Abolish DJ Idolatry

Nicolas Poussin – Adoration of the Golden Calf (oil on canvas), circa 1634 (foto Britannica)

Focusing club activism on club workers

by Mathys Rennela

There is no denying that the pandemic is having a lasting and deep socio-economic impact on the dance music industry.[1]In this essay, I specifically discuss socio-economic dynamics within the Western European dance music scenes. It is worth noting that the pandemic has impacted local dance music industries in … Continue readingThe fragile ecosystem of the touring DJ has been thrown into shambles, leading many to take so-called “day jobs” to sustain themselves, or to take gigs which remain risky during a pandemic.[2]https://technomaterialism.com/2021/11/23/the-shock-doctrine-applied-to-dance-music/ The position of a touring DJ has, after all, always been precarious. Exclusivity contracts and scarcity of the offer (in comparison with the overwhelming supply) have given rise to a plethora of continental tours which are often ecologically and economically unsustainable.

Initially pursuing a herd immunity policy, the Dutch government have pivoted towards a “yo-yo policy”, [3]https://www.dutchnews.nl/news/2021/11/government-warned-to-avoid-yo-yo-coronavirus-strategy-as-problems-mount/ almost all restrictions when cases are decreasing, just to replace them when ICUs approach saturation, all while implementing mediocre and unreliable covid prevention policies.[4]https://www.dutchnews.nl/news/2021/07/more-test-for-entry-concerns-after-infected-man-is-cleared-for-night-out/ The French government largely ignored France’s electronic music industry, rejecting a proposal for a covid relief fund for the dance music industry. Across the English channel, the Arts Council England offered generous fundings to venture capital backed institutions such as Resident Advisor[5] https://technomaterialism.com/2021/10/16/on-resident-advisors-culture-recovery-fund/ and Boiler Room. This bares the question: what has been done to support performers and club workers through the financial crisis created by this pandemic?

Several union and lobby groups have attempted to address the financial impact of the pandemic on the dance music industry. For example, the Dutch unmute.us initiative organised a PR campaign and a series of protests asking for a unilateral reopening of clubs. Such initiatives tend to focus on the interests of club owners and festival organisers, while ignoring the interests of club workers who are in dire need of relief funds.

This problem is hardly new. But where do DJs fit within the dance music industry’s social hierarchy? As Pete Dale points out in Popular Music and the Politics of Novelty, when asking whether the successful DJ is a class traitor[6] Class traitor is a loosely defined term used in socialist discourse to describe individuals who work directly or indirectly against their class interest, or against their economic interest in … Continue reading : “the fact that a few highly talented (and innovative, of course) DJs might manage to make a lot of money is hardly a solution to the overwhelming problem of socio-economic inequality”. The discourse about the socio-economic impact of the pandemic seems to ignore most club workers. Why are the concern of floor moppers and bartenders not given the same platform as DJs?[7] A substantial number of club workers are temp agency workers, who cannot as easily unionise as workers who are directly employed by clubs. In other words, the club worker’s position within … Continue reading Do full time DJs form a sort of petty bourgeoisie?

In this essay, I argue that DJs, and in particular full-time & touring DJs, do not have the same class interest as club workers. They are reactionary in the strictest sense of the term, as their objective is to maintain the status quo or possibly go back to an even older mode of organisation. From there, I argue that club workers should play a central role when it comes to organising in dance music, and that DJs occupy far too much space in the struggle.

  1. What does the club scene need organising for?

Before analysing the position of the DJ in the club’s class hierarchy, a more pressing question places the context in which this essay fits: what does the club scene need organising for?

I have long asked myself, for example, why the particular problems of sexual assault and sexual harassment, which are inarguably endemic in dance music, are so difficult to tackle. Various initiatives and collectives have tasked themselves with implementing safe space policies with more or less success, but one can identify two main weaknesses to those approaches:

  1. Incidents are treated differently depending on the high visibility of the perpetrator (in which case, the story is buried) or the high visibility of the survivor (in which case, the story is amplified).
  2. It is primarily the welfare of idealised survivors (upper/middle-class cis white/white-adjacent women) which is prioritised, overlooking the myriad of marginalised groups which can be subjected to sexual violence in the club.

Both points can be explained away easily by stressing that those weaknesses echo the common weaknesses of approaches to sexual violence, and our societies’ general failure to care about the welfare of (working-class) (queer) Black & brown folks.

However, more fundamentally, safe space policies are managerial strategies which aim to preserve the reputation and the liability of the institution (whether it is a club or a party), and are introduced under the false pretence of harm reduction and supporting survivors. By design, safe space policies not only fail to address the core of the problem, they also leave room for activists to be dismissed and ostracised, and for the management to ignore complaints. I argue that the lack of critical view on safe space policies is the reflection of liberal hegemony which prioritises maintaining the status quo, and translates in dance music as a form of club activism which doesn’t centre club workers.

2.  Liberal hegemony, and club activism without club workers

Club activism and DJ/producer-focused unions fail to tackle structural problems in dance music by not centering the majority of the dance music industry’s workforce. Take for example the very liberal concept of inclusion riders, which only address the symptoms (lack of diversity on line-ups) and not the cause (lack of diversity behind the scenes). [8] https://pirate.com/en/blog/news/seven-percent-of-artists-have-an-inclusion-rider/

If change can happen, it has to happen across the whole industry, and not just in highly visible roles. In essence, trying to quantify diversity on lineups and rankings is really an outdated metric, as it only quantifies diversity among a very small subset of the workers involved in the dance music industry. Who are the stage managers, the agents, the bookers, the artistic directors, the light artists, the PR agents…? What’s the point of a diverse lineup if everything remains homogeneously white behind the scenes? How can a scene thrive with deep leftist principles when industry interests are pushed to the forefront?

The strategies of liberals can only address the symptoms but lack the materialist view necessary to address the cause. Small tweaks to platform capitalism (like asking streaming platforms to pay more[9]ttps://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2021-04-19/spotify-artists-royalty-rate-apple-music) will not be sufficient to address the dramatic impact [10]https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/oct/19/more-than-a-third-of-uk-music-industry-workers-lost-jobs-2020-covid of the pandemic on dance music workers.[11] https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-59372526 [12] https://djmag.com/longreads/how-club-workers-are-feeling-about-return-events Fundamentally, calls for better financial compensation from platform capitalism and for performative representation do not address the intrinsically harmful nature of dance music’s white institutions, which have a long history of harming marginalised patrons and club workers. 

3. Is there class-consciousness behind the decks?


DJs have little to no incentive (from a socio-economic point of view) to meddle with club workers, relying on inherently biassed viewpoints from promoters and club owners to assess the cities, clubs, festivals and scenes that they visit. Meanwhile, club workers are on the frontline of guaranteeing the safety of patrons and staff alike, yet they are being systematically excluded from public discourse, which is therefore skewed and feckless in practice: why would a DJ flying out from NYC know more than the bartender of the Amsterdam club they’re set to perform? 

The DJ is in essence a freelance worker, who is shielded from the experiences of club workers and patrons. Club workers on the other hand have a vested interest in keeping the club safe. As a club which is unsafe for patrons is unsafe for them. 

But overall, the issue here is not that the DJ’s material reality is precarious and/or volatile. It is that (touring/full time) DJs are not class conscious and tend to commodify class-based struggles – most recently, the bastardisation of Black radical theory which followed the 2020 Minneapolis protests. This phenomenon is nothing new to the left. Lenin writes in “What is to be Done?”  in the chapter  “On the Importance of the theoretical struggle” that “Those who have the slightest acquaintance with the actual state of our movement cannot but see that the wide spread of Marxism was accompanied by a certain lowering of the theoretical level. Quite a number of people with very little, and even a total lack of theoretical training joined the movement because of its practical significance and its practical successes.” In the particular context of dance music, the very recent regain of interest for Black radical theory (like abolitionism) counterbalances the hopelessness induced by the lack of advancement on the systemic problems in dance music (and in particular, the near complete absence of class-based analysis), without translating into practical actions (which are in conflict with the idolisation of DJs).

However, the problem is much broader than the commodification of struggles within the dance music industry. I argue that the core issue is in the collective failure to separate the individual from the status (DJ), and see DJs within the sociotope they operate in.[13]A sociotope is defined as a space which is homogeneous in its core use values and social meanings, much like a biotope is a uniform environment providing a habitat for a specific set of plants and … Continue reading

4. The sociotope of DJing 

The transition from rave culture (in which the DJ isn’t personified) to club/festival culture has led to a progressive deification of the DJ, allowing a pantheon of idols to hijack movements in opportunistic ways, without being expected to rely on the lived experiences of life-long activists nor the extensive literature on the topics they claim to advocate for.[14]The Spiral Tribe, the main representatives of rave culture, were clearly influenced by anarchist theory. They led the way towards the emergent global network of “tekno-travelers”, with not only a … Continue reading

As Graham St John puts it in Technomad Global Raving Countercultures:

“Rave culture became widely mediated, regulated, and commodified, the truth wasn’t difficult to register: rave had a huge market. Ecstasy use and abuse would become pandemic, DJs were becoming megastars, and club owners were building entactogenic pleasure factories designed to concentrate the energy rush and the cash flow.”

Matthew Collin writes about the early days of rave culture that:

“There was no focus on the DJ – you’d go to one of these parties and you wouldn’t even know where the DJ was. They’d be sitting behind a palm tree or something. It’s not like now where they’re up on stage and everyone’s looking in one direction at them like they’re a rock star and they’re acting like they’re playing live but they’re just pushing buttons.[15] Excerpt From: Matthew Collin. “Rave On: Global Adventures in Electronic Dance Music” (pp. 514)

This transition in the nature of DJing as an activity can be analysed through the lens of Pierre-Michel Menger’s sociology of creative work. As it is now common in most performance-based artistic vocations, the DJ’s work organisation is in essence project-based, leading DJs to split their time between short periods associated with paid work (gigs), and longer periods of idleness and networking.[16]Resident Advisor recently published an article discussing a potential surge of burnout among DJs. It is worth mentioning that in the context of the pandemic, the longer periods of idleness and … Continue readingThis makes it really hard to evaluate and quantify the workforce that DJs are involved in, but as Menger points out in The Economics of Creativity[17]https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674724563 : the reality to take into account is the one of the contracts, projects and individual engagements. In this context, a DJ’s success is inherently tied to its ability to foster and maintain deep professional networks within the dance music industry, to ensure a steady and regular project-based income. 

So while the club worker is an employee within the industry in the strict sense of the term, the successful/touring/fulltime DJ builds a micro-institution around their persona. Paraphrasing Menger’s analysis of the work organisation stage actors, I argue that one should see the DJ themself as a micro-organisation, and reject any reductive distinction between the different aspects of creative work. Indeed, the main source of employment of the DJ requires a privileged relationship with promoters, club owners, festival organisers, … Secondly, the contractual nature of their employment requires DJs to juggle between the ever-changing expectations of contractors in order to maintain an indefinite flow of contracts and avoid over-specialisation.[18] For example, being associated with a specific genre or Djing style, whose popularity is inherently tied to trends and branding. When combined with the economic organisation of the dance music industry (a myriad of organisations with a low permanent staff count), this leads to a setting in which the DJ simultaneously occupies networking, creative and administrative functions.[19] DJs, as independent workers, have to take on tasks like applying for visas and managing budgets

In essence, DJs’ work organisation form a sociotope, in which DJs develop networks of support and mutual evaluation with their direct peers to enhance their career, while simultaneously maintaining links with various industry actors which ensure their access to their means of production (studios, venues, magazines, radio stations, social media, …). 

The transition from rave culture to club culture mirrors the DJ’s transition from an individual to an active member of dance music institutions.[20]It is worth noting that rave culture had its own institutions, such as pirate radio, which were genuinely anchored in working class communities and mostly working class-led. … Continue reading De facto, the end of rave culture meant the end of the DJ as an individual. Yet this outdated perspective on DJing (as a professional activity) persisted. I argue that maintaining this view goes against the interest of club workers.

5. On artistic production and political action

DJs’ artistic production, and its intersection with political action, is inherently tied to the social networks that they build. But in the particular context of modern-day dance music, it is the upper/middle class which is spearheading artistic innovation in its institutionalised form, even in environments which seem inherently radical. From legal hurdles[21] Obtaining the multiple permits necessary to open a nightclub can require in some countries to establish a relationship of trust with local authorities. to prohibiting structural costs[22]https://business.gov.nl/starting-your-business/checklists-for-starting-a-business/checklist-for-starting-a-hotel-restaurant-or-cafe/, the means of production[23]Not even considering the entry cost for a basic electronic music producer setup, the basic DJ set up of the industry standard CDJ 900 with mixer and speakers is worth thousands of euros in the dance music industry are more or less inaccessible to the working class[24] https://djmag.com/content/dance-music-too-middle-class, and instead are often held by massive corporations or the upper class.[25] Scroll down for a surprise https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1347610/Britains-50-powerful-posh-people-30-From-catwalk-Westminster.html

Therefore, by the construction of the sociotope that DJs are part of, the working DJ’s group interest structurally reflects the interests of the upper/middle class. DJs have a vested interest in siding with dance music’s brick-and-mortar institutions and the owners’ of the means of production rather than club workers. Centering the perspective of DJs means centering the perspective of the industry, at the expense of the voices of club workers.

It is not to say that artists cannot take concrete actions in favour of club workers and patrons. Take for example ROSH’s letter[26] https://itsrosh.nfshost.com/letter/ : in a purely militant way, an artist can criticise their cultural environment and in this way contribute to highlighting structural problems in the network of institutions that they are themselves part of. Artists can also collectively weigh in and amplify staff-led initiatives in the institutions they work with, as 150 artists have done so in supporting art workers in their recent call to reform the New Orleans Museum of Art.[27] https://hyperallergic.com/594019/150-artists-amplify-demands-for-reform-at-new-orleans-museum-of-art/

The sociotope that DJs have built around themselves uses a primary resource: DJ idolatry, the cult-like following surrounding the DJ figure. This form of idolatry partly stems from the professionalisation of DJing as an artistic vocation (ensuring steady reliable income through tours and promotional work), and the rise of booking agencies which completely shifted the capitalist dynamics within the then burgeoning dance music industry (if only, by redistributing the share of capital between DJs and  promoters).

DJ idolatry tends to occlude the view of the DJ as a prominent member of the dance music industry’s institutions. This creates a setting in which, rather than being held accountable for their active participation in institutions, DJs can escape any form of responsibility for the structures they contribute to maintain. De-constructing DJ idolatry means de-centering the DJ as the archetypal nightlife worker, in favour of a form of club activism which actually accounts for the concerns of workers who do not wield the same institutional power.

References

References
1 In this essay, I specifically discuss socio-economic dynamics within the Western European dance music scenes. It is worth noting that the pandemic has impacted local dance music industries in different ways in other parts of the world, but this topic will not be treated here.
2 https://technomaterialism.com/2021/11/23/the-shock-doctrine-applied-to-dance-music/
3 https://www.dutchnews.nl/news/2021/11/government-warned-to-avoid-yo-yo-coronavirus-strategy-as-problems-mount/
4 https://www.dutchnews.nl/news/2021/07/more-test-for-entry-concerns-after-infected-man-is-cleared-for-night-out/
5 https://technomaterialism.com/2021/10/16/on-resident-advisors-culture-recovery-fund/
6  Class traitor is a loosely defined term used in socialist discourse to describe individuals who work directly or indirectly against their class interest, or against their economic interest in favour of the bourgeoisie.
7  A substantial number of club workers are temp agency workers, who cannot as easily unionise as workers who are directly employed by clubs. In other words, the club worker’s position within the dance music industry can be fleeting. This is a topic worth exploring on its own, as this additional level of precarity must be taken into account in union organising.
8  https://pirate.com/en/blog/news/seven-percent-of-artists-have-an-inclusion-rider/
9 ttps://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2021-04-19/spotify-artists-royalty-rate-apple-music
10 https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/oct/19/more-than-a-third-of-uk-music-industry-workers-lost-jobs-2020-covid
11  https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-59372526
12  https://djmag.com/longreads/how-club-workers-are-feeling-about-return-events
13 A sociotope is defined as a space which is homogeneous in its core use values and social meanings, much like a biotope is a uniform environment providing a habitat for a specific set of plants and animals.
14 The Spiral Tribe, the main representatives of rave culture, were clearly influenced by anarchist theory. They led the way towards the emergent global network of “tekno-travelers”, with not only a network in continental Europe but also forming the origins of initiatives in the U.S., Canada and Australia.For instance, the Tribe was implicated in squatting culture, transforming buildings into party spaces in the mid-1980s and also in the autonomous movement in France, where they were welcomed.This welcoming environment was a result of a strange mixture of repression and tolerance,that peaked with the combination of the Mariani Amendment and subsequent tolerance toward these events in the countryside “Rave On: Global Adventures in Electronic Dance Music – Mattew Collin p. 468”
15  Excerpt From: Matthew Collin. “Rave On: Global Adventures in Electronic Dance Music” (pp. 514)
16 Resident Advisor recently published an article discussing a potential surge of burnout among DJs. It is worth mentioning that in the context of the pandemic, the longer periods of idleness and networking that I mention here have been stretched by the lack of gig opportunities. The article fails to make this connection, but the very nature of the DJ’s work in those idleness periods is characterised by unquantifiable metrics which are inevitably taxing on their mental health. ​​https://ra.co/news/76457
17 https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674724563
18  For example, being associated with a specific genre or Djing style, whose popularity is inherently tied to trends and branding.
19  DJs, as independent workers, have to take on tasks like applying for visas and managing budgets
20 It is worth noting that rave culture had its own institutions, such as pirate radio, which were genuinely anchored in working class communities and mostly working class-led. https://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/34394/1/pirate-radio-history-and-future
21  Obtaining the multiple permits necessary to open a nightclub can require in some countries to establish a relationship of trust with local authorities.
22 https://business.gov.nl/starting-your-business/checklists-for-starting-a-business/checklist-for-starting-a-hotel-restaurant-or-cafe/
23 Not even considering the entry cost for a basic electronic music producer setup, the basic DJ set up of the industry standard CDJ 900 with mixer and speakers is worth thousands of euros
24  https://djmag.com/content/dance-music-too-middle-class
25  Scroll down for a surprise https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1347610/Britains-50-powerful-posh-people-30-From-catwalk-Westminster.html
26  https://itsrosh.nfshost.com/letter/
27  https://hyperallergic.com/594019/150-artists-amplify-demands-for-reform-at-new-orleans-museum-of-art/