Can a “mainstream” DJ/producer still make a killer set that’s longer than an hour? Of course. While Pacha Ibiza’s been canceling contracts of DJs who expect high pay but want to play for just a couple of hours, you’ve got Paul Van Dyk doing a six-hour set at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom and Fedde Le Grand playing a multi-hour block as part of the Road to Ultra tour.
But what sets Van Dyk and Le Grand apart is the time in electronic dance music history at which they came up, the ‘90s and ‘00s, respectively. Mainstream DJs/producers, up until 2010, have been expected to have a modicum of DJing skills. Even when they settle for one-hour festival sets these days and just play the hits (looking at you, Tiesto), the knowledgeable audience member simply knows this is a combination of lassitude and pandering to the corporate forces behind large-scale electronic dance music events. Taking the same performer to a more intimate venue often means a better, longer, more nuanced performance.
But 2010 marked a stark change in how mainstream performers get famous. Excluding David Guetta’s history, the top-tier producers became well-known not for DJing skills and tracks simultaneously (a trend going back to the early days of Detroit Techno and Chicago House) but solely for producing. In fact, Porter Robinson once mentioned he hadn’t even been to a club before DJing, while an unflattering GQ profile of Avicii has manager Ash Pournouri teaching the producer prodigy to DJ.
The factor ultimately killing (or severely diminishing) the need for mainstream performers’ true DJing knowledge, and not the motion of pushing a spacebar on a laptop that goes through the hits, is social media. As innovative as MySpace and Soundcloud have been in getting producers heard, they’ve eliminated the need for a producer to go a club and try out his remixing skills there. Social media ultimately streamlines the track-to-listener path, letting the producer be heard and spend more time in the studio, rather than seeking out club gigs.
A Bit of History
When you look at the DJing side of electronic dance music, the intertwining of setlists and producing goes back to the ‘80s. The Belleville Three – Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, and Juan Atkins – dabbled in both, with Atkins and May gravitating more toward the production side of things and Saunderson more likely to DJ originally. All, however, were inspired by DJ Charles Johnson, a.k.a. The Electrifying Mojo.
This early amalgamation still hasn’t disappeared, and you simply have to look at the DJs/producers making up the Detroit Premiere Artists collective to find this out. However, as techno remains secondary on a mainstream level to progressive house and certain forms of dubstep, a shift has occurred with mainstream performers over the past 10 years.
If you look at who’s had huge hits over this time, a change in backgrounds began around the time social media became a career necessary to get your music heard. Le Grand, who shot to the tops of European charts in 2006 with “Put Your Hands Up for Detroit,” started years before as a club DJ. His first major residency was at Danssalon in Eindhoven, a top Dutch club in the early ‘00s, and he later moved onto be a regular at London’s Ministry of Sound.
While Le Grand’s own music is said to straddle mainstream and underground sounds (“Put Your Hands Up for Detroit” even won an IDMA award in 2007 for Best Underground Track), endorsement from Carl Cox, and not from social media followers, likely pulled Le Grand up in the second half of the aughts. These days, Le Grand’s involved sets (there’s very few fist-pumping moments from the booth if you watch him) set him apart from younger, social media-brought up performers.
Endorsement was, really, the way to become a top name prior to 2010. Along with Le Grand, Laidback Luke – who started out as a techno DJ and later transitioned to more mainstream house sounds – experienced a similar path. Early works like Electronic Satisfaction got attention, but he didn’t begin turning into a top-level DJ or producer until collaborating with Swedish House Mafia on “Sexy F—k” in the middle of the decade.
The ‘00s, aside from being the last decade without significant musical influence from social media, meant a transition from DJs who used vinyl in the first few years to CDJs. Even “DJs” we primarily associate with production these days, such as Sander Van Doorn, still began on vinyl.
When I spoke with Van Doorn in 2010 for a now-defunct site called ZenBeats, he described his pre-production days of using vinyl and then moving onto CDs. “Well, I kind of started out when I was 16 or so,” he said at the time. “I went to a party of a cousin of mine, and he was a DJ back then – he played more of the harder stuff. So, I gave it a shot over at his place, and I actually loved it. So I started doing it – DJing – as a hobby, buying a few records here and there, and I actually ended up playing in this café over in Holland for a few years. I think it was seven years ago when I really started to produce, as well. It really started to go really fast. Seven years ago was really when it took off.”
Different Backgrounds, Different Approaches
Although endorsement hasn’t died, and for up-and-comers, having a major DJ put your track in a setlist is certainly a big leg up, getting well-known in the mainstream sphere has cut the club out entirely. In fact, panels at the 2013 Winter Music Conference focused on not getting more DJing gigs but the importance and proper usage of social media, getting your music onto soundtracks, and what a producer needs to know about remixing.
But while being able to put together a good remix and debut it to a crowd, these days, mainly requires a Soundcloud account, and since the late ‘00s, that’s commonly been the approach for producers to get their sounds heard.
For instance, Laidback Luke during his 2013 WMC panel spot spoke about finding Avicii asking for production feedback on his message board, while Skrillex’s first foray into electronic production, and away from his emo beginnings, began with online demos.
While many can argue that Skrillex and Avicii aren’t really DJs, and their festival gigs just simply get them out there and to fans, their fame symbolizes the rise of the bedroom producer, who may already have a background in creating music. Skrillex, obviously, came from the rock world with his group From First to Last, and this understanding likely helped him produce tracks for Korn and The Doors.
Similarly, producer prodigy Nicky Romero started out on drums, while Deadmau5 is said to have began on a keyboard. However, while this type of background assists with an overall understanding of how music is put together, from the beats to the chords to structure, Romero ultimately didn’t land on the DJ Mag list for his drumming skills; ultimately, his bootleg remix of Guetta’s “When Love Takes Over” did.
Although this type of background –music rather than DJing leading to a popular remix – is simply different, not better or worse, from what house had seen for a few decades, certain post-2010 performers appear to have felt the backlash about their lack of skills behind the decks. In the case of Robinson, he explained in an interview that producing comes first: “The DJ role, it’s never been a big thing for me. In the last couple years, there was definitely a moment where I got excited about DJing, but I feel like as this world of high energy Main Stage dance music has gotten bigger, it’s sacrificed musicality to be very functional on the dancefloor.”
Deadmau5, in spite of once DJing at Movement in the late ‘00s, told U.S.A. Today more bluntly and scathingly that he’s not a DJ: “There’s a time and place for a DJ. And that’s a bar mitzvah. Or a children’s party. How do I say this safely? I just have a problem with a guy out there playing everyone else’s music but his own, creating a marketplace for himself in a market he had nothing to do with.”
What the rise of the bedroom producer and the downplaying of DJing skills in mainstream house music have caused is a schism: a divide in which one can make house music without being a DJ, but on the flipside, one in which pre-2010 producers now have to perform just-hit-play sets to crowds. Eric Prydz, who rose to fame the same time as Le Grand and Laidback Luke and now performs at XS and Surrender in Las Vegas, says this pushes him harder to being innovative with his setlists.
The thing is, as much as listeners and record execs don’t want to admit, a producer doesn’t have to go out and DJ: Just see Eurodance’s history of behind-the-scenes producers, or synthpop performers, like New Order’s Bernard Sumner and former Depeche Mode member Alan Wilder, who produce. In Sumner’s case, this was working in the studio under name Be Music with the Happy Mondays and other Madchester acts associated with Factory Records; on the other hand, you likely wouldn’t see him behind the decks during an acid house DJing night at the Hacienda. Wilder, similarly, gave Depeche Mode their sound and now acts as a producer on his solo Recoil releases.
Unless you plan on staying underground or known on just a local level, simply being a club DJ means your career stops there. As panelists at 2013 WMC mentioned, a DJ likely won’t get gigs without putting together remixes and original music. So while the bedroom producer now has his spotlight, whether deserved or not, the authentic DJ needs to look beyond the setlist to get to the next level.