NEEDS MOAR DJS ? (part 2)

(photo of Trev and I ‘DJing’ at MLX8 by scott_aus)

This post is the second of two. In the first part (NEEDS MOAR DJS ? (part 1)) I rambled on about Sydney’s DJing culture at the moment, particularly in reference to its social dancing culture and basic demographics. This second part spends a bit of time talking about why DJing sucks and why I like DJing. At some point in the future I’ll try to write about how we might (despite all our better instincts) go about encouraging new DJs in the swing dance scene.

I’m going to carry on with the (increasingly ridiculous) point that we need more DJs here in Sydney. Because as things are going, we’re in pretty dire straits: NEED MOAR DJS!!1!!

How do we get these moar DJs?
One of the most frustrating suggestions I’ve heard lately is that we should “just put out an ad for more DJs”. Gee, why hadn’t I thought of that. As though there are squads of skilled DJs sitting about at home who hadn’t thought about DJing. Or rather, the implication is that any old fool with some music can DJ.

*headdesk* repeatedly

Here is where things get tricky. Yes, any old fool with an ipod or a laptop can just plug into a sound system and play some music. But this is what will happen 99% of the time:

  • They won’t play ‘swing music’. They’ll play songs that they luuurve and can’t believe no one ever plays. Because no one has every played that fucking Wham Jitterbug song, or Richard Cheese. They’ll play one fucked up song after another, and everyone will get shitty/bored and get drunk/go home.
  • They will play ‘swing music’, but they’ll be using shitty, shitty pirated mp3s that sound HORRIBLE and are unlistenable. So an experienced DJ/person will have to step in to help them fix the sound.
  • They will play ‘swing music’, but it will all be under 100bpm or above 200bpm, all from one small musical style, and all very samey. This’ll be fine for that person and their three friends, but everyone else will get shitty/bored and get drunk/go home.

The best case scenario in these moments is that the dancers will be ok with one of these DJs pulling this rubbish, so long as there’s a second DJ who’ll play ‘real’ swing music. Either way, you’re going to need a second DJ or some sort of technology-savvy person working with the new ‘DJs’ to help them actually make sound come out of the metal box.
And of course, we haven’t even begun to approach a DJ who has a) decent music, and b) knows how to combine it, and c) work the room so that people have a chance to breathe/get their groove on.

Who’d have thought. DJing actually requires some skills and knowledge.

So, yeah, just putting out an ad won’t turn up any surprise DJ gems. It might get you one or two people who have an interest. But what you’ll probably get is a bunch of guys with inflated egos who think DJing is ‘easy’. You might get one or two women, but they won’t have as much confidence as the guys. What will probably happen is that the few people who are actually interested in DJing swing music for swing dancers will pay attention to how things turn out, and then they’ll be disappointed and put off by the reality and the fallout of that reality.
As with building a swing dance scene generally, new DJs are more the result of long term plans and strategies than surprise discoveries.

This ‘just put in an ad for DJs’ approach is a clear indication of the value of social dancing and of music – low. This makes sense if your financial bread and butter is classes, and social dancing an optional extra. It’s also the antithesis of how I approach dancing. I see classes as a place for me to develop skills which make my social dancing better/easier/more fun/more creative. If your business relies on class attendance (rather than social dance attendance), it’s important to develop an institutional discourse which values pedagogy – learning and teaching – above all else, and which also articulates clear hierarchies of knowledge. Most importantly, learning is positioned as something which happens in classes, knowledge is bought and paid for, then passed from teachers to students like a little package.

What this really makes clear, I guess, is the way Sydney (and Melbourne, at least until about 2008) relies on dance schools to put on social dancing events. I don’t know if this happens in other scenes. But dance classes are the centre of the community, rather than the ground crew or entry point for a vibrant social dancing scene. I’m not sure why. Maybe we just seem to assume that running classes makes better business sense than running regular social dances? I mean, we only have three annual events, nationally (of a total of twelve or thirteen), which are all social dancing, with no workshops: Canberrang (Canberra), Devil City Swing (Tasmania) and MLX. MLX is the best-attended, largest of those events, and began as a workshop weekend. I often wonder if our national obsession with workshops has something to do with Australia’s small and geographically dispersed population. Or if it’s a result of our distance from the rest of the lindy hopping world. Historically, traveling to dance in Australia has been centred on workshops and learning rather than social dancing.

…but look, I’ve wandered off-topic again. It is relevant, because it explains why I think music and social dancing are so important to a contemporary lindy hop culture. It’s not just because I love social dancing above all else, or because I am a DJ, with much to gain from a community valuing my skills. I do think that a modern lindy hop scene cannot be truly socially and creatively sustainable if it does not include social dancing. Because social dancing is really challenging. And it’s also the place where dancing stops being a series of monologues and becomes an exciting, challenging discourse. It’s called social dancing for a reason. But let’s get back to talking about DJing.

There are other ways of encouraging new DJs.
I’ve written quite a few posts about getting into DJing:

Looking at that list, all I can think is:

NONE OF THIS IS ENCOURAGING. These are not helpful posts. tl;dr Too depressing. Too much thinking!

I need to write a post talking about how to encourage people to take up DJing. I really do. But this is not that post.

(photo of Tomo by Swifty, an American photographer, DJ and dancer in NY).

Basically, becoming a good DJ requires a lot of time. Yeah, some money. But the time is the biggest investment. Time to learn music. To learn how to use technology. To spend actually DJing and moving from sucking to being half decent and then, finally, good. You can be competent within a year, but it takes at least a couple of years to get good. Just like lindy hop, DJing for lindy hop is a long term project. Time spent sitting on your arse DJing instead of dancing. That always surprises new DJs: you don’t get to dance to the music you love that you’re playing? No, buddy, you don’t. Because there are very few people who have the ninja skills to pull off a good set while dancing to it. And 90% of the guys (and they are blokes) who dance while DJing aren’t anywhere near as good as they think they are. No, buddy, you’re not.

And if you’re just in the scene to have fun and dance, why on earth would you waste your time learning to DJing, and then actually DJing? Particularly when there’s an awesome band on every free night you have during the week?

So you get these people to start DJing. Why would they bother to stick with it? The hours are shitty. You aren’t treated with a whole heap of respect – there’s no line of groupies waiting for you after a set. There’s next to no money in it. Unless that money is the money you sink into your gear and music. You’re far more likely to get abused by some blockhead venue owner or manager than thanked. You’ll constantly deal with idiots suggesting amazing songs no one ever plays. By Wham. Most of the sets you do will be small time local sets for mixed range of dancers who’d really rather talk and flirt than dance. Unless you’re in a big scene with a core set of hardcore dancers. That means Melbourne, in Australia – we just don’t have that significant core group anywhere else, not in decent numbers. Even in Melbourne, though, most of your sets would be for smaller crowds. Because the smaller sets are the bread and butter of a swing dance scene.

Golly, with all that bad news, why does anyone DJ at all? Why do I DJ?

  • I love the music. The music brought me to dancing in the first place. And that’s why I stay. And that’s also why I get up and leave when some fucker plays Richard Cheese or that fucking Wham song. AGAIN. I love the music. It inspires my dancing. I go to dance classes so I can dance better(er) and do a better(er) job of making what I hear visible. I learn about dance history so I can understand what people danced to the music I love.
  • I’m a stooge. Yep. Some stooge has to make the music. So I’ll do it. I started DJing because I was sick and tired of the bullshit music I used to hear out social dancing in Melbourne circa 2004. If someone else was DJing every week, DJing the good stuff, I’d never have gotten into it. Perhaps. So, yes, I was that annoying new DJ playing ‘songs no one ever plays’. It’s just that everyone else was playing Wham, and I wanted to play some Lionel Hampton.
  • I like learning new things. I have a curious brain. And DJing is interesting. That’s one of the reasons I stick with it. The fundamentals of DJing are pretty simple: play music. But the practicalities are endlessly challenging: keep them dancing. Make them have fun. Make them crazy with pleasure. How do you do that, consistently? Their tastes and dance skills keep changing, so the DJing has to change too. There are no constants! Curious brain, inquires.
  • Collegiality keeps me with it. I do like to talk. And write. And DJing gives me something interesting to talk and think and write about. Not just on my own – with other people! I think my DJing makes me better at organising other DJs, so I also do it so I have some sort of empathy with their requirements.
  • The history of the music is interesting. Not the boring ‘jazz started in New Orleans’ rubbish. But the interesting stuff – such and such was in Person X’s band, but also in Y’s band, and both bands recorded the same song in the same year. And both bands were on different record labels. And the labels decided who got to decide what songs. And those labels affected which bands played which venues. And those venues were segregated/weren’t segregated. And that affected who danced to those bands live.
  • DJing feeds in nicely to my media studies/cultural studies background. I did a chapter of my PhD on DJing cultures, and I’m still interested in DJing as a case study/testing ground for various critical theories. I especially like the way DJing and dancing require participation, and I like the way that gives my research and writing mo cred.
  • It makes me feel proud and happy when people enjoy the music I play. I feel a sense of pride when I can make a crowd crazy. But I feel especially happy when someone tells me they like what I’ve done. Because I’m a hooman being, and I like the approval of my peers. I like feeling good about myself. And I like to facilitate other people’s fun. The hardest thing in the world is watching my friends dance like fools having crazy fun while I’m DJing. Without me. But then, one of the nicest things in the world is to see people I know – people I love! – having masses of fun to my music. I mean, what could be better than watching my partner dancing like an uninhibited adrenaline junky idiot to a song I chose because I knew he’d love it? Best exchange of presents ever.
  • Not many women were DJing when I began. It shat me to hear and see men being all holier than thou about DJing. Fuck, if they can do it, there’s no reason I can’t.
  • The hunting instinct. There’s something very satisfying about hunting down the perfect song, then dumping it into a set at just the right time and having people come running up to say “What was that SONG?” Yep, that’s a good feeling. But there’s something even more satisfying about going complete on an artist. On hunting down everything they recorded, and just having it. Because I’m a bit obcon, but also because… well, that’s the reason. Completists aren’t really 100% normal, are they? It’s also quite exciting to find a new artist or song or band and then testing it out on dancers. Is it as good as you expected it to be? Why not? I like that.
  • DJing is a good thing to do when you’re injured. I didn’t find my DJing improved while I was off dancing with an injury, but it gave me something to do at dances.
  • It’s creative. There really is something creatively challenging and satisfying about putting together songs in just the right way. Sure, you’re not mixing or making the music yourself. But no one else has played just this combination of songs at just this moment for just this crowd before, nor will they ever again. That’s a moment of creativity. And it’s exciting. When I’m really in the DJing groove, I feel as though I’m out there dancing every single song. I feel far more connected to the dancers than I ever do when I’m out there with them on the dance floor. I can see them all responding to each other and to the music. I can feel my own body responding – my heart rate elevating or dropping, my skin flushing, my pores sweating. I can feel the beat in my body, and the emotions of the music in my own… heart? And I use those feelings to make decisions about the next song I play. That feeling is really, really addictive. I think that’s what makes dancing so addictive. You get totally lost in the music, and nothing else exists. Plus: adrenaline, endorphins, physical contact. It’s all majorly addictive. And then revisiting those sets afterwards, figuring out why things worked or didn’t helps revisit those feelings. Contact high, yo.

So, really, there are lots of reasons to take up DJing. But how do you articulate all those things in the two minutes you have to talk to a dancer who may be interested in taking up DJing? Should you? It’s all very hippy and amorphous. And a little sweary.

I will try to write another post about how to get people interested in taking up DJing.

NB: There’s a nice, simple post about working conditions for DJs over at Words Pursued called Gotta Be Satisfied. This link came to me via a few people – Ryan Swift and (caution – FB link) Wandering and Pondering (also found at Wandering and Pondering.)
There’s the beginning of a discussion about related issues over at Swing DJs in the DJ Administration thread I started, but I don’t see that going anywhere.

As with most politically sensitive issues, most of the interesting talk will no doubt happen under the radar – on twitter, in emails, in private messages and face to face chats. I know I’m involved in about half a dozen conversations with people about these same issues. I tell you what, I’ve never been as aware of the role of unions as I am while talking about DJs. I’d never say it out loud (oops), but you can see how unionising – getting together as an organised group – is really in the interests of workers and bosses. The workers get more equitable working conditions and pay, the bosses get more consistent and reliable work from their employees. But shoosh. We won’t have any of that goddamn commie bastard talk here.

[EDIT: This is one of a number of loosely-associated posts about music in Sydney lindy hop today. This list includes:


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