It’s recently been reported that Simon Cowell is to launch a talent show for DJs along the lines of X Factor to be aired on TV in Spring 2016. Though this has largely been met with derision in the DJ/clubbing community my reaction was ‘how could they possibly judge a DJ given no more than 3 or 4 minutes to demonstrate what they can do?’ Singing lends itself perfectly to the brief audition - after all you can either sing or you can’t and it’s pretty obvious straight off the bat - which is what makes X Factor such compelling viewing for it’s millions of fans.
DJing on the other hand is an artform with many different facets, most of which I don’t think can be judged in under five minutes. There is of course the technical ability of the DJ – how they can manipulate their equipment (i.e. decks and mixer) to be the most creative they can be – and nowhere is this more apparent than with scratch/turntablist DJs who can create live music by using the decks as an instrument. But turntablism has its limitations as a form of entertainment and is really more impressive for those who understand the level of difficulty on display than it is to the casual listener. In short, it’s for DJ geeks. And besides there is already a very long running, very established global competition for this with the DMC Championships. So I can’t imagine that there will be too much of this on show on ‘Ultimate DJ’.
So how else can DJing be judged and what is it that makes a great DJ? If you look at those that have been at the top of their game for the longest – the likes of Carl Cox, Sasha, John Digweed, etc. – undoubtedly they have exceptional technical ability but this is not what has got them to the top and kept them there. Moreover it is their ability to understand their audience, to be tuned into the latest tracks as well as to an enormous back catalogue built up through the years and to be able to create a set (usually in excess of 2 hours) that will, excuse the cheesy phrase, take the crowd on a journey. To the uninitiated it could be perceived as just playing other people’s records but it is no accident that the big guns of the DJing world, mostly in their 40s and 50s now, are still drawing enormous crowds. They entertain through their years of experience in playing the right tune at the right time, knowing what will get people dancing and then adding just what is needed to make the place go crazy. Even the humble wedding DJ knows that it’s all about getting people on the dancefloor and keeping them there over the course of the evening.
So how could any of this be judged with the X Factor style 5 minute audition? If it’s not these attributes then what will the DJs actually be judged on? The clue appears to come in the details of who is involved in the production of the show. Heavily influenced by the big money EDM (Electronic Dance Music) scene that has Las Vegas at its epicentre and has sent dance music and DJing stratospheric in the US (30 years after they exported it to the UK of course, but that’s another story) it’s no wonder that Simon Cowell has got involved. The art of the DJ in this scene is somewhat different with acts like Steve Aoki, David Guetta and Calvin Harris making tens of millions per year ($63m in 2014 for Harris to be specific) for playing to stadium sized crowds. Here it’s all about showbiz razzmatazz with Aoki, in particular, drawing criticism for such antics as throwing cake at those closest to the front and crowd-surfing in a dingy. This doesn’t seem to leave much time for actually reading the crowd, teeing up the next tune, doing all the other technical requirements to ensure your mixing is seamless. These DJs are accused of just hitting the play button then larking about and it’s easy to see why there has been such an acrimonious split between the ‘underground’ and EDM scene. On one hand are the purists, the old school, the ones where it’s all about the music and on the other you have the multi-millionaire, cake-throwing entertainers where the music and the ‘art of the DJ’ comes a distant second to making money.
As with most things in life it’s all about personal preference. Though it sticks in the throat of the old guard, these new EDM DJs are big business and are insanely popular. The barriers to entry of becoming a DJ are so low these days due to the drop in the cost of technology and the ability of that equipment to automate things such as beatmatching that almost anyone can do it.
As a DJ of 20 years brought up on two decks and a bag of vinyl who, like so many others, has spent countless hours practicing and honing the technical skills required I tend to side with the traditionalists. While it’s impossible to prevent the relentless changes brought about by technology, personally I think it’s a shame that for many youngsters just discovering dance music, the DJs that they will be looking to emulate are those who actually aren’t necessarily that talented. They just know how to create a show and market themselves to the masses.
Which brings us back to the X Factor concept, which to me is the epitome of successfully marketing average output to the masses. Entertainment and talent do not necessarily go hand in hand when there is the budget to put a sheen on any performance. It remains to be seen how ‘Ultimate DJ’ will work but I can’t help thinking it will be less about actual DJing talent and more about the way it’s packaged.