Drawing on ethnographic research I conducted into the Sydney commercial house music scene between 2002 and 2007, this article explores some of the issues that have arisen in recent years in regard to the changes in technology that have brought about shifts not only in the way DJs play music while performing, but also in the way these DJs source and obtain this music from around the world. The ideas, opinions and interpretations of a selection of local DJs and other music industry practitioners who work within the Sydney electronic dance music scene are central to this analysis of one aspect of DJ culture within the city. Incorporated within this discussion of technology and formats is an assessment by DJs of the likelihood and desirability of a complete move away from vinyl, and towards the use of digital music files.
Despite the prevalence of machines such as samplers and drum machines within dance music (or rather the prevalence of their sounds, for the machines themselves are no longer in production, dance music producers today using software versions instead (Osborne, 1999: 254)), it is the turntable that has become the central ‘tool’ of the DJ and that has achieved a wide degree of cultural recognition, in much the same way as the electric guitar is perceived as being integral to rock music culture. Theberge explains how, ‘if there is any instrument that has achieved both the musical and the iconic status of the guitar in dance music, it is the turntable’ (2001: 15). The turntable of choice for most, if not all, DJs is the Technics SL-1200, which, as Osborne notes, has achieved seminal status within dance culture, ‘largely because of the unfussy functionalism of its design’ (1999: 289). There are other turntables on the market, but the Technics model (and variations on it) has achieved such dominance that it is widely regarded as the ‘industry standard’.
Yet just as the music itself is continually evolving and changing, the technology that DJs use to perform their job is also undergoing a degree of change, and despite this dominance of the turntable, and the level of authenticity that is ascribed to its use, DJs in recent years have begun to embrace other platforms on which to play their music. In itself, this is an issue that generates impassioned and varied responses, making it an ideal topic for discussion.
The future of DJing and the continued relevance of vinyl
Paralleling, and indeed amplifying, the ‘ephemeral nature’ of dance culture (Brewster and Broughton, 2000: 432), the continuous progression and development of technology shapes and defines the dance scene, with new technologies affecting and informing the production of music and the practice of the DJ. In this respect, it is difficult to predict the future of DJing, although when questioned as to their opinions on this subject, those DJs interviewed put forward a variety of possible directions for the profession, all rooted in technological progression. One common theme seemed to be the eventual demise of vinyl.
It would appear that the continual advancement of technology will lead to a reduction in the amount of DJs who use vinyl, which could eventually mean that the dance music record store, in its present form, will cease to exist. As owner of the Sydney record store Spank Records, as well as being an active DJ within the local scene, Mark Murphy is concerned with the current technological developments that are providing consumers with different sources for obtaining music, and while he acknowledges the changes that are occurring, he doubts whether vinyl will ever disappear completely:
I don’t download anything, and I get all my music from Spank Records. Being a co-owner of a record store, [the future of DJing and vinyl] is something you have to think about, because you are in the business of selling vinyl. We only sell vinyl and hardware, we don’t sell CDs. You’ve really got to look at, and keep an eye on, where dance music is going, or if you don’t you’ll just get swallowed up. We were one of the first dance music stores in Sydney to have an online store… and a weekly newsletter that goes out with sound samples… I think we are one of the most progressive, as in thinking, dance stores in Sydney. But vinyl in the future… who knows? People were saying vinyl is dead ten years ago, and it is still very strong, but if I knew what was going to happen, I’d be a millionaire. People have got to look at downloading, the way people are mixing, on what format… you’d be stupid not to. (Interview, 2005)
Despite the potential negative impact of the Internet on the continued existence of record stores, there are other factors that could help to sustain this existence. While he acknowledges the central role that new technology, such as the Internet, has in the methods he uses to source music, Sydney DJ Alan Thompson (who, prior to moving to Australia in 2004, lived and worked in the UK) explains how the record store is still central to dance culture, not only in a sense of providing music to consumers, but also as providing a site for social interaction:
From a DJ’s point of view, one of the parts of my job that I absolutely love is going to a record shop and listening to music, and buying the music. So I certainly won’t stop buying it, and I don’t think a lot of other DJs will. Going record shopping on a Thursday or a Friday can be a social thing. You’ll see other DJs there… well not so much in Sydney, but in London for instance, you’d bump into producers and they would pass on their new tune, so it’s much more of a social gathering for DJs as well. It’s a meeting point. We only get to see each other on a very rare occasion that we might be playing at the same club, whereas on a Friday afternoon at Black Market in London, you can guarantee that most of the top DJs in London will be in there at some point in the day. (Interview, 2005)
Yet perhaps the perception of the record store as central to the development of dance scenes is now something of an anachronism, and with the numerous advantages provided by the Internet, in regard to sourcing and purchasing music, it seems largely idealistic to suggest that people will continue to use stores because of the degree of social interaction that they generate. If a DJ can obtain music earlier, cheaper and quicker by using the Internet, then they are most likely to make use of their local record store far less frequently, if at all. Highlighting how the continued existence of physical, ‘bricks and mortar’ record stores is by no means guaranteed, Sydney DJ Mark Alsop explains how he is increasingly using the Internet as the source from which he buys most of his music, and thus as a result, he is making less use of local record stores:
Most of my vinyl comes from London, and I do an order per week of that… [I order the vinyl] over the Internet… I went to a record shop, in Sydney, a month ago, for the first time in five months, and I used to go in at least once a week. Now, I sit at home every single day and listen to all the new releases [on the Internet], put it aside and buy it at the end of the week. Not good for local business is it? (Interview, 2005)
Importing dance culture
As a recurrent theme in the existing literature on Australian dance music culture (see Chan, 1999; Gibson and Pagan, 2000; Luckman, 2001 & 2002; Murphie and Scheer, 1992), the issue of dance music as something ‘imported’ and ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere has informed a significant amount of discussion concerning the origins and roots of club culture in Australia, something Brookman acknowledges when he describes how much of what has been written on dance culture in Sydney ‘takes the perspective that the culture is merely the product of a displaced movement, namely that found in Europe and the United States’ (2001: 27), while Luckman notes how, ‘contemporary dance music culture in Australia has erupted out of the meeting of… international influences and sounds’ (2002: 11).
The vinyl that is imported into Sydney comes largely from America and Britain, Murphie and Scheer’s observation that ‘the majority of dance music available to DJs is imported’ (1992: 182) remaining valid today. Yet this does not dictate that participants in the Sydney scene have a passive role as followers of trends and developments abroad, despite the fact that the ‘global distribution of independent 12-inch dance singles is haphazard, unpredictable and slow’ (Connell and Gibson, 2003: 268), and thus sometimes means that the ‘latest’ imports are tracks that originated in the UK or America several months earlier, disrupting any sense of musical stability and similarity existing across internationally disparate scenes, Straw highlighting how, in dance culture, ‘a comfortable, stable international diversity may rarely be observed’ (1991: 381). It is rather the case that its participants acknowledge the centrality of these two geographical locations to the creation and continued existence of dance culture, and therefore position the music that comes out of them as of significant cultural value. Dance music is not dismissed or rejected for not being local in origin, but rather it is accepted simply as a representation of ‘dance culture’ as a complete whole. Concerns of ‘localism’ and ‘internationalism’ may make themselves evident in media discourse around the scene, but for the DJs and the clubbers, such concerns are an irrelevance during the ritual of the ‘night out’, for as Gibson and Pagan outline, while the music played in Sydney’s clubs may be from England, America or Germany, ‘there is a sense in which participants do not identify the music with an ‘authentic’ origin’ (2000: 11). Obviously, the commercial availability, and indeed unavailability, of this music will impact upon the shape of the local scene, for as Straw highlights:
In any given cultural space, the provenance of punk singles, price of American alternative rock CDs, availability of 12-inch vinyl dance singles and access to information surrounding new musical commodities will shape the contours of regional/national musical cultures. Objects arrive at destinations bearing meanings which the distance of their travel and the manner of their acquisition have inscribed upon them. (2002: 165)
In this sense, it can be argued that the Sydney dance music scene is shaped and defined, in part, by the music that is imported into the city from abroad, and thus the decisions of record store owners and DJs in selecting this music have a direct impact upon the music that participants in the scene are exposed to. Straw seems to suggest that the very nature of these records as imported commodities directly affects the way in which these participants accept, understand and interpret them, and yet such a suggestion is undermined by the apparent lack of concern for the geographical origins of most dance music. While DJs and clubbers may be aware of these origins, they do not, on the whole, base their value judgements regarding the music on them. As such, the central tenets and ideologies of dance culture do not reside in notions of tensions between local product and imported product, but rather in unique and specifically local interpretations and articulations of a wider global dance culture.
The positioning of local dance culture as imported and borrowed has the rather negative effect of portraying the developments in the dance scene in Sydney as lacking in originality, and suggests that those involved in the scene do nothing more than look to other dance music cultures for ideas, while also implying that the scene is temporally ‘behind’, in the sense that music that originates in the UK or US is, by the time it is imported into Australia on vinyl through ‘international networks of distribution’ (Gibson, 2002: 8), already a few months old, so that ‘everything seems to happen here months later’ (Park and Northwood, 1996: 2). Connell and Gibson suggest that in dance culture, there is a significant ‘‘time-lag’ experienced between a release in one scene and its distribution to others across continents’ (2003: 268), which creates an unbalanced and fractured international dance culture, with different scenes being at different phases in their development musically and stylistically, Straw highlighting how, ‘coexisting regional and local styles within dance music are almost always at different stages within their cycles of rising and declining influence’ (1991: 381). Yet as Mark Murphy explains, the perception of the Australian dance scene as being ‘behind’ is somewhat unsupportable, given the rapid facilities and channels that now exist for the worldwide distribution of music:
You can get everything so easily now when it comes to dance music. It’s so readily available, whether it is downloading or whether it is getting vinyl. All the dance stores get exactly the same stock, really… We are not that far behind. I’ve had a few customers come into our shop, and they’ve just been over to the UK, and what they’ve found, when they’ve come back the next week, is that we have everything that the UK has. (Interview, 2005)
It is in this sense that dance culture is becoming more ‘international’, with geographically disparate scenes being closer in their stages of musical development than ever before. With this shorter timeframe for accessing and obtaining music, it would seem Straw’s suggestion that, ‘the availability of vinyl has become one of the important ways in which national musical cultures remain differentiated’ (2002: 175), is becoming less applicable for dance culture. As DJs rely less on the physical commodity of vinyl, and make increasing use of digital media, the international interconnectedness of dance culture will become even more developed. Sydney DJ and electronic music performer Seb Chan explains how certain practices intrinsic to DJ culture and the use of vinyl are being carried over into the use of digital forms, such as the notion of the ‘dubplate’ (a ‘one-off’, initial acetate pressing of a track), in the process breaking down the stylistic boundaries and markers that used to divide scenes in different geographical locations:
I know lots and lots of DJs who are getting MP3 dubplates, effectively, via peer-to-peer, officially from artists, directly to play out at parties. It is totally bypassing borders, as such, because it is possible now. So it is hard to say now that these scenes have boundaries. They don’t have national borders nowadays, but they certainly did before the ability to transmit music became so easy. (Interview, 2005)
This idea of a ‘global network’ of dance scenes is reinforced by the increasing use of the Internet, as opposed to the more traditional form of the retail record store, as the source from which most DJs purchase their music, as Sydney DJ Paul Goodyear highlights:
I used to always buy records from the local Sydney shops, then I started buying records from places like Perfect Beat in L.A. and places in New York, and I get them sent over… In the last couple of weeks I’ve just started downloading stuff from websites such as beatport.com, where you pay US$1.49 and you’re able to access [a particular] track. This site [features] a lot of new producers who put their music up on the site, and it won’t be released for probably a couple of months. So for less than two Australian dollars per track, you’ve got something that’s way ahead of release, the quality is fantastic, and it’s much cheaper than spending twenty bucks on a piece of vinyl. (Interview, 2005)
Changes in technology have thus brought about reconfigurations in the sources DJs purchase their music from, with several DJs relying less on the physical record store and more on Internet-based suppliers of music, these suppliers being either companies that ship physical product to the DJ, or websites that provide music in the form of downloads, and as technology improves, so does the sound quality of downloaded music.
Creating music, not just playing music
While many DJs still use vinyl within their sets, there is an increasing move towards the use of CDs, often for reasons of practicality. On a handful of CDs, a DJ can take to a club a lot more tracks than a box full of vinyl will allow for. Furthermore, the development of computer software now allows DJs to mix directly from their laptop computers, thus negating the need for any kind of tangible sound-carrying format. In turn, all of this generates new understandings and interpretations of DJ practice, in the sense that different operational skills are required. This progression of technology could also, as Sydney DJ Goodwill suggests, both effect and affect an increasing diversification of sub-genres and clubbing crowds within the dance scene, through the way that,
… technology allows you to do something so different now. You used to be able to just get up and play a record, and it would go for seven minutes, and there’s not much you could do with it. But now with a CD player I can loop sections of it, and add bits to it before I go out, and I can get rid of the breakdown if I don’t like it. As technology becomes more palatable and it all goes towards laptops that you’ve already put the music into, you’re going to be able to have so much influence on the music you’re playing, so I think that the genres will become more stylised in that way. (Interview, 2004)
In the future, it would seem that DJs will rely less on vinyl, and make greater use of CDs and computers to perform their sets. Many DJs in the Sydney dance scene admit that they are making increasing use of CDs during their sets, rejecting vinyl in favour of a digital format that has a far greater degree of convenience. Goodwill estimates that ninety-five percent of his set is played from CDs, and explains how after he has been record shopping, he will go straight home and record all the tracks onto his computer, edit them, and then ‘burn’ them onto CD for his sets, so that now, he takes ‘about ten pieces of vinyl to a gig’ (ibid.). In addition, he states:
I still buy records… I never stop doing that… I’ll just put a track onto CD, do edits of it, and master it a bit better, and add acapellas and stuff to it. (ibid.)
In this example, it is clear how the development of technology has enhanced the work of the DJ, so that tracks can be altered and reshaped in order to fit the specific requirements of the DJ. Vocals can be added, and tracks can be extended or shortened, allowing the DJ to have more control over the actual ‘sound’ of their set, which increases the extent to which they can impose their own personal, unique ‘musical’ identity upon it. DJs will often, having purchased a particular track, record it on to their computer, and re-edit and re-shape it to their liking, perhaps taking out vocal lines or adding drum patterns. This allows the DJ to make personal mixes or edits of tracks, stripping out parts of the track that they may not like or that may not be appropriate for their set, while also allowing the DJ to indulge in a certain degree of artistic expression. This leads on to the issue of developments in technology changing the role of the DJ.
DJs as ‘performers’
The focus in dance culture on the DJ has allowed some DJs to project an element of their own personality through their work by approaching their sets as a ‘performance’, so that there are now contrasts between DJs whose only movement during the entire duration of their set will involve mixing records and adjusting their headphones, and DJs who are more active, in that they will often dance, move to their music, and interact with the crowd through physical movement and gestures. Goodwill admits that when he is DJing, it is not a performance, and he distinguishes between DJs like himself and those DJs that ‘exude a charisma’, and that consequently,
… have a presence behind the turntables… I definitely don’t think I have that, and it’s something I would like to be able to do a bit more… there are those sorts of people that have a certain charisma, and I definitely don’t have that… I think that is a large part of DJing. (ibid.)
Sydney DJ Alex Taylor also acknowledges how, while he does not really engage in an obvious sense of performance as a DJ himself, there are DJs who will project their extrovert personalities through their work and come across as performers themselves, although he is suspicious of DJs who may attempt to present a vibrant performance-based persona behind the decks, but who do not display a similar personality outside of their work:
I’m probably not the type of DJ that jumps around… Obviously people like to see you having fun… I just don’t believe in jumping around like a madman, if it’s not what you do as a person. The way you come across might be more subtle, but other people might like that… If you’re going to be like, “Come on, let’s have it!”, if every DJ did that, to me it’s just boring, it’s just the same, everyone is trying to do the same thing and trying to outdo each other, and I think it looks stupid sometimes! Don’t you think it looks silly? If that’s what they do, that’s cool… (Interview, 2005)
It can be argued, therefore, that while DJs today are often labelled as ‘stars’, there are those that perhaps project more of a star persona, and that can be said to have more of a ‘stage presence’, than others, incorporating an element of performance into their sets. Dance music has become increasingly central to popular culture, to the extent that it can now be classed as a form of pop music, and thus it requires some kind of identifiable pop star, as Mark Murphy highlights:
There’s probably an over-emphasis on the DJ as pop star, but if that’s what the kids want, that’s what the kids want. If you are going to have dance music as pop music, then you’ve got to have pop stars. That’s alright, I don’t mind that. Dance music is dance music, and it is part of pop culture, so you’ve got to have your stars, it’s inevitable. But I don’t put myself in there at all. (Interview, 2005)
While the most rudimentary understanding of a DJ would be that he or she plays the records of other people, in house music this playing has become something more than simply placing records on turntables, and has developed into something creative and challenging, something that is perceived of as an ‘art form’ (Hilker, 1996: 20), something ‘closer to improvising on a musical instrument…as this element of “play” has gotten even more re-creative, the DJ has come to be considered an artist’ (Reynolds, 1999: 271), so that ‘the DJ’s job has changed dramatically since the Second World War, moving from unskilled worker through craftsman to artist’ (Thornton, 1995: 60). Rietveld suggests that ‘one may claim that… the DJ is not only a researcher and a curator, as well as a technician, but also an author/artist’ (1998: 112). Brewster and Broughton favour a description of the work of the DJ that emphasises claims of DJing being an art rather than a mere job, elevating it to something that is almost religious in its practice:
DJing is not just about choosing a few tunes. It is about generating shared moods; it’s about understanding the feelings of a group of people and directing them to a better place. In the hands of a master, records become the tools for rituals of spiritual communion… (2000: 11)
For Haslam, DJing is ‘evangelism; a desire to share songs’ (1997: 169), while Hilker believes that ‘at a rave, the DJ is a shaman, a priest, a channeller of energy’ (1996: 20). Yet there is a danger that in attempting to interpret the role of the DJ theoretically, the significance and relevance of this role is over-emphasised, for ultimately, at the most basic level of understanding, a DJ merely does nothing more than play other people’s records. Goodwill contrasts this relative lack of direct creativity on the part of the DJ with what he sees as the more creative role of the rock musician, and suggests that this is one of the reasons why dance music has a faster temporal logic than rock culture:
DJ culture is pretty much based on playing other people’s music. It sounds negative, but the fact is that, when you listen to a Led Zeppelin album or an old Rolling Stones album, you’re hearing musicians that have created their own piece… a DJ set is very much of the moment, it’s not timeless in anyway. If I play a set in the middle of the night it’s about everyone having fun, and I might do it well, but in a few weeks time, people aren’t going to remember the music I played, they’ll just remember they had a good night, whereas with rock ‘n’ roll, it takes a lot of people to come together to make a good piece of rock or a good piece of jazz. That’s why I think dance music doesn’t rely too much on the past because how much can you really remember about Danny Tenaglia’s set at Twilo in 1991? (Interview, 2004)
Yet as Alan Thompson explains, playing other people’s music does not reduce the significance and importance of the DJ’s role:
Of course the DJ only plays somebody else’s music, I would never deny that, but if it wasn’t for that DJ, that other person’s music wouldn’t be exposed… That’s a thing that has always got me! Of course I play other people’s music, but it’s how I play it, where I play it, and if I want to play it. DJs have been slated for that for years and years and years, but if the DJ doesn’t play it, who else is going to play it? (Interview, 2005)
CDs versus vinyl
There are, understandably, contrasting opinions regarding the extent to which technological developments will alter the role of the DJ, and more specifically, the talent, skill and ability needed to be a DJ. From one perspective, the increasing use of digital technology such as CDs, and CD mixers such as the Pioneer CDJ-1000 which is becoming the digital equivalent of the Technics SL-1200 turntable, means it is easier to DJ, in that these machines have such a wide variety of features (pitch control and tempo control, looping facilities, reverse play, scratching facilities) that can be initiated at the flick of a switch that there becomes less of an emphasis on skill, and more of an emphasis on being able to operate the machines properly. In contrast to this, there is the argument that such machines extend the boundaries of mixing and DJing, in that there are greater opportunities to manipulate and alter sounds.
Extending from this is the fact that, through using CDs, the DJ is presented with the option to increase the amount of music they can take with them to a particular performance. This is of significant advantage if the DJ is travelling around the world, in that a DJ can, with a handful of CDs, take all their required music on board an aeroplane, or alternatively, take a box full of vinyl that they have to store in the cargo hold and that they risk losing in transit. As CDs allow a DJ to take more music to a performance, then there exists the potential for a set to be generated that has a greater diversity and variety than a performance based solely on the playing of vinyl. As Sydney DJ Trent Rackus goes on to explain:
I would love for an opportunity to arise where I could just get all my vinyl put on to CDs. I still carry a crate of records with me, but CDs are definitely the way forward. It’s digital, you can do more with it than you can with vinyl, you don’t have records jumping, you don’t have records warping, you don’t have the wear and tear, you don’t have the weight to carry. You can jump on a plane and play in another country, and sit on the plane with your twenty-four hours worth of music in your lap, whereas before you’d put all your twelve-inches in a metal box, put them on to the belt as you go on the plane and watch them go down the conveyor [belt] and think, “I hope I see you on the other side”. (Interview, 2004)
Yet despite this acceptance of technology on the part of several DJs, and their excitement at the possibilities this technology opens up for the future of their profession, other DJs demonstrate more of a reluctance to consign vinyl to the history of dance culture. The changes to DJ practice that the use of CDs and computers has brought about have necessitated a shift in the understandings of this practice, and essentially have altered the skills of DJing. For some DJs, this is a negative development, in that it has lowered the skill levels required to successfully mix and sequence music together. Sydney DJ Illya takes a cynical view towards DJing as it relates to the progression of the technology that is changing the very nature of his profession, highlighting how the use of new technology requires a re-definition of the role of the DJ:
I use vinyl. I take two record boxes with me everywhere, and I get other DJs telling me that I should lighten my load, but I never know what I’m going to play, so I need a lot to choose from. I love my vinyl. I much prefer to put a record on than place a CD in a machine, even one of those CDJ-1000s… saying that, I take two CD bags with me as well, so I pretty much use both… I think that vinyl will eventually go, unfortunately… Playing off laptops is rubbish… I don’t think it changes the idea of DJing, because you are still playing music to an audience, but it just doesn’t sit with me… I don’t like it. I don’t know enough about [playing music off laptops] to give it any good points, but from where I’m sitting, it’s shit. There doesn’t seem to be much skill or effort in it, it’s all loaded and simulated… Would you know if the DJ is actually doing anything, or just hitting a button? It’s computerised, the tracks can be made to be the same speed, there’s no skill involved. Is the DJ listening to them, and timing them, and getting them at the right speed? I’m sure on the computer program they would have been smart enough to think of pitch control, that’s just logical. So therefore, isn’t that you’re getting paid to do nothing? (Interview, 2004)
The use of computers to carry out the act of DJing has thus been defined by some DJs in comparative terms, so that vinyl and the use of turntables are established as authenticating DJ practice, while computers, for the apparent lack of skill that is required to operate them in comparison to using vinyl, are dismissed as non-representative of authentic DJ culture. Yet taking such a view denies the possibility that computers actually enhance the DJing profession and allow for greater creative expression, while also ignoring the fact that in some respects, using computers requires the DJ to be just as skilful and thoughtful as when they are using turntables. Simply because the skills change, it does not necessarily follow that the act of DJing is made any easier, although to a certain extent using vinyl serves to validate the skills of a particular DJ with a clubbing crowd. Yet despite the authenticity issues that surround the use of vinyl in dance culture, one has to question the extent to which a DJ’s choice of format is actually relevant, for DJing is ultimately about the selection and sequencing of music rather than the use of specific technology. Furthermore, as this technology progresses, and more and more DJs embrace the use of CDs, this ‘hurdle of authenticity’ seems easier to negotiate. Indeed, for a culture grounded so much in a constant search for new and fresh music, it seems somewhat peculiar that it should have such an ingrained attachment to what is for most of the world an obsolete format. As Paul Goodyear explains, the attitude of those within dance culture to the use of CDs will change as more of the well-known and well-established DJs begin to use and incorporate them into their sets:
Years ago the attitude was very much that you’re not a real DJ unless you play vinyl. I think that’s changing now. When people see the likes of Roger Sanchez and Danny Tenaglia, they play vinyl but they also play CDs as well, they play their own remixes. So that is definitely changing, but there was that whole snobbery in the beginning about not being a real DJ unless you play vinyl. It’s like, “Hello, what’s the difference?”, you’ve still got to mix them, they are both tracks, you’ve still got to be able to get them in time and be able to play with them. (Interview, 2005)
For Trent Rackus, the Pioneer CDJ-1000 players have changed the whole practice of DJing significantly:
You can scratch with them, you’ve got the multi-media card where you can store cue points, you can loop, you can sample… you can play to minus or plus one hundred percent pitch, whereas on a [Technics] 1200 turntable you can go plus eight or minus eight percent. I love my vinyl but I also like being in a position where I can take things to another level. It’s a refreshing part of DJing, for me, to be able to go into a gig and know that if things get a little bit tough on the dancefloor with the vinyl that you’ve got, you’ve got this back catalogue of CDs with [hypothetically] twelve tracks on every CD. You see guys like Erick Morillo playing a four-hour set and not using any vinyl. (Interview, 2004)
Yet despite such positive assessments of the creative opportunities that the use of CDs present, technology that eradicates the need for any tangible format is treated somewhat more suspiciously by certain DJs, in that the lack of involvement and interaction that such technology seems to require and produce makes the act of DJing itself seemingly less interesting. For Sydney DJ John Devecchis, the advancement of technology, while saving DJs the trouble and pain of having to carry heavy record boxes, is not necessarily good for the practice of DJing, and he acknowledges how with changes in this technology come changes with the concept of DJing itself and the skills required for the job:
I reckon vinyl will be around for the next five years, and then sadly, because I love vinyl, although I use CDs as well, we’ll see the end of vinyl… As technology improves, the CDJ-1000s will become 2000s, and they will be even better than they are now, and everyone will use CDs… That’s going to help, certainly travelling internationally. A lot of DJs are going to do laptop sets, but I personally hope that that doesn’t go off. CDs I can handle, but playing through a laptop, how do you know the DJ is even playing? How do you know he’s not playing a pre-recorded set? How do you know he’s not playing Pacman whilst he’s supposed to be DJing? I want to see the DJ doing something. I don’t want to see him stood pressing buttons on a laptop… If it goes further than CDs, it’s not DJing anymore… If they’re mixing through laptops, you don’t know what technology they’re using to beat-mix. By then they’ll be able to change the key of tracks, so they’ll be able to key mix without even picking the records to do it… It’s almost like the art of DJing has changed to engineering, and you’ll be like an engineer DJing, and that, for me, is not using your ear to pick the tracks to play, that’s using your technical brain skills to be able to change the key and the drum patterns while you’re playing the tracks, and that’s not DJing, it’s engineering to a crowd. (Interview, 2004)
Ultimately, despite all these changes in technology and the issues raised, the main concern for any DJ should be with affecting the mood of a crowd through the music played, regardless of format, for as Klasco and Michael note, ‘no matter how sophisticated the setup, a deejay must be most concerned with building energy and changing the mood on the dance floor’ (1992: 62). While technology may alter the exact definition of a DJ, each clubbing crowd is unique, and thus, with the responses and reactions of these crowds, each DJ-set has to be unique. Although DJs may become more like engineers, they will always need the ability to be able to read and gauge a crowd’s reactions, and to respond to these reactions in the appropriate manner. The constant factor that will always remain at the very core of DJing is the ability to entertain through a selection and sequencing of tracks, regardless of the technology used to generate this.
Paralleling the quick turnover of dance music styles are the continual technological developments that shape and define dance culture, with DJs and dance music producers employing the latest machines and formats, and in the process altering the fundamental skills required for their craft. The past five years have seen DJs shift away from the use of vinyl as the preferred format on which to play music during their sets, with increasing use being made of CDs, as well as laptop computers. Given that vinyl was, and to a certain extent still is, such an ingrained part of dance culture, there have been certain authenticity issues that DJs have had to overcome as part of this technological change. The fundamental skills of DJing were established through the use of vinyl, and thus, if there is a change to the use of a format other than vinyl, then there are also changes to these fundamental skills. As I have attempted to demonstrate through this article, there are contrasting opinions within DJ culture as to the value of these changes and the effect these changes are having on the definition of DJing, with some DJs looking to the future and advocating the use of modern technology, and other DJs adhering to the tradition of their craft and remaining very much in favour of vinyl.
Working through these opinions and issues helps to construct a more informed and detailed interpretation of contemporary dance culture as it relates to DJ practice. If a basic understanding and appreciation of the role of the DJ is established, then one can begin to work towards formulating an interpretative framework that can be applied to dance scenes in any location, a framework that goes beyond the traditional focus on clubbing audiences, and shifts focus on to the key cultural figure of dance music. At the same time, this discussion can be situated within the specific context of Sydney, in that analysing the opinions of those DJs who work within the Sydney scene allows for a deeper understanding of the practices that create and shape dance culture in the city.
The DJs who work within the commercial dance scene in Sydney have to deal with certain tensions, ideologies and authenticities that are imposed upon their work by clubbing audiences. In regard to the use of technology, local DJs have had to negotiate the emphasis that is placed on international DJs, in that these internationals are positioned as the leaders in their field, and thus, any attempts by local DJs to incorporate a degree of radicalism into their sets, either through the music played or the format on which this music is played, are often dismissed until they have been validated by the actions of an international DJ. As such, for those in the Sydney scene, international DJs become the bearers of dance culture’s authenticities, and so, while some of the local DJs may have been some of the first DJs in the world to incorporate the use of CDs into their sets, it would have taken the use of CDs by several internationals to authenticate such practice within the perceptions of clubbers in Sydney. The problem for local DJs is that their educational status is placed secondary to that of the international DJs, thus making it more difficult for the local DJs to play unfamiliar sounds and to use unfamiliar technology.
Discussing the changes in technology that are gradually reshaping the work of the DJ serves to create a more detailed understanding and appreciation of DJ culture. While such discussion is relevant to DJs in any dance scene, by gathering together the thoughts and observations of DJs who work within Sydney, one can draw out observations regarding the way DJs negotiate the ideologies and expectations of dance culture in a specific local context.
One probability is that the DJ will always have a role in club culture, for the uniqueness and spontaneity of a night out is created by the work of the DJ and the relationship they establish with the dancers on the floor in front of their DJ box. The uncertainty lies in the methods and equipment the DJ will use in the future to carry out this work and create this relationship. As is the case with the ephemeral nature of the music and the constantly shifting terrain in which dance culture is played out, it is difficult to theorise about DJ practice because of its continual progression, and thus DJ culture, as with the dance scene, needs to be understood as a fluid and evolving element of club culture.
Originally published by Ed Montano for a publication of the Association for the Study of the Art of Record Production