Sunday, 20 October 2013

On being a DJ

The Buggles got it wrong. Radio killed the Radio Star; DJs now live somewhere else.

No, I didn't use this rig. Honest.
Thanks go to the Ableton forum.
Last week, I DJ’d a gig. Ruby Turner at the Crossing

I don’t DJ that often. When I do, it’s for serious fun and good reasons: because I like the idea, or the night, or the band, or the organisers, or whatever. 

On the way home from my stint, it struck me how the word has travelled, shifting in meaning from its radio origins. The noun DJ has become a verb. It has become a Title, a descriptor. Its meaning has changed, dramatically. Disk Jockeys often don't play disks these days.

Hey, when did it shift? Now we have DJ Culture. Now, you DJ a gig; or maybe you do a DJ set. Or you call yourself something like DJ Krooshal to tell people you’re doing a gig, fly-posting those traffic lights. Me, I’m DJ Urassic, I like that. But I don't fly-post. 

All this is a very long way from Make Believe Ballroom or the Geator with the Heater playing the Platters That Matter. The Geator's still going, still on US radio after well over fifty years. But that only takes us back to the sixties. You need to go back a further thirty years to when the term was coined.

Winchell didn't care for DJs
Fact is, the expression DJ has existed for nearly 80 years – ‘Disk Jockey’ was coined in 1935 in the US. It was not meant as a compliment. The story goes that veteran US Newsman Walter Winchell used the expression to diss a rapidly growing sector in his industry: continuity announcers who also played records. These guys were starting to become famous in their own right. This was as the US was coming out of a recession, and it was far cheaper to use a man and some records than to hire a live band. At the time ‘jockey’ was about as polite as, say ‘monkey’, as in ‘grease monkey’ to describe a garage hand.

Of course, the expression stuck. In fact, it became a badge of honour. When rock and roll came around in the fifties, and the big US broadcast networks companies dumped radio in favour of TV, it left thousands of stations with no other way to fill their airtime. That's when DJs really came into their own. 

That was the kind of DJ I was, back in the day. A bloke sitting in a room, playing records – vinyl, of course – and wittering. We had very little idea of our audience and how they felt about things. Feedback, such as it was, came at a snail's pace. I did that gig at radio for maybe 15 years, relying on letters, phone calls, feedback at gigs, audience research books every three months, conversations with the butcher....

In between the radio gigs, I discovered what it was like to be a live DJ, working to an audience. Mostly, this was at the long-lost Barbarellas, where I wrestled with lamentably beat-up kit, sticky faders and non functional headphones which meant you cued things up by feel as much as by hearing. 

Cueing up? 

Oh, yes. For newcomers, that means setting the stylus in the record's run-in groove a third of a turn or so back from the start of the song. Then you hit the play button a bit ahead of time, so the turntable wound up to speed just as the song started. It was physical: the needle in the groove, the record on the slipmat. I prayed Barbarella's headbangers wouldn’t make the stylus skip when they slammed into the booth.

You carried your vinyl in with you; it weighed a ton. A good trick was to steal a wooden splits bottle box from the bar – just the right size for seven inch singles. Because I was a rock DJ, I also worked a lot with albums. So I carried those around in cases. Ha. Now I can have thousands of hours on one usb drive. Last week, I had about twenty hours of hand-picked music ready to go, from now going right back to sixty years ago. 

But on the subject of vinyl, there are a sizeable number of vinyl fetishists who now work live with crucially exclusive custom pressings, because it's the way they do it. Many claim that vinyl sounds better. It may well do: vinyl gives you a full audio spectrum, which is better than compressed stuff on mp3 . But by the time that's been run through an iffy PA system in front of a shouty crowd in an echoing room, I think there's not that much of a perceptible difference. 

Audience feedback? In your face, pal. Play the wrong record, clear the floor. Get things right, you wind up with a steaming room heaving and grooving as one, you and the audience rocking together.

1977 Twindecks. Ah, the nostalgia....
By the late 70s, there was a clear distinction between Radio DJs and Club DJs, although each fed the other. It drove a wedge. Both parties cordially despised each other. 

But, ironically, throughout the 80s, DJs started to disappear from radio. They became presenters, air talent; and gradually they were peeled away from making any kind of editorial choice in the music they played. Now, that's an emotive and complex subject, and seeing it happen was to to be part of a massive change at radio, in which, as a Selector consultant, I played my part. Over in the live sector, though, things were rocking: DJs swarmed into clubs on the back of disco. 

All this was before scratching, sampling, looping and such. It was before rap reinvigorated and booted up twindeck technology. It was before DJs showed up in bands. It was before they became producers and remixers, and EDM megastars. It was way before David Guetta, Avicci and Tiesto and their ilk. It was before Manumission, Coachella, Ibiza, raves, Club culture and soulless city centre hangars.

It was before computers, mp3 files and software completely rewrote the DJ book. 

Wanna be a DJ? Get this, it's free. Just add music. 
Last week, I rolled up to my gig with a laptop, a thumb drive of music files, and some freebie software that let me do exactly what I wanted to do. 

Fire up the laptop, run a lead to the mixer. Simple. Cue the songs up by dragging and dropping. Match beats if you want to - it's got a readout.  Oh, and don’t worry about levels: the software takes care of that. 

Of course, if you’re a pro live DJ, you’d laugh at my kit, because it's little more than a toy. I don’t care; it does what I want it to. I’m a repertoire guy, not a sampler and looper. And definitely not a star.

Like everything else, the Internet lets lots of people have access to tools they could once only have dreamed of. Now, after two minutes practising, you’re good to go. That opens up the field, and  that’s fine – I love the idea of musicians, or anybody interesting, for that matter, playing DJ sets live so I can get a taste of what drives them.

So where do DJs live now? Where is their rightful place? 

Two weeks ago, I gave a lecture to some US students; I do this about twice a year. I talk about technology and demographics, and how they impact on music and music consumption, and I big up Birmingham music. 

The Buggles got it wrong:
Radio killed the radio star
I asked my students where they got their fixes of new music? None of them went to radio to get their fixes of new music; it was all about social networking apps. 

And I think that’s another reason why, 80 years after the expression was coined, DJ no longer really means anything at radio.

Live DJs still bring you new music. They still champion their favourites, working to an instantly responsive crowd, sometimes with stuff they've made themselves - and that's another big shift from the radio guys. Radio DJs, with a few honourable BBC exceptions, just don’t do this anymore. Effectively, mainstream radio has pretty much stopped being a home to DJs - in the original sense of the word. 

Oh, and the gig? Ruby was brilliant, of course. 

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Neil Sackley said...

Great read, Robin

Gavin McCoy said...

That's a great blog, Robin. Before my first radio job, I worked for the famous IDEA DJ agency in Scandinavia. Touring from far flung venue to venue by train or ferry, with my music in huge dead weight suitcases of 45 rpm singles. Each contained 3 Schweppes boxes, that miraculously held 7 inch singles back to back. How fabulous it would have been then to have a thumb drive and laptop. Also, speaking of presenters/DJ's I spent a couple of hours yesterday, with my friend "Whispering" Bob Harris OBE. Bob still constructs his Radio 2 shows song by song in his home studio. How refreshing it was to see him lovingly selecting every single track, based on his taste, knowledge of music, and black art genius of putting it all together and create something unique and appealing. How sad that here in the UK, only the BBC stand by the creative principle of letting experts like Bob continue to be the architect and builder of their own art form.

Len Groat said...

A most enjoyable and accurate summing-up of dj's and the 'music business' Robin!

Sadly gone are the days when 15 record company reps came in to your (local) station with 60 new vinyl singles every week.... radio (and so also the music business) is now all controlled by just a few millionaire egomaniacs...