Back in a Bit

The DJ in the information age

Ten years ago, when I left home, I realised that I could earn a surprisingly decent living by playing records in a pub. Certainly on the face of it, the “work” involved is ideal: you spend Friday and Saturday night in the place you would have been anyway, surrounded by your friends, playing your favourite records, drinking for free and getting paid for it. This is where my career began in earnest, as it paid for me to eventually leave the backwater of the Thames-valley provincial town and move to London.

It didn’t take long to realise that, in reality, there’s a little more to it than just playing the records you like. The pub DJ is there for one purpose and one purpose alone: to sell more alcohol. The role of the club DJ is a little more complex: they are more like some kind of attraction, but the DJ in the pub beforehand does well to know his place. He’s basically an extension of the bar staff, and that’s how he earns his keep.

Much of the music we hear is organised strategically. Radio stations have playlists that form the basis of their identity, and are designed to attract their target demographic. Stores of all kinds go to great lengths to develop in-store radio strategies, again to bolster their identity but also to set the tempo to which they would like business to be conducted.

To that end, a pub is little more than an alcohol shop. And, just as the in-store radio in the sports shop is intended to sell trainers, so the pub DJ is intended to sell beer. In both cases, there is something of a strategy at work. True, it’s manipulative, but it’s just the way these things work. Many aspiring DJs, of course, make the mistake of ignoring their true role. Maybe it’s ego that gets in the way. But the DJ has one key advantage over pre-recorded selection of music – the tempo and mood can be decided and controlled in real-time, based on feedback from the customers.

Let’s leap ten years forward to the present day. Computers can be and are utilised by DJs in an ever-increasing variety of ways and, within a short time, it’ll be the de-facto standard. Software such as Traktor puts an advanced DJ rig on the desktop, and also presents a number of new tools and tricks never before possible. The widespread adoption of the MP3 format means a vast catalogue of music can be stored and transported easily. But more interestingly, as we look to the future, it may not even be necessary for the DJ to take his collection to the venue in any physical form. Right now, for example, it’d be possible for a DJ retrieve a song not included in the catalogue from another source (for example, his larger library at home), and all this could be done mid-set.

It wouldn’t take an enormous leap of the imagination to picture DJs arriving at venues almost empty-handed – streaming the songs to form their set in real time from another location. Meanwhile, the lighting rig reacts automatically to triggers encoded within the audio file itself. Data about the current track is syndicated (scrobbled?) straight out to the web. Maybe audio alone falls aside, giving way to the increasing number of live VJs. Maybe requesting a song wanders into new, weird, user-generated terrain: have you got such-and-such? No? I’ll beam it off my phone. Dare I say it: the DJ is removed altogether, and the evening’s entertainment is supplied entirely by the audience, and sorted/mixed/mashed by the machines.

Technology is making a merry mess of licencing intellectual property such as music, but that’s not going to stop it marching forward. Maybe the improved clarity of CDs didn’t persuade every single vinyl purist to switch but, now that so much can be done with so very little, the all-new feature-set must be tempting.

2 Comments so far

  1. That Traktor software looks bloody impressive, but then I ever was a sucker for things that let me play with music.

    I’m curious about the tricks you’d use to get people to buy beer…are we talking playing dancing songs so people would drink to get up the courage to dance, or teasing them with danceable tracks followed by tunes that make people want to go back to the bar?

  2. It’s not terribly hard and fast, but yes: a good pub DJ knows how long he wants his audience to spend on each drink, and chooses his set accordingly. Dancing in pubs is usually not to be expected – depending on the layout of the premises, it can be prohibitive to the sale of alcohol – but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that if you can get the ladies dancing, it encourages the purchasing of Dutch courage.