DJ Badger:  The News and the Journal

Entry One Hundred Thirty-Six.
Thursday, 2011.03.24, 9:41 AM CST.

The tragedy of the digital DJ.
Current Mood:  Somewhat focused and trying to retain some semblance of optimism.  Current scent:  None.

Some other DJs, music enthusiasts, and I were having a discussion on Facebook this morning about "digital"/"laptop" DJs and how it just really isn't quite the same as the old-school vinyl DJing from back in the day.

I was reminded of a post that I had written on way back in October 2008, focusing on my feelings about "laptop DJs" and the most tragic aspects surrounding the decline of vinyl usage in the DJ industry.

The following is an edited version of that post.


As long as a laptop DJ is keeping it legal (not just stealing his/her music library online)... that's cool by me, and if he/she can show skills on the laptop, then the label of "DJ" will apply just fine.  I don't like the thought of people being able to automatically set their tunes to beatmatch - I think that is kind of "cheating" to an extent - but, to be honest, if I'm in a club, I'm going to be spending time with my friends and listening to the music, not hovering over the DJ to see which buttons he's pushing to gauge his legitimacy.  If a DJ has skill with the tools he/she has, then that is impressive, no matter what.

However, coming from someone who has been around for a while... there is a certain amount of pain that goes along with seeing the direction the music industry is heading.  I can chalk part of that feeling up to very basic jealousy.  Younger DJs have it a lot easier than I did.  I used to have to pay $5 for most domestic 12" singles or $6 for most CD singles back in the early days of my first company, and in the case of some of the "rare" mixes, I had to pay a whoooole lot more than that.  So, it does ruffle my feathers a bit to see that someone can get the same tracks for a buck or two these days from Amazon or iTunes.  It's aggravating to see a kid walking around with a laptop that potentially has more music on it than four or five of my record crates.  I have no problem admitting that.

But, the "pain" that I feel is also based on nostalgia and sorrow.  I grew up loving music; I can still remember putting records on my parents' turntable ("record player") back when I was 3-4 years old.  I started in the DJ industry over two decades ago, at the age of 16.  When new music came out, I would continually run down to the local record shoppes (mainly Buttons, Mohawk, and Starship) and await the new shipments, often calling the owner of Mohawk ahead of time so that he could put the good ones back for me.  When I went out of state - usually to Texas or to Missouri - I would hit the record stores and go digging, not in the sense of collecting rare beats, but more along the lines of seeking rare remixes.  Sometimes I would come up empty-handed, but occasionally I would stumble onto something amazing, and the whole thing would be well worth it.  As I got older, I also started using my resources to acquire vinyl via mail-order, but it was still an adventure of sorts because I got to track it down (either by phone calls or online), wait for it to arrive, and feel that bit of euphoria from opening a newly-arrived box of wax.

Wall of Records, 2001-10-11These days, more and more "DJs" don't even know how to operate a real turntable.  Some of them still do great work with the tools they have, but they don't know what it's like to go out and spend significant effort tracking down something beautiful.  It is sad to think of a young DJ, just starting out, who has already acquired a collection of 300-400 decent tracks without ever having to leave his/her bedroom.   He/she will most likely never know what it's like to take a trip to Vintage Vinyl in St. Louis' University City or Bill's Records down in Dallas and really scour through boxes upon boxes of vinyl to find that near-perfect "gem" for the collection... then move on to hunting down another one.

Click, click, click, download.  Click, click, click, download.  Take bite of pizza.  Click, click, click, download.  There can be no real "history" of how such a DJ finds his/her music; there will never be stories told about how hard it was or how long it took to finally snag a particularly tough-to-find remix.  There will never be any fond recollections about exactly how such a DJ's heart surged when he/she pulled a near-mint 12" of some classic old-school jam out of a flea market crate.

I know that there are some records (and even a few CDs) with which I have felt a genuine emotional bond, because obtaining them was historic for me.   I remember with great pride the day in 1992 that I discovered the Vince Clarke remix of Nitzer Ebb's "Ascend" in Bill's Records.  A few years later, I remember bouncing back and forth between Mohawk Music and Thing One (a local skating-and-vinyl shoppe) to obtain all three of the rare die-cut-sleeved vinyl editions of Garbage's "Milk."  I remember, in the fall of 1988, happily shelling out $8 for the white-and-blue-streaked vinyl edition of Depeche Mode's "Stripped," and just dying to hear what the remix would sound like as I traveled home... and then, in 2003-2004, sending about $120 to a collector in Belgium for one particularly rare French 12" promo of Depeche Mode's "I Feel Loved."  I could go on and on and on... but I think I've made at least somewhat of a point.   These are memories that one just can't get when they go online and snag the tracks here-and-there over the course of only a few minutes.

Tracking down the music was part of the glorious experience of being an experienced DJ. When someone had been a DJ for a few years, and they had a good-sized stack of vinyl...  You knew that person probably had spent some time tracking those down, probably accompanied by a few good stories to tell.  The experience and the accompanying memories fed the DJ culture - a culture that wasn't strictly focused on playing tracks, looking good, and getting laid, but a culture that also had this fantastic foundation of hunting, collecting, and digging for the next big treasure.

Frankly, it depresses me that by downloading everything and playing it all digitally, modern DJs are depriving themselves of that culture, that history, and that experience.  That sorrow is a lot more palpable than my simple jealousy, because as time goes by, that old-school culture is just going to die more and more, and tomorrow's DJs won't even realize what they're missing.

Some day, I'd love to start up a second mobile DJ company - a follow-up to my old company, EKG Pro Mobile Music.  If I ever do, we're going to be, quite possibly, the only commerical mobile DJ company in our market that still focuses on playing the music from real vinyl records on real turntables.  There will be some tracks that I will have to play on CD, and I'm okay with that... but for the most part, the crowds will see a genuine old-school DJ pulling real vinyl from the crates, flipping it around, cueing it up, and playing it.  It won't just be a music experience; it will be a visual performance as well.  There will be no laptops used for those performances.

The company might last 20 years, or it might last a year.  I'm not getting any younger, and all the rhetoric in the world isn't going to make the vinyl (or the equipment) weigh any less.  But, if I'm ever able to start up such a company, it'll be fun while it lasts.

In closing:   As long as everyone keeps it legal, there is a place in the industry for every type of DJ - vinyl, CD, and digital.  I can see the value and the advantages of the digital format.  However, that being said, I also don't think it's wrong to feel and express pride in doing it the old-school vinyl way and appreciating the history and culture of the vinyl method.

If you read that entire thing... then thank you.