It’s Just One Big Popularity Contest Isn’t It?

Love them or hate them, there’s no escaping the end of year polls that descend upon us year after year. From top ten YouTube video’s to top ten films of the year, best fashion brand or most powerful photographic images, every December the whole world turns into a competitive ‘let’s rate everything that exists’ monster. Tucked away in our not so quite little corner of dance music, we are equally guilty of partaking in this bizarre obsession like some warped ‘underground’ X-factor competition. I have never voted in any of these polls or awards with the exception of the annual Resident Advisor charts where we, as staff or contributors are asked to submit our top compilations, labels, albums and tracks of the year. I have also never been that interested in them, not interested enough to vote outside of the staff polls anyway.

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This year however I did become interested in one particular poll – the Resident Advisor ‘Top DJ’s of 2011’ which is decided by public vote. Bizarrely, my interest was not so much in the poll itself but by our reaction as the ‘public’, or the ‘industry/public’ on the results. That ‘industry/public’ being lesser known artists, label owners, promoters, music journalists and knowledgeable, dedicated muso’s and party goers. A significant amount of discussion and debate on social networking sites this month was fuelled by the Resident Advisor ‘Top DJ’s of 2011’ poll; supporting it, ridiculing it, pushing for others to partake but most interestingly (to me), hating it, many going as far as to brand the poll itself and those ranked - a joke.

But why? Why are we so outraged by the results? The answer seems to be clear through the content of our rants; the words ‘PR & Marketing Teams’, ‘Hype’, and ‘Popularity Contest’ cropping up time and time again. It appears our hatred lies in believing that the winners are somehow not worthy, that it is all a monetized marketing campaign and that they are there for their ‘popularity’ rather than their skill and technique as DJ’s.

Looking at the argument that most, if not all of the 100 featured dj’s in this year’s poll have PR agents is stating the obvious, but why that’s considered a bad thing is not so. Once an artist reaches a certain level is it not inevitable that a team of people are drafted in to help? As a full time touring DJ – there are not enough hours in the day to look after your own bookings, logistics and press alongside the one role that is truly yours – to select and play great records around the world. The role that after being a bedroom DJ since their teens, playing for free at their local boozer and practicing tirelessly at in empty bars is finally one that they get to do for a living. Are they now paying a PR agent? Yes, because they have to, they don’t really have a choice when half their lives are spent in nightclubs, sitting in airport departure lounges or on trains. That PR agent then looks after securing reviews, organising the mass of interview requests and in general, making sure their client remains in the press. In a hugely competitive field, without being featured by the media means reaching a smaller audience which in turn, leads to a stagnated or decline in bookings and eventually, that artist is back down the Kings Head on a Thursday night playing for a tenner and working at Tesco to pay the rent.

The argument is that their music selection and mixing technique should speak for themselves without any media aid? Well yes, they should...but have they not done so already? To have reached the point where the media become interested, that artist’s music and technique has been highly recognized without any press or marketing aid whatsoever. Surely choosing to give 100% of yourself to music and to your craft is passion, is pure and is brave...being so in love and so true to yourself that you work hard enough to ‘make it’? As for any other type of monetary marketing system (bear in mind we are talking about the RA Poll artists here and not the Swedish House Mafia and David Guetta’s of this world with mobile ringtone deals and other such marketing tools), these artists certainly cannot and do not pay directly for the public’s vote. Are we not essentially small brigades of marketing campaigners ourselves? Posting our friends latest mixes, charting each other’s tracks, ‘liking’ and sharing our mates and colleagues fan pages? Does that make us a convoluted bunch of PR representatives? Are these artists’ situations not just inflated versions of what we as supporters, music lovers and friends do every day?

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As for ‘hype’, maybe we should look at being ‘monsters of our own making’. When house and techno music was in its so called ‘underground’ days, we weren’t living in the digital era that we are now. Secret Locations were actually secret, great artists were discovered through word of mouth and music was only available and played on vinyl which meant trawling tirelessly yet blissfully through record stores on the outskirts of town. It was only for the people who really wanted to discover and share it. There was certainly no Beatport, no Facebook or Resident Advisor to help the industry spread it’s happily clipped wings. But things changed, technology and media evolved and along came the ‘big brother’ era where nothing is private, everyone can share and the whole world is watching one another. We created online artist profiles, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and digital event invitations. Every week millions of event pictures are uploaded, promoters imbed their ‘invite all’ code. We ‘like’ everything that interests us, tweet our every move and have access to music with the click of a mouse for £1.75. Is it not inevitable that artists and their music end up known and available to all, purist or not? Is this mass ‘hype’ not one that we ourselves have created, embraced and utilised using online platforms to reach increased audiences?

Retaining artistic credibility from the ‘industry’ rather than the mass public whilst being successful enough to earn a decent living appears to be more difficult than we give it credit for. If a DJ keeps the cultural and ‘underground’ edge we admire by having a unique sound, they in turn retain their credibility. However, if they tipple into the danger zone of becoming ‘overly successful’ - whereby the masses cotton on to that sound and it is no longer considered unique but mainstream - it appears we then brand them as having lost their artistic ability! Saying that music is solely a form of expression is true in its purest and first essence; a sentiment that if we lived in a fairytale would be ever so charming...but we don’t. We live in a world where these artists in question have been fortunate and hard working enough to reach a point where playing their music is a means to live, a business; just like every other business on this planet. Why are we spending our days in the studio writing music with the aim for it to be signed and heard? Why are we practicing mixing in our bedrooms with the aim to get booked for gigs? Why are we putting on events and inviting the public? Why are we photographing parties and then exhibiting those images? Why are we writing articles and submitting them to magazines? Because we want to share what we do, what we love and what we work so hard to achieve in our personal and professional lives. Well, with sharing comes recognition and with recognition eventually comes popularity. So yes in a sense it is just one big popularity contest. But one that we all, in one form or another are guilty of taking part in and shouldn’t be so quick to judge.

In a recent interview I did with Luke Solomon we talked about the way our scene has moved away from the underground and onto the internet. It made me think that if anything, we shouldn’t be hating the players but hating the game itself. His last words are what I believe to be the solution to our unnecessary and often hypocritical hating of the ‘hype’. “I find it a bit embarrassing to be a DJ these days. It’s a completely different world, so hypocritical; the whole thing with polls, online presence and how many Facebook likes you've got. It feels like that whole world is about to explode - people just aren’t buying anymore. You've got this resurgence of vinyl only releases, the whole underground thing seems to be moving away from the internet so drastically and trying to re-create this world where not everyone knows your business. I’m thinking of shutting my Facebook page down. I think at the end of the day, great music or great things that really have some kind of life or longevity will shine through all of this bullshit online stuff in the end - I think that if you simply try to be the very best that you can be, in whatever it is that you do then that will ultimately come through all of this - I think people are starting to look through all that crap. I really hope so anyway, I think there’s only one way of instigating it - and that’s to opt out.”