Being a DJ Is Embarrassing
a.k.a. The current version of dance music isn't what many artists originally signed up for.
Matrixxman isn’t someone who’s afraid to speak his mind, even when he knows his comments are bound to ruffle a few feathers in the electronic music world. (Readers may recall that his First Floor interview, which was published back in January, had many quotable moments.) Yet even in the context of his generally outspoken nature, this tweet he posted last week felt especially provocative:
While what he wrote was obviously said in jest—just a few days later, he was tweeting about the “adrenaline rush” one gets before playing at Berghain—the tweet was rooted in something genuine, and spoke to a feeling that many DJs have undoubtedly felt over the years: that their chosen profession has become something of a ridiculous pursuit.
That feeling is not wrong! DJing, especially nowadays, is not rocket science. Of course elements of artistry can be involved, and a sizable percentage of DJs are clearly passionate about their craft, but at the end of the day, what they do involves playing a string of prerecorded tracks—most (if not all) of which they didn’t make themselves. Said tracks are generally played for crowds of (mostly inebriated) party people, many of whom have only a passing knowledge of who the DJ is and are likely at the club / festival / warehouse / etc. for reasons that have little to do with the specifics of the music on offer. On a truly cynical level, DJs are just one cog in a nightlife engine that’s primarily fueled by the selling of alcohol, and it’s their job to provide the soundtrack. “Don’t fuck up the vibe” is their most basic responsibility.
There once was a time (mostly during the ’80s and ’90s) when DJs were often stuffed into dark corners and and balcony booths that could barely be seen from the dancefloor; their contemporary counterparts, however, have become venerated figures, imitated and adulated in not just dance music, but also the wider culture. That evolution has been a gradual one, but in the aftermath of the music industry’s pandemic-induced pause, the change has become particularly conspicuous, to the point where the most successful DJs are now often worshipped like pop stars—and are compensated accordingly.
Glamor, mystique and spectacle have always part of nightlife, but in the modern dance music sphere—where promotion and the building of an artist’s “brand” primarily takes place via visually oriented platforms like Instagram and TikTok—they have arguably become the genre’s defining features, often dwarfing the influence of the music itself. When the roots of fandom grow out of fashion-forward photos and 30-second video clips, it’s not an artist’s selections or mixing prowess that prompts people to buy a ticket when a certain DJ comes to town. Having a hit song or two can of course help—despite the fact that producing tracks involves a totally different (and not necessarily complimentary) skill set—but more and more, it’s some combination of a DJ’s look, attitude, persona, identity and messaging that fans are responding to and connecting with.
This dynamic isn’t unique to dance music, particularly in a time when streaming has made songs of all genres feel increasingly disposable. Combine that effect with the gradual co-option of electronic music by the cultural mainstream—a phenomenon that dates back decades but went into overdrive when the EDM boom hit during the early 2010s—and the genre has reached a point where it now barely resembles its “underground” roots. In some cases, it barely resembles what it looked like ten—or even five—years ago, and speed of that change has undoubtedly left many artists (and fans) wondering, “What the hell happened?”
Can some of that consternation be chalked up to the usual intergenerational tensions that every cultural scene / movement has to deal with? Absolutely, but what’s going on with dance music at present goes beyond the usual “these kids are doing it wrong” grumbling. When someone like Matrixxman—a highly successful DJ— says that his job has become “fucking embarrassing,” it speaks to a fundamental shift in both the culture and the industry that supports it. Some of it has to do with values—namely an embrace of overt commercialism and the prioritization of style over substance—but it also has to do with the day-to-day realities of being a working dance music professional. When success (or mere economic survival) is increasingly dependent on building a social media following, setting up glossy photo shoots, creating “content,” seeking out brand collaborations, posting memes and finding creative new ways to take selfies, it’s not surprising that folks who got into the genre during previous, less image-oriented eras are taking umbrage with the new status quo (and even finding it “embarrassing”).
It’s also not surprising that many of them are broadening their horizons beyond dance music and trying their hand at genres that perhaps feel a bit more substantial.