The rise of dJ Culture Marks decline of touring Bands
Like the peeks of highs and lows on a mixing board the music industry swells and drops in waves. This is based on what is currently in trend, and a trend is a fickle beast that’s constantly evolving. When a genre hits its peek another is clicking along in a dip, waiting to make a return to the forefront. New Orleans’ venues are currently riding the latest high with a genre that had all but fallen off the map well over a decade prior.
“DJ culture has been around for ages...It’s only recently that you’ve seen a new serge,” Nick Thomas, Director of Programing and Marketing for the club Republic of New Orleans, explained. “Out of nowhere there were people willing to see a DJ for 50 dollars. The reason, in my opinion, is that there is more of a cross over now.”
The DJ booth that once housed the entire root of the movement back in the 1970’s has been destroyed. No longer does a lone soldier mix and scratch beats from a tower in a dance club. Nor does he base his operation at a rave like what was seen in the mid-’90s with electronic artists.
“In the past, they only appealed to club kids,” Thomas said when explaining why he feels the movement has seen renewed interest. “Now, these DJ’s have crossed over to the live music audience. They’re pulling a larger body of people and tapping into that style of performance. You have DJ’s that are touring the circuit just like a band.”
Taking cues from the traditional touring band, the modern electronic artists such as Skrillex, Deadmau5, Pretty Lights and Girl Talk are just a few of the acts that have crossed over to the mainstream tour market.
“A lot of the venues I was playing at two or three years ago, I was excited to think that I might be the first person to come in with just a laptop and perform at a venue that size,” Greg Gillis, better known by his stage name as Girl Talk, explained. “But there are other artists filling the same venue sizes, festival sizes, and there are a handful of people now. I think that’s something relatively new; the success of the touring electronic show.”
Much of what allowed the touring electronic show the ability to gain popularity is rooted in the change the music industry as a whole has witnessed within the past decade. Much of the old industry model has evolved through music downloads, social networking sites, and new technology.
“My dream used to be the one I grew up with. You start a band. You get signed. You make records. You tour, and then you’re up there with the elite. But that’s not the dream any more,” Steve Bergeron, a local musician who has spent the better part of the last decade touring as a guitar player in the Baton Rouge-based band Meriwether, explained. “Now, there are more ways to make a record. Anyone with a tiny bit of knowledge and a laptop can make a record.”
Greater avenues to work independently have served as a mixed blessing. The Internet have allowed bands to forego the traditional business model. Rather than seeking a label, the modern band can hit the road, selling and marketing their music along the way without having to take a minimal portion of the profit. That greater accessibility, however, has also lead to an over-saturation of rock music.
“It’s like a dolphin in a fish tank. It all just got too big,” Bergeron said with a laugh. “If you do anything too much, it’s going to burn itself out.”
At the same point the market became oversaturated, the cost of touring began to climb, making it more difficult for that increased number of independent bands to thrive. From soaring gas prices to an overall increase in the cost of living, the live band became more of a risk for some promoters.
“It’s incredibly expensive putting a band on the road versus flying one or two DJ’s there,” Thomas said when explaining the economic impact. “With bands, you have a lot of different ways to pay them; a flat guarantee, guarantee plus door, or straight door. With DJ’s or hip hop artists, most always take a flat guarantee.
“For example, if you have a huge night with over 1,000 people showing up paying a $20 ticket, and you paid whatever DJ a flat $5,000 guarantee, then you’re sitting on a $15,000 profit,” he explained.
As the risk for promoters became greater, so too did setting out on a tour become more of a gamble for musicians. Bergeron, like many, left his full time position in Meriwether and dropped out of the live music scene.
He turned his focus to his side project, working as a DJ under the name NightEater.
“Now, it’s a lot easier to grab a laptop with free loops because your overhead is low,” Bergeron explained. “If I had to do a tour, I could just grab my laptop and my protege and hit the road.”
On the tour circuit, a night of live rock music typically includes three bands, and the cover charge to that show is split among them. Then, that percentage is additionally divided among the three to five members within that band.
“When you’re in a band, you have to write all these songs, you have to rehearse, you have to tour, you have to play five nights a week. It’s a lot of work,” Bergeron said when describing the difference between working in a live band versus working as a DJ. “Instead of having to argue and split everything with five other guys, it’s just me up there, which is also terrifying.”
Working alone, a DJ can serve as the only act on a bill, taking home all the profits. What’s more, there are no additional costs, such as renting a trailer to haul equipment, stage hands to set up that equipment, and maintenance costs to keep that equipment working from one show to the next.
“When I got into music I started doing electronic music because I didn’t have a guitar,” Gillis said about his early reasons for gravitating towards electronic music. “It’s a break through decade in regards to people being able to make music with their computer. Everyone who’s involved in music knows how to make beats these days.”
Where the modern electronic artist or DJ started out by taking cues from the live band, those bands are now turning to DJ culture as a way of finding new revenue sources to fill gaps in the increased cost of operations.
“We’re booking a lot more band DJ’s,” Thomas said when asked if the Republic is currently booking more DJ’s than bands. “A band performs a show that night and then the lead singer or someone else in the band will perform at the after party as a DJ. Before, bands would just play the one show and that would be it. Now you’re seeing a lot more band DJ’s playing the next day in the same market. It’s a good way for the bands to pick up extra money and the venues to pick up on that DJ culture.”
The catch with all of this, however, is that all the new avenues that created an opening for the rise of DJ culture will also serve as its inevitable decline.
“As soon as you have five or six clubs in a town on a night doing DJ culture or a live act, that’s the point you know it’s over-saturated and everyone’s buying into the hype, and you know a drop is coming,” Thomas declared when asked how much longer he believes the trend will last. “I’m not convinced that the current level can sustain itself for another two or three years. Unless the DJ culture reinvents itself and creates a brand new element, it will die away again.”
What will remain are those artists who operate outside of the trend. In New Orleans, that’s likely to be a DJ night such as MOD Dance Party at the Saturn Bar. Operating more so on the traditional model, DJ Kristen Voller and Jonathan Uhlman (a.k.a. DJ Matty) select music from a time long past, creating new music through the trendy form of mashup, dubstep or bounce.
“It’s about finding this amazing and special music to make sure that doesn’t get forgotten and that the root of a dancing culture doesn’t get forgotten and people are aware of where these samples come from,” Voller, who only uses vinyl, said when explaining why she got involved with the MOD Dance Party event. “The music I play for people; these are simple kids playing their instruments. It was just very simple, good, natural music. I don’t want people to forget that and how great it is. There’s something very primal about that music and the way that it makes you move.”
The foundation of that simplicity is what makes promoters such as Thomas believe that MOD, which was founded over ten years ago, will remain when DJ culture is replaced by the next music industry fad.
“MOD Dance Party is its own separate thing and has a loyal clientele,” he explained. “Meanwhile, people going to a dubstep night, they’re not going because they’re loyal to the music, they’re going because it’s what’s popular.”
What’s certain is that the new technology that created this modern DJ culture will not be lost. Rather, it will continue to be incorporated into the next music movement.
“What’s next for music? What’s not next?
Music is always going to be here,” Bergeron said when asked where he believes music the next trend will take musicians. “My dream now as a 30-year-old man is more like what it should have been ten years ago. I’m going to make a record I like.“ “Technology kills a lot, but it creates a lot of dreams, too.”
Israeli Dubstep producer Borgore performing at Republic.