What makes a good DJ? Crowd-pleasing vs Artistry
The term DJ is becoming more vague and nebulous as the technology available to play songs together advances. But there’s long been separation of mainstream and underground DJs. As the EDM scene continues to grow and DJs move back and forth between the two, accusations of selling out or getting too weird to be mainstream come up. (For example Richie Hawtin is often derided for his success, and Lady Gaga’s spotlight of Surgeon also caused quite a bit of ranting.)
So, let’s first agree that everyone who plays music for a crowd is a DJ, and the specifics of how they play and if there’s a better term for them is not the subject of this post.
I’d like to talk about what makes a good DJ. Specifically, is a good DJ one that gives the crowd what they want, or is it one with an artistic vision?
At the extremes, a complete crowd-pleaser is the wedding DJ, hard-working, playing the same songs over and over, taking constant requests and having to deal with an audience of very diverse tastes. At the other end, is the savant/genius artist that unearths historical gems and weaves them together with mystical appeal, completely ignoring the audience reactions and playing only what she wants.
Then there is what many people consider sell-outs, those who perform the chart toppers with pre-rehearsed shows at the massive concerts. But if that’s what they want to be doing, and what is expected, we cannot fault them for following their compass even if we don’t agree with it. Authenticity comes in many flavours.
In terms of raw skill I would say that mobile DJs, and some top 40 DJs don’t get enough credit. I have seen some incredible live mashups performed in the club which could rival any techno-wizards ability to blend 4 decks together. And their dedication and self-reliance is how stages and scenes are created and maintained.
Let’s not forget the controllerists and turntablists, who’ve taken performance and live sampling to whole new levels. They rightfully own the term DJ, so maybe the rest of us are just borrowing it for a while.
Back to the question though. Do you want to risk losing the crowd and stick to your artistry? DJs in a live setting exist as entertainers, and importantly should have a conversation with the crowd. Larger acts have the advantage of people coming specifically for them but openers and residents have additional responsibilities. To resolve your artistry as a DJ, podcasts and other downtime ways of consuming music can be just as enjoyable, and more suitable. Do it for the arena in which you will be received. I’ve always played varied sets, moving through genres and styles, and work to tailor it to the audience while balancing my artistic integrity. If you’ve got some favourites whom you think embody this, please comment below.
Artistry can bring obscurity as well. Being niche seems to bring more respect amongst those who maintain there is some purism to the art of techno. Who doesn’t love the special feeling when you discover a mind-blowing outsider?
If a subject has rules or requirements, then you might miss artistic talent when it does not conform to your bias. Are you open to appreciate what others are doing, or where do your boundaries lie? Do you grok pop? If not, then you might miss the artistry beneath it’s mirror-polished veneer.
Are the big EDM names artists? As much as pop musicians are artists. Their vision is perceived to have been subjugated by their corporate adventure paths. We see this as a loss of integrity for those who’ve started within the underground. But they could even be considered unconscious performance art of archetypes of the human condition.
Crowd-pleasing is also a personality thing. There’s no doubt that the cult of the individual works in favour of DJs. Big egos are common or implied, but equally so are incredibly nice people that are a pleasure to be around. The community aspect of the music scene means there’s always amazing, genuine people in abundance. It’s no mistake that friendly folk get ahead in music, as in any network.
Unsurprisingly, the conclusion is that there’s room for both sides to coexist, since they fall into different niches, even for a single performer depending on the context. The important thing is that you love what you are doing, and are true to yourself through awareness of your choices.