San Francisco-based DJ, musician and mash-up-artist DJ Earworm exploded onto the music scene with his United State of Pop bootleg/mash-ups, and especially United State of Pop 2009, which took YouTube by storm and made him a household name in an instant. Now an in-demand international DJ, as he tells Digital DJ Tips’ Phil Morse, it all started from making a mixtape for a road trip, just for fun…
Tell us your story from the beginning. Did you have a musical background before DJing? Absolutely, yes. As a kid I was bouncing around, playing piano and stuff. My mother played piano, my dad plays like 20 different instruments, there was always jazz, folk, music of all sorts going on in the house…
I majored in music at college, studied computer science and music theory. I’ve been involved in classical music, in just playing songs at the piano, you know, then I spent some years involved in original electronic music production, songwriting, bands and so on.
So how did you get started as a DJ/mash-up artist?
Well, after a few years of the above, I had this feeling that things were growing and that it would eventually work out, but it wasn’t really happening, you know, financially for me. It’s true to say at the time I didn’t really know how I was going to make this music thing work for me. Then I started playing around with other people’s music. I made a mixtape for a road trip or something, and one of my friends said to me: “Hey, that’s a mash-up!”
I ended up doing more and more of it, just for fun really, just to waste time. But eventually I took my material to DJ Adrian, who runs Bootie [influential mash-up club night in San Francisco], who said: “You should put this stuff online, let the world hear it.”
I guess at that point you had to choose a name for yourself. Where did DJ Earworm come from?
Well “Earworm” represents something catchy, that gets into your head – and it was available! “DJ” simply because what else could I call myself? I mean, I was making mash-ups, mixing other people’s music to make something new.
If you’re doing that and you’re a DJ, that’s fine, that’s what DJs do. But if you’re not a DJ, what are you? You’re just a thief! So “DJ” it was, even though I wasn’t really a DJ at all – I was a producer making mash-ups.
So you weren’t DJing at that point?
No. I kind of figured, if anyone asks me to spin, I’ll get the software and sort it out.
And that’s what happened?
Yes, people locally and who were into mash-ups found me through the blogs and stuff, and before you know it I got my first gig offer. My first gig was at the Museum of Modern Arts (MOMA) in San Francisco. I went out and bought a laptop and Traktor, which was my software of choice at the time, and practised all-out for two weeks.
The artist whose show it was was from Brooklyn, New York, and they wanted this Brooklyn electroclash sound, so I went full out getting a set ready like that.
So weren’t you nervous, having only practised DJing for two weeks?
Sure, there was performance anxiety, but that’s the same for everyone, I mean, it was exactly the same performance anxiety I used to get when I was in a band, playing music in front of people.
From that first gig, how did things develop? How did you go from there to being practically a household name?
Put simply, YouTube videos shared on Facebook. I started making these mash-ups, and videos for them started appearing on YouTube. I was always saying to people: “These videos are becoming the official videos because that’s all there is.” So I thought, I’d better start making videos.
Once I did that and they started getting a lot of views, especially when the United State of Pop series started coming together, things blew up, way beyond expectations. It was building in 2007 and 2008, but with the 2009 United State of Pop, it just exploded, way bigger than 2008.
So was there one moment when you realised it was all going to happen for you? Can you describe how that 2009 mash-up took off?
Yes, that was the greatest thing. It was staggering, It blew up in like 24 hours. I mean, it was so big, so fast. When a viral thing happens, it peaks in the first 48 hours. It was on CNN, Time, and it was just – staggering.
Where were you at the time?
I was in Singapore, it was actually my first ever gig in Asia. I finished making the mash-up, I jumped on the plane to fly to the gig, and by the time I landed in Singapore and checked the numbers, it was really going off beyond all expectation. But the thing is, I was disconnected from it all – weird. Everything was happening by email!
And what has success meant for you? What is your life like now compared to before?
Well now I’m full time, I’m getting enough gigs and commissions to pay my rent, and I’m getting to travel. I have been lucky enough to DJ all over the world. I opened for Enrique Iglesias in Johannesburg, I played the Roseland Ballroom Club in New York, the Bahamas, Santa Domingo, Moscow – although that was a strange night as it happens…
My OMG Baby mash-up was played as part of a concert at Wembley in London last year, at Capital FM’s Summertime Ball – I mashed up all of the artists that were performing there. That was a real highlight. I wasn’t even there – my manager went in my place to see the video being played in front of all of those people!
And if you don’t mind me asking, how do you actually earn your income? I mean, I presume you can’t make any money off the mash-ups themselves?
No, I don’t sell my mash-ups – I don’t get anything from sales. When I put stuff together it’s more promotional. However, I’m hired to do custom projects – I’ve worked for labels, corporate stuff, and I get DJ gigs of course. I do stuff for advertisers, stuff for events that might not even be public events – you know, presentations, that kind of thing, or private parties where they’re throwing around a lot of money and they want something unique.
And you’re always DJing at these bookings, not actually performing your mash-ups somehow?
It’s always DJing. DJ gigs off the back of my mash-ups. I use Ableton Live now, though, instead of Traktor. I use a Xone:2D as my controller, though I’m thinking of switching to something else – it’s a bit heavy for hand luggage.
And do you DJ a lot?
Well, definitely not as much as a lot of other DJs, because I sort of go into production and put my head down and then I go and do a bunch of gigs.
And I take it you’re using Ableton Live in your production too?
Yes, I am.
So there’s a blurring there for you? Producing and DJing on the same system?
Definitely, I feel a blurring there. And I want to blur it even further, too. I have Max for Live and I’m playing around with it.
We were recently talking about mash-ups becoming more common in DJing, about DJing nowadays being so much more than just beatmatching due to all this kit, due to how easy it is to “pass go” nowadays as a DJ. There seem to be more people calling themselves DJs out there than ever…
I think DJing is going to become really widespread, like really widespread. As widespread as gaming is. I think DJing is the future of music consumption and production, that we’ve seriously not seen the peak of it at all yet.
People moan that “anyone can be a DJ” nowadays, and that the quality drops as a consequence….
Yes but the great thing is that you’re going to have to do something really amazing to stand out. You’re going to have to do something that’s creative and different and somehow reflects your take on the world. It’ll be great as there will be more quality than ever out there.
Yes, the field will become devalued, in the same way that blogging has decimated the field of journalism because anyone can blog, or that professional photography has been slammed by digital and by Flickr. I mean there’s some seriously high quality photography available on Flickr. And that’s definitely how DJing and music production is going to go.
That’s what people are moaning about, saying the whole field has been devalued….
Yes but you still have to have the taste to play the right thing, and you have to be able to read what people want as a DJ. And at the same time, the quality of the music produced is going to rise, because the voting and social angle of Facebook and YouTube kick in. The good stuff can shine through, and it can shine through really quickly.
So tell me about your mash-up style. How do you approach making a mash-up?
I have a highly compositional approach, really very structured. I follow the pop song as my ultimate goal. My goal is to make the perfect pop song rather than a DJ mix. My mash-ups have a beginning, a middle and an end, they all happens in four minutes. Verse, bridge, chorus, intro, outro, enough repetition but not too much, parts that repeat, parts that mimic each other – pop, basically.
And what about your DJing, then? How do you approach playing a DJ set?
Well that’s more about keeping the flow going, playing enough of a song that people aren’t annoyed when you change it, not playing so much that there’s a lull. DJing is about finding out what’s going to tickle this audience tonight, how to bring the next record in at the right moment to make the transition really musical.
I pay a lot of attention to key so stuff can blend musically, so songs can creep in without you feeling something alien is coming into the mix.
So would you call what you do overall mash-ups? Or DJing? Or what?
There’s no other word for it than DJing, is there? Because it’s basically doing the same activity as the people with the spinning discs. It’s still DJing. Why not call it “data jockeying”? I sometimes prefer to call myself a data jockey…
Tell me about the legalities of mash-ups, as far as your experiences go. You said earlier that you don’t ever charge for your mash-ups….
I’ve never had any legal problems, although occasionally content has been blocked. When content gets blocked, it’s often not clear whether a human is doing it or a bot has identified content. Either way, the more transformed the content is, the better.
I mostly operate under the US principle of fair use, and as I say I never sell my mash-ups.
DJing has changed so much. What would your advice be to young music fans who want to DJ and who see their future doing something like this…
I’d say number one, if you’re young, study music. Study music theory. That’s the number one thing. If you want to be good at music, and have a leg-up, having the knowledge of how music is made and how it fits together is so important. The earlier you learn it, the more time you have to work with it.
You know, it’s a skill just to feel how grooves fit together and stuff, but it’s even more of a skill to work out how melody, key and chords go together.
We recently had an article about how geeks will be the next superstar DJs, because of all the technology available to performers nowadays. Do you think that technical knowledge is important?
Yes, sure. I mean, I use databases, programming, scripts and so on to organise and arrange my stuff. I have a very programmatic approach to music and that helps too.
But technical knowledge is not as essential as learning about how music is put together. You certainly don’t have to be a computer programmer to be a good producer or DJ…
• DJ Earworm was talking to Digital DJ Tips’ Phil Morse.