Being a DJ, is it really a skill?

northernguitar

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It's as much as what they play as what they don't. I did it for years. It's a monkey's job, for sure, but you do know how to read a crowd and then have the tunes to back it up. The latter must be easier than ever. FWIW, I made a lot more money spinning CD's than I ever did in a paid band. For a while, I was snagging up to CAD$1000 a night, and this was in the 90's.
 

suave eddie

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I was a radio DJ for 20+ years. I DJ'd at clubs a few times, but never got very good at it. I had friends who were awesome club DJs, they could get a room going, and keep it there. The skills include being familiar with a wide range of dance songs, and being able to read the room and quickly choose the song to put on next, that will buzz the crowd. Plus, having an ear for new stuff that people will like. The real work involved is listening to hundreds of hours of music and memorizing the tempo, the feel of the song, the intro and outro, even what key it's in, then being organized enough to find the (record, CD, file) in time to have it queued and ready to segue into. the segue-ways are important. A good DJ can get the crowd to feel a little tension about what's coming next, then cheer out loud when they recognize the new song. Mixing in samples from other songs and scratching are an added bonus. Also playing the same song on both turntables, fading back and forth to create interesting repeats and echos. Stuff like that. It's hard to be good at it.

It’s the same thing with putting songs together on the radio. The ends of some songs and the beginnings of others flow together better and the story of some songs flow into other songs better. With the right person it is an art.

Are there still actual DJs on the radio? I came of age during the rise of "free form" FM radio in the late '60s early '70s.
I don't listen to much radio these days but it seems like there is nothing like actual DJs any more. They don't even announce what was just played or what is coming next. No such thing as a radio personality any more. It's all automated, streaming corporate playlists, etc.
Does anyone even listen to the radio any more for music? Talk shows seem to be the biggest thing. Maybe I'm wrong.
 

nojazzhere

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Being a good DJ is a skill, but the bad ones outnumber the good ones about 100 to 1. Having said that, I can play my own records. If I go out I want to see a band.
The only difference is (mostly) that "playing your records" is about listening to a SONG. A DJ at a dance club is mostly about getting the audience to dance, sweat, drink more, and create sexual energy. Not my scene, BTW. ;)
@Greggorios' analogy to an art museum curator is very accurate.
 

SixStringSlinger

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I'd push back on this a bit even though I do agree that the vast majority of what modern DJs do is not compelling or artistic to me. Back in the mid 80s - early 90s when I was going to dance clubs, there was a lot of art in DJ'ing, and it was more than just getting the club hopping - although that was always paramount. A good DJ can find interesting ways to weave tracks and songs together in unexpected ways so that the tracks do more than just complement each other, they tell something of a story. It's sort of the musical equivalent of collage art. Done at a high creative level, Night Ripper by Girl Talk for example, DJ'ing is more art than science.

It's like anything else. There are guitarists who blow minds by playing brilliant, off-the-cuff stuff seemingly pulled from the very fabric of the universe, and there's the guy who stumbles through "Wonderwall" every time there's more than 3 people around.

It’s the same thing with putting songs together on the radio. The ends of some songs and the beginnings of others flow together better and the story of some songs flow into other songs better. With the right person it is an art.

And that's just the very bare bones of what could be called DJ-ing today.

Sure it's a skill and like many skills can be performed artistically depending upon the performer. That said, it's a skill that doesn't require the same kind of dedication, study, practice and experience that an accomplished musician must invest in their skill(s).

It's a bit like "curating" as practiced by an art museum's curator. They are not the art themselves but they can "put it together" for presentation artistically depending on the individual doing the curation. DJ'ing, curating, music and art, like most things, have some practitioners that are better than others.

I don't know. I mean, paintings and sculptures are works of art, but so is a fantastically curated art exhibit. There may not be as much creation done by the curator, but there are still decisions made and ideas expressed and points made. The paintings and sculptures aren't just thrown together randomly, or just sorted by chronological order. The curator is still a crucial part of the ultimate aesthetic effect.

I disagree with your point re. dedication, study etc. If you look at a modern DJ set-up and know the various things it makes you capable of, and keep in mind the fact that all this cutting and pasting and rearranging and effecting is often done off the cuff in front of a live audience and still makes sense as a cohesive piece of music (albeit one made from pieces of other coherent pieces of music), it's clear that no one can accomplish this without lots of time invested and many lessons learned from experience. They're not just lining up a playlist and hitting "play".

I agree 100% that making music by selecting and rearranging pieces of other music is not the same as wrenching the notes and chords out of a musical instrument, and in some crucial way that I still haven't found a way to express. But I wouldn't say that it's any less artistic, or any better or worse, or more or less. It's still creative and artistic and talented, just at a different level. Not in terms of higher or lower, but in terms of how much art came before it that then becomes part of their art.

Think of jazz musicians. Plenty of jazz musicians today are great players who improvise and create new things, but they do it in the context of (and using bits from) progressions and melodies that may be as much as a century old. It was created before them, and re-used and re-interpreted many times before them, and now they're doing their own re-using and re-interpretation. Are they any less musicians or any less artist because their art relies in part on art made by others before them?
 

nojazzhere

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Are there still actual DJs on the radio? I came of age during the rise of "free form" FM radio in the late '60s early '70s.
I don't listen to much radio these days but it seems like there is nothing like actual DJs any more. They don't even announce what was just played or what is coming next. No such thing as a radio personality any more. It's all automated, streaming corporate playlists, etc.
Does anyone even listen to the radio any more for music? Talk shows seem to be the biggest thing. Maybe I'm wrong.
Since I don't listen to broadcast radio anymore (other than NPR and our outstanding local classical music station) I think you're correct.....there may be "hosts" talking, but the music is all programmed from the corporate office.
 

BorderRadio

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Are there still actual DJs on the radio? I came of age during the rise of "free form" FM radio in the late '60s early '70s.
I don't listen to much radio these days but it seems like there is nothing like actual DJs any more. They don't even announce what was just played or what is coming next. No such thing as a radio personality any more. It's all automated, streaming corporate playlists, etc.
Does anyone even listen to the radio any more for music? Talk shows seem to be the biggest thing. Maybe I'm wrong.

This is what I was getting at: the DJs I hear on terrestrial radio don't seem involved with the music at all. For the most part, the playlist is set.

On the other hand I listen to satellite radio and on some stations they feature blogs/podcasts with their own curated playlists. These shows have more things in common with the old school radio DJ.
 

Fenderbaum

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I was a nightlife DJ for 15 years. It is a skill.. or was.. on the technical side.
Being a DJ is not about the skills of working a mixer. It is TOTALLY about being a good selector.. Picking the music to play.. Then it's all about stitching it all together. make it a journey. This is something you are partly born with.. A sense of making music selection adventurous. Very few can do it 100%.
How you mix them i do not care much about, it is what you play.
I never played for commercial venues. You would find me in a cafe or some lounge. I was strictly on the underground side.
On the side i fixed up vinyl turntables for clubs and upgraded them.

I retired 5-6 years ago sold all my stuff. I dont care much about that field anymore. In fact i have gotten a bad taste of the whole thing. I somehow consider being a DJ pretty dumb profession today.. Mixing music?? Meh.
The clubs and cafe´s was my working enviroment a few years back. Today i cant stand going out to them anymore. God forbid..
 

kLyon

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It's a skill and it's an art. Some DJs scratch - I've heard some as good as any percussionist I know - some make their own tracks - at times at least partly in realtime.
Even the ones who just play pre-recorded stuff (and act like they're doing something, moving around and twisting knobs that don't do anything: what is referred to by my friend Cool G Murder as "making a pizza") can be both skilled and artistic (you wouldn't hesitate to call Segovia an artist, yet he never created anything on stage, ever)).
I've gotten used to playing concerts and having to get off the stage fast for the main event: a DJ; I've gotten used to DJs being headliners at big festivals and making more money - a lot more - than bands at the same festival.
When there's that much cake, cream is going to separate from milk: the level is high.
 

G.Rotten

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I pose this question with all sincerity. I noticed it was in the 70’s when DJ’s started taking over some of the clubs we used to see live music at. A DJ used to be the person on the radio. Over the years it has grown exponentially and is an art all in itself from what I see. People becoming famous from playing other peoples recorded music on fancy systems with dueling turntables. I don’t understand it.
And it’s not just a money thing. Some of these DJs now get paid almost just as much as a full band. People just pack the dance floor.
Your thoughts…
My Mom and Dad started their DJ side gig in the late 60's or early 70's.

Both lovers of music with a large record collection they played many dances of all sorts for decades.

In my early teens I took over for my Mom and helped my Dad for 6 or 7 years. Everyone thinks anyone with access to music and something to make it louder can be a DJ. I assure you it's not true. It's a different skill than a band has but it's a skill none the less to be good at it.

As someone who has dipped a toe in the DJ world and been a gigging musician I can say there's a place for both. IMO if you're a band (covers or originals) with a following you belong in bars and whatever venue can hold your fans.

However, for a wedding, company party or anywhere with a very diverse audience a good DJ is more likely to be a crowd pleaser. Even if you're a cover band that has a diverse catalogue you will undoubtedly disappoint a large portion of the group no matter how good you are.

At any given time helping my Dad DJ we had a minimum of 10,000 songs everywhere we went (and that was before the day of just streaming anything). He knew everything we had and where it was. He knew what songs would compliment the requests we took. He knew how to make sure he played something for everyone and how make sure everyone was having a good time.

I've been to plenty of events where people thought a band would be cool only to see 70% of the people bored out of their skulls. My GF's company usually hires bands for the Christmas parties. They're usually great at one genre of music and occasionally playing stuff they don't care about in hopes of pleasing everyone. It shows and it sucks.

That covers the old school DJ.

If you think the current DJ thing is easy, try it. It ain't.
 

Killing Floor

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Question:

Is an entertainer with the musical breadth of knowledge of a guitarist + a lead guitarist + a bassist + a singer + a drummer + a keyboardist + a horn section + a producer who can create and deliver a pure, house packing set really carrying any useful skill? Or are they just some skateboarder in my parking lot drinking malt liquor in a paper bag?

Aoki, Walkzz, Peggy Gou, even guys like Calvin Harris are oozing with talent.

Just to clarify for the protectors of lawns, a DJ isn't the person who plays a record on FM radio 40 years ago.

Answer, Yes.
 

schmee

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There is skill to being a good DJ, reading the crowd, keeping it moving, good song selection to fit the mood and venue etc. You are kind of a front man. All aside from doing the "scratchy thing".
But NO, it doesn't take a ton of talent, like playing an instrument, that will take you a decade to get any good at....
 

Greggorios

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I don't know. I mean, paintings and sculptures are works of art, but so is a fantastically curated art exhibit. There may not be as much creation done by the curator, but there are still decisions made and ideas expressed and points made. The paintings and sculptures aren't just thrown together randomly, or just sorted by chronological order. The curator is still a crucial part of the ultimate aesthetic effect.

No disagreement here. I said pretty much the same thing.

I disagree with your point re. dedication, study etc. If you look at a modern DJ set-up and know the various things it makes you capable of, and keep in mind the fact that all this cutting and pasting and rearranging and effecting is often done off the cuff in front of a live audience and still makes sense as a cohesive piece of music (albeit one made from pieces of other coherent pieces of music), it's clear that no one can accomplish this without lots of time invested and many lessons learned from experience. They're not just lining up a playlist and hitting "play".

In theory it's a good point but it's a question of degree. Perhaps there's a few individual DJs that are exceptions but taken as a whole, accomplished DJs vs accomplished musicians, not playing in the same ballpark. Of course it's just an opinion.

Think of jazz musicians. Plenty of jazz musicians today are great players who improvise and create new things, but they do it in the context of (and using bits from) progressions and melodies that may be as much as a century old. It was created before them, and re-used and re-interpreted many times before them, and now they're doing their own re-using and re-interpretation. Are they any less musicians or any less artist because their art relies in part on art made by others before them?

IMHO, this comparison is stretching things too far. Again, in theory maybe, but in reality accomplished jazz musicians and even the best DJs are worlds apart.

But hey, it's a great thread and an interesting debate.:)
 

Sax-son

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I pose this question with all sincerity. I noticed it was in the 70’s when DJ’s started taking over some of the clubs we used to see live music at. A DJ used to be the person on the radio. Over the years it has grown exponentially and is an art all in itself from what I see. People becoming famous from playing other peoples recorded music on fancy systems with dueling turntables. I don’t understand it.
And it’s not just a money thing. Some of these DJs now get paid almost just as much as a full band. People just pack the dance floor.
Your thoughts…
From my perspective, these people are entertainers. They are not musicians, although the might like to spin that to think they are. Our society has changed in that it accepts just about any trend and I fear that they will lose sight of what is important in the art of creating music. None of these people, DJ's, Rap Artists, pop singers are really trained musically. They are nursed along by slick, crafty producers and recording technicians in order to produce music with a beat. The people who go to see them are just looking for a fun time and not really concerned about music per say. DJ's are good at what they do, but make no mistake, they are not musicians.
 

Sax-son

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I agree 100% that making music by selecting and rearranging pieces of other music is not the same as wrenching the notes and chords out of a musical instrument, and in some crucial way that I still haven't found a way to express. But I wouldn't say that it's any less artistic, or any better or worse, or more or less. It's still creative and artistic and talented, just at a different level. Not in terms of higher or lower, but in terms of how much art came before it that then becomes part of their art.

My question to you is someone who takes clippings of other peoples art, plasters it on a poster board in a collage manner and calls it there own, art? I look at what a DJ does similar but in a sonic method. We need to call a spade a spade in this topic because I believe it is really important. There are some who probably prefer DJ music as it is dance music and that's all they are interested in. That is perfectly valid as people should be allowed to make their own choices.

When I purchase a concert ticket and pay the club entrance fee to hear a band or performer, I don't have dancing as my main motive. I may end up doing that as part of the experience, but that is the bi-product of the music I am paying to hear.
 

BorderRadio

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There is skill to being a good DJ, reading the crowd, keeping it moving, good song selection to fit the mood and venue etc. You are kind of a front man. All aside from doing the "scratchy thing".
But NO, it doesn't take a ton of talent, like playing an instrument, that will take you a decade to get any good at....

A turntablist definitely can create new music with his instrument. Turntable DJs are about the technical inter-meshed with the music, but it's almost secondary to the skill in a battle. Where does seem familiar? Shredding maybe? Point is: turntable DJing takes talent, an instrument, and thousands of hours of practice.

 




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