Sunday, 6 July 2014

Hang the DJ? Not much point any more.

It's a dog's life behind the decks these days...   
A radio pal - a complete hero, she programmed the best US gold station I've ever heard, back in the day - tipped me off about a fascinating blog post from a club DJ a few days back. Published last year, it's a scorching condemnation of new club DJ conservatism, written by a guy who uses deep repertoire to work the crowd. His beef? Less risk-taking, cynical venues, crowds who are into selfies, and globalised dance-pop have all brewed up a perfect storm of demand. The call is, increasingly, for surefire floor fillers. That's it.  

This is richly ironic to radio guys; they've already got that particular t-shirt. Mostly, radio doesn't allow any choice at all. Jocks wind up blanking out the music they play, which is deeply unhealthy. You would too if you had to play the same stuff every day for months on end.  

So it seems club DJs may be following the path many radio DJs have already gone down. I really wasn't expecting that, but maybe that's because of the company I keep. I'm lucky to know a few club DJs of the absolute highest calibre. Talking with them, the deal is that they can turn their sets on a dime and go where the audience is. Radio stiffs can't, because radio can't read audiences so intimately. 

The beauty of club work is that all sorts of gorgeous micro music climates can flourish. That's not something radio can afford to even think about. You can do your own flavour of edgy radio by yourself, of course, and easily too, with today's super-cheap kit... but just try and find a way to make it pay. Your internet radio jewel will go out to a few dozen listeners at best; your biggest chore will be to tell everyone you're out there doing your groovy creative thing. Bands face the same problem: that level playing field is so bloody big you can't see the end of it.   

For years it's been clear that if you want a life of creativity working with other people's recorded material, pop radio isn't going to be the place you need to be in. 

So why now club djs? Well, entertainment venues don't actually prize creativity; mostly, they want bums on seats and cash across the bar and they want the easiest route to get there. 

Which brings us to audiences, the market and the challenge of reaching out. We now live in an age where everything is available online. I love that. I can go find what I want, fast, and carry it around on my phone or my tablet. I love the mechanism; I hate the results. The trouble is, easy access means people can pump out a ton of trivia. It feeds a growing appetite for stuff you don't have to think about.  

What online can not do is to guide you the way radio used to... the way the best of today's club jocks can do. Of course, there are software packages and algorithms to read your listening patterns and suggest stuff. Last-FM's Scrobbler, for example. Spotify will also point out things for you. In my experience, both of these devices, while admirable in principle, are woefully bad at telling you what you might like, or what might surprise you in a nice way. This week, Spotify invited me to check tracks picked by my favourite footballers. Yes, those useless overpaid plonkers who blew it in Brazil. There are so many levels of fatuous in that concept it's hard to know where to start.

YouTube works a bit better, but that's Google for you. They probably know every song you've got. They definitely know every song you streamed.

So in our online world of endless choice, we actually struggle to find the new. We still go to trusted people to recommend things – pals on Facebook, a reliable playlister on Spotify, a club guy who knows his stuff, the rare and excellent jocks who still flourish on radio. Outside of that we get the humdrum, the predictable, the familiar, the stuff with big money behind it. 

In a more innocent age, with less outlets, risk-takers could get decent platforms. I very much doubt that John Peel would have got a job in radio if he was starting out today. But, back in the day he did, and informed by his first experiences in US top 40 radio, he set out to do something very different. I remember Radio 1 shamefully doing its very best to squash him (at the height of Smashy and Nicey), before accepting it had a national treasure on its hands. Now, those DJs who honour his principles have a whole station to work on in 6music, and some splendid specialist outlets on 1, 2 and 1xtra. 

The rest? Hundreds of stations playing very limited repertoire. And courageous and/or self-indulgent (you choose) shows on tiny stations that hardly get heard, online or terrestrially. Risk-free programming is the safe option in a hyper-competitive market. Even those stations that cater to the commercial end of club music are risk averse. 

It's interesting to see how conformity has crept into club programming. I listened through two hours of cutting edge House at Oobleck in Digbeth last month, waiting for a live act. It was sort of OK, once I got into it. Being completely off my face would have helped a lot, but, hey, I was driving. But it was also kind of … boring. And dated. And hidebound. Maybe I missed the subtleties; I am extremely ancient. But it looked like the rest of the audience did too, because they were busy shouting conversation at each other. Or texting. Nobody danced. That's the  kind of pressure that pushes club jocks to pump out the floor fillers.  

All this is so circular. Pop radio started out playing super-tiny libraries of 50 songs or so in rotation. That's where Top 40 came from. Now they're back to those library sizes in some US markets, and that's coming here, guaranteed. I'm also noticing online club mixes fronted by all sorts of wacky voice clips and sound effects pulled from 50s movies. That reminds me of those kerrazee zany DJs of the 60s and 70s, who couldn't leave jingle packages and sound effects alone. I hated those guys. They wanted to be noticed, but they didn't have anything to say. So they screwed perfectly good music up with audio irritation.  

Pulling this all together, it looks like many live DJs may be in the same media-driven death spiral that much of music radio is in, because of the web and tech-powered competition. There's tons of new stuff out there but there's no time to listen to it. There's vicious competition for gigs, and that means you gotta do something, anything, to get a slice of the action.  

Cue safety net programming.

See also
DJ Zimmie's original post

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Neil Uumellmahaye Spragg said...

Another great post Robin, as always, but I don't really buy into the whole blandifying of music thing. Strikes me, a disco has always been a disco, and most people have always liked music they can easily understand. That is human nature. From the 50's through to now, every super-cool underground scene has had a flourishing overground mainstream counterpart. The only difference in recent years is the overall quantity of media of all types that your average punter has to try and assimilate. This is a scary prospect for even the keenest of music lovers - I, for example, when starting my path as a club DJ, deliberately stopped myself from getting into Drum'n'bass, as I simply didn't have the money or the brain space to do it justice. It's much worse now, and so it's easy to see why most casual music listeners are happy to walk firmly down the middle of the road, and are also happy to listen to what they are told to listen to. It's much easier that way.

Regardless, there is still just as much ground-breaking and mind-blowing music out there as there ever was, and just as many people trying to bring it to your attention. You just have to sift through the flotsam with a bit more care...

Robin Valk said...

No argument about the new creativity, Neil. There is always a left field, and for that I am hugely grateful. And I have huge respect for the club DJs who push the limits and occasionally produce something totally new. My beef is with the media that filter it down and make it harder for original stuff to emerge. Like Spotify's idiot notion of our thrilling to Wayne Rooney's taste in music.

John Slater said...

I used to hate working 'trendy' clubs back when I'd do it regularly because the managers would judge only by the dance-floor and the punters would empty the floor if I played anything they didn't already know. The one time I was involved with managing a club night, a rock night at Burberries, I told the DJ I didn't care if the floor was empty sometimes if the people at the bars were talking about how good the music was and telling their friends the next day. It worked well enough to give us a USP.

On the other hand, I loved gobsmacking rock club managers in the NWOBHM days, who expected me to go Iron Maiden, etc, by playing Sweet's Blockbuster, Bowie's Jean Genie, Ike & Tina's Nutbush, etc and absolutely ramming the dancefloor much to their chagrin. At least two rock clubs started doing a 'crazy hour' soon afterwards, doing exactly the same thing.