Vinyl, MP3, and the art of DJing
There’s a lot of talk amongst DJs these days about vinyl vs MP3. I came up playing vinyl and only started playing CDs (with WAV files; I won’t play MP3s out) about 4 years ago when CD decks became standard issue in most clubs and lounges. Then it went to the other extreme: CD djs were the norm, CDJs were the normative equipment, venues no longer took much care of their turntables, and the whole industry eventually made a definitive move towards digital distribution where the MP3, traded online or via CD, became the default model of promoting music.
But what has this done to the art form of DJing?
There are so many possible answers to this question, but it’s easy to even miss the question in the first place as the march of technology, rampant and insistent in real life and even more so in technically-aided fields like DJing and music production, often blinds us to even considering <i>what</i> this technology is doing to or for our lives. I believe this question is now being asked by a growing number of DJs.
The sound quality of digital files has no comparison to that of vinyl. Analog vs. digital. You don’t need to be a professional to hear the difference. But digital is far more convenient, far easier to trade or obtain (often for free, illegally, or with shady circumstances surrounding it; note all the unreleased material that eventually makes its way into the hands of nearly every DJ via instant messenger and file upload sites), and weighs a whole heck of a lot less.
There is then the fence-straddling technology of Serato and its ilk: a digital system that is played in an analog methodology if you are using the vinyl reference discs. But this is still a digital signal going out.
Are DJs confused? There was a time when if you were still playing vinyl, you were a dinosaur, obviously way behind the curve and not with it. Playing CDs was seen as the natural evolution of the form, aided by technology. CDJs admittedly have more features than turntables: you can loop, reloop, reverse, sample, stab, etc. If you were not utilizing all these digital bells and whistles, you probably had the feeling that you were falling behind, as all the “big name” jocks made a show of how intimate they could get in their knowledge of CDJ tricks.
Now there is a new wave: a wave of DJs and audience that are clamoring for “vinyl only” sets like the one Cassy just played last weekend at Save the Cannibals. DJs are returning to vinyl for a number of reasons, perhaps largely because you can NOT cheat vinyl. You can’t trade it for free online under the cover of anonymity and non face-to-face communication. You either buy it or it’s given to you. There is always an exchange of money in the creation and distribution of vinyl, which is NOT the case with digital files which probably lose their value the second they are uploaded to the World Wide Web. As for consumers, fans, and patrons of electronic music, they seem to be noticing a certain something lacking from digital-only sets. A certain laziness sets in. Yes, there is still “work” to be done, creative and physical in the construction of a set, but being removed from the tactile connection to the medium, the vinyl disc, leaves everyone feeling a bit bereft: isn’t something missing here?
On the subject of physical touch, digital files do not come with an album cover, great artwork, thoughtfully prepared liner notes. No, they are a single item you download. A file name. That’s it. If you buy a “single” via a digital music site like Beatport of Traxsource, it <i>may</I> come with a downloadable CD insert, but this is no where near the same thing as holding the record in your hand, connecting to it, learning from it visually so you can find it when you need it. Since digital music distribution has ascended as the norm, the idea of the “artist album” has had its death knell rung, so let’s stop for a moment to consider this great loss as well. Who has time, patience, or interest to explore an entire individual’s output in true “LP” or “long player” form? Why, when you can scan for and purchase the tracks which only interest you? This has relegated artists to servants of consumers instead of the other way around.
DJ culture was all about the rig you moved into a park or a loft or a warehouse, the lugging of vinyl, the slightly outlaw feeling of it all, the dancing til dawn in a bacchanalian release of joy, longing, pleasure, and community. You met and vibed under the spell of music, under the spell of an analog wave of warmth that lapped at the liminal gaps of awareness: unnameable but absolutely real nonetheless. Now, we have DJs carrying laptops in a cute bag, not ever having to worry about ruining their look or being inconvenienced, and being aided greatly by the digital tools of Traktor, Serato, or other digital DJ systems like it.
I am not saying categorically that these systems are wrong or bad, I am merely pointing out that there are definitely some who will not go quietly into this digital night. And I think I am one of them.
Things are in flux right now. There seem to be camps emerging. I’m not sure this is the best response to this situation. But things have definitely changed. There are those who have a connection, however vague, to the roots and history of today’s electronic dance music. The roots, and some may argue with me on this, are of disco, of gay, largely black and hispanic, urban culture. These roots lead to the first events: the Warehouse, the Paradise Garage, the Loft, and many other parties large and small. Now we have models and bottles, extreme cover charges, and young people going to clubs less for the music and cultural experience and more for the drugs and potential sex partners.
Again, I’m not making value judgements, I’m just stating what is. The value judgement comes in the vectors in which you move: actions reveal all, to ourselves and to others. Your emotions should be telling you, if you are involved in this, which way is right for you. If you are confused, I think that is probably natural and the order of the day: so much has changed and what we remember as lifting our souls into a realm that we could never escape from thereafter is still there, just in a different guise. Or perhaps hidden. Or having changed its name. Like certain gods, you can not know its real name because it would be too powerful to speak. Perhaps this is what is happening with our beloved house and dance culture, which now includes techno, tech-house, rave, and a plethora of other sub-cultures. How much does our very choice of media affect how these cultures continue to evolve? That is what we are finding out now.
To paraphrase Lao Tzu, that which can be named is not the way.