Did Technology Kill the DJ? How Tech Forces us to Adapt.

In the early 2000s, while trying to make mixtapes for friends, I discovered the challenge and joy of DJing. Djing quickly became one of my biggest obsessions at the time and kicked off a decade long endeavor into hand picking and mixing songs into a musical journey of a mix.

DJing was hard.  Not only was the barrier to entry high – it required an aspiring DJ to spend thousands of dollars on equipment and music, but it was also difficult to learn. One had to spend countless hours alone, practicing and trying to master the basic skills that distinguished a coherent mix from intolerable noise. On top of that, a DJ is eternally on the hunt for new and exclusive music to add to their repertoire. I took pride in my dedication to eventually play clubs and gigs and navigate a DJ booth comfortably.

dj setup 2010

DJ setup circa 2010. About $3000 worth of equipment. Bonus it looked cool.

A few years ago, I sold off all of my DJ equipment and ‘retired.’ As I had begun to focus my time elsewhere, my expensive DJ equipment became more of a decorative fixture in my living room than a musical tool. With other priorities in life and the bulky equipment becoming more of a liability, I figured I’d move on to other interests.

Over the years as technology progressed, so did the world of DJ equipment. The cost of DJ equipment dropped from thousands of dollars to hundreds of dollars. Software could now auto select and auto mix songs, eliminating much of the skills that were so fundamental to a DJ.

For years, I loathed the new wave of DJ equipment. In my mind it encouraged simple button pushing rather than masterful manipulation of music. Technology had made everything so simple and accessible I believed it took away the soul of DJing and devalued the art.

All of a sudden anybody and everybody was a DJ.

For years I loathed the new wave of DJ equipment

At the simplest level, a DJ selects and plays music to engage an audience. A successful DJ however, goes beyond selecting and playing music and is a conductor of sorts, setting the energy for an audience and taking them on a journey of emotion, stories, and memories through the music.

Has technology killed the art and soul of DJing? Is the craft gone? Would a human DJ soon be an obsolete professional?

Has technology killed the art and soul of DJing?

Recently, I decided to pick up a small entry level DJ controller for my home. At one tenth the cost of my previous DJ setup and with a footprint about the size of a laptop, it was an impulse buy that allowed me to still dabble in DJing.

I plugged in my ipad, powered up the unit, queued up a song, and began.

I was blown away.

The tiny controller I just bought was more powerful than any setup I ever had and felt almost as natural and good as a professional level setup. Almost all of the pain points I had with DJing were solved with this controller (eg. Spotify integration meant I had an infinite music library at all times), and it offered features I didn’t even know I wanted (eg. automatic key detection for harmonic mixing of songs). Talk about a lovable product that delights the user!

My experience with my new DJ controller reminded me of how technology can rapidly alter society, simultaneously destroying incumbent industries while creating new ones. All of a sudden I understood firsthand how it felt to have technology wipe out years of training and change an industry.

All of a sudden I understood firsthand how it felt to have technology wipe out years of training and change an industry

This got me to think more about how technology affects us and what that means if we think we’re at risk of redundancy due to tech.

dj setup 2018

DJ setup circa 2018. The laptop isn’t even needed. I’m only using it to record.

 

How technology changes DJing (and broadly, the world)?

Technology can democratize access to once limited domains

When I began DJing, a standard setup would run about $1500 for the standard 2 Technics 1200 turntables and a mixer. Add in headphones, software, and music and the costs skyrocket.  Today, with software as simple as a $0.99 iOS app, virtually anyone can try their hand at being a DJ now.

Technology lowers the barrier of entry so more people can access what was once inaccessible. This phenomenon can been seen across many areas and has revolutionized industries and society. For example, YouTube and low cost video production equipment meant that anybody could create and publish videos for the world to see. Online courses from sites such as Khan Academy or Coursera have made high quality education available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. Technology can make the once exclusive available to all.

Technology can make skills redundant

For decades DJs had to manually beat-match music, a difficult yet essential skill that takes significant dedication to hone. With today’s software, a DJ can push a button and the software will auto beat-match, align the timing, and even auto mix the tracks if so desired. Technology meant that my hard earned skill of beat matching songs has become redundant.

Over time, there have been countless examples of technology rendering skills and entire professions obsolete. The milkman delivering milk has been rendered obsolete with the introduction of the refrigerator. Bank tellers and cashiers are getting replaced by self service technology. Even everyday skills such as reading a map or handwriting become less and less valuable. Nobody likes to feel like they’re obsolete, but technology often actually frees us to do more.

Technology expands what’s possible

The introduction of DJ software led to new tools for DJs that never existed previously. For example, the DJ software I now use has dozens of effects that can be applied to manipulate the sound of the music. Samples and loops can all be done on the fly. My favorite new feature is auto key detection and key lock, which enables me to select songs that match each other in harmonic qualities, something that previously was impossible as I was not only unable to identify the key of a song, but even if I could the musical key of a song would change as I adjusted the tempo of the music.

Probably the most significant example in recent times of technology expanding what’s possible has been the introduction of the smartphone. The smartphone completely changed what people could do and more than a decade since its introduction, continues to change what’s possible.

My experienced taught me that if I ignored technology or clung to what I knew, I’d be living with an obsolete view of the world.

If I ignored technology or clung to what I knew, I’d be living with an obsolete view of the world

How does a DJ (and everyone) adapt to technology?

Technology has not, and likely will not kill the DJ. What technology has done instead is raise the bar and evolve what it means to be a DJ. Significant parts of the value a DJ brought has been replaced by technology, yet at the same time technology has opened up new realms for DJs to be creative and to accomplish the same underlying task of entertaining an audience.

What technology has done instead is raise the bar and evolve what it means to be a DJ

A good portion of a DJ’s value is in connecting with the audience and being in tune with the energy and needs of the crowd to create the party. DJs are also performers, where the audience derives enjoyment from seeing a DJ’s energy on stage or in a DJ booth. These are aspects that technology cannot replicate at this time. The successful DJ has always and will continue to utilize technology available in conjunction with the human element to deliver the best experience.

avicii

In 2018, superstar DJs perform for crowds of thousands. Photo: tamarasusa.com

In general, here are a few ways to adapt to technology with respect to a profession:

Complement technology to do more together.

Technology can do wonders in achieving a desired goal, yet there will always be limitations to what technology is capable of. A person can add value if they can identify the limitations of technology and add value on top of technology to do build on technology can do. Technology rendered beatmatching redundant for DJs, but technology cannot read the emotion of an audience and react accordingly. A successful DJ utilizes technology to create even more emotional and engaging experiences for audiences. Photography is a great example of technology enabling professionals to do more, rather than rendering professionals obsolete. Advances in software and camera technology have enabled the average person to take beautiful photographs with minimal or no knowledge of camera settings or photography theory. However, technology has also enabled photographers to do more in manipulating and capturing beautiful imagery. Technology, plus humans have elevated the art of photography as a whole.

Pursue new possibilities enabled by technology.

Once technology has enabled something that wasn’t before possible, a ripple effect of completely different and new opportunities can open up. For example, the internet created the opportunity for online shopping. Smartphones and GPS enabled Uber and the ride share industry. Instagram created an entirely new marketing channel for companies and individuals. It’s difficult to to really know what lasting and real opportunities will arise from new technology, but by just keeping aware of the continuous change one can steer themselves in the right direction. An open perspective to technology and observations on change go a long way to identify new possibilities.

Become a “Learning Animal”

Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg, in their excellent book “How Google Works” speak of the importance of the “learning animal.” A learning animal is one who keeps learning, handles massive change, and loves it all.

Whether it’s learning to understand how technology can make us better or learning to develop new skills required to pursue new possibilities, continuous learning is a prerequisite for adapting to technology.

With the intense speed of technology change, experience is no longer the currency of effective professionals. The ability to learn and adapt is paramount.

Experience is no longer the currency of effective professionals. The ability to learn and adapt is paramount.

Broadly speaking, the lesson of my DJ controller taught me that we can expect technology to continue to impact society, and the wise among us embrace technology. And just as technology adapts to our needs, we must adapt to how technology changes our world.

Technology remains a tool for us to accomplish needs and desires and to make the world better. What we’re capable with technology is where things get exciting.

Now, I’ve got some button pushing DJing to do.

Bonus: I recorded an adhoc session one day using my new controller. Despite it being years since I’ve mixed music, this mix ended up better quality than anything I had ever had done adhoc when I was at my peak. Technology made me better. If funky, upbeat house music sounds interesting, have a listen.

rooftop DJ

Far from a superstar. But a simple rooftop session is still insanely fun. Seattle 2018.

 

One response to “Did Technology Kill the DJ? How Tech Forces us to Adapt.

  1. Pingback: Anatomy of a DJ Mix: Summer 2018 | Timothy Kung·

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