A Look Back At The Past by John Young

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One interesting part of working on a newspaper for DJs or the conferences is the number of interesting (yet similar) conversations you find yourself involved with daily. I am not talking about those conversations held in the office between coworkers, or even the friends chatting online. I am talking about (what I would consider) cold calls from readers (or Facebook fans) who want to talk shop!
I have gotten calls from DJs from across the US as well as a few from some international markets. Some call with questions, some call to share an idea, but most call to vent about the state of our industry today.
I have been in the DJ world for a while, not as long as many, but this has been my main source of income for longer than most people hold their ‘day’ jobs.
In that time, we have seen the changes from vinyl to tape, then from tape to CD, and finally from CD to MP3. While many that I talk to lament those changes (the MP3 killed the DJ industry), let’s look at a couple of different directions which are affecting how the industry has changed for those of us in the 20+ year category.
The other day I was looking for something exciting to do, and wouldn’t you know it, the most exciting thing that came to mind was cleaning up my desk in the house! Yeah, I know, I DO live on the edge!
So, off I went to discover lands lost to man over the past months (the top of the desk).
Here is an offshoot of how I have changed over the years. My OLD way of cleaning was to put things in boxes and folders and find a spot to store them. This led to the need for additional storage areas and cabinets/closets for countless tons of old receipts, owners manuals, and even the occasional Polaroid gig photo!
But, that was then. Today, my cleaning methods include a garbage can on wheels that comes right up to the desk!
So, I am digging into the drawers on my desk, (yes, I know I was looking to get the top cleaned off, but someone might come to look in a drawer someday and I want them to be impressed!) and I am finding some receipts from back when we bought our first sound system!
Now, we were smart when we started. We didn’t buy a sound system until like our4th or 5th event. For our first gig, we rented a sound system. We rented some big old Peavey speakers that were all woofer and horn. I remember it took 3 of us to put them up on the stage at the school we played at that night! We pushed them with an old CS800 amp which stood about 4 rack spaces tall and weighted a slight bit less than the speakers.
In our next two gigs, we rented and did the ultimate in DJ cheapness; we brought our home stereo stuff from home!
That second rental wasn’t as bad. I did a bit of searching and found a photo very similar to the speakers we rented for this second event! As you can see from the photos, they were not much to look at, and they could handle a WHOOPING 150 watts per cabinet! These speakers were able to sit on stands (which we were too cheap to rent, so they once again sat on the stage) and they were a ton smaller than our first rentals!!
The next gig was the home stereo gig. Yes, I know, we all did it, but there is just something we found cool about using our home Kenwood amp and Fisher speakers! We went for the four home speaker system with HUGE 10” woofers! The system was so great that we had to watch the bass because it kept shutting down channels 3 and 4 in the amp if we pushed it too hard!
Why did we run some cruddy gear? Because we didn’t know any better. That is the calling card for most of the 20+ year guys. Our experience with DJs was so very limited, that we didn’t know what was good gear (quality, professional PA gear) and what was not worth taking out (tape decks? really?).
My first speakers (remember the receipt I found) were $700 for the pair of Peavey speakers. In today’s numbers, our total first system (speakers, amp, mixer, mic) would be nearly $4000!! Needless to say, back then, gear WAS a huge limiting factor for who got into the business. But, gear wasn’t always the biggest limiting factor back then. Sometimes the knowledge needed to entertain was what kept some out.
Back then, we also didn’t know what other DJs did; what was good and what was bad in the world of entertainment. All we really knew was music. If we wanted to take in another DJ’s performance to get some new ideas, we might have found 1 or 2 playing on a given weekend in a club. But, those guys were just doing straight music playback and the microphone was almost unheard all night. We had to learn 1. how to use a mic, 2. when to speak, and 3. what to say through trial and error.
When we started, it took nearly 3 years’ worth of events (20-50 shows) before a person would have some level of quality. You would learn from your mistakes because the industry was just learning what it meant to entertain with recorded music effectively.
Gear was proportionality expensive, knowledge of performance was tough to get and the quality observed was generally very elementary, and of course, music was very tough to find.
Let’s compare that to today’s generation of DJs.
Today, you can buy a sound system that sounds WAY better than our 80’s gear with a mixer for under $2000. Taking this backward, that would have been less than a $1000 investment back when we bought our first system (inflation adjustment).
But, gear is just a small part. Yes, music figures in here pretty quickly (song access, expensive CDs in the 80s, and tapes were -well, tapes), but we have mentally beat up the whole ‘download a library and you are a DJ’ thing to the point of death.
I want to look at the performance learning curve. I mentioned it took YEARS for our generation to learn the craft to a reasonable level. We would have to drive miles to watch others perform because performing DJs were few and far between. If you took off two nights a month to check out other DJs and happen to stop in and see a crappy DJ, you just wasted one night and learned very little. In the course of a year, you might have only seen one or two DJs of quality (which is why many got into the business, we only have those one or two bad jocks and KNEW we could do better).
So let’s look at today. A person wants to DJ and arranges a gig for this Saturday night. After the start-up DJ buys his DJ system ($2000) and buys his music online ($500) on Monday, he has the ability today to research and learns more in the next four days and we would have learned in 10 years! This person can learn more on Youtube searching for videos showing DJ skills and microphone use (including games and routines) than some have learned in their 20 years of performing!
Some would say today’s access to educational components levels the playing field between those with years of experience and those relatively new. I would actually go a step farther: today’s motivated new DJs tend to work harder, learn more, and their craft at levels not heard of in our generation. Does this leave us with a generation of DJs (20+ year guys) that find themselves wondering what happened to their business?
Times have changed, yet how many of us are still thinking like an 80’s DJ? Today’s start-up DJ is better than we were probably in our first 5 years. They have a hunger to learn and grow which will push out those that rely on yesterday’s bag of tricks. They watch the videos, buy the books, read the paper, and will eat up the events if the ‘old guys’ decide to phone it in and not work on their craft.
Yeah, times have changed. I really feel for those that call and are meaning well but are still stuck with their experience level and mindset stuck back in the 80s.
Mainly, because who wants to lift those speakers?

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