A Closer Look: Rocketnerd on Digital Democratization, Community Values, and The Fate of the Young DJ

The rise of a whole slew of new, young djs over the last year has been one of the more interesting developments I have witnessed. The democratizing influence of digital DJ technology has made everyones DJ dream a possibility. No longer do you need to spend hours with a mentor or a group of friends learning how to spin vinyl. Youtube tutorials are readily available to teach you all need to know about the technical skills you need to produce and mix. Gone too is the high upstart cost of buying two turntables and a stack of records to practice with. It has been quickly replaced by downloading mp3s and a copy of ableton live or traktor. Doubtless, this has resulted in a wide proliferation of an artistic form that gives meaning and enjoyment to countless people.  Yet, it has also resulted in wider social problems in the reproduction of the main values of dance music communities, which poses a problem for maintaining the community long term. 

Now let’s take one such hypothetical young dj as an example to illustrate one of the cultural problems that arises with this democratization. Let’s name her Sally. Sally has been emboldened by a few weeks of bedroom practice and the bright lights of Electric Daisy Carnival to try and book her first show.  She begins to reach out to promotors and DJs asking for a slot at their next show. Her request in most cases is met with encouragement, but some confront Sally with less than tepid response. This is not a surprising, as most established DJs and promoters do not wish to lose or give their slots to relative unknowns who did not take the established path to music scene incorporation. Would you blame them? The economics and status as stake when putting on a show necessitates that you don’t put someone on a bill unless you can vouch for their skills. Sally ends up feeling discouraged and recedes back to her bedroom to practice in isolation from the larger scene once again.

Sally is an exemplar of the shortcomings of the democratization of digitized technology, as she does not understand her outsider position in relation to the insider status of most established DJs. She does not know the cultural values, beliefs, and norms she needs to know in order to be part of a dance music scene. Youtube tutorials, traktor manuals, and most blogs don’t discuss such facets of DJ culture, and due to this Sally lacks the social capital needed to make a go of it in this DJ world. In particular, Sally’s experience highlights the continued importance of being embedded in the scene and building a social network in order to contribute to a scene. Prior to the digital age, learning to DJ often meant that you would learn these basic values, beliefs, and norms right along with the more technical skills. Today, the individualized learning path some take prevents them from learning these vital cultural values and building social networks. Much like the continued relevance of print media, peer groups are still incredibly important to the development and display of an art form. Yet,  greater democratization has massaged some of us into the belief that as rugged individuals we can go it alone from our bedrooms. (Now there are also issues of exclusion as well that I am not hitting on–one issue at a time)

This raises a few key questions: Where can young DJs go to learn these beliefs and norms and gain entry into the scene in a low risk fashion? How can we facilitate embedding these young djs into the larger community?  As a sociologist, I am always asking such questions, because I am interested in the organizations that arise in our dance music community to teach and help younger DJs succeed. One place where some young dance music fans have flocked to is Ohio State’s Electronic Music Club. The EMC has provided a venue for curious music lovers to learn about music production and the scene around them. I believe such an organization is vital to long term scene success, as it allows a low risk avenue for DJs and interested onlookers to get more involved without having to go to shows alone. Such a pathway is important to have on campus, as it provides a means to continue to build a scene and teach the next generations the values and beliefs that have kept the community going for over 40 years.

Due to the importance of organizations like the EMC,  I thought it important to sit down with Rocketnerd, EMC president, to discuss the his opinions on the group and the challenges they face. Rocketnerd also provides an interesting viewpoint of these younger DJs and the wave of democratization they are now riding, as he is a younger member of the scene that enjoys insider status within the DJ community. Enjoy.

LA: How and when did the EMC begin? Who was there in the beginning?
R: The Electronic Music Club at Ohio State was put together by David Foust, Marco Satala and Matt Weber in Spring 2010. The founders wanted to hear more electronic music around campus and they wanted to educate people on the diversity of genres available. So they put up fliers, booked a room and made a powerpoint and something like 200 people showed up to the first meeting. I met Mike Salone, Jack Herrera and the founders that night. (Sorry to anyone I’m leaving out!)

LA: What were your goals when you became president this year?
R: I was thinking of it as a responsibility to continue what David and those guys started. So the goals were something along the lines of throw shows and make money. We also wanted to get more involved with the community, which I think we’ve done. A bunch of people know the EMC as a promotional group, now, rather than “just” a student org (we were always both.) We had originally thought of doing some really ambitious stuff but I think we were getting ahead of ourselves. This club will really take off when we get someone to run it who isn’t trying to run all over the place and do everything all the time. What we really need is someone who can run it full time.

LA: How has the club evolved over the last year?
R: We’re a little leaner, now. I think we’ve (sadly) lost touch with campus as we’ve gotten more involved with the community. The shows we’ve thrown have been financial successes, and we’re now more connected to the wider community. We were working with PSG for a little while back in the fall, and we’ve done ticket giveaways for MBFP and the like. Our Facebook page turned into a spam page for promoters, so we’ve streamlined that to something of a creative sharing space. Now people are posting their tracks up, and there’s been some positive feedback. We’ve got a great group of people who regularly attend our DJ workshops, and we’re getting our production workshops back up after Dan Haaser got a job and couldn’t do it anymore (I WILL NEVER FORGIVE YOU. ♥)

LA: What is your vision for what you would like to do with the last quarter of your presidency in the EMC?
R: Get back in touch with campus more, throw shows, make money. We’ve got a show with a certain act that I think everyone will be pretty excited about that I’m going to be announcing soon. We’re looking forward to getting back up and running with our monthly showcase after our previous venue “closed for renovations.”

LA: What role does the EMC play in the larger Columbus Dance Music Community?
R: I like to think we’re a springboard. We pull kids in who already have an interest but don’t know much beyond what they’ve heard on hypem and then we fill out their experience and point them in the right direction. It’s better to have a generation of midi-controller DJs with some perspective. The kids want to get involved and we want to help them be constructive contributors.

LA: We discussed the difficulty of breaking into the campus nightlife scene. What have your experiences been with trying to maintain a monthly on campus?
R: Somewhat frustrating. The first thing we learned is that the campus crowd is really sensitive to weather. Since almost nobody on campus has a car, if it rains, your night is shot unless you’re right across the street. So Big Bar does alright in the rain, but Tipsy doesn’t. Also, Tipsy ,specifically had a reputation as being pretty shady. Our big opener with Tumms, Axcess, Fabyan and Pantha! in what I believe was either his last or second to last performance before the name change, didn’t jump off so good because it was raining and people didn’t want to go someplace where somebody got shot. (I don’t know details, that’s just what I’ve heard from everyone.)

We did a couple of nights there, never lost any money but never made any big moves, until finally the venue closed without notification. I heard second-hand that they were “closing for renovations,” which meant selling the place and bringing in an entirely different staff. We’re working on getting in with them so we can start the monthly back up. We aren’t going to do a monthly unless we can have a night that A) Doesn’t conflict with any other established event and Isn’t on a fairly prime night of the week. Basically, our needs have not as of yet really meshed with the needs of a venue. We’re hoping that changes. I’ve got a meeting with a venue this week to see if we can get things reestablished.

LA: What are the unique challenges and opportunities with working within a university setting?
R: On the opportunities side, we’ve theoretically got a captive audience. We’re the only University affiliated group (aside from OUAB) promoting entertainment for campus kids and we’re definitely the only ones throwing electro and dubstep parties specifically for students. The challenging part is getting drowned out by all the cheap, easy entertainment. Most of the campus crowd would rather stumble over to patio to drink swill and listen radio jams then walk a few blocks north to get down to Moombahton. They’re not there for music, specifically, but we are. It’s a hard fit.

LA: What are your opinions on the challenges and opportunities that have arisen due to the democratization of dance music DJ technology?
R: Everyone’s a DJ now, and that is simultaneously a great thing and really frightening. This has been a major bone of contention especially with more commercially-minded DJs locally, and it’s something I’ve discussed at great length. Mostly, and perhaps misguidedly, these conversations have hinged on the sync button in digital DJing environments. First of all, the sync button is not your enemy. Sure, it allows people with negligible training to not sound completely awful, but I’ve seen people completely screw up while using it. This means that it is not the universal crutch that some folks seem to think it is. The commercial guys blame the sync button for getting undercut for bar gigs. Basically, their argument is “Kid A comes in with a $7 midi controller and says ‘I’ll DJ your night for a couple of drinks,’ to which the bar manager responds ‘okay,’ which puts the highly skilled club-DJ-turntablist-wizard out of a job.” Let’s stop and think for a second who’s really screwing who.

Awesome Club DJ man charges $200 a night for a service upon which a value can be placed. A good DJ can light up a room, get people to buy more drinks etc. Now, Kid A in our example wants to play music to that same room for a much lower price. He’s not very good at mixing, but he downloaded the Billboard Top 100 Dance Music chart from The Pirate Bay the other day and he’s ready to play songs that all the ladies know and love to dance to. Do those ladies (and the guys who came to the club to objectify them) particularly care how the songs are put together? Some might. Do most? Probably not. The real force at work here is the ignorance of the club goers at commercial venues. Play songs they know, they’re happy, and they don’t really care if you just fade on out and put the other in.

For electronic guys, this poses a different set of challenges. There’s a ton of people in this town who want to play tunes and only a limited number of time slots. This means that people who have been doing it a little longer and have more experience feel squeezed out by less experience folks. Though mostly, talented people get invited back and people who need to work on their mixing go back to the drawing board. It’s the democratization that drove the EMC to start offering DJ workshops to the public. Since everyone’s a DJ, it’s hard for everyone to get the advice they need starting out. We give people who are just getting going a place for constructive feedback and guidance so they don’t get booked and then fall on their faces. We consider it a public service.

LA: What do you think the future holds for the EMC?
R: The EMC is going to keep offering workshops and throwing shows. Maybe someday we’ll get involved with OUAB and see if we can’t get someone huge to sell out the Schottenstein Center. Who knows?

LA: Switching gears to some questions about your artistic trajectory, what are your views about the utility of the use of elements of fidget house in dance music sets?
R: Oh fidget house, how you will destroy me. Okay, before you read my answer to this question, you need to listen to this song.

Crookers–Gypsy P

Okay, now that you’re back, think about the energy in that thing. Where does it come from? It’s the bass, and the samples! It’s energetic, fun, playful, driving, bouncy and a giant list of other adjectives. All of these qualities are good for lighting up a floor, but they’re also a little oppressive depending on the energy of a room. If you aren’t ready for it, fidget can be kind of corny/antagonistic. I’ve found that the use of the counterpoint sample on the ‘and’ of each beat can be extremely compelling. Listen to how the horn sample props up the kick drum and drives the whole thing forward.

That particular element can work in a number of genres, and I’ve been seeing it put to use in techno. Artist like Blatta & Inesha (techno nouveau guys) have done multiple tracks with Calvertron (Collabs like Let’s Dance and remixes on Urban Cougar, Raw Power, and Where is it?) and you can hear that counterpoint and stab style bass on their stuff.

The real problem with talking about fidget in a specific context is that it’s kind of hard to define, so you come off like a jackass half the time. It’s like porn. I know it when I see it.

LA: You have very specific views about the dangers of commercialization in music. What is your view of the commercialization of dance music and how does it impact what you try to do with your music?
R: I just think there’s a lot of emphasis on how much money an album or an artist makes. I find often people will say “Well, you gotta hand it to ‘em, they sure did make a whole bunch of money. Commercial success does not mean artistic success. Or I guess maybe it does, but that depends on an individual’s definition of success. I think of it like this; if I can move somebody with a track, I’m happy. Whenever I play something like my remix of Pussy Pussy Pussy I get a laugh and some people dance, or when I play Place of Red Willows people groove it out and that’s how I measure success. Neither of those songs have made me a dime, but I consider them successful because I learned something in the making of them and they’ve been enjoyed by people.

There’s been a lot of talk about the state of dance music and the dangers of commercialization. I think the real danger of that will be having our “secret club,” if you will, discovered by outsiders who’ll come in and not know proper b-boy etiquette, or they’ll hear a house track and say “I love techno” or they’ll make a dumb request at a more performance oriented night. None of these things are really that bad if you look at it on the scale of local scenes, which, let’s be honest, are sort of the ‘real’ places to be. All those big festivals have always been and will always be commercial showcases, and that’s fine for what they do. The people who are really concerned about overcommercialization should tighten their focus on the local scene and on people that are really doing it for the music, so to speak.

LA: You have adopted a very focused style of music you like to play and dabble in elements from other styles. Why do you think focus and deep immersion is important for your artistic approach?
R: I don’t know that it’s necessarily been important for my approach as much as it’s just been an organic development. I got stuck on a certain sound from like Crookers and Gigi Barocco. What I guess it did for me is identify me with a specific sound and a specific energy.

LA: You discussed with me your wish to begin producing more. Why do you feel it is important for you to create your own tracks?
R: I wanted to produce long before I tried to get into DJing, so I’d like to think that production has always been my passion. The truth is that I think I have something to offer in terms of a different perspective and a different creative approach that can add to the dialogue. All music, and none more obviously and viscerally than EDM, is about artists borrowing from and learning from and influencing one another and adding to this dialogue. I think I can do that, and then when I do I’ll get all famous n’ shit.

LA: How do you think your training as a historian impacts how you see the scene around you and your art of music creation?
R: My training as a historian encourages me to take the long view and try to understand things in context. So a fluctuation or a development has to be understood as an event in web of events which all influence on another. I guess it also helps me have an appreciation for samples. Since I know that no music develops in a vacuum, then I don’t get so butthurt when someone produces something really sample heavy. Basically just knowing that since the inception of EDM there has been endless mutation. Technology changes, style changes, focus changes, the definition of commercial success changes and the reasons why people get involved change. It’s best not to get too hung up on it. Just do your thing for your thing’s sake and enjoy yourself.

Check out Rocketnerds work on his soundcloud!

  1. Steve D said:

    This was a super insightful interview. Cheers to both.

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