Posts Tagged ‘ listening to music ’

DJs – Listen!

It’s very rare that I will ever discuss what I listen to.  The reason is that I want Behind The Decks to not be about genres but to be about DJing and the creative process.  However, I had to write about an experience I recently had that inspired me to write about what it means to listen to music as a DJ.  I recently received the Plastikman Arkives LP box set.  The first thing I have to say is that this is a work of art. A truly challenging musical experience unlike anything I’ve heard in a long time.   When you get something like this, you have to just sit and listen to it.  Get your favorite chair, fire up the system, and just listen.  This made me think about how we listen to music and if we still listen to it enough to appreciate it.

These days it seems we’re either in two camps, we reminisce over sounds that just aren’t produced the way they used to be ( the “everything is crap” opinion ), or we breeze through tracks, make a mental note, put a few tags to them and then leave them ( the “I must build up a massive library for that just in case moment” ).

But what if you set up an “audio campfire” and just listened.   Following the movements and sounds and discussing how that music makes you feel – not what it will do to the dancefloor or at what point you’re going to drop it in your set or what other tracks it goes with.  Paying attention to the construction of the piece and trying to understand what the producer’s point of view is.

It’s the DJ equivalent of stopping and smelling the roses.  Something like the Plastikman Arkives box set comes around once in a blue moon and it’s a game changer in my opinion.  It is a series of real compositions that Richie Hawtin has made his life’s work and allows the remixers like Moby, Carl Craig, Green Velvet and Dubfire an opportunity to really play and extend themselves as artists ( you will not hear the usual from these guys on this album, trust me ).  It is only right to sit and listen to it without imposing my thoughts on what I would do with this material.  I actually felt smarter afterwards not just because it is an incredible piece of work but due to listening deeply.

DJ EXERCISE: I want you to go into your discography and create a playlist that challenges you.  I’m sure you have music that at some point you realized was special, one of a kind, and unable to be categorized.  Make a playlist like that and then sit and listen around your “audio campfire”.  You may have the beginnings of another threshold of musical understanding – and that’s what’s required of you as a DJ.

Recap: Take the time to create an “audio campfire”.  Listen for the point of view of the DJ/Producer.  Create a challenging playlist and extend yourself musically as an appreciator.

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.