I checked out this club in London last year. It was absolutely packed, and as usual I made my way to the DJ booth – a habit I picked up from Manila clubbing in the late 90s, where mega-brands like Cream, Renaissance, and Ministry Of Sound would fly out whoever DJ they were promoting at the time in order to spread their sound to the emerging Asian dance music scene.
I had a tough time making my way to the LED wall where, presumably, the DJ booth was because there were so many people. When I got closer to booth, it suddenly hit me: there was no DJ! That’s why folk had their backs to the screen, dancing with each other in little circles instead of facing one direction.
I should have guessed really; the tracks just seemed to fade in and out of each other, beatmixing-be-damned. It was just a machine-picked playlist of 90s bubblegum pop and guilty 80s new wave pleasures.
I thought that this sort of thing happened only in little bars and pubs where background music was played, but here I was in this big club where it was happening right in front of my own eyes: an app was “DJing” for the club. The crowd could care less – we left around 4am and the party was still going strong.
I’ve been thinking about that night since…
What exactly is artificial intelligence?
Welcome to 2017, where artificially intelligent computers have beaten humans at chess, Go, and Jeopardy!, and data algorithms act like little gods that whisper to humans what to listen to next, what to buy and what to watch, and even what to believe. Every time you use Facebook or do a Google search, that data is sent, crunched, analysed, after which a digital “portrait” of you is made, consisting of your preferences, consumption habits, and demographic data. Your portrait is constantly being drawn – you’re a person who changes, so your data changes along with you.
All that data is just a smaller part of something exponentially powerful: artificial intelligence. If you think AI is the stuff of sci-fi, think again: There’s AI on your phone (Siri), AI in your home (Amazon Echo and Google Home), AI in drones (DJI’s new selfie drone follows you and responds to hand commands), and, soon enough, AI-driven cars.
You don’t even have to look further than your own DJ software to see AI working in the background – song recommendations are driven both by your past song choices and app calculations, as is the case with automatically generated playlists based on song characteristics in apps like beaTunes.
AI has already affected some industries, including law, security and intelligence gathering, and it’s predicted that “half of all existing jobs are susceptible to automation”. Whether that’s a fair prediction or not, the fact is that AI is here to stay, it’s already in our lives, and it will only get more powerful and more intelligent. What’s a DJ to do?
AI’s greatest edge is the ability to crunch a large amount of data and arrive at a decision based on that analysis. That makes AI great for generating playlists that rely on specific behaviours: background music for eating at restaurants, for instance, or soft hotel lounge and spa music for chilling out to. These are no-brainers, and if it’s something that’s just playing quietly in the background, I’d even say that it’s better to just have a Spotify playlist on than a live DJ looking completely bored out of his mind and checking his phone every five minutes.
On the other hand, as humans, our greatest advantage is that we have the ability to connect with our audience – after all, we are playing for other people, too. Here are five ways to future-proof yourself by being more human behind the decks and setting yourself apart from app-reliant DJs:
5 Ways To Future-Proof Your DJing
1. Learn the kinetic aspects of DJing and invest in performance skills
Let’s step aside from robots for a minute and consider this: the one thing software or artificial intelligence can’t do yet is actually touch the platter of your DJ controller or CDJ. Yes, software can make mixing, juggling, and sample triggering actions, but there is no physical aspect to it. That means a crowd won’t be able to see an app working its magic. They will, however, see whatever you’re doing behind the decks, whether you’re scratching or cue juggling, putting your hands in the air, or even fake knob twiddling.
Why not start getting serious with turntablism or controllerism? How about turning off sync when you’re mixing with three or more decks? What about remixing a track on the fly by adding a live instrument such as a piano synth, guitar or sax, or even your own vocals (auto tune is fine, especially for us vocally challenged DJs). These are all activities that you can do inside the DJ booth that turn you into a performer capable not just of selecting tunes, but putting on a good show as well.
Whether we like it or not, having an actual person in the DJ booth doing something makes a huge difference from a visual standpoint. Use that to your advantage: If you want people to watch you while they dance, give them something to look at.
2. Tap into powerful emotions for song choices
Intelligent library software like beaTunes and Mixed In Key can detect tempo, musical key, and even intangible characteristics like “energy”, but they can’t tell you what to feel. A peppy song can be moody and painful if that is what the lyrics and vibe of the song as a whole are (eg Robyn’s Dancing On My Own, for anyone who’s ever crushed on anyone on the dancefloor). Conversely, a seemingly downtempo / sad song can be given a more joyous interpretation based on the context and time of its release (eg Massive Attack’s Protection is one example). DJs can get context right in ways AI can’t.
That’s not even looking into even more complex human experiences like pensiveness, mourning the death of a loved one, a perfectly timed joke, fighting for one’s belief by “staying woke”, celebrating the birth of a child born using In Vitro Fertilisation, and so on. DJs can tap into myriad communal emotions – arguably, it’s the main thing great DJs do really well.
AI can analyse and interpret data based on what we’ve experienced, however, if that experience is something that we still don’t fully understand, then that’s something that will remain a mystery, even to a really smart app.
3. Take more risks; mistakes aren’t that bad
You’ve probably heard of the phrase “fail fast, fail often”. Failure (and getting back from it) is an important facet of millennial culture, and DJs of all ages should take note. Making those little mistakes during your set, such as less-then-perfect low end filtering when mixing, or taking risks by switching genres or musical keys, are what keep things fresh and exciting for your dancefloor, and challenging for yourself while you’re behind the decks.
Even massive trainwrecks aren’t the career killers they used to be – just check out any DJ Fails video compilation. These could even help your career by getting you more attention, oddly enough (for anyone doubting this, remember that Steve Aoki and The Chainsmokers exist and are massively popular). It’s all part of being imperfect creatures living in a world of unavoidable risk and circumstance.
Mechanical precision is for machines – the human touch is for DJs like you and me.
4. Bank on experience to make very personal song selections
DJ apps like Algoriddim’s djay Pro, Virtual DJ, Rekordbox DJ, and MixVibes Cross DJ have track recommendation features that are based on song characteristics. Apps like Virtual DJ 8 access the cloud and pull recommendations based on what other DJs play next, and these are all well and good – in fact, they’re bound to become even more powerful and useful.
However, there is power in a personal song choice that you instinctively know will elicit a reaction from the crowd that’s playing in front of you: DJing for your 10th-year high school reunion? Drop that jam from 1996 that was bootlegged on cassettes and passed around in recess. Playing a hip club that loves nu disco? Take them on a musical journey that touches on the fringes of other styles based on tracks that you know have worked for similar crowds in the past. Again tap into communal experiences.
For this reason, the best DJs are the ones who’ve been in the game longest – experience is one of a DJ’s greatest assets, more so than all the gear he or she owns.
5. Build on conscious music creativity
Artificial intelligence today has created music, visual art, and even a screenplay, but these are all based on input that was given to it. In other words, AI currently “creates” something because humans asked it to and fed it a set of instructions and parameters. Computers and software are currently great at making redundant, copycat work, but not that great at creating something totally original (at least not yet).
Until AI becomes a “sentient” being, that is, until it is aware that it’s a piece of software, it won’t be able to create something out of nothing the way we humans normally do. We are able to do this because we know we are people and that we are capable of creating art like music, and there is no other being in the known universe that is capable of doing that, not even the smartest software right now.
Gary Vaynerchuk says that there is a 400 trillion to one chance of becoming a human being in this world – if that’s not enough of a reason to put your smartphone down and get started producing music, or creating a mashup or DJ mixtape, I don’t know what is.
There’s no need to throw away your phone, tablet, laptop, and live in a foil-insulated bunker. No need to “un-digitise” your MP3 collection by buying vinyl records for every single track on your hard drive (doomsday hipsters, anyone?). the fun happens when you adopt a lifestyle and mindset that keeps you at the cutting edge where music and technology meet.
Digital DJ technology is here to help us, not replace us: of course, DJing and DJ technology are ever-evolving, so when apps become so powerful they can do almost all the mundane stuff DJs have to do, it frees us up to do more of the clever stuff, not less.
All of our five tricks can be done both on digital set-ups and vinyl-only affairs. You can also do them whether on a festival stage or a dimly-lit pub. You’re required to do a combination of physical work (eg using your hands) and mental work in order to execute them, so that puts more of “you” into the equation instead of your just relying on a computer to do everything for you at a gig.
Furthermore, these tips add an emotionally anchored touch to your performance – feelings, after all, are what define humanity, for better or worse.
Looking back at the clubbing night in London, the party could’ve gone on for several more hours. Days, weeks, months even, if it was a 90s iTunes list playing the hits – but I kept wondering whether the crowd was left feeling a bit empty because they couldn’t show love for the DJ? I sure felt that way, but I’m old fashioned: I like connecting with the girl or guy making the music happen, and I especially love connecting with my audience when I’m the one behind the decks. That’s one of the biggest reasons I DJ – to connect. Without an audience to share my music with, I may as well be DJing alone in my bedroom.
Humans aren’t the strongest, fastest, or toughest species on earth, but we’re (currently) the smartest. What happens when Artificial Intelligence surpasses our own human intelligence? What if AI becomes smart and decides humans are little error-prone pests that must be dealt with?
It’s the stuff of science fiction sure, and something probably best left to government and think tanks to figure out, so for now, us DJs will have to deal with the fact that what makes us human (eg crowd experience, relating on an emotional level, making “mistakes”) actually makes us a little bit more future-proof. and that will only become more so when absolute perfection and precision become the norm.
At least, until robots and software begin to have feelings too…
What are your thoughts on this? Will AI and robots change DJing forever? Should we all head for the hills and live off the grid? Or do you think it’s impossible that DJ technology will ever replace a human DJ? Join the discussion – we’d love to know your thoughts.