With upwards of 20,000 kids descending on Red Rocks this weekend for Global Dance Fest 2012 -- a music festival made up mostly of DJ's -- it seemed like a good time to put our resident electronic music writer, Britt Chester, in the Split Decision ring with our resident music history writer, Josiah M Hesse, and let them duke it out over the question: Are DJs really musicians? Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts on the issue.
DJs conduct symphonies, just with 99 less members.
I believe it was Romeo Montague who begged the question, "What's in a name?" Well, when that name starts with "DJ" it means that you are a musician. From the early vinyl-flipping pioneers scratching their records against the needle on the gramophone who define the term "disc jockey" to the new-age producers who run Ableton Live with two CDJ-2000 turntables with a Rane Sixty-Two mixer, the evolution of music delivery has only evolved and grown with technology.
With this recent influx in the mainstream popularity of electronic music, the discussion as to whether or not these people are musicians has popped up in the minds of those purists that love music in its "raw" form.
Take, for instance, a recent quote from Joel Zimmerman, also known as Deadmau5, where he slams these major players for only pressing buttons. Sure, there are those offenders out there. We know that. There are also rock bands that show up to their own concert and play the same series of notes in the same order over and over again because their set list never changes. What's the difference? Bands develop formulaic sets that are so practiced and rehearsed that it's essentially the same thing as just coming and pressing the right buttons in the right order.
That's not a slam on DJs, that's a slam on music. The difference between these DJs and those big musicians are the level of respect we give them for what they do. You think it's easy just to go home and create sixty to ninety minutes of flowing music that can keep 10,000 people or more at bay? It's not, and it takes hours of practice for these artists to come deliver their professional choice of notes, beats, samples, and sounds into the right order that can possess that power.
Isn't a song merely a series of notes layered over each other played in syncopation at the right moments? Isn't the first chair violin of a philharmonic orchestra merely five stroked strings playing over the carefully constructed sounds of the other 99 members of the symphony? How does that differ from what a DJ is doing? His symphony just so happens to be in front of him, and nowadays it can be packed onto the hard-drive of a laptop, or a vinyl collection organized in personal chaos in a crate under the DJ booth. It's the same thing.
What matters in a symphony aside from the people actually creating the music? The conductor. When each DJ steps up to the tables, what makes his conducting skills any different? Sure, his baton is actually the pitch, and his ability to know what song will flow seamlessly out of the current one playing, and his symphony evolves with the emotion of the crowd.
For those that hate on button-pushers, well, you aren't up there pressing them. Sure, it's easy to get up somewhere and just "press play" if you are lame enough to do that. It's an option. And yes, to some degree, it could be compared to Milli Vanilli getting busted in a scandal over lip-synching, except they didn't even make all their own music. These new age mega-stars give a bad rap to all the real hard working DJs out there grinding out a flawless set in front of thirty people on a Monday night where they are getting paid in PBR. Guess what? Your favorite athletes get busted for drugs, your favorite celebrities have raging cocaine addictions, and your favorite teacher is actually a pedophile. What excludes DJs from being faultless when you dangle some money in front of their eyes? Don't let these big names deter you! There are purists out there who do respect the music, and they can usually be found playing local gigs with a serious smile, and a serious dedication to their craft.
The big names have made it to the top, not because 20,000 people want to see a close-up of their mixing skills, but because they created great music that feeds a hungry fan base. Just like Van Halen's fans come to hear the exact same songs that Van Halen has been playing for decades.
If you think DJs aren't musicians, then you can't think anyone else is. That is, unless you think some person with no training whatsoever will play a show at Red Rocks and it will blow you socks off, if you are even willing to buy a ticket for that kind of blind trust.
Without accidents, there is no art
Josiah M Hesse
"We all hit play. It's no secret," said Joel Zimmerman -- better known as house DJ deadmau5 -- in a recent tumblr post. "It's not about performance art, it's not about talent either (really it's not)... I think given about one hour of instruction, anyone with minimal knowledge of Ableton and music tech in general could do what I'm doing at a deadmau5 concert."
I couldn't agree more.
While there may be something to say for the creativity that goes into preparing a track when the DJ is alone in his/her hotel room, the act itself certainly doesn't warrant the designation of "musician." Primarily because the medium itself is completely without risk.
When the performance of DJ boils down to basically walking on stage, fists raised to a roaring crowd, and pressing a button (followed by a few more buttons throughout the night), the danger, the gamble of live performance is reduced to zero. And what is performance without risk? It's like the difference between a literature reading and stand-up comedy - one is a mostly predictable, sober affair, while the other is a nerve-racking, interactive gauntlet with the potential for transcendent victory or humiliating failure.
When considering the defining moments in rock history, they invariably evolved out of either a mistake, or at least improvisation: Johnny Greenwood's crunching, lawn-mower guitar on "Creep" was his way of trying to fuck up a song he hated; the Oedipal bridge of The Doors "The End" was improvised on stage when Morrisson had ingested a super-human amount of acid; When Merry Clayton's voice cracks on the line "murder" in the recording of the Rolling Stones "Gimme Shelter" she was humiliated, feeling she'd botched the take, only to find that the "accident" ended up being one of the most astounding moments in recorded music.
This will never happen with a live DJ performance. The DJ's place on a concert stage is comparable to a film director attending the screening of his/her movie premier: interesting, but certainly not integral. The show would go on whether they attended or not.
Listen to any great bop-jazz performer of the mid-twentieth century, and you'll hear a yearning, an exploration in the collection of notes. Most of these musicians worked day-jobs as traditional jazz players, but after hours would gather in bars to improvise, to play around, to feed off the audience and get high on the danger of not knowing what was coming next.
Compare this to deadmau5's description of his live "performance" in his recent tumblr post.
okay, so heres me, in a big silly mousehead.. twiddlin a knob or somethin... okay so heres how it works.... Somewhere in that mess is a computer, running Ableton live... and its spewing out premixed (to a degree) stems of my original productions, and then a SMPTE feed to front of house (so tell the light / video systems) where im at in the performance... so that all the visuals line up nicely and all the light cues are on and stuff. Now, while thats all goin on... theres a good chunk of Midi data spitting out as well to a handful of synths and crap that are / were used in the actual production... which i can tweak *live* and whatnot... but doesnt give me alot of "lookit me im jimi hendrix check out this solo" stuff, because im constrained to work on a set timeline because of the SMPTE. Its a super redundant system, and more importantly its reliable as FUCK! And obviously, ive done the show a couple hundred times easily by now, so the focus over the past few runs with the "cube show" has been more revolved around adding new audio / visual content to keep it current.
In the end, deadmau5 defends himself and his contemporaries by pointing out that his craft reaches its zenith in the studio, not on the stage. Which is a fair point (assuming you overlook the fact that this guy makes $10,000 per "show"). But there's still the inescapable fact that your entire creative endeavor is constructive inside the relative safety of your own private quarters. Every detail is polished, every imperfection erased.
In that respect, your really no better than a journalist.
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