Is the ‘promoter DJ’ killing our club scene?

Back in May, inthemix asked the question, ‘What’s gone wrong with our clubs?’ The response to the five-part feature series provided plenty of food for thought, with ITMers debating the effect of festivals and the decline of weekly clubbing. However, the topic that generated the most passionate responses was the advent of a ‘pay for play’ culture in club-land, with DJs booked not for their abilities but for the length of their guest-list.

The prevailing sentiment in the feedback to our features suggested this trend was breeding good salespeople, not good DJs – which in turn makes our dancefloors less exciting places to be. Is this an indication of a decline in our club culture, or just an unavoidable reaction to these uncertain times?

These questions were again brought to the fore with an inthemix forum thread detailing an email from long-running Sydney trance flagship Sublime to prospective DJs. The email stipulated that each DJ must bring a certain number of paying friends to the club in order to ensure a set.

However, speaking to inthemix for this feature, Home The Venue’s Sophie Page argues that the reaction was disproportionate. “Sublime was hammered on ITM for having quotas, but it was taken somewhat out of context,” she says. “We are all about our DJs promoting the brand, as well as themselves, so we can build something bigger than a local dancefloor. What we did put in place was a bonus pay scheme so we could get some more dollars into their pockets and motivate them to really push themselves further than through a new event on Facebook.”

So, why did these types of schemes become a necessary measure for some clubs? In the opinion of Page (and several other promoters and venue owners we spoke to), there’s just not the same surety of getting loyal heads through the door as there once was. “From our perspective Sublime was a cult; people went there week after week after week becoming part of the furniture,” she asserts of the earlier days. “There are numerous quotes about Sublime being ‘a way of life’. Maybe the drugs were just better then, but there were some patrons who were beyond loyal.”

A by-product of this new climate has been the ‘promoter DJ’; more committed to sending Facebook invites than building a compelling set. Melbourne’s Tyson O’ Brien – who DJs as Generik and runs new weekly night Super Disco – sums up the sentiment of many in the scene. “These kids have never researched labels, tracks, artists,” he tells inthemix. “They simply go to Beatport, download top 10, burn CD, rock out for fame and fortune. It’s all about who has the most Facebook friends and can reach the most potential punters.” When we took the issue to the DJ Booth forum on inthemix, the response was much the same: pulling a crowd has become more important than distinguishing yourself as a selector.

Of course, this chorus of grumbling runs the risk of sounding like a bunch of jaded types refusing to move with the times. However, the long-standing promoters inthemix spoke to believe it’s a genuinely worrying shift for the scene. As Brand Manager for Onelove, John Curtin has seen it first-hand. “Your average 18-year-old wants to play at key Melbourne venues now such as Seven, QBar and Prince,” he says. “Back 10 years ago, these venues had older DJs playing based on their skills. Without saying ‘back in my day’, it used to be a lot more about quality DJs taking patrons on a journey.”

For most DJs doing the rounds of our clubs, it’s often not enough to simply provide your services on the night. A common alternative to the guest-list quota is the ticket allocation. Instead of being paid a fee, DJs are given a bundle of discounted tickets to sell, with the promise they can keep the profits. This then leads to the deluge of Facebook invite-spam that many ITMers attest is the death knell of the local club scene. Is it that unreasonable, though, to expect to DJs to go the extra distance?

“Good DJs are good DJs,” says Darius Bassiray, one half of Rollin Connection, the duo behind respected Melbourne club night Darkbeat. “If they have some promotional ability, then that is an added component to being recognised. We never demand any DJ bring a certain quota to our events – we can’t speak for other promoters, however. Some of the younger kids are more internet savvy, and separate themselves from the rest by their promo appeal – this is great, but if they cannot DJ well, then we do not book them to play for us.”

Chad Gillard of Sydney tastemakers Future Classic has a similar view. “Every promoter hopes that the acts they’re booking will bring in a crowd in support,” he reasons. “It’s a little rough on the DJs, though, to slap them with a required quota. In that type of situation I guess you’d end up with really good salesmen getting to play out the most and the best DJs falling by the wayside.”

So, what has contributed to this new state of affairs in our clubs? Andy Scally, whose Limelite night has been a stalwart of the Perth scene, presents an interesting take on it all. “In the last 12 to 18 months, club-land has suffered from two things: event marketing and the cult of celebrity,” he muses. “It seems sometimes the motivating factor for kids to hit clubs is just to be in the same room as a superstar or because the show has been marketed as a major event. A great example of this is when I hosted will.i.am in October last year – over 1,800 scrambled for tickets to see an artist not known for his DJing at all. Whereas two weeks later, I hosted DJ Hell and was in a world of financial pain with just over 200 payers.”

Sophie Page identifies a similar shift in Sydney: it’s either big internationals or supporting your mates. “These days, perhaps everyone wants to be a groupie, because people are going out to see their friends play rather than seeing – or idolising – a decent local act,” she says. “I’ve heard of some clubs actually kicking people off mid-set because they can’t really DJ, but happily accepting the 40 to 50 people they brought with them. I don’t know why any venue would put someone behind the decks without accepting a demo – it’s mental.”

Of all the identities inthemix interviewed, the general consensus for the future of the club scene was: ‘back to basics’. As Andy Scally puts it: “The up-and-comer must be super keen, but also have the base set of skills needed. They need to listen to the experienced guys and hopefully pick up a couple of tips.” The question remains though: have we gone too far the other way?

Let us know your thoughts on the ‘promoter DJ’ phenomenon in the comments field below. To delve further into the issue, have a read of the extended interviews below with Home The Venue’s Sophie Page, Onelove’s John Curtin and Limelite’s Andy Scally.

> Extended interviews: Sophie Page [Home The Venue]

> Extended interviews: John Curtin [Onelove] and Andy Scally [Limelite]