The iconic DJ Shadow 'Endtroducing' cover. © DJ Shadow.
The iconic DJ Shadow 'Endtroducing' cover. © DJ Shadow.

Can DJs ‘keep it real’ and spin only new vinyl?

The iconic DJ Shadow 'Endtroducing' cover. © DJ Shadow.

Anyone and everyone who has set foot into the DJ world will, at some point in their life, have heard the phrase ‘keep it real’. This refers, of course, to the act of DJing using only vinyl, rather than supporting the policies of the fictional MP Alistair Leslie Graham aka Ali G. People will still throw this statement about as though it is the purist way, and the elite way to DJ.

In the days before the digital age, vinyl was the only choice, and lugging crates of wax to each gig was the norm. But just how easy is it to actually ‘keep it real’ and be a vinyl only DJ in 2013?

Digital Sources

The everyday top 40 club DJ will play a range of songs, but as the name top 40 alludes to, a significant proportion of the tunes played will appear in the current charts. Using the iTunes Top 20 singles as a rough guide to what’s popular at the moment, I trawled the interweb to see exactly how many of those songs were available to buy on vinyl. What I found out was that those who want to ‘keep it real’ would actually be at a significant disadvantage. Only 25% of the Top 20 was released on vinyl as a single, pushing up to 55% if you were willing to buy the LP for the other 30%. Just under half of all chart songs would be impossible for you to play, even if you bought every song available. Cost and ease of transportation are also major deterrents to playing solely vinyl, without looking at the percentage of venues that still house working turntables.

So the people that promote ‘vinyl only’ probably aren’t going to be Top 40 DJs, as the CDJ, and the ever increasing bring-your-own-controller philosophy dominates most commercial clubs nowadays. So I jumped across to Beatport to have a look at the Hip-Hop Top 20, as I have always associated turntables with hip-hop. Unfortunately the inappropriately named ‘Hip-hop Top 20’ turned out to be just a lot of trap (or something similar) remixes. Rapidly becoming more transparent to me was the reality that 0% of the songs were available on vinyl, so I swiftly moved onto the Billboard R&B and Hip-hop Top 20. Only 30% of these could be found as vinyl singles, and an extra 5% available on an LP. Again, vinyl only DJs are left in a position where they can only get their hands on less than a third of the available songs on the market.

To briefly summarise my findings so far, if you are going to be playing current mainstream songs, then ‘keeping it real’ may not be your best option.

CDR Vinyl Only Print
Vinyl only print. Available from The Christopher David Ryan Print Shop.

Vinyl only release?

Digital only releases are now a fairly common practice, but vinyl-only is still very much alive when you delve into the underground of genres, such as G-House and Grime (just to name a couple). Certain labels are extremely proactive when it comes to making sure that no digital copies of their releases ever surface. It’s a very valid point that exclusivity is not reserved solely for the digital market, and many DJs pride themselves on the rare and hard to find records they own. Finding yourself falling in love with the dark tones of G-house, only to realise that the 7” you just bought doesn’t fit in your CDJ, puts you in a bit of a predicament. Scenes such as this actually make it a necessity to play vinyl, but these are a distinct minority in the DJing world.

To me, vinyl only would leave me without a whole host of the tunes I love to play out. Having a brief look at costing, £7 a single (much cheaper buying used from charity shops), playing 20 songs an hour, a 4 hour gig suddenly looks very expensive at £560! Transportation of more than a few records, is cumbersome, and to bring enough to handle a full set plus a few requests is going to require even more effort.

The act of buying and collecting Vinyl, to me, brings a far superior sense of intrinsic satisfaction than a weekly shop on Beatport. For this reason I do not think I will (in the foreseeable future) ever acquire a purely digital library, but nor will it persuade me to sacrifice choice and convenience, to pursue a music collection solely in vinyl format.

A very clear option seems to jump out when the argument of keeping it real versus the digital revolution comes up. Surely there isn’t a way you could possibly satisfy both camps, keeping up to date with all the current songs whilst still playing your beloved vinyl? DVS. At the flick of a switch you can jump from using timecode to control digital files, straight into slapping on some wax and rocking some obscure track you picked up from a recent car boot sale.

Summing Up

Live and let live is an attitude that seems to keep most people content, and why not hey? If using mp3s doesn’t give you that same tingly feeling that flicking through a crate of records does, then stick to what makes you happy. If you love having an ultra portable, USB stick and headphones setup for playing out, then do not let anyone tell you that you are doing something wrong. Everyone has opinions, and they are fully entitled to them, but telling someone else what they should and shouldn’t do, when it has no effect whatsoever on their lives, seems a little pointless and self indulgent to me.

vinyl sales keep it real

An addendum from Mark Settle

The percentages shown by Sam where correct at the time of writing, but highly unlikely to be much different today from a couple of months ago. But one thing is clear — keeping it real simply isn’t an option for anyone who wants to play mainstream music. And while some of you may have a more flexible definition that allows DVS use, ultimately a turntable with timecode makes it a controller. You haven’t bought original vinyl and your buying process is no different to DJs who use digital DJ gear.

One thing that gets a lot of press is much reported rise in vinyl sales. Now I’m a vinyl lover as much as the next vinyl lover, but I’m also a realist. I read the rises in sales and think “a 100% increase in bugger all is still bugger all”, and have found a very useful article by Tom Koltai that documents the 12 years up to 2007 for music sales.


It includes the above chart (updated with recent actual and projected figures), that really does give some context to vinyl sales, one that will show that vinyl as a format really does have a very VERY long way to becoming anything like mainstream, making the whole idea of keeping it real a pipe dream. Further context — vinyl is still only 1-2% of the overall market, depending on format and region. I really do suggest that you pour over that article — it’s quite the eye-opener.

So please, before heaping crap upon people for using toys and faking, just remember that unless DJs stick to very niche genres, or only play music from the last millennium, the realistic chances of DJs keeping it real in the digital world are very slim.

Over to you

Are you a DJ who plays nothing but vinyl? How hard is it for you to stay current? Have you given up trying and gone digital? Do you feel that using a turntable and DVS is enough to ‘keep it real’? Do you see the trend in vinyl sales as a long term thing or do you see it flattening out?

NOTE: The hero shot is the iconic DJ Shadow ‘Endtroducing’ cover. © DJ Shadow. Poster available in the DJ Shadow store.