One DJ Tradition It’s Time To Let Go Of (No, It’s Not Vinyl)

Tom Schmitz | Read time: 3 mins
Hiding tunes
Last updated 28 May, 2015


In the pre-digital old days of limited supply, maybe it made sense for DJs to hide the labels of their tunes… but in the digital age, it is not only a losing battle, but ultimately, doesn’t help anyone, argues our guest writer today.

One question that seems to get asked here time and time again is: “Is it OK to hide the names of my tunes?” One thing this practice isn’t is new. The hiding of tracks got engrained into DJ culture long ago. It’s part of our history and culture. Here is a passage from the Northern Soul section of Frank Broughton and Bill Brewster’s Last Night a DJ Saved My Life book, from 16 years ago:

“Inevitably, competition grew between DJs, and to protect new discoveries they would cover the label and give them false names. ‘Covering up’ can be seen as the forerunner to modern DJs’ white label exclusives, or the hip hop DJs’ habit of soaking off the labels from their most treasured breaks.”

So it’s DJ tradition. Great. Time to get over it.

Back in the days of Northern Soul, disco, new wave, hip hop, etc, music existed on vinyl and CDs. If you found a great song, especially an old, rare or hard to find record, it wasn’t like the label would reprint it just because a few DJs were spinning it.

Today everything is digital. We buy our music on sites like Beatport, iTunes, Amazon, and Bandcamp. We get tracks and remixes from SoundCloud. While not everything is available online, legitimately, most music is. Digital is the top distribution model among DJs. For the most part, the rare track is a relic of the past.

Thanks to apps like Shazam and SoundHound, everyone is a trainspotter. No one has to peer into the DJ booth with squinty eyes, trying to read a tiny spinning record label. And since half the club goers are Facebooking, you don’t know which ones are capturing your playlist. It’s a losing battle.

How DJs spin has changed too. At most EDM nights I go to the DJ takes loops from various songs and mixes them together to create entirely new compositions. These DJs have more in common with musical arrangement than the mixed-jukebox format of the pre-digital era. Even if you play whole songs, you probably have a wide array of filters and effects at your disposal. Back in the 80s a DJ might have reverb… on the microphone.

Unless you’re spinning Hot 100, you probably spin a lot of small labels and independent artists. If their music is good enough to play, then it’s good enough to promote. The more sales these artists make, the more new music they will make. For me, this is the real key. I want people to know what I spin. I want my audience to know who these artists are and I want the club kids to go home and buy these songs.

Back in the 80s we DJs felt like tastemakers, and we were to an extent. But the reality was that most artists we played were on major labels. Even the independent labels, excluding small local projects, enjoyed major label investment and distribution. Today, with truly independent labels and artists, DJs can be real tastemakers. If you have an audience you can introduce them to amazing musicians. But unless your audience knows who those singers and composers and remixers are, they cannot buy the music.

Before digital, having tracks people loved and couldn’t hear anywhere else was a strategic advantage. That advantage no longer exists. But, by sharing your playlists you can have a new strategic advantage, one for our digital era. Marketing online is all about the conversation. When you post your playlist after a gig you give your audience something they crave, the inside scoop. You give them the power to find the music you made them love.

And they can share your list with their friends. That, in turn, introduces you as a DJ to new people. It grows your audience online and it gets more people excited about attending your nights. In this new world where creating, not consuming, increasingly defines who we are, sharing is good for everyone.

• Tom Schmitz is DJ Major Tom in Seattle where he plays Alternative 80s, Synthpop and Industrial at Club Contour and Mercury @ Machinewerks. He began DJing in 1985.

Do you agree with Tom? Or is there still a case to be made for playing your DJ cards close to your chest? Would love to hear your views in the comments.

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