Sync: The Creative Destruction of the DJ

With the exception of punk, hip-hop, or other explicitly politically conscious musical scenes, there is very rarely a connection between music and the development of one’s political and economic thought. So it might come as a surprise that my first contact with political philosophy and economics came from my involvement in the rave scene when I was seventeen. At a party headlined by Dutch hardcore techno producer and disk jockey Angerfist (my favorite artist at the time), I met the event organizer. He had a strong libertarian streak, and the run-in quickly made a hungry student of me. Ever since I started writing on this blog, I have been searching for an excuse to combine my interest in economics with my interest in rave music. Fortunately, the opportunities to apply one’s economic thought to the world of music present themselves much more often, and so today I have found my excuse.

People can be snobbish about anything. For any given vocation or avocation, there exists a boisterous class of practitioners or aficionados who find themselves duty-bound to deride any efforts which sully or stray from the purity of the craft. The world of DJing is no exception. A generation ago, snobs turned their noses up at those who performed on the newfangled electronic turntables with their CD ports and cockpitesque array of buttons and displays, as opposed to the prim, antediluvian combination of needle, vinyl, and slipmat. The new technology made it too easy for any schmuck off the street to do what the old gentry had spent years mastering. But today Pioneer CDJ turntables are the industry standard, and a new generation of elitists populates the landscape. The fashionable thing to hate now is a feature found on many turntables and all-in-one DJ controllers—the ‘Sync’ button.

The fundamental task of a DJ is beatmatching. This consists of matching the tempos of the audible track on one deck with the incoming track on the other deck, ensuring the beats on both tracks are perfectly aligned to prevent the “clanging” sound of two kicks out of perfect synchronization, and often having the measures or phrases of each track starting at the same time. The purpose of this is to create for the crowd a smooth, continuous segue from one track to the next, rather than a stopping and starting every few minutes. There are many other important things to take care of while in the DJ booth in order to deliver a good mix to the dancefloor, but beatmatching is the most essential and the first skill every DJ learns.

The advent of CDJs, controllers, and mixing software allowed for users to have an easier time with many of the tasks of DJing (not having to carry a suitcase of records and not having to change discs between every track are great benefits), but particularly with beatmatching. These innovative turntables feature displays of the music on each deck and the tempo at which it is playing. By introducing a visual aid to what was originally based only on auditory perception, the task of aligning the beats and tempos of tracks was made more straightforward.

But newer models of CDJs, controllers, and software are equipped with a feature that takes a quantum leap with regard to simplifying beatmatching—some would argue to the point of automating the task entirely—and that is the ‘Sync’ button. These technofuturistic alternatives to the vinyl turntable of yore are able to detect and denote the beats and bars of a track. Without having to touch a single knob or jog wheel, they can stretch the tempo and position the kicks of a queued track exactly where they need to be in relation to the music pumping through the speakers onto the dancefloor. The technology transforms the art of live mixing in much the same way photography transformed two-dimensional visual arts.

It is not hard to imagine why some older DJs may be upset with this development. The base skill of their hobby or profession, which they spent hundreds of arduous hours honing, can now be executed about as well by a clever child with only a few minutes of fiddling. A realist painter spends a lifetime cultivating an ability to replicate on canvas the shapes and colors he sees in the world. A tourist with a disposable camera can do this job instantly with no practice. So surely the latter is not a real artist. And those who use and abuse the ‘Sync’ button are not real DJs.

The legitimacy and respectability of the ‘Sync’ button have been lampooned and debated ad nauseam within the community for several years now, but apparently not everyone has given up griping yet as social media profiles of DJs are still used as outlets for lectures on what equipment a real DJ uses. Big names in the world of DJing have weighed in on both sides. Some of the most informed and insightful comments have come from accomplished Canadian DJ A-Trak, whose accolades include winning the 1997 DMC DJ World Championship at the age of 15 as well as a Grammy nomination.

As mentioned before, beatmatching is only one of the tasks a DJ has when he is at the decks, and the ‘Sync’ button only automates beatmatching. It cannot, as others have pointed out, automate the responsibilities of knowing when to transition from one track to the next; of tweaking the relative levels of high-, low-, and mid-range sounds to make that transition seamless; of reading the mood of the crowd and tailoring your set to include tracks they will respond best to. The invention of the camera did not eliminate the need for an artist to understand color theory or how to compose the objects in their work. There are many other tasks to be performed in the DJ booth, each of them of a more artistic nature than simply lining up the kick drums and snares. Freeing the DJ from the need to manually synchronize the two tracks allows him more time to channel his creative energies into these other important things.

Those DJs who stress time-consuming, tedious work beatmatching for its own sake make the same mistake that Bastiat uses the character Robinson Crusoe to highlight in his essay “Something Else.” We engage in labor to provide for ourselves something we value, either through direct use or exchange. Similarly, beatmatching is a means to the end of synchronized incoming and outgoing tracks, the end of a smooth mix. Inasmuch as that particular use of labor is made wholly unnecessary by technological advance, it should be dedicated to other uses. In this way, a greater number of things can be done, more artistic and recreational value can be created.

As in all cases, I insist that we take time to note the subjective aspect of all of this. There is no objective determination of value in a DJ or his mix, only the subjective valuations that all relevant parties assign to them. The audience may or may not value in listening to a mix the same thing a DJ values in producing it. The audience may simply want good songs presented to them in a pleasing way; the DJ on the other had may place the utmost importance on the integrity of the craft and the hard, honest work of performance. Of course if an individual DJ takes great joy in the moil and toil of focusing with headphones pressed to one ear and a tongue held out in intense focus while he gently slows or encourages the turning record, then beatmatching has its own value for its ability to provide him with this pleasure.

But DJing did not originate as a bedroom hobby for those who needed an onerous way to play someone else’s music. The art was created in an evolution of increasingly appealing ways to provide crowds with music to listen and dance to. As a social act, DJing exists to please audiences. So in an economic sense, the value of DJing is the value the audiences assign to it; the aspects of the performance that are valuable are those to which the audiences assign value. If the crowd wants only to hear good songs in a smooth mix, then manually beatmatching is of no greater value than the ‘Sync’ button. They provide the crowd (the consumers) with the same end-good, but ‘Sync’ has the advantage of being more labor-efficient.

If audiences do indeed value a ‘Sync’-button beatmatch equally to a manually-performed beatmatch, then we should not be surprised if the use of the latter goes extinct as those who use ‘Sync’ supplant those who refuse to but demand a higher pay for their efforts, or those who held out from using ‘Sync’ realize they no longer stand to gain from their principled abstinence. Without the beatmatch barrier to entry for those who wish to be DJs, we may see an outward shift in the supply of DJs (actually, people already complain about that) and consequently a fall in the cost of hiring one. Technological change can cause the entire structure of the industry to change. In the economics profession, this phenomenon is known as “creative destruction,” where old ways of doing things are made obsolete as better alternatives are created. The logical conclusion of this is that, if audiences value only the audible output they receive on the dancefloor, as the technology of mixing equipment advances further and further toward point where all the functions performed by a DJ can be automated, we also move toward the point where the DJ is entirely useless. If a machine can select tracks and show an artistic ability to mix them in a pleasing fashion, innovating will creatively destroy the role of DJ entirely regardless of Luddite proselytizing.

It is, though, up for debate whether audiences value the DJ for more than just the perfectly beatmatched mixes they pump out. Traditionalist sympathizers might insist that real audiences recognize real talent, do not care to see a DJ who simply presses a button to synchronize his tracks, and in fact would be appalled and leave the dancefloor if they knew the man in the booth was not approaching his craft with the attitude the wheel-joggers determine is appropriate. But there is evidence to the contrary. It is practically an open secret that David Guetta prerecords his “live” sets and just dances around in the booth for an hour. Yet thousands upon thousands of people still turn out to his sets to enjoy the music. This is perhaps analogous to the continued successful careers of artists who are caught lip-syncing or are known to use autotune or other editing effects to make their voices sound better. Another case is that of professional wrestling, which for decades has been known to be scripted, acrobatic, athletic acting, but continues to be enjoyed by millions of rednecks, even those who have long since achieved the age of majority. American poet John Godfrey Saxe once quipped that “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made,” but that certainly appears not to be necessarily true of music.

Even if creative destruction results in live mixing becoming entirely automated and your favorite night club or warehouse DJ booth never being occupied by a human ever again, it is certainly possible that the DJ as he currently exists will continue to have some place in the future as a novelty or a performance art. Many consumers pay premiums for goods they know to be handcrafted, even when this antiquated method of producing the goods offers no functional advantage, or even no perceivable difference at all. If the future of dance music is predominated by sweet automated buttery goodness, there will undoubtedly be those who still hand-churn it either as novelty or for their own satisfaction.

I do not doubt, when they speak of integrity and purity of the craft, the sincerity of the DJs from the old school, where real dedication and exertion were required to perform the most basic task of mixing and fading over from one track to the next. But perhaps they are subconsciously aware that technological advance could creatively destroy their status or even cause their obsolescence. I think this is no small factor in explaining the fervor with which they defend the old ways. They may very well carve out a niche for themselves in the more automated future of DJing, but even if the Luddite vinyl-elitist DJs do their best to throw their sabots into the cogs of any technological advance, the demands of the consumers, dancefloor denizens, will triumph.

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