DJ or producer? Or should it be performer?

producer DJ performer

You know how it goes: the end of summer rolls round, festival season becomes a fading memory and the dreaded ‘Top 100 DJs’ competition starts appearing across social media. Inevitably, the list will come out, and we all stare at the top 10 and think “Ugh, is that what people think DJing is?”

Artists like David Guetta, Swedish House Mafia or Steve Aoki are undeniably cornerstones of the Dance Music scene, and they are extremely popular, regularly filling stadiums, headlining festivals and pushing the boundaries of what an EDM live show can do, but when you get a headline like this one about Guetta, it makes you think about what they’re actually doing up there. Is it really newsworthy that someone we call a DJ has had to improvise their set?

Festival headliners like these have rabid fans. They’re basically playing huge gigs to people who expect to hear certain music produced by the artist, maybe with a few tracks from known collaborators, and all tied together with a big ‘wow-factor’ light show. They’re basically just a less original version of a one-man-band playing a concert. That’s not to say that these guys never do a DJ gig, just that it’s no longer what they’re known for.

A good example of how a producer who performs live is Paul Van Dyk. For a long time, he would DJ just like any other producer might: vinyl, decks and a mixer. When the digital revolution (and it was a revolution) arrived, Van Dyk embraced it, bringing as much of his production into his live performances as possible. An interview from back in 2012 gives some insight:

On stage I have two 25-key keyboards, two 17” MacBook Pro computers, a custom-made Allen & Heath Mixer based on the 4D, a custom-made that has a different routing inside. I have another Akai controller and two smaller ones. That enables me to be really all over the place creatively! I switch between programs a lot. On the right machine is my audio material, and on the left machine I have most of my sequencers and soft synths there. I sync these elements with each other which gives me the freedom to do different things and switch back and forth and re-create and re-produce something from scratch while I’m playing.

Deadmau5 said it best in one of his many ‘calls it like I sees it’ moments about EDM live acts. The man who famously denied being a DJ has been brutally honest about what exactly he does up on stage. And he’s right. You may not always like what Joel says or how he says it, but more often than not, he has a bloody good point!

The bottom line, is that these hugely popular artists aren’t really DJing anymore. They’re just that: artists. They’re performers.

It’s never been about the equipment

It’s about the intent. These guys at the top are there because their music has become popular. They’re recognised for that music, so of course their live performances are going to focus on that, and their budgets can afford the huge, completely-in-sync, cake-and-reach-for-the-holographic-lasers stage shows they’re also known for. They perform the way they do so that it can be portable. The crowd at that trendy pool party in Miami will get to have exactly the same experience as the kids at this year’s Creamfields or city stadium performance.

Let me make something clear: there’s nothing wrong with being a performer rather than a DJ. Seeing Deadmau5 live was one of those moments to remember for me. This debate isn’t about the value of these artists to Dance Music, or about their skill and hard work. But if we continue to call them DJs, it dilutes the definition of what you all do. The more that definition is diluted, the less value will be placed on your skills, the less the industry are willing to pay DJs. We should be standing together to reinforce the importance of what a DJ does in a club.

Whether you’re working some scummy club using their battered CDJs and club mixer, playing classic 45s to a bunch of Northern Soul fans or sat in front of what looks like a space shuttle cockpit dashboard like Ray tends to be, you’re not just there to spoon feed a set list of bangers. You’re curators. You’re a spirit guide for everyone in front of you to make sure they have a great time. You’re not bigger than the music, but just a conduit based on your experience, and understanding of both the technology and the crowd.

So let’s take back what it means to be a DJ. Let’s start calling them EDM performers.