Posts Tagged ‘ defining your style ’

Getting To Know Your Tracks

A reader wrote to me about a topic that he has been experiencing and seeing coming up in a lot of conversations with DJs.  I will quote him and then expand on the issues he raises.

“FINALLY finished your thesis.  Loved it. It really got me thinking about some of the problems of having an analog (DJ) mind in a digital (DJ) world.  For example, the idea of spontaneity and creativity I love.  And I never plan my sets more than narrowing down a list of songs from 500 to 50 for example.  The problem I encounter is one that comes up a lot from my conversations with DJ’s – not enough time to really learn your new music.  A recurring theme that seems to be out there is that so many DJ’s want the newest tracks all of the time.  But if you’re always looking for new stuff, you’re never really learning the “old” stuff (and by “old” I mean the tracks from last week that you already played at a gig.) I feel like things are happening so quickly from song concept to production to release to the DJ to the next gig that one of the important arts of being a DJ gets shafted – know your tracks!!  When you buy records you read grooves, listen to the track and really get to know it intimately.  But because of the turnover in music in the digital realm people get just aquainted enough with a track so they can play it once and toss it.  Does that make sense?”

Yes, that absolutely makes sense.  Let’s break down some of the issues raised by this reader.

1) The acceleration of the music production process and distribution

2) The mental model of digital vs. tangible

3) Having time to learn tracks

The acceleration of the music production process and distribution

With the proliferation of production tools, production becoming more ingrained in the DJ career trajectory, and the boon of digital music as a business model for music vendors, there is a vast set of resources and channels for digital music.  The acceleration of the music production queue in the past few years has posed some challenges and new reactions for DJs.   What this uptick in the production/distribution cycle has done has forced DJs to feel more burden on their track selection and preparation process.   Instead of listening to a hundred or so tracks a week, DJs listen to a few hundred tracks a week during their selection process.  Bear in mind that it’s the production process that is in high gear, YOU don’t have to be in high gear with it.  Stay centered and focused on who you are as an artist and filter your track buying process through that lens. You see it’s the music vendor’s business to sell you the latest tracks and have an accessible inventory or back catalogue.   DJ charts, the Top 10, exclusive productions for the site, fire sales – there are a myriad ways to entice you into spending money with them.   What’s happening in your mind is that you convince yourself that you must have the latest tracks in order to be or stay relevant or to emulate a superstar DJ.  I encourage you to rethink that.  Where is that pressure coming from exactly?  Is it really from your audience?  Do you really need to have the Top 10 downloaded every week? What does it really mean to have the latest tracks in relation to what you already have in your discography?

The mental model of digital vs. tangible

There is an interesting way people view the digital world vs. the tangible world.  People perceive ( and this happens with anything that is a tangible product that is also available in the digital realm, like newspapers or magazines for example ) digital products as much cheaper to produce and buy than a tangible product.  The expectation is that it must be less expensive for digital.  It is a well known fact that records are more expensive than digital music simply because digital music is cheaper to produce – there is no vinyl to press or ship and house at a warehouse.  What happens with the mental model of digital music is that because it is less expensive to buy, it is also disposable.  As in, it only costs a buck so I can take it or leave it.  I insist that this mental model is clogging up your creative process. You become accustomed to filtering your track selection process based on a disposable construct instead of a creative construct and you are left with a bloated discography that isn’t much use other than giving yourself the false sense that you have a lot of tracks to draw from.  Quality over quantity people!  Whether you shop for vinyl or digital music is irrelevant – the way your decision making process is executed is relevant.  Pretend the digital track you purchase cost 5 bucks instead of a dollar and see what happens then.  Is it a track that fits who you are?  Is it a track you genuinely love? Don’t buy it right away because of a bassline and it’s price – really think about it and take the extra time to listen repeatedly or revisit the sample in a couple of days.  If you still feel excited about it, then buy it.  A DJ said to me, looking at his flash drive: “You know, this flash drive is worth $2000, I have 2000 tracks on it.” So if you think a dollar here and a dollar there doesn’t add up – it does – and maybe you’re not even utilizing half of that.

Having time to learn tracks

One of the larger concepts I want DJs to understand with the Behind The Decks project is that creativity must be a habit.  You must touch it every day.  If you are truly committed to growing as a DJ you must do something every day to keep progressing as an artist.  One of the easiest ways to do that is to listen to music.  If you feel you have fallen out of touch with your discography or need to learn your new tracks, build time every day to listen to them, take them with you on your commute, or play a few records every day.  Don’t be lazy!  Don’t think because you know the track or you’ve listened to it once, you REALLY know it.  You need to constantly be refreshing your mind with input in order to make the proper connections musically.   It’s just that simple, make the time.  Listen to a track a few times before you move on to something else.  The point is that you MUST make time to do this exercise, and do it every day in order to really know your tracks.  “You’ll never crush your own mediocrity working only a few hours a week.” – Robert Bruce, poet.

Recap:  The industry is accelerated, don’t buy into it.  Do not treat your decisions as disposable.  Learning your tracks must be a habit.

Why Do You DJ?

I first read “How To DJ Properly” about 10 years ago and was inspired by what Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton said in the introduction.  “You need to know that DJing isn’t really about celebrity, or money, or pulling power, it’s about music.” (Brewster, Broughton, 2002, 16)

First of all, I love this book, it has been my go to book over the years when I get stuck or just when I need to remind myself why I do this.  I have told many DJs they should have it in their library – it’s mandatory in my opinion for any DJ, experienced or not.

The essential thread in the book is that loving music is the foundation for any great DJ.   I would like to add to that.  It’s about passion.   Nearly every creative process book I’ve read so far talks about having passion for what you do.  Frank and Bill nail it down to passion about music.

You see passion is what gets you through the TRAINWRECKS of the creative process, and trainwrecks in general.   Passion is what lifts you when you face rejection after rejection, or empty and non-responsive dancefloors, or just feeling stuck.  Passion is what directs you to listen to yourself when you need to try something new or keep going when you’ve discovered something is working.   Passion is what gets you up in the morning to practice. I’ve had DJs tell me they get up an hour early before work just to practice some mixes or listen to tracks – they must touch Dj’ing in some way to get them through the day when they are not DJ’ing – that’s passion!  Every human being experiences passion at some point in their lives – it’s one of those universal human emotions.  If you connect to it, you will help others connect to it.  That’s what your audience wants from you.

Also, if you are passionate, others will see that in you – it’s something that spreads like wildfire.  I have seen the difference in energy on dancefloors when you can feel a DJ is passionate about what they’re doing and when a DJ is unsure, or tired, or unresolved, or genuinely unhappy about the situation.   Now DJs share their passion in different ways.   Some are laser focused, lovingly directing their passion in what they are doing – you can still tell the difference between a DJ that’s focused and loving, and one that is apathetic.  Some DJs want to connect to the crowd more directly – dancing, eye contact, smiling, throwing hands up in the air – when they genuinely are having a great time. You can tell the difference between a DJ that is really loving the music and what they’re doing and a DJ that is just throwing their hands up in the air.   The bottom line is people always can tell so you need to be sure, deep down inside about your passion point.

Passion also forces you to stand behind your music.  Bruce Tantum said to me, “I never played a record I didn’t like”.  That’s powerful.  Think about it, look at your discography – how big is your secret stash in comparison to the rest of your collection.  In Bruce’s case his entire discography – all 3000 records – IS his secret stash.   If the percentage of your discography is not close to at least well, all of your secret stash – you may have trouble getting to that passionate place in yourself.  What I mean is if your discography, your go to box of music, is filled with tracks you are not passionate about, how can you drum up the passion to practice and to share your creativity.  Now some of you need or want, “just in case” tracks.  I understand that, every DJ understands that.   Some tracks are “bridge” tracks that you know you can drop to help you transition between genres or dimensions.   But if a significant portion of your discography contains “just in case tracks” you will be a “just in case” DJ – that limits your passion and the passion you express to others.

Here’s an exercise for you:  look at your track collection and pick 10 songs that you cannot live without.  Don’t just pick songs you got recently, really dig into your “crate” and pick ten songs.  Songs that if you were stranded on a desert island you could listen to for the rest of your life.   Don’t evaluate them yet, just pick them out.   Now, pretend those are the only tracks you have – forget about your collection.   Now, listen to every track once.  Don’t think you just know them because they’re your favorites.  Listen to them, really listen.   Now you can evaluate them – but evaluate them in terms of what they signify about you.   What are the elements of these tracks that are similar?  What sounds are you hearing that may be consistent through all of them?  Is there one theme or word that describes all ten?  These are your passion tracks.   If you have identified what makes these songs resonate with you – and this exercise may take some time and  you may need to revisit it – then you have identified your passion sound.  Now, when you listen to new tracks you will evaluate new tracks in relation to what your passion sounds are and this will help you build a discography that you are passionate about practicing and playing out with.   You may have noticed that I did not say genre in this exercise.  I want you to be genre agnostic – I want you to go deeper than genre, I want you to be passionate about sound.

Recap:  It’s about the music.  It’s about passion.  Passion is what gets you through the TRAINWRECKS.  Passion is expressive.  Passion is your filter for sounds.

Did you find this interesting and want to share your thoughts – drop me a line!