Split Decision: Are DJs musicians?
With upwards of 20,000 kids descending on Red Rocks this weekend for Global Dance Fest 2012 -- a music festival made up mostly of DJ's -- it seemed like a good time to put our resident electronic music writer, Britt Chester, in the Split Decision ring with our resident music history writer, Josiah M Hesse, and let them duke it out over the question: Are DJs really musicians? Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts on the issue.
DJs conduct symphonies, just with 99 less members.
I believe it was Romeo Montague who begged the question, "What's in a name?"
Well, when that name starts with "DJ" it means that you are a musician. From the early vinyl-flipping pioneers scratching their records against the needle on the gramophone who define the term "disc jockey" to the new-age producers who run Ableton Live with two CDJ-2000 turntables with a Rane Sixty-Two mixer, the evolution of music delivery has only evolved and grown with technology.
With this recent influx in the mainstream popularity of electronic music, the discussion as to whether or not these people are musicians has popped up in the minds of those purists that love music in its "raw" form.
Take, for instance, a recent quote from Joel Zimmerman, also known as Deadmau5, where he slams these major players for only pressing buttons. Sure, there are those offenders out there. We know that. There are also rock bands that show up to their own concert and play the same series of notes in the same order over and over again because their set list never changes. What's the difference? Bands develop formulaic sets that are so practiced and rehearsed that it's essentially the same thing as just coming and pressing the right buttons in the right order.
That's not a slam on DJs, that's a slam on music. The difference between these DJs and those big musicians are the level of respect we give them for what they do. You think it's easy just to go home and create sixty to ninety minutes of flowing music that can keep 10,000 people or more at bay? It's not, and it takes hours of practice for these artists to come deliver their professional choice of notes, beats, samples, and sounds into the right order that can possess that power.
Isn't a song merely a series of notes layered over each other played in syncopation at the right moments? Isn't the first chair violin of a philharmonic orchestra merely five stroked strings playing over the carefully constructed sounds of the other 99 members of the symphony? How does that differ from what a DJ is doing? His symphony just so happens to be in front of him, and nowadays it can be packed onto the hard-drive of a laptop, or a vinyl collection organized in personal chaos in a crate under the DJ booth. It's the same thing.
What matters in a symphony aside from the people actually creating the music? The conductor. When each DJ steps up to the tables, what makes his conducting skills any different? Sure, his baton is actually the pitch, and his ability to know what song will flow seamlessly out of the current one playing, and his symphony evolves with the emotion of the crowd.
For those that hate on button-pushers, well, you aren't up there pressing them. Sure, it's easy to get up somewhere and just "press play" if you are lame enough to do that. It's an option. And yes, to some degree, it could be compared to Milli Vanilli getting busted in a scandal over lip-synching, except they didn't even make all their own music.
These new age mega-stars give a bad rap to all the real hard working DJs out there grinding out a flawless set in front of thirty people on a Monday night where they are getting paid in PBR. Guess what? Your favorite athletes get busted for drugs, your favorite celebrities have raging cocaine addictions, and your favorite teacher is actually a pedophile. What excludes DJs from being faultless when you dangle some money in front of their eyes? Don't let these big names deter you! There are purists out there who do respect the music, and they can usually be found playing local gigs with a serious smile, and a serious dedication to their craft.
The big names have made it to the top, not because 20,000 people want to see a close-up of their mixing skills, but because they created great music that feeds a hungry fan base. Just like Van Halen's fans come to hear the exact same songs that Van Halen has been playing for decades.
If you think DJs aren't musicians, then you can't think anyone else is. That is, unless you think some person with no training whatsoever will play a show at Red Rocks and it will blow you socks off, if you are even willing to buy a ticket for that kind of blind trust.
Scroll down to read Josiah M Hesse's take on whether a DJ should be classified a "musician."