07 augustus 2014

Why DJs Are Not Musicians



Wuh-oh.  I opened that can of worms!  I can hear it now.  Half of you are ready to skin me alive, and the other half is saying “Amen, brother, glad someone was willing to say it!” But slow down before you decide to either praise or crucify me.  I’m not trying to stir the pot here, just to give my two cents on the issue.

TheFreeDictionary.com gives two definitions for “musician”:
  • One who composes, conducts, or performs music, especially instrumental music
  • A person who plays or composes music, esp as a profession
Well, we’re already in pretty deep, aren’t we?

Do DJs conduct?  After all, all that means is to manage, control, or direct the course of music.  Technically, that’s what a DJ does.

Do they perform?  Certainly some of them do.  

Do DJs play music as a profession?  Well, I think that one goes without saying.

It gets a bit convoluted, though, because it could be argued that a conductor is directing other people’s playing of music, or that playing music means to play an instrument.  Conversely, the DJ could argue that a turntable is his instrument. And if people aren’t allowed to be qualified as musicians because they are playing other people’s music, that also eliminates most modern day producers (especially in hip-hop, which is often sample-based).  Using the same logic, it would also seem to eliminate collage artists (because they use other people’s photos), or any other art form in which you take someone else’s work and turn it into something new.  How far down this rabbit hole are we willing to go?  We could certainly get more nitpicky than that.

Perhaps this post would be more appropriately titled, “Why DJs Are Not Necessarily Musicians” (but that wouldn’t be quite as spicy, now would it?)  You see, the issue is in the term DJ itself.  A DJ is simply someone who plays pre-recorded music to an audience… that’s it.  Just like a photographer is simply someone who takes still pictures with a camera.  But that’s not to say that there aren’t photographers who are also artists… whether it’s a product of their photography or not.

DJs can be musicians, they are just not musicians inherently.  You don’t need to be a musician to be a DJ, but some musicians are.  Can it help?  Certainly.  It’s just not a prerequisite. Obviously I’m a fan of metaphors, so let’s put this another way.  A “driver” is someone who operates a motor vehicle… nothing more, and nothing less.  There are some excellent drivers and some bad drivers.  There are some drivers who have mastered a certain technical excellence, such as Mario Andretti or Michael Schumacher.  And then there are those who focus solely on artistic driving, such as those in the drift scene. Notice how they are driving simply to give a performance, not to meet a specific goal? People who drive (and compete) like this are interested solely in the sensory experience. Drift events are judged more on what is appealing to watch than measurable statistics such as lap times.  Who amongst these drivers are the “artists”?

The above video gives another good demonstration.  Notice all that artistic video editing? Does every video editor qualify as an artist?  What about the person that edited and compiled that one? I don’t think that someone qualifies as a musician simply by how they do something, but rather by the reasoning behind what they do and where their heart is when they do it.  To call someone a musician or an artist is to imply that they are creating something for its own sake, using whatever tools at their disposal to make it their own. Sometimes, musicianship is best recognized by other musicians, but it should be appreciated by all.

“I don’t think that someone qualifies as a musician simply by how they do something, but rather by the reasoning behind what they do and where their heart is when they do it. “

A DJ does not have to be a musician to be a good DJ.  But DJs who approach their sets with a sense of musicianship will probably be more apt to put other people’s recorded bits and pieces together in such a way that it creates a standalone work of art. Any time we get in to terms like musicianship, artistry, creativity or expressiveness, we are imploring our senses.  None of these terms are ever going to be entirely objective.  But the fact is that it really doesn’t matter.  If you’re a DJ, you should be the best one that you can be (if your goal is to get a sense of fulfillment out of it).  Whether or not you want to call yourself a “musician” is up to you.

I think people get too hung up on this sort of thing.  DJing and musicianship are two distinct ideas, which can be combined if one so chooses.

David Michael

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