URL vs. IRL: Do DJs Today Need Social Media to Be Heard?
A few months ago I found myself losing a battle I thought I’d long since won. After years of relying on a Facebook page to post functionally about my DJ gigs and mixes, my social media curiosity had come back from the dead. I started weighing up the pros and cons with anyone who’d listen; being my own devil’s advocate and wondering if my aversion to Instagram and Twitter was just a useless bias I’d never questioned.
It’s easy to dismiss media as materialistic, addictive or downright capitalist when social platforms make up a big part of modern marketing initiatives across all industries today, not just nightlife. In 2018 it already felt inevitable that an RA panel discussion titled “Marketing Yourself As An Artist” would be discussed through the lens of social media; and that its guest speakers would sound so cynical exploring the subject in that light. “It’s not my thing,” contributor Jamaal Moss shrugs. “I still believe in person to person, people to people … social media can make you lethargic and lazy.” Conversations like this often leave the association of social media with self-promotion unchallenged.
And sure, I did wonder whether using a hotpot of stories, photos and “link in bio” directives would help get my mixes heard. On the other hand, I was hearing positive things from DJ friends about the music communities on these platforms. At one point I was particularly struck by a Tweet that confronted the carbon footprint of globetrotting artists, sparking a debate between a whole bunch of touring DJs. Eventually I signed up to Instagram and Twitter, two questions lingering in my mind: did DJs like me need social media to be noticed, and if so, could they still use it with more integrity than a marketing tool?
From audio to visual: laying out the underground for all to see
“The digital self is real in some ways, and totally unreal in many other ways” – Sybil
If we understand Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as derivatives of the mainstream news and print media of the ‘80s and ‘90s, you can see how the underground’s reservations about social media go way back. In the UK, for example, the original relationship between early rave culture and the press was disagreeable – not just because the news demonised acid house, but also because of the fundamental difference between the norms made visible by the media, and the elusive antics of unseen ravers. And, at least until the rise of superstar DJs in the late ‘90s, many free parties advertised sound systems over line-ups, sending the message that acid house was more about sound quality than personas. With these factors in mind, it’s easy to see why old school ravers squirm at seeing Instagram profiles like Peggy Gou’s, which veer sharply into the visual territory of fashion influencers, big brands, and dialled-down advertising. Where ‘90s parties distilled secretive, sonic experiences, DJs today increasingly seem to express themselves through images and videos that are publicly posted and shared.
I talked to Sybil, a London-based DJ and member of the SIREN collective who currently uses Facebook and Instagram, about that shift within the music industry. For her, images are certainly guilty of feeding the illusion of popularity.
“We’re powerless to the whims of algorithms which favour attractive faces over abstract photos, text-heavy images or deeper discourse,” she says, identifying the hilarious prevalence of “absurd videos of huge festival stages and confetti cannons or over the top Twitter discourse about minuscule things.”
However, she emphasises a sentiment most of us know, but easily forget: that these images, like a photo album, display “a super-curated best version of someone’s life. The digital self is real in some ways, and totally unreal in many other ways.” For some DJs, fearing that risk of misrepresentation is enough to put them off using image-heavy platforms.
Others trust in common sense to see them through. “There is a lot of pure vanity, absurd bias and illusion,” Seattle-based CCL (aka Ceci) concedes, “but I think that’s just a symptom of a larger system … for what it’s worth, I hope humans can tell when people are being genuine or not.” This seems to be a big factor in the social media debate: when is a photo designed to share an idea, and when is it designed to sell? Ceci wonders whether it’s even possible to fully separate the two.
Expression and promotion feel naturally linked when Ceci posts their art and photographs on Instagram (which was their original purpose using the platform) but they’re still “not sure how to present musical ideas on it.” As a result, they don’t see Twitter and Instagram as essential for pushing their musical identity, but as spaces to publish their work and document a multifaceted life of which DJing is just one aspect.
And there’s another line being drawn by social media platforms when it comes to music artists. Pris (aka Jake Woodhouse) is a British DJ/Producer whose recent Instagram carousel compared the output of private, unseen producers against the appearance of popularity fostered by DJs with regular shows. His post intended to “relieve some pressure,” he explains: “I see the stress people both new and established are feeling from the purely visual aspect of the job: the tour dates being brandished about, videos of others playing to huge crowds … all that creates this corrosive, negative energy and competition when it used to be more about collaborating.” In other words, the desperation to display the artist as a talented, one-[wx]man show can come at the expense of communal projects and shared creativity. Jake describes this as symptomatic of a music industry which pays performers more than producers: “I want to see new models for paying producers that doesn’t involve relying on gigs and having to compete with one another for shows … we should be celebrating each other’s success.”
But, like Ceci, Jake recognises the potential for cutting through the noise on these platforms; citing an Instagram post from Courtesy which discussed mental health and performance: “that really helped me out, actually.” He also thinks that posting with authenticity will become easier with time: “I realised that social media is still super young and there isn’t a ‘rulebook’ on how to present yourself online.” This in particular reminds me of the limitless ways DJs choose to present themselves in the booth, from Surgeon’s clinical focus, to Anklepants’ absurd penis mask, to Jayda G’s euphoric dance moves. Maybe social media presence, like stage presence, can also be explored with focus, ambiguity, or joy.
New meanings: redistributing voice and visibility
Wanting to hear from an artist with a wider frame of reference, I rekindled a conversation I had last year with a producer who first joined Instagram after the reissue of one of his albums. Rens (please note this name is an alias) started out discovering music via mail orders and print magazines, sharing his own material on tapes, minidisc and CD.
Now he uses Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, but his outlook on social media is detached at best: “In my opinion a happy artist is someone who doesn’t have to post on their socials themselves, and has trustworthy people to do it for them.”
However, Rens does appreciate the affordability of social media, remembering how old forms of promotion were “a lot more work, and more expensive.” That much most can agree on: in the same way records are no longer a financial gatekeeper for aspiring DJs, costly PR strategies have been blown out the water by free access to online communities.
While that may earn a grumble or two from DJs who earned their stripes passing flyers and mixtapes across DJ booths, it contributes significantly to fairer representation among upcoming DJs. “I’ve made so many friendships on social media and now feel connected to a geographically dispersed music community.” Sybil notes. Like Rens, Sybil also joined Facebook and Instagram as a DJ fairly recently and has similar concerns about social media as a set of “toxic organisations designed to be addictive.” But within specific communities, social media can help to join the dots between underrepresented artists: in her case, it’s allowed her to meet and follow more like-minded women and non-binary DJs. It’s these smaller demographics, she points out, who are most often under fire in the debate about social media visibility. “Any critique of social media (with regards to DJs) is often thinly-veiled sexism directed at young women and non-binary artists, as well as people of other marginalised identities or less financially secure backgrounds. Rarely is it levelled at men. It’s important to focus critical discussions on the platforms and the algorithms we’re all subject to, rather than targeting individuals.”
Ceci supports this alternative take on social media as a tool of empowerment and bridge-building rather than just a vanity fix. “I was always moving a lot and didn’t necessarily have the opportunity to get close with people who liked the same things as me,” they say. Whether moving around like Ceci or, at the other extreme, living with reduced mobility, social media can be a godsend for those limited by geographical circumstances: “people who are disabled; people in minorities who don’t have a physically present community to engage with.” It also gives minorities a chance to amplify themselves as artists: Ceci refers to Eris Drew as another DJ whose career was buoyed by supportive online communities.
In my own way, I could understand the power of social media to bring the right people together – or as Jake puts it, to “filter what does and doesn’t gel.” Like me, Jake had begun to think more about social media when living in Berlin, and how it provided “more options to get people to pay attention by portraying the person behind the music.” In a city that shoulders so many DJ communities, parties, and clashing interpretations of good nightlife, platforms like Twitter and Instagram offer new ways of connecting with fellow artists when shout-talking over PA systems at 24 hour-long events just won’t do.
And even as social media algorithms favour what Sybil calls “surface-level posts,” long posts or captions can be used to share insights, reflections, and private processes that give meaning and context to a DJ/Producer’s output. “I put a great deal of thought into every mix I make, so I appreciate being able to give that insight.” Sybil explains, adding that she tries to avoid posting superficial, clickbait-style content. “I try not to contribute to the noise with things that won’t resonate with people.” Used in this way, social media has the potential to support and describe musical ideas in the same way sleeve notes and CD inserts provided context to physical formats.
The maintenance of real communities
“I don’t know… do you think SoundCloud is social media?” – CCL
Finding people on a similar wavelength; being able to connect with peers on a deeper level; these are more or less fundamental to dance music culture. Though at times virtual spaces pose an obstacle course of addictive feedback loops and social anxieties, they offer fertile ground for a new kind of underground music community. Where people once congregated at free parties and record shops, music-oriented friendships are now formed across continents as the result of impassioned Twitter discussions or generously shared Bandcamp discoveries. And while countless DJs who cut their teeth on sites like What.CD, DubstepForum, or even MySpace, will happily reminisce about those uncommercial, unregulated spaces, maybe the gulf between pre-2008 internet communities and social media in 2019 isn’t as wide as we tend to think.
“It was 2008 and I didn’t know I still existed,” Rens says, describing how stumbling across ‘his’ MySpace page (which he eventually took over) helped reinject him into the scene. “That same year I got invited to SoundCloud and loved it: it’s such a great way to share ideas and demos with other musicians and labels.” Jake also remembers how MySpace, then SoundCloud became the default ways to “showcase yourself as an artist … the focus definitely felt more on the music itself and didn’t link the output of artists with their shows.” Combined with “an amazingly vibrant culture of small blogs posting weekly roundups of music to listen to,” Jake sees that landscape as a particularly fruitful type of community. “It was the wild west but it was really healthy … now it’s more up to the individual to do the digging.”
It can certainly feel that way when you think of social media as a continuum of separate posts jostling for attention and likes, but I think there’s more to it than that. Talking to Ceci, who credits SoundCloud with getting them on the map, I realise how much of a difference the messaging function can make to the ‘social’ potential of a social media platform. “I’ve messaged a bunch of people on SoundCloud saying, ‘hello… I like your mix’ or ‘I really like your tracks – do you have others you can send me?’” They tell me. It’s via music based platforms that Ceci found DJs like Kiernan Laveaux, Flora FM and Tony Fairchild (who would regularly appear in the Discogs comments sections of great records as Loafman). Ceci would also reach out to defunct labels asking about leftover copies of records. “It’s funny, I feel like it’s all just another weird level of connection you can find with people through very specific medium.” I’d had similar feelings about my own conversations on Instagram, realising how central the messaging side of it was.
Ceci remains adamant about using SoundCloud to discover both peers, newer DJs (and producers: “For me that’s the most important thing.” They also single out SoundCloud’s time-stamp comment function: “You’ll see a cluster of comments saying ‘whoa, this transition is fucking crazy…!’ It’s cool that people can interact with special moments within a mix or track online, especially when people have made standalone pieces; something made to tell a specific story.”
Whether audiences (or peers) reach out to artists or vice versa, all the people I spoke to agreed that new pathways for connection are their favourite thing about using social media. “I get some really heartfelt messages about mixes I’ve posted on social media – especially my Deep Mind Music ambient mixes, which some people tell me have helped them through difficult times.” Sybil tells me. “I have a need to create and share using sound, and when I hear that’s connected with someone else, well, that means a lot. It counteracts the impostor syndrome to have even just one person let you know that what you’re doing resonated with them.”
For Ceci, social media became an important factor in the context of the TUF parties they help run. “I don’t think I would have been at the [recent TUF Til Dawn] party without it. It helped me understand how important the event was,” they note. In the party’s aftermath, Ceci describes how “a bunch of people I don’t know messaged me with things like, ‘I’m now super inspired to DJ,’ or ‘I’m inspired to come out as a queer person,’ or ‘I’ve never felt more myself in my life.’ Some have expressed they are afraid to say those things in real life, or feel nervous approaching you in case they overwhelm you – but then they reached out on Facebook or Instagram and I’m so grateful that that even exists; that I can talk to someone I had this intense experience with … I seriously live for those messages in some way, and if we can reach out to each other more that’s really fucking cool. I also feel cautious about engaging in a system that fuels addiction and surface level interaction, but there are some parts that enable genuine connection between people who might not have been able to decompress from certain experiences without it – and that definitely has value to me.”
Coming back to connection
In one way, the artists I spoke to echoed the view of the DJs interviewed by Resident Advisor: “Do what works for you,” Sybil advises. “We’re all struggling with the best way to navigate these pressures and platform, and in a late capitalist world there is no best way.” But she stresses: “if you aren’t comfortable using social media then definitely don’t feel pressured to use it,” noting that despite appearances, “there’s also still plenty of adventurous bookers who are seeking out DJs who aren’t on social media at all and giving them opportunities at more underground parties” (in her case it was promoters asking how to tag her in event descriptions that led to her setting up public social media profiles).
Jake leaves me with an interesting approach, which he thinks might work as an antidote to social media’s addictions and vanities. “Focus more on your followers than on who you are following. If you have even one person following you on whichever platform – focus on them! Lots of people are focused on what the two hundred people they follow are up to, and forget that they have ten thousand people interested in their own shit. Build a connection with them rather than chasing people you see as ‘above you’ (which they’re not – we’re all peers!)”
His advice makes me consider social media in a new light: just as showing up at a party and drawing attention to yourself won’t guarantee meaningful connection and great friendships, using social media comes with the option of getting to know people or not. For artists like Rens who still prefer physical interactions, but feel obliged to make use of the social media landscape, maybe it makes sense to dip in and out with few expectations. For the younger DJs I spoke to, social media still demands a level of common sense and emotional courage if it’s to be used in a deeper way. To use Jamaal Moss’ words above: you can still “believe in person to person, people to people” as a DJ using social media. Maybe that, more than self-promotion, is actually the point.