Now That Anyone Can be a DJ, is the Art Form Dead?
Has DJing become a lost art form? Has the availability of technology and software made DJing less about the music and more about the career prospects? Read this feature from The Economist to learn more!This article originally appeared on The Economist
THE best nightclub DJs possess a shamanistic power. They have it within them to control the movements of thousands of people as if they were a single being; to hold the mood of a crowd in their hands; to force it to turn, arms aloft, and await instruction. That need is deep-rooted. In “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life”, a history of the subject, Bill Brewster imagines night falling on prehistoric savannahs, where early man “abandoned the taboos of waking life” and “joined the gods”. To a relentless beat struck by an army of drummers, he would lose himself in dance. The witchdoctor who led this carnal parade, writes Mr Brewster, was the modern DJ’s antecedent.
To gain such lofty status, DJs, particularly back in the days of vinyl records, had to sweat. Before digitisation, mixing records in a nightclub was a technical discipline as difficult to master as learning chord progressions on a guitar. Flitting between two records, with different beats-per-minutes and in different keys, meant the best managed to create unique music in real time, using nothing but two turntables and a mixing desk. Playing a set that lasted for hours, with no audible joins between tracks, took years of practice. Skills were honed in bedrooms on “ones-and-twos”—the Technics 1200 turntables that were the only choice for an aspiring mixer.
In the 1990s, DJs who rose to the top had generally paid their dues. Alan Banks, one such, says he started on school radio and graduated to local bars before promoting his own nights in big London clubs such as Heaven. Mr Banks would spend hours preparing for a set, learning the break-points of records, counting bars and arranging the tunes in his box by their musical keys.
The tables, though, were about to turn. At the turn of the century, DJs began to embrace digital technology, swapping their ones-and-twos for zeroes and ones. In 1999, Pioneer released its first “CDJ”, which mixed CDs instead of vinyl. CDJs would eventually allow DJs to loop passages of music at the touch of a button and to interact with computers using MIDI, a digital interface. Many DJs welcomed the change. Notwithstanding the greater functionality, it saved them lugging heavy record-boxes—perhaps holding just 100 tunes—to nightclubs. CD wallets, in contrast, could house a thousand or more.
Even that now seems passé. Today’s DJs saunter into a club carrying nothing more than a USB stick, on which they keep an almost unlimited selection of music. But has digitisation meant that the art of DJing has been lost? Using modern programs such as rekordbox, computers will automatically put DJs’ music in sync and save them from beat-matching. They will also show which music is in a complementary key, and mix the two together at command.
Such advances have made it easy for those with limited talent to sound professional. YouTube videos abound that purport to show DJs miming their mixes—their hands a whirl of activity over the controls, but never actually alighting on any of them. For many, this confirms a long-held suspicion that some now simply turn up with a pre-recorded set, press play, and rake in the cash.