What came first, the dance music or the DJ? It’s a lot like the chicken or the egg riddle if you think about it.
DJing was the beginning of dance music culture, but DJs can only mix music that already exists - unless they’re a hybrid DJ/Producer, as many electronic artists are now days.
But is this the only way to be now? Does exclusive DJ culture still exist in the dance music community? Can you still draw a crowd mixing other people’s beats if you’re not also making your own? And the question many artists and music lovers are asking now, why would you?
DJ vs. Producer: Are they at odds?
DJing began as its own artform. From camping out and crate digging at record stores to building an arsenal of thousands of records to mix in every imaginable way in 6-12 hour sets (usually, many OG DJs played 20 hour sets and some like tINI and Marco Carola have been known to play for 30 hours straight), to being the only name on the bill for a show, these music gods brought new, old, almost always unheard and inaccessible tracks to the masses. Long before the days of Shazam and discogs, DJs were the gatekeepers to some of the world’s best and most obscure music. From the late 70s to late 90s, DJ’s ruled the dance music scene in America and abroad.
Since the turn of the century, with a more and more electronically literate generation, increasingly sophisticated technology, and the internet, we’ve seen DJs take it upon themselves to create the music they want to play. Many of today’s top dance music artists began their career producing and have never DJ’d at all, nor do they want to, nor would they be good at it (and vice versa). Arguably every headliner at every festival or big venue today is a producer first, then a DJ (maybe).
Instead of stockpiling records and hauling them to the club to mix music on the fly, producers are holed up in their studios, slaving away on Ableton and drum pads creating the perfect 4-minute banger. These are great for your Spotify playlist and for other artists to remix, but usually won’t constitute more than a 2 hour set. (Though there are exceptions. For example, Bassnectar could probably play a 6+ hour set of original tracks, mostly because he’s constantly remixing and recreating his own music.)
Not only do DJs and producers have very different creative processes, DJs have a tougher job these days since virtually anyone with a laptop and a connection can access most of the music from the last century. Music streaming apps have made everyone a DJ, and even the most popular DJs get yawns from fans who've heard “X” drop a bazillion times this year. Unfortunately, most would-be DJs today aren't taking the crowd on a journey through new musical dimensions, they're beat matching top 10 lists and billboard charts.
"In this day-in-age, with all the technology available, it's very easy to put two hours of records together and beat match them. That's not difficult, and that's not DJing. The art of DJing is being able to take and audience, engage with them, and take them on a journey, whether it be for four, six or eight to ten hours. That really is the artform of DJing." Mark Knight
"It's about drawing people in. Because you have an entire night, you pace yourself differently. It's not about just coming in and banging out the hits." Roger Sanchez
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Are these trends pushing DJs to the sidelines of modern dance music culture?
If you call some of the world’s most culturally resilient nightclubs “sidelines” then maybe so. Some of the most notorious party spots in the world like Amnesia in Ibiza or Berghain/Panorama Bar in Germany feature the biggest DJs in dance; Carl Cox, Marcel Dettmann, Sven Väth all know the history but they’re the old boys in the game. Despite being attuned to the art of DJing, even these crowning figures in the scene produce music to some degree. And even the younger, new school DJs coming onto the scene in Europe or America don’t often get out of the club or past the opening set of a festival without something original.
Is DJing only a starting point or still a legitimate end game?
Those outside the electronic community have often hated on EDM, saying they prefer “real music” to a DJ spinning other people’s pre-recorded sounds on stage. Of course, those of us who know, love (and respect) the genre just roll our eyes and politely remind them that the fake music they’re hating on has been the fastest growing musical category for the past decade, and has changed the landscape of music publishing and licensing singlehandedly more than any other genre … but that’s another story. We even hear this kind of DJ slandering within the dance community when fans or other artists criticize artists who prefer the art of mixing over the art of producing.
Even though many DJs (certainly not all) have crossed over to producing and sound design, it doesn't mean that's the only avenue to experience a viable career, or fulfillment as an artist (cause isn’t that the point?)
Roi Perez, a Germany-based DJ who recently headlined the Electronic Beats Clubnight and has a residency at Panorama Bar in Germany, said even though he’s dabbled in production, his passion is DJing:
“Deep inside, I maybe sometimes think it would be really amazing if I could create my own music, but I enjoy the craft of playing records so much that I don’t want to do anything else.”
The scene is changing but we’re still dancing
When it comes to the numbers, the world’s top paid electronic artists today are both mixing other artist’s jams and making their own.
While many argue that the climax of dance music is here or passed, it’s more accurate to say that it’s evolving and DJ culture is on the decline in the modern landscape. Some believe that will change again in coming years.
In the end, the chicken wouldn’t be here without the egg and the egg would never exist without the chicken. Modern EDM producers were born out of DJ culture, and a DJ isn’t a DJ without music to mix. Chickens who make sick drops may be more in-demand and expensive these days, but a good mixed omelet will never go out of style.
There’s room for everyone in this game as long as the goal is art and expression. Every influential musical movement reaches this point, when it no longer has the artistically advantageous incubator of the underground, and has to spread its wings in the mainstream, where money and fame rule. Dance music is at that point, but we need not fear for its survival. Because as long as we keep dancing, there will always be music to dance to.