The realities of DJ battles — by a competitor and organiser

Canadian turntable wizard Vekked recently made a Facebook post noting how the battle scene suffers from a decline in funding and prizes — prizes which, aside from incentivising DJs into competing, also help justify and cover the tremendous effort that goes into preparing routines.

The realities of DJ battles — by a competitor and organiser

There are reasons for this I’ve wanted to elaborate on for a long time. As a former competitor and organizer, I’ve been on both sides of the table, and want to share my perspective to help you understand how things have turned out to be this way — and how we could possibly turn this around.

The realities of DJ battles — by a competitor and organiser
DJ Perly takes the US DMC 2017 crown, and gets to touch the prototype Rane Seventy Two. Image credit Christie Zee @ DMC USA.


From an organizer’s point of view, hardware prizes are relatively easy to get. Of course, having a good personal relationship with people working for the companies whose doors you’re knocking on helps a lot — but that’s true in every line of work, and generally most brands are actually very open and supportive about these things even if you approach them out of the blue. All you need is a solid concept. But there is one important truth when it comes to getting sponsors on board: it’s significantly easier to for them to justify supplying product for prizes than spending actual money. And that’s where running a physical battle event gets tricky.

Overall, it’s not rocket science to put something like this together — it’s pretty much like throwing a party. Promotion, venue, technicians, security and other personnel all need to be paid. And if you think whatever you ask at the door is going to be enough to cover it, you’re being naïve. Ideally, you’d also want to support the competitors by helping them with travel expenses, but more often than not, that’s simply not possible. Without financial support, you’re looking at significant losses — and like I said, getting sponsors to put in real money is a tough thing to pull off. But people still do it, because they love it and live it to the point of personal sacrifice.


I understand those of you who are quick to point out the discrepancy between sales of DJ product and budgets allocated to competition events. But I’ll tell you right now, your perspective is warped. Turntablism, or let’s call it “performance DJing” in general, is a niche. And a small one, too. When you’re locked in your social filter bubble — which being a Facebook user, you automatically are because of how the content delivery algorithms work — you may think DJing is this huge thing that impacts everybody you know. But when most of your contacts are DJs or fans… well, of course you’d think that. Thing is, you’re wrong.

The realities of DJ battles — by a competitor and organiser
Judging the scratch nerds. Image courtesy of DMC USA/Joysco Photos.


In reality, nobody cares about nerdy technical DJ battles — besides us nerdy technical DJs, that is. And in the whole scheme of the DJ technology business, the ultra-niche of turntablism doesn’t count for much at all. I expect raw, seething hate in the comments section for saying this — but let’s get real. In regard to your individual career, unless you constantly pump out quality content, your skills and titles… are actually worth very little. Nobody is going to book you just because you’ve won DMC World — you have to ride that very brief promo wave, and ride it hard, otherwise you’re going to lose momentum. There are several incredibly skilled people with countless championship titles who have made it nowhere for that very reason.

Yes, a lot of kids these days want to start DJing and buy their basic two channel controllers, and there’s a lot of money flowing into the industry. But it’s really not because of DMC or IDA. It’s because of the Dimitri Vegases and Like Mikes of this world — the Aviciis, the Garrixes, and Skrillexes, who do nothing but basic A/B mixing with pyrotechnics and visuals they (most of the time) had no part in creating. It’s not because of the Qberts, Crazes, and Woodys. Those are our idols, they’re unquestionable legends of DJing, but they’re still only a tiny part of what has become a massive global market over the course of the last decade.

So when DMC and IDA don’t have budgets to even cover your travel and accommodation, let alone shower you with prizes and money… it’s because their influence and status aren’t as important as they once were, and that change directly translates into cash flow from sponsors. The golden era is past. It’s over. Poof. Gone. It’s time to look reality in the eye and accept that fact.

The realities of DJ battles — by a competitor and organiser
Not really pointing — just Mr Switch requiring the attention of the crowd.


It’s mostly the battle organisations’ fault for failing to evolve at the same pace as DJ technology does, and follow the workings of the industry. I don’t see how there’s still no pure controllerism / live category in DMC or IDA, when it represents such a significant portion of the market. And I’m not saying that because I myself represent the controllerism corner, and don’t really scratch — which is why, despite doing some crazy advanced tech stuff, I’ve never made it further than a couple of national championships. My personal stance has nothing to do with this. I’m not bitter or disappointed because no rule set can accommodate my way of doing things — I’ve only ever competed for fun, and I’ve had plenty of that. So, no — it’s really just about the significance of a DJ battle event in a brand’s business/marketing context, which is when you need to look at things from the industry’s perspective.

Do you really think any of the companies (as opposed to brands — Ed) out there make the bulk of their profit with turntablist gear? Nope. It’s all between the basic starter DJ stuff, and high-end (but still basic) stuff for clubs; entry-level controllers, CDJs and club mixers. I’ll let you fill in the blanks in regard to which companies own that market. What you need to realize is that if they put out equipment aimed at turntablists, it’s never their flagship “moneymaker” product. The stuff that triggers all your hateful #realDJing comments — that’s where the money is, and you should really be grateful that the industry still bothers with making us nerds happy.

The realities of DJ battles — by a competitor and organiser
DJ Puffy, the 2016 Red Bull 3Style winner, judged by some of the world’s greatest DJs. Image courtesy of Red Bull.


You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned Red Bull 3Style at all yet. That’s because they’re very different from DMC and IDA. At the same time, however, they’re perfect for illustrating my point. First of all, 3Style is not really a technical battle, and shouldn’t be regarded as such. It’s a club rocker competition with some technique sprinkled on top, and raw technical skill isn’t the key to winning it, as we’ve clearly seen last year. It’s mostly about having a cool, original selection and controlling crowd energy well… something that doesn’t matter that much in pure technical battles, where literally nobody dances. Ever.

That’s not the only difference though. Red Bull is a veritable behemoth — you really only need to look at everything they’re doing all over the world, and you’ll see that it’s a company with budgets most people can’t even imagine. They can quite easily pay for everything, several times over. If something is interesting to them, like funding a base jump from the upper stratosphere, they’ll just do it, because they can.

However, like any company, their budgets need allocating — and for that reason, the people in charge of the 3Style event are most definitely fighting the same battle the DMC/IDA crews are. Perhaps an even harder one — because DMC/IDA are more idealist at the core, whereas Red Bull is very much a business making business decisions. For that reason, they are by far the best indicator of how much DJ competitions matter.

The key word here is “return of investment”. While 3Style is part of Red Bull’s massive brand image apparatus, if it ends up not working out for them, it will immediately reflect in how much money is devoted to putting it together. It will happen much faster than with DMC/IDA, because Red Bull doesn’t really need to rely on sponsors to make budget decisions — whereas DMC/IDA will accept potential losses in order to keep the tablism subculture alive.

Red Bull, on the other hand, has adopted parts of that subculture and successfully turned it into its own thing. It’s something a lot of people hate on, but I’m not one of them. Arguably, they’ve done more for promoting DJ culture to the mainstream consumer than any other organisation in recent years. For that reason alone, I’m glad they exist. What they’re doing may not meet your definition of #realDJing — but if we’re gonna throw hashtags like shurikens, I’m gonna go with #actualDJing. That’s right, I said it. 3Style is closer to actual DJing than DMC and IDA combined, and winning 3Style once does more for your professional career than any number of nerdy battle titles.

DJ Battles Battle DMC IDA Red Bull 3Style (1)


Obviously, none of these events would exist without the artists making them possible. And having invested heavily into battling myself, I see and agree with that part of Vekked’s argument. Therefore, some degree of transparency is required so that people who often spend months of their time preparing material know exactly what to expect in return, which is tremendously important when DJing isn’t just something you do — rather something you do for a living.

However, it all boils down to your frame of reference. Where did you start, where are you now, how high are you aiming in the long run? That’s what defines your expectations. Let’s put things in perspective: a seasoned, working DJ will approach a competition differently than somebody who’s barely started and does it purely for fun. Winning a controller or mixer is a different kind of incentive when you already own high-end gear anyway. Getting a huge brand to push out a video of your performance doesn’t benefit you as much as it does them if you already have a significant following of your own. At some point, you need to realize that what you’re doing is work, because you create content few other people can — and exposure doesn’t pay the rent.

At the same time, keep in mind that for every person who’s spent the majority of their adult life DJing and/or producing, there’s a couple hundred beginners who are perfectly happy just surpassing 100 views on their stuff for once. For those people, participating in even a national battle is such a big deal, they’ll happily cover the expenses. And you can’t really blame them, nor the battle organisations who literally bank on that being the case. Remember that up there on that stage, your track record doesn’t matter. Only your current performance does.

Don’t get me wrong here — I definitely believe everybody’s efforts, regardless of level, should always be compensated. Heck, I’m one of you. But in the grand scheme of things, the people paying for this stuff aren’t doing it out of the goodness of their heart. They’re investing, and investments need to pay off. A DJ equipment manufacturer who’s put a certain amount of money into battle events over the course of half a decade will know what the effects of their investment are — or aren’t — and react accordingly. So whatever happens, always be grateful for what you get before you start making complaints and demands, because the people behind these events are doing whatever they can to make them as awesome as possible, and support the artists along the way. Sometimes things just don’t work out as intended, and it’s tough to go on your social media channels and say “hey guys, we’ve lost a bunch of sponsors this year, we hope you’ll still come”. Maintaining an image and being fully transparent don’t really go hand in hand.

The bottom line is this: if you don’t want to be disappointed, don’t walk in with high expectations. Months of preparation don’t guarantee a win either — you can unleash your absolute a-game and still lose. So treat battles as an investment in your career — because the material you prepare will still be useful even if you don’t win, and it’s excellent practice as well. I’ve learned most of what I know by thinking of what I could possibly come up with to set myself apart from the rest, and I’ve definitely succeeded there. The way I look at it is this: worst case, you’ll have new content to publish — and whether you’re already successful or still on the way there, it’s always a good thing.

The realities of DJ battles — by a competitor and organiser
The author at the Sample Music Festival.


Ultimately, keeping the nerdy battle scene alive is on us. If the industry doesn’t feel they’re benefiting from supporting those competitions, that means it’s our turn to adapt, evolve, and make this stuff interesting to them again. Because when you take a step back and look at it all critically, there really hasn’t been that much of a development in battle performances over the last decade — and there is a rather massive gap between the handful of DJs who do true next-level stuff, and the rest whose names and routines you struggle to remember. That gap can be filled by accepting that there is no such thing as #realDJing, and finally welcoming controllerism and live performance into the family for more diversity and healthy growth.

An excellent example of that would be Berlin’s Sample Music Festival, which hosted a finger drumming battle this year – and boy, that thing took off like crazy. Picture condensed sweat dripping from the ceiling as people collectively freak out over what a lot of you dismiss as “button pushing”. There’s some serious potential here — the crowd has spoken, and we should listen. But Sample Music Festival didn’t exactly discover a new thing here. Beat Battles and Laptop Battles have been around for over a decade now. I’ve attended my first in 2007, and still go at least once each year. This scene is a hyper-niche, even smaller than turntablism, but despite the fact that everybody is competing for pure fun and glory (there haven’t been prizes in a long time), it’s still going strong. That’s mostly because everyone, regardless of musical style and hardware of choice, is welcome. You get people on MPCs going against people who use GameBoy sequencers, and computer users against pocket synth tweakers. While it’s pretty hard to have a fair common ground for judging, crowd response often dictates the winner – and it’s always an incredible experience. Why not join forces and learn from one another?

Broadening the scope of battling doesn’t mean that we need to abandon turntablism — we just need to realize that it’s simply not all there is to what DJing has become. If you look at where the industry is headed, you’ll quickly realize that production and live performance are at the core of most brands’ marketing efforts. The reason for that is simple: there isn’t a whole lot left to innovate when it comes to regular DJing, and we’ve seen so much cookie-cutter gear over the last couple of years that any designer would be hard pressed to reinvent the wheel here. The issue I see personally is that we’ve already got incredibly awesome tools to take our performances to the next-next level — but few people actually bother to explore their possibilities, and instead wait for the industry to drop some magically ground-breaking tool to help them get there. Sorry, but that’s not gonna happen unless you push the art form. Most of the time, the industry doesn’t dictate trends — it responds to them, as it recently did in face of the rising popularity of portablism.

The one major trend, or rather truth you need to get through your head is this: becoming a stand-out artist through DJing alone is nearly impossible these days. If you want to succeed, you need to familiarize yourself with production, and ideally look into ways to perform your stuff live for added value. If you look at the rule set of Red Bull 3Style, they’ve actually spelled it out for you: “Making and finding edits and remixes adds an element of exclusivity to your sets and can help you stand out from the pack”.

This isn’t even the future — it’s the freaking present. Don’t be afraid of it. Where Red Bull 3Style represents the crowd rocking aspect, DMC and IDA can adopt and embrace the nerdy side of things, as they always have. They’re not opposites — they’re counterparts.

Performing doesn’t lose legitimacy when it abandons traditional ways to spearhead new ones. Isn’t that how scratching was invented? In a similar fashion, there now are mind-blowingly awesome things you simply can’t do by flipping patterns on two turntables and triggering a couple of hot cues. Constructing and dropping an awesome controllerism routine in Ableton Live is a skill in its own right, and it’s just as legit as high-level scratching. Both require years of practice to master – the only difference is the interface, or instrument you’ve chosen. In the end, #realDJing is when the crowd is rocking out to your music – it’s about what you play, not how you play it (which I’m pretty sure is what A-Trak said originally, when he coined the term). DMC and IDA need to start reflecting that if they want to be relevant in the future.

To those stuck in the past, I say it’s time pull the proverbial stick out of your rectum and drop the fundamentalist attitude already. Stop looking at what separates our individual art forms, and instead look at what we all have in common: we play, and make, music. And in that context, the medium is not the message.