I became a DJ because I loved being creative with my favorite music, sharing my selection and energy with an audience. I’ve been at it for 12 years now, mixing hip-hop records on radio and playing “familiar” music in clubs. When I get behind the turntables, I have the sense that something new is being born, that I’m making music out of music by breathing life into recordings.
I have fond memories of seeing DJs on television and at all-ages clubs in the early ’90s—these guys would just take control of the environment with their selection and skills. Disc jockeys would pen poetic narratives and the audience would soak them up and send all that energy back to the DJ, who would come back with even more magic. There was a kind of creative feedback loop, a beautiful connection.
Today, with increased managerial control and an audience that’s grown up in a download culture, a night at the club is more like one of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books. The DJ used to be the storyteller, and the best stories had the bite of the unexpected. Now the clubgoers think they know best, and DJs either cave in to their—and the management’s—expectations or wind up looking for a new gig.
Disc jockeys worldwide are starting to feel more playlist pressure from club management and promoters, and nowhere is the tendency more pronounced than on the Las Vegas Strip. Vegas is the financial center of the DJ world, and what happens here with respect to the creativity of the DJ ultimately trickles down to DJs everywhere. And the buzz in the national DJ community is that clubs on the Strip have gotten “Clear Channeled”—format, playlist, Top 40, repeat. Katy Perry electro remixes for everyone!
The Strip is home to 11 of the top 15 revenue-grossing clubs in America, according to the 2010 Nightclub & Bar Top 100. While cities such as Miami, Hollywood, San Diego, Chicago and New York also had clubs that made the cut, nearly half of the estimated $1.2 billion earned by the top 100 went into the pockets of casino-backed clubs in Las Vegas.
Club revenues can mean a lot of money for those who work in the industry, and that includes the DJs. Weekly resident DJs can make $500-$1,500 per night while “celebrity DJs” can make $15,000-$40,000 for a shift on the Strip. In other cities, the money’s not quite there. (Believe me: I got $25 for my last club gig, where I played two hours of funk and old-school hip-hop. Katy Perry sounds like sweet music sometimes.) In most cities, nightclubs do not have casinos backing them. The clubs in Las Vegas are plush, luxurious and cater to high-rollers who buy bottles; in other cities clubs smell like urinal cakes and have clientele who would kill over a Bud Light special.
There’s no reason art and luxury can’t coexist. There are some truly great DJs—I mean DJs that other DJs like to check out—who play in Las Vegas every week. Turntablists such as Scene, P, Qbert, Z-Trip, Melo-D and Skribble—all authentic and skilled music manipulators—hold residencies in Vegas, and the city is lucky to have this caliber of talent rocking its parties.
But Las Vegas also has a darker side to its DJ culture: celebrity DJ/producers whose brand value and draw sometimes mask a lack of talent and commitment to the culture. These guys (and gals) get complete control of their unadventurous sets because they can make the club dough even if they just stand onstage and play a CD. Meanwhile, creative, risk-taking DJs—even legends like DJ Jazzy Jeff, who had the plug pulled at the DJ AM tribute at Surrender last August—feel pressure to water down their work.
And DJs who are in the trenches, the ones who do it to eat, are becoming expendable. If you won’t cater your sound or style to mainstream tastes, there’s a million other iPod DJs ready to take your spot. Long gone are the days when clubgoers went to see a disc jockey play, ready to be taken on an adventure as the DJ sonically scribes. People at clubs nowadays expect to hear what they want when they want it. They’re selfish and they want it now. iPod. iTunes. iPad. iPhone. Me, me, me!
The music industry machine feeds consumers McMusic every day, and the club scene on the Strip is hardly the sole cause of the music obesity problem plaguing clubgoers. Las Vegas may seem an unlikely place for the audience to start dieting, but what if Vegas DJs were allowed to make the art they genuinely wanted to make? How would that change club and DJ culture globally? What if all that money and power on the Strip went into encouraging DJs to be trendsetters and gatekeepers of music once again?
Maybe the change needs to start off the Strip, in smaller, hipper clubs downtown. Authenticity has a way of surviving the cultural flood; at some point, weary audiences want the shock of the original. DJ culture is reaching a critical mass across the nation, and old-school DJs like me are watching, hoping that when the bubble bursts, the DJ-as-artist will rise once again.
If it happens in Vegas, it will make a difference for us all.