Are DJs musicians?

Are DJs musicians, and if not, why the hell do we pay these worthless posers? This is the question before us.

First a little about my background.  I’m a musician.  I’ve played trumpet for 24 years, studied music in college, and have been on the radio, taught, recorded hundreds of hours of music, and played hundreds of shows.  I’ve been involved in various forms of electronic music such as live looping and computer music for about 15 years, but have never spun a record or incorporated samples in a meaningful way.  That being the case, I’ve always resented the success many DJs enjoy.  Compared to traditional music making, DJing can be pretty lucrative; and what’s even more infuriating is that well known DJs are often given the highest levels of respect as artists.  Whenever I hear about a successful DJ there’s an insecure, jealous, voice in my head screaming “this motherfucker never spent one second practicing scales, and these dumbfucks are asking for his autograph!”

Audience and musician.  These are the two categories that our ancestors left us to define our relationships with music.  You’re either a creator of the art, or a consumer of it; those are your choices.  When I feel resentful of a DJ, it’s about these categories.  DJs look like musicians.  You’ll see them packing heavy gear before and after shows; they appear on stage under the lights.  Through their actions they implicitly take credit for the music, and are therefore judged by it.  For these reasons, ill-informed audience members treat them as musicians.  That’s the problem; if everyone is either a consumer of the music or a creator of it; DJs must be treated as consumers, but often they are treated as creators.  In this simple, black and white model, a DJ is a parasite on the whole system, tricking listeners and stealing from musicians.

But there’s one problem with the good guy/bad guy story.  What about the DJ who’s clearly a great artist?  What do we do with them?

An Alternative

The rather mean-spirited view above depends on the notion that everyone is either an audience member or a musician.  I argue that in today’s musical world, there’s a whole universe in between the creator and the passive consumer.  Everyone has a unique relationship with music, and it’s up to every individual to make that relationship as healthy and enriching as possible.

Imagine a grid.  Left to right is the nature of your relationship.  On one extreme end are people who’re clearly MAKING music.  This is a composer, singer, or instrumentalist; this person literally creates the sonic relationships we call music.  On the other end of the spectrum we’ve got passive listeners; these folks take zero responsibility for the music filling the air and simply consume.  Now here’s the important part, so pay a frickntention!  In between the musician and the passive listener is a wide spectrum of possible ways to interact with music.  You’ve got DJs who aren’t actually creating the smallest units of musical material but who ARE interacting with it in a meaningful, creative way; you’ve also got listeners who actively make music part of their lives and support the creation of the art.

I’d like to suggest we split audience members into two groups: active and passive listeners.  When you go into a grocery store do you notice the music?  Personally, I also notice the music in stores, every single time; and the music I hear affects my experience shopping.  But not everyone is like that; some people can go hours with background music playing and not even notice its presence.  Vastly different are active listeners who spend thousands of dollars on concerts, recordings, and stereo equipment.  Some people go farther and spend 10s of thousands of dollars on lessons and instruments for their kids.  These people are not musicians, but they are actively engaged with music and play a crucial part of the culture and economy of sonic art.

Now we come to DJs.  DJs aren’t musicians.  Playing back music and creating it from scratch are distinct and different orientations toward music, but some DJs are more like musicians than others.  Perhaps it’s not fair that we even use the same word, because there is a HUGE difference between a wedding DJ that plays the Hokey Pokey song in between Lady Gaga tunes, and a creative mix master who scratches records, shifts tempos, and performs on-the-fly sampling.  In short, some DJs are so active that they are about 90% musician, while others are pushing play on an Ipod and doing virtually nothing.

Here is my most important point.  Nothing is particularly wrong or right about any of these roles.  I might seem hard on passive DJs but we need people to puch play at weddings and on the radio.  It’s a legitimate role, and some people do it better than others. Some passive DJs are handed crappy mixes moments before their set and lazily go through them, tune by tune, while looking at Facebook at the same time.  But others spend hours discovering hidden treasures and contemplating how songs should be ordered.  Good passive DJs that love music and work hard to have a positive effect on the culture of music.  These people deserve our respect.

The same can be said for passive audience members.  The reality is that some people aren’t moved by music and it isn’t a big part of their lives; this is natural and fine, it is not a problem to be fixed.  Rather, it is a relationship to be refined.  The most dangerous person in our sonic world is the irresponsible, passive listener with influence over the sonic environment.  This is the manager that forces their employees to listen to musac versions of Christmas carols for two months every year.  This is the couple loudly talking over the singer songwriter in a coffee shop.  On the other hand, there are non-music lovers that respect that other people want to hear the music so they keep their voices down.

So my answer.  Are DJs musicians?  No they are not.  But they aren’t simple consumers either, they are in an important role in between, and when they do their job well, they are true artists.

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