Anyone Can Learn To DJ, But The Art Form Isn’t Dead

There was a high-profile article published in The Economist recently about DJing. The central theme: it’s getting easier to DJ, and as a result, the art form might be dying. We’re not convinced that DJing is on its last gasp, so in today’s article, DJTT contributor Steven Maude analyzes and refutes some of the claims made.

Yes, Anyone Can DJ. Standing Out Is Another Question.

The Economist is not where you’d expect commentary on the state of DJing in 2016. But last month they posted an article asking: “Now that anyone can be a DJ, is the art form dead?

Spoiler: the answer errs on the side of “no” which nicely fits with Betteridge’s humorous law of headlines (in short, if an article ends in a question mark, the answer is no).

When mainstream publications examining DJing, it’s worth noting what they get right and wrong. The article — and it’s a well-written one for a general audience — spots many features of today’s DJing, but more than once manages to reach the wrong conclusions. In this article we take a look at why and how The Economist fails to see the whole picture.

Let’s take look why.

DJ Technology Changes

Is software-based track analysis killing DJing?
Is software-based track analysis killing DJing?

The Economist’s take is that the advent of CDJs — and, by implication, software — has removed much of the technical competency required. Tools like beat and key detection, it’s claimed:

“have made it easy for those with limited talent to sound professional.”

Beatmatching has long been thought of as a foundation of DJing. One theory about why it took so long for laptops and CDJs to replace trusty 1200s is that this view was deeply entrenched among audience and performers alike. If no-one’s beatmatching, what’s the DJ being paid for?

Anyone who’s tried DJing will quickly find that this isn’t the case. Sync and key matching aren’t going to instantly transform you into a festival headliner.

These technologies are good, but not perfect. Here at DJTT we’ve found that key matching software is getting there, while not completely reliable. Likewise, relying on beat sync may well lead you astray when you least expect it. Neither of these “automated” tools are a bulletproof replacement for well-trained ears.

Skills That Technology Can’t (Yet) Accommodate:

Beat and key matching algorithms, as well as other digital features like cue points and waveform views, have removed some of the work from DJing. That’s not to say that DJing is simple. Plenty of technical aspects haven’t been eliminated:

Technology Has Changed The Scope of DJing:

It’s important to recognize that technology has freed DJs from busy work, but also augmented the range of tools available, whether that’s effects, loops, sometimes even visuals too. These additions, if used with discretion, can help elevate what a DJ does.

That said, The Economist article rightly points out that DJing is more than just technology or technical skills. Being able to read the crowd and having a great music selection are critical too.

Democratizing Music

crate-digging-21st-century

Another big shift is how DJs build their music selections and curate their collection. The Economist post concludes that the days of DJs being able to make unusual finds are over.:

“Today, virtually every dance record is available to download through specialist dance-music sites such as Beatport.”

Digital stores like Beatport and tools like Shazam do make it easier to build up a collection of what you’ve heard. In reality, this is only good for widely released, current dance records – and doesn’t cover the entire picture.

Older Releases Lost To Time:

A whole world of older music isn’t available digitally, at least legally. Particularly underground dance music, where the web presence of once-dominating labels is now reduced to a simple Discogs page and users lamenting their passing.

Who has the rights to that music? Where are the producers, the label owners and the master tapes or digital files? If Beatport is to dance music as Steam is to PC gaming, where’s the music equivalent of GOG.com to dig and digitize the lost classics? That music might still be out there, but either preserved as YouTube rips or listed for sale at wallet-worrying prices.

Self-Published Tracks

Another big shift is how easy it is to record music and to self-publish. Make a track, and share it with the world in a few seconds once it’s done. There’s a huge amount of unsigned music out there. Because of this, it’s always possible to discover gold on Bandcamp or SoundCloud that almost everyone else has passed by.

Taken together, all this means there’s a massive music catalogue — past and present — out there to sift through. DJs might be digging with clicks and not in crates — but this labour isn’t disappearing soon.

Making A Name For Your DJ Self

Selling your mixtapes on the street like Donald Glover isn't the most legit way to get yourself heard. (Image Credit: College Humor / Derrik Comedy)
Selling your mixtapes on the street like Donald Glover – not how you’ll become a famous DJ. (Image Credit: College Humor / Derrik Comedy)

The article is quite right in citing production as being one important route for DJs to establishing themselves. I’d struggle to name more than a few well-known DJs who don’t produce. Even of those, they’re usually hosting radio shows or running labels instead.

Any of today’s aspiring DJs may well also have to act as their own social media manager, trying to develop a big enough following that they can prove they can pull in an audience.

This blend of skills — DJ as crowd-pleasing performer and as marketer and promoter — isn’t something you may have needed years ago, when you might have been one of a few DJs in town.

What’s Wrong With DJing Being Accessible?

Lil Jon's son, pictured, put out a mixtape at age 12.
Lil Jon’s son, Young Slade (pictured), put out a mixtape at age 12. (Photo credit: liljonyeahh.com)

Making DJing more accessible by removing the initial barriers can only be a positive. More people can be actively involved with the culture and, in return, this can imbue them with a newfound respect for the DJs who they admire, when they discover that becoming a competent DJ is trickier than they thought.

A wider involvement also pushes the bar higher for people to distinguish themselves. Not so great for DJs comfortably resting on their laurels, but fantastic for those of us who want to see where this art can go next.

The Future Of DJing

futureofdjing

Finally, the Economist post just stops dead at discussing what’s happening today, not tomorrow. We’re now at a time where drastic changes in DJ technology are happening slowly. There are always interesting new controllers always being designed, but they’re only iterations on what’s already out there. Nothing yet has really seen the entire DJ community collectively selling their existing kit and moving on.

That’s not that surprising. Two turntables and a mixer served many DJs well for a good couple of decades. Are we resigned to only small incremental improvements?

Maybe not. With the growth of powerful technology companies with extensive music interests (Spotify, Soundcloud, Google, Apple, Amazon), innovation might even come from outside the traditional players in the DJ hardware and software market. Could your next best track selection come from an artificial intelligence from one of these companies?

DJs critical of today’s situation may have more to complain about in the future. The rest of us will look forward to how those tools get used.

Header photo credit: Monster Kids on YouTube.

Do you think the art form of DJing is too accessible? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

  • schlommo

    I always find it strange to ask “does beatmatching make you a DJ”? Think of the same question in another context: “does knowing how to play guitar make you a guitarist”? or “does knowing hot to write make you a writer”? Depending on your definition or understanding of “DJ”, “guitarist” and “writer” you will answer with NO or YES… choose yours 🙂
    I think, many people won’t say that being able to write makes you automatically a good writer, journalist or novelist. becuase we all know that it takes much more to become such a person than just “sticking characters together that make a word”. But asking the same question again and again with the DJs: what does this tell us about the art of DJing? Is it an underrated art form? Or is it, becuase the art form only really comes to life in a performative context of a club- or festival-gig?And it always is something fluid and ephemeral? What are your “hard facts” or “scientific parameters” to prove, that DJ XY “really rocked the shit out the crowd”??? I mean, literaturer theory has some hundreds or more years of scientific background in the academic world. Popular music theory now has around 40 years, and what about serios academic work on the “performative art of the DJ”?
    I am not trying to pose academic or theoretical work over the stories, knowledge, experiences and opinions of thousands of DJs, fans and other people involved. I’m just saying, that there is hardly any theory or model out there which would allow to understand why certain DJs rock the crowd and others don’t. Or they do on certain events, and other events the same DJ fails to do so… At least, other fields like literature theory do have some possibilities to explain – altough, of course, they also cannot explain fully the “magic” of a great novel. And that’s great!

    just sticking with the same old “only those who can beatmatch can call themselves DJ” does not get the essence of the art. In my opinion, this is a similar arrogant argument like saying “playing a synthesizer does not make you a musician” or similar.
    like I said: just sticking characters together doesn’t make you a novelist.

    cheers,
    schlommo

  • Tony Mitchell

    Anyone can learn to be a DJ? What kind of DJ? I know folks that will never be able to perform scratches no matter how many times they practiced. There are different kind of DJ’s. But now were lumping all DJ types together. Which can lead to one type of DJ, who doesn’t know how to do another style of D]’ing, saying that the other style of DJ’ing is dead. It all about EGO and selfishness. There are (for lack of a better term) different genres of DJ’s.

  • Junglist1981

    Selection is everything, it’s the root of what makes DJing an art. You can have all the skills in the world but without great selection you’re nothing.

    We’re a long way from computer algorithms that can read a room or can truely understand the depths of what makes a certian tune perfect for a certian moment, so until then the art lives on and the greatest djs will always be the best selectors.

  • gigglekey

    Even when it comes to illegal downloads, artists peak and fade. I can still find a lot of what Kool Keith made for instance, but not all of it. Even Automator is hard to find now. Will anyone be sharing Angel Haze in 5 years? Probably not. Jean Grae has all but been swallowed by the memory hole, and I never thought that would happen.

  • Matthew DjLyte Rapoza

    if you use a controller your not a DJ

    • You contribution to this debate is as lazy as your premise.

  • Martullia

    Even without any Deejaying skill there are people that only have social
    skills calling themselves a DJ. Most important thing in Deejaying now is
    to have connections and friends to help you forward. You don’t get in
    the DJ booth without them, even if you have mastered all the other
    things. But i see it often the order way around, people that can’t DJ
    but have a lot of friends.

  • Pingback: DJing Removes The Barriers | MMP BLog()

  • Dubby Labby

    People still rides on horses sometimes but it was once upon a time where horses were the “standard” way of transport. And these, my little kids, were the good times for sure!

  • darsh

    I think the real drive for this never ending tirade of a “DJ” definition stems from the hate and ridicule of “DJ’s” like Paris Hilton , Kim Kardashian and that absurd DEAF “Frankie Wilde” name stealing “DJ” from its all gone Pete Tong movie who did commercials for touchscreen laptops. They all had 5 figure deals at some point, so good for them , they all had a marketing angle / pull and they sold it . At least they did not just press play on a pre recorded set ..and wave to the crowd while striking Jesus poses from time to time .
    Moreover from a personal perspective , as a guy who has been mixing and spinning on Vynil since 1997, Never taking myself seriously as professional only as a bedroom hobby because I wanted to mix my own compilations. I’m all for new tech and kits . My only gripe with that is….does it have to look and feel like a CHILD’S TOY ? With flimsy plastic builds and tacky RGB lights…. Its hard to take anybody with such toys in a 20$ admission night club seriously ..no matter how well one can bring it . Finally in today’s digital world ..it is essential to be more like a producer / remixer and live performer with finger drumming or sequencers / EFX if you want to be a pro and put your name out there ..software can make that easier than ever before ..and thats a good thing because you can be more creative with more time between mixes

    • Dubby Labby

      Pioneer ToRaiz is a toy? It fits in your description…

  • Mauri Moore

    Nice article !!

  • Mauri Moore

    “If no-one’s beatmatching, what’s the DJ being paid for?”

    Who said that don’t know anything about to be a dj . Beatmatching is the most easiest and the first thing we learn when we start . Djs are getting paid because of the “music selection” the most … how to mix , when ? to read the crowd . SYNC ? use it or not , it’s on you . I use it , 32 years as dj , started with belt drive tt´s , so …. Even a small children can learn how to beatmatch .. maybe in 10 days or even less .

    “everybody can be a dj ” , ha ha ha , really ? To mix 2 songs together don’t convert u in a dj . A real dj is the one who pay the bills playing music , with or without sync . If you don’t earn money … then u have a nice hobby but you can’t call yourself DJ .

    • dirty steve

      not quite. i see plenty of wack ass dj’s being paid who have 0 skill. trainwrecking the whole set, bad selection. they get paid because of who they know. that’s it. wedding dj’s get paid and all they do is A-B with top 40 songs with little beatmatching. are they more of a “real dj” than the dude who is playing an underground techno party for free and ripping the place up? nope.

      • Wack DJ’s will seemingly always exist because they are in it for the wrong reasons.

        I totally agree about Wedding DJ’s that’s why I don’t do it anymore, you are basically a jukebox that talks on the mic a few times during the event, no music discovery.

        Clubs have changed because club goers have changed. Beat matching has become less critical but not disappeared. Solid beat matching is still appreciated and noticed when a train wreck happens…

        Every non DJ has a bad DJ horror story, which keeps us employed because people try to low cost option FIRST and then actually pay properly for a job to be done right.

    • Bullshit I’m afraid. Earning money DJing does not make you a DJ.

      And I earn money DJing.

      • Mauri Moore

        “Earning money DJing does not make you a DJ.”

        I agree … but if don’t earn money with Djing you have a nice hobbie

        Also : to know how to mix doesn’t make you a dj.

        • Andy can mix, but does it make your ears bleed or does it sound like they are meant for each other? That’s what I believe you are trying to say.

    • Martullia

      Even without any Deejaying skill there are people that only have social skills calling themselves a DJ. Most important thing in Deejaying now is to have connections and friends to help you forward. You don’t get in the DJ booth without them, even if you have mastered all the other things. But i see it often the order way around, people that can’t DJ but have a lot of friends.

  • David Brown

    The people who say “DJing is dead” I find nine times out of ten are either not actually DJs or they are looking at the idea of DJing portrayed by Dmitri Vegas and Like Mike as opposed to Ritchie Hawtin or Crypsis. DJing is only as dead as we- the DJs- decide to allow it to be. It’s up to us to show the world there is more to our art form than pressing play on a sync’d deck. Anyone can jump on a CDJ these days and smack together two tracks with a perfect beatmatch transition. Not nearly as many can create a set that is interesting, artistic, and pleases the crowd. Those criteria, specifically the last one, decide whether or not you are actually a good DJ. In any live situation, no amount of excellent mixing will fix a floor empty due to bad track selection and dull, generically energetic vibe. If you can create an excellent vibe and can consistently play the right track at the right time, you can get away with less-than-good technique (not trainwrecking, but you know what I mean). Just my two cents.

  • Oliver Balint

    Best part of the article right here –> “A wider involvement also pushes the bar higher for people to distinguish themselves. Not so great for DJs comfortably resting on their laurels, but fantastic for those of us who want to see where this art can go next.”

    • DontCryCunTROLLers

      The CunTroller-Wannabe “musicians”/”DJs” still have to prove a lot IMO. I see such an attitude rather in the Hip-Hop-DJ-ing area (the “not-resting-on-their-laurels” bit). Or did Ean actually participate in that freestyle-jam-session with Craze or did he shy away?

      • Selina Style

        4/10 troll, would not read again.

  • Oddie O’Phyle

    That article from The Economist seems to be assuming that all DJ’s these days use a sync function, a bit narrow sighted in my opinion. I can’t stand using the sync function, I get really, really, really bored while playing a set… it puts the crowd off when you don’t show an amount of energy. If you can’t get into your set, you can’t expect a crowd to get into either. To be honest, I got my kid a pair of CDJ 350’s to learn beat matching before using a piece of hardware with a sync function… it’s best to start with the basics.

    • David Brown

      I agree- though I also think that if you can keep busy technically while using sync, it doesn’t matter as much. Beat matching is an essential skill that many overlook, however there are a lot of things you can do that add a lot of spice if you don’t need to beatmatch. Now that Serato is supporting Ableton Link, there’s so much more you can do with it, for instance. Right now I’m playing Psytrance in ableton, sequencing percussion on top with my maschine and layering extra samples and such with a launchpad. One way to stand out is to use your own sounds (not too much) on top of the tracks in your set to help develop a more instantly recognizable style that can carry more easily between genres.

      Still. Props for teaching your kids the basics first- I’m 19 and most of my DJing peers who are not at least seven years or so older than I am sync throughout their sets because it’s easy and couldn’t beatmatch if they had to. Not all, just most. It still makes me feel like the odd man out for having respect for what is probably THE most BASIC technical skill every DJ should have.

    • SweetGwendoline

      What do you personally mean by beatmatching?
      Really doing it only by ear?
      I ask because I have recently talked to a few people who were raving about how important beatmatching is and how much skill you need for it (and how lame DJs with laptops are) and then if you watch them play all they do is to ‘dial in the right bpm on the CDJ’ and press play in the right moment.

      I think serato did a very good job in the way they assist you with beatmatching. It feels very natural and total fun. On Traktor I would rather push sync and go deep with beatjumps, loops and fx.

      • Beet Salad

        Haha…so true regarding “beat matching” on CDJ(s). Visual aids (screens) + plus a tweak of the jog wheel and pitch control hardly qualify as having mastered the skill. To me, CDJ(s) are just very expensive large controllers anyway. I enjoy playing on them, but I’ve never seen a fundamental difference using them versus X1 controllers. I’m “classically trained” (LOL) on turntables/vinyl, but love using Traktor and all the features you mentioned…including sync. Once you’ve got “old school” beat matching down (no, you don’t have to learn this on actual turntables w/vinyl), I’m all for using the sync function. Besides, if I’m a patron of a bar, club, or even a festival, I could give a rat’s ass if the sync function is being implemented. How did the mix sound? Is your crowd engaged? Is the track selection appropriate? On a side note, in my opinion sloppy “sync” mixes where the DJ hasn’t taken the time to shore up beat grids sound like a train wreck in comparison to a vinyl DJ’s track occasionally drifting off beat. With sync, the danger of an inadvertent button push has the potential to bring the dance floor to a stop. Bottom line, learn and strive to master the basic techniques but don’t forget what really matters…the music itself. I also agree with your assesment of Serato

      • Oddie O’Phyle

        A few years ago my kid expressed an interest in vinyl. The CDJ’s I grabbed for my 17yr old are the 350’s, very basic. No sync, no wave form. I want her to start by ear first, when this has been mastered I’ll end up giving her my Rekordbox DJ license. This way she isn’t as reliant on a waveform and will be able to pick up vinyl a bit easier. Right now she is just dumping trax onto usb stick without Rekordbox prepping first, when she’s mastered that we’ll talk software.

        It’s a little hard to “cheat” when you learn on a pair of these…
        http://cdn.pioneerdj.com/-/media/pioneerdj/images/products/player/cdj-350/white/cdj-350-w-main.jpg

        • Beet Salad

          I think that’s great! If she continues DJing as a hobby or even a career, she’ll have a huge leg up with the skill set to be versatile on any type of kit format. My first DJing experience (around 2000) only afforded me two crappy American DJ CD players that actually had pretty accurate pitch controls. However, when I was finally able to afford my Technics (bought one at a time mind you over of the course of a year), mixing on vinyl was actually easier than I thought it would be https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/22ac3235dd645ad4d3408a7da92b774b4348979d3c71dae7d694d9e96416d8a0.jpg .

  • Beet Salad

    Although the root technique of DJing has traditionally involved two turntables and a mixer, today’s added technology(s) have enabled DJ’s to creatively personalize tracks/mixes which blurs the line between simply mixing and live performance. The live performance aspect of it is anything but simple and automated (i.e. drum machines, samplers, remix decks, etc…pick your poison). Solid confident DJ’s who have the root techniques mastered should worry less about how technology gives the illusion that anyone can DJ, and spend more time focused on how they’re going to set themselves apart from the crowd by creating their own unique sound.

    • Beet Salad

      Great article by the way…

    • dirty steve

      perfectly said.