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Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Is A DJ An Artist?

It’s a question that pops up every now and then: Is a DJ an artist? This can be a tricky question for some and there’s nearly always very mixed views on the subject. Of course, DJing is a skill that needs to be learned one way or another as is painting a good picture. Some artists are self-taught as are some DJs but does that make the DJ an artist? There is certainly skill involved in driving a car but no-one would call driving up the M1 an art-form, well not that I’m aware of any way and especially if you’re keeping to the speed limit lol. Is the same true of DJing?

I do firmly believe that DJing can be a form of art. The purpose of this blog post is to explain why I hold this belief. I put forward the idea that some DJs should be in a similar category with other artists. Musicians, composers, painters, and photographers are all artists that have learned a skill, and they use their skill to conjure up feelings and emotions in other people. They do this by either creating something new, or by capturing a unique scene or moment in time, and then making the result available to an audience. Talented Mix-DJs can be the same. They use their skill to create a mix, even a journey, and in doing so they are capturing something very unique which can be made available to an audience. I believe that if photography is a form of art, then so is DJing.

So… what does a DJ actually do?

At its most basic level a DJ is a selector. He / she will choose a selection of tracks and will play them to an audience. The main goal is to provide music that people can enjoy listening or dancing to. But is this art? Surely an iPod or MP3 player on random shuffle can do this if the correct tracks are loaded but we wouldn't want to call an iPod artistic - especially if it’s set on random. Of course, this is a naive view. An iPod on random shuffle cannot necessarily keep people enthused or dancing all night. If the correct tracks are loaded then there’s a good chance it will be enjoyable, and some people will dance too, but that is pretty much blind chance as we cannot predict the future. It’s a pure guessing game that the vibe will be constant. An iPod is not an artist.
So what does a DJ do that an iPod does not do? Well it’s obvious I know… the two main important aspects to DJing: First, there is the musical selection that can be changed and adapted at any time, and second there’s the mixing, or piecing it all together with imagination to make a set or a show.

1. Mixing

A good club / Rave DJ will mix and blend tracks together in order to create a set or a show, and also create a vibe of music in which he can take the audience on an emotional journey increasing or slowing down the energy as he feels necessary. Not only does this keep a dance floor moving on a constant flow, it can also sound great when elements between two tracks interact. Mixing is a technical skill that many people can learn, but in my mind it can also be a seriously artistic quality of a DJ which can set him way ahead of the rest.

2. Song selection

The most important aspect of DJing in my opinion is the music selection. There’s nothing worse than a DJ who scratches (especially badly) through a whole set or who mixes for too long just to prove that they can beat match. A DJ will generally select a range of tracks that mix well together in order to create a great atmosphere or vibe. When a DJ does their job well and their role is to entertain, the set will start in a certain place and take people through highs and lows, light and shade, through major and minor keys. This is not done randomly. It is done by carefully considering the mood of the people on the dance floor while also considering which songs mix well together. DJ sets often build up and down through peaks of energy. Other DJ sets can start off subtle and continue to build people up, increasing the energy and excitement to a crescendo. Very often a DJ will finish his set at the crescendo.

The most important feature of the DJ set is the journey that it takes its audience on. And it doesn't have to be live. A DJ can mix a set in a studio which will take its audience on just as powerful a journey - though this is sometimes more difficult because usually the best mixes are created in reaction to an audience.

So, how is this art?

Well, it is art insofar as a DJ set is a unique selection of music, which can be considered as a complete unit. It is built out of a range of separate tracks that the DJ has consciously chosen to include in the greater whole. It is not a random selection, as a DJ you choose the next track using your imagination. The DJ has chosen the tracks for a reason which is to generate emotions and feelings. Furthermore, this is not something that anyone can do. DJs are like music filters. There are thousands, if not millions of tracks released every year, and the DJ has to filter through them and decide what is good, and what is not good in their own opinion. The DJ has to decide what to put into his set for people to enjoy.

But is this art or just musical taste?

It is art in the same way that photography is art. Consider a photographer. She will go in search of scenes that she believes have certain qualities. Often the scene a photographer finds can look quite ordinary to other people. In fact, many people might walk by without noticing as we all have our very own unique perception on everything in life. The photographer sees something unique and beautiful in the scene and uses her technical skill with the camera to bring out its best qualities. The resulting picture is then made available as a piece of art. The same is true for a DJ. The DJ finds music that he considers to have certain qualities. The DJ then uses his technical skill to blend his chosen music together in a unique way which brings out the true beauty of the individual pieces and even new sounds when tracks are mixed together in certain ways. In this way the DJ is like a photographer. If a photographer is an artist, then so is the DJ.


My point in bringing you this article has been to show that a DJ is obviously an artist, and the sets he produces are a form of art. There is more to DJing than the mechanical act of mixing which is partly why I am opposed to certain people complaining about digital DJs and the dreaded sync button. Good DJ mixes do not consist of totally random song choices. There is an artistic process at work. Just as a photographer picks scenes that already exist and packages them in a way that makes them appealing to an audience, a DJ picks music that already exists and packages it in a way that makes it appealing to an audience.

Some content was adapted from Brent Silby

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