Rob Gretton’s support of Mike Pickering and the Acid House sound at The Hacienda.
In short clubs truly are no longer clubs, but venues. They are a place for DJs and Event Producers to hold events, not a place for people to get together and unify over a common cause (which in this case is music and nightlife culture). This, combined with lackluster talent, has driven down the club-goer’s desire to attend events, especially when they have to pay a cover. The word that best describes the average American club goer is apathetic. It doesn’t matter to them who’s playing or what’s happening because they simply can’t tell the difference anymore. They are solely there to be seen and get laid. Times were a lot better when it was dance your ass off to amazing music, then be seen and then get laid. To all you club goers out there, times are hard and we’re all trying to save a buck, however that DJ is working hard for your $5, $10 or whatever cover may be, so stop asking to be on the guest list and stop complaining about cover charges. If you don’t have the money, don’t go out and if you just don’t like the cover complain to the venue’s management that they don’t compensate their Entertainment adequately in order to keep the cost down for their clientele.
Many people have quoted this current club situation as a reasoning for a return to underground, warehouse, renegade, rave, loft, etc. parties like in the 90′s. However, I think people seem to remember those times with rose colored glasses. I remember the days of paying $20, $30 even $50 to get into a party only to have the party broken up by the cops shortly thereafter (in fact, just last month I paid $20 to get into a loft party in Chicago that was shut down not 5 minutes after I got in). I remember headlining DJs not showing up, sketchy promoters not paying DJs what they were promised, confiscated equipment and many more awesome times. While these parties, when they’ve gone off without a hitch, have been some of my most memorable times in music and DJ culture, they are also a huge gamble and one that the entire scene cannot depend on.
Younger people whose first experiences were at those parties seem to think that’s how this all got started but that’s not the truth. This culture could not have become what it is without nightclubs. In fact here’s a short list of very important ones in the evolution of our scene: Stonewall Inn (NYC), Salvation Too (NYC), The Sanctuary (NYC), Haven (NYC), The Loft (NYC), The Gallery (NYC), Reade Street (NYC), Galaxy 21 (NYC), Better Days (NYC), Ginza (NYC), The Roxy (NYC), The Paradise Garage (NYC), The Warehouse (Chicago), The Music Box (Chicago), Powerplant (Chicago), Heaven (Detroit), The Music Institute (Detroit), The Hacienda (Manchester), Shoom (London), The Shelter (Detroit). The problem is today’s clubs need to be something more than a space. We need more amazing sound systems, great lighting that elevates the energy and more community. I do not believe there is one world class nightclub in Chicago that has all of these elements, and I’d venture to say there is not one in the United States at all.
Which brings us to the most important factor… We can complain about the technology, we can complain about mediocre sets, we can complain about club politics and beaurocracy, but at the end of the day what we truly need are dancers. There are simply too many wanna be DJs, celebutards, trainspotters, chin-scratchers, Jersey Shore fist-pumpers and fashionistas out there but just not enough dancers. When I say dancers, I don’t just mean people who want to dance to their favorite songs they hear fifteen times a day on the radio, I mean people who go out to be moved for a few hours. People who don’t make requests and trust that the DJ is going to move them. People who get lost in the sound and move to the beat with no other cares in the world. We need them, but most of all… WE NEED TO BE THEM! Never trust a DJ who doesn’t dance. Its an old saying, but a true one. If you want a revolution, you have to start one and the dance floor is the best place to begin.
So, my opinion on Michael’s post is that we all should be paying cover to get in to places, because that’s just the right thing to do. However, it is important to only pay to hear the best DJs, and the ones who move you and not supporting the events with lesser talent but more frills. The bottom line is if you want to dance to good music, played well, then there’s a price. If you think that price is too high then take it up with the club or go somewhere else. I personally wouldn’t pay cover because there’s a “photo booth” or someone taking photos because I really don’t give a shit about trying to have my picture looking all crazy ‘in da club’ on a website or as my profile picture. I pay for a good time dancing, socializing and hearing great DJs express the talents and collection of music they’ve worked for years to cultivate.
Chicago nightlife has an identity crisis going on because it is stuck between LA and NYC and it tries to be both at times, but Chicago is unique. It is the birthplace of house music and of the home studio DJ/Producer. There is amazing talent here that is actually so much better than the international headliners that people pay big bucks to see play the same songs. We don’t need headliners to have a great night, we just need to have an open mind and faith in our local DJs. So put on your dancing shoes, get that $5 out of the ATM and get out there! See you on the dance floor.