There is Now an App for Crate-Digging, Thanks to DJ/Producer Mark Slee

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Like most DJs and producers, "I have a huge list of artists and labels that I follow, and I try to keep up with all of the new releases that they are putting out," says Mark Slee (who'll play Denver this coming Saturday, March 21, at the Sidewinder Tavern, courtesy of the Blend; tickets are available online). "Beatport has a feature called 'My Beatport' that does this; it lets you manage your list of artists and labels."

But there was still a problem: "The issue for me has been that my list has just gotten longer and longer," notes Slee. "I'm constantly finding new artists and labels, plus there's more music than ever coming out nowadays. From everything I follow, on an average week there may literally be more than 1,000 tracks that have come out. So I found myself running into this issue where going through all this music turns into this overwhelming task."

Although he could "just accept that I can't check everything," Slee admits that "I tend to be a bit OCD about music; part of me really wants to preview every track. Even if my hit rate is low and there's a lot of noise to filter through, it's all about that mental reward you get when you find a track that really does it for you. Which I think is a common thing for a lot of DJs — this impulse toward digging and being able to justify spending so much time searching. It really can be exhausting when you're not finding what you're looking for, but the payoff keeps us coming back. Man, it sort of sounds like an addiction, phrased that way. Maybe it is."

So Slee started thinking seriously about putting his digital development skills — he works as a programmer when he's not playing music — where his thoughts were leading and come up with a solution to the time-suck. "I think I had started to realize, especially over the last six months or so, that if my search techniques just continue to get more and more overwhelming, eventually there will be a risk that it threatens my actual enjoyment of the whole process," he says. "Which would be the worst possible outcome — what is the point of doing music in a way that I'm not excited about? Plus, I'm sure my mixes would get worse if I was bringing stress into it. I realized it was up to me to change the way I was relating to finding music."

And, he notes, he likes building tools: "It's obviously pretty different from music — much more structured, logical and intellectual — but designing a tool is absolutely a creative process," he says. "I probably view that as an art form in its own right, or a kind of craft. I can definitely see parallels between how picky I get when I'm thinking about exactly how something should work vs. how picky I am about music, the sounds I like, how a particular transition should be. I don't think people typically think about engineering as a place where you express your taste. Being a DJ is much more obviously about that. But I definitely experience similarities between the two."

Beatport offers an API (application programming interface) for developers, and Slee had considered using it to create his own app, but when he started thinking about spending some serious time on the app (and found old designs on his hard drive), he decided to go for it. "My friend Jason Wohlstadter runs Proton Radio, which is where I do my monthly radio show," explains Slee, "and we were just catching up grabbing lunch one day, and I told him about this project I was starting. It was like mutual light bulbs going off. He was like, 'Oh, man, we've been wanting to do the exact same thing.' He comes at it from a different angle, not so much as a DJ but as a label manager and curator, which puts him on the other side of the that volume equation — with so much music out there competing for attention, how can he organize the music from his labels and artists to help the right people find it?"

Slee named the app "Crates" and describes the user experience as similar to looking through Beatport's catalog. "The key changes are with the groupings of artists and labels," he explains. "The core idea is that instead of just having one big list, users can curate and share many different 'crates,' which is a metaphor for the record crates everyone used in the vinyl days. Except in this app, you can put anything into a 'crate.' Not just tracks, but also artists and labels. And then the app works its magic and will produce a feed of tracks for you with everything relating to that content."

He says he uses the app to separate artists and labels by priority — perhaps based on an upcoming gig, for example. "There are also some key features for power users," he says. "One issue DJs struggle with is that a lot of tracks are getting re-released on compilation labels; a top track might get put out four or five times these days, and it ends up coming across your plate over and over. Crates detects these and filters them out, and it keeps track of which tracks you have already previewed. When you're a DJ trying to go through thousands of tracks, it's impossible to remember everything you've checked out, and small tweaks like this can end up being huge time-savers."

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