How To Choose And Buy Music
Back in the days of record stores and scarcity, here’s how my Saturdays used to go: 8am, take the number 86 bus into town, head down to the ‘record shop street’ and hit the stores, just as the distributors’ vans arrived with this week’s 12-inch vinyl delivery. It was always a scramble for attention as the shops were busy with dozens of other DJs doing the same, and equally, it was hard to get a listening post in order to audition the piles of vinyl I’d selected, but that didn’t stop me. (When my career took off, I was one of the privileged few who were allowed to use the private basement in my favourite store – Eastern Bloc Records, Manchester, England – where I could take as long as I wanted listening to my tunes, on real speakers instead of battered old headphones, but that privilege took years to earn.)
Many DJs go glassy eyed remembering record shop culture, but they forget the queueing for listening posts, broken headphones, and guesswork involved in picking the right tunes on the spot. The truth is that if you do it right, your tune shortlisting and purchasing in the digital age can be every bit as rewarding and fruitful as those record shop trips of a whole generation’s halcyon days – and this chapter is all about showing you how.
Before we get going, the first rule is to do this regularly. While much of what you’ve been asked to do has been either one-off (buy some gear, get yourself set up) or background stuff (have some music on and note down the stuff that interests you), this is a timetabled piece of work. I suggest you do it weekly, and put it in your calendar at the same time each week so it becomes habit.
The second rule is to follow the system below exactly. Shortlisting and buying music can easily turn into a whole day of listening to more and more tunes, disappearing down obscure musical rabbit holes as the whim takes us. Back in the record store days we couldn’t do this (there was a queue for the listening posts to start with), so we had to focus on efficiently processing what was in front of us. That’s what this procedure is designed to achieve for you in your digital shortlisting.
So, Saturday morning, or whenever you choose, here’s your routine. To start with, assemble all your notes: Shazamed tracks, scribbled stuff from your diary, stuff you’ve added to a shortlist playlist in your streaming service, track names from your mobile phone’s note-taking function, whatever. Get them all in one place, and take some time to research songs that you want but can’t remember or never found out the names of. (Hint: Googling unusual phrases in lyrics often uncovers track names for you.) This was what we used to do back in the day on paper before leaving the house. You need that definitive hit list for the week.
Next, try to find and listen to every piece of music you’ve noted, all the way through if you can. Use decent headphones or have it nice and loud, and hear high quality versions if you can. Most online stores only let you hear a minute or so of a tune, which isn’t really enough, so look for the tunes on your streaming service or YouTube – anywhere you can hear them all the way through. (In the record shop, this was where we’d head to the listening post with our pile.)
As you’re doing this, put anything you decide you still like and would enjoy hearing again, whether definitely for your DJing or just because it interests you, in one ‘pile’, and strike off the rest. If you’re not sure about a tune, dump it. Keep going until you’re done with your noted tunes. What’s left is your week’s shortlist. (Back in the record store, this would be our ‘listen again’ pile, as we knew we couldn’t afford all of them. Hard decisions lay ahead.)
Often, this exercise will throw up tunes you hadn’t heard until today. A track you dialled up may have been on a great-looking compilation album, so you dug around it and found a few more good songs. An artist whose record piqued your interest may have a ton of other releases, and you had a listen and loved a few. You may have discovered a label you hadn’t heard of and taken the time to check out some of their stuff only to hit a goldmine. That’s cool, add those tunes to your shortlist too. Just remember that rabbit hole…
Now, the most important part. You will avoid a lot of wasted time and money by asking the following big questions about each and every tune you have on your shortlist. These questions are designed to force you to be crystal clear about your reasons for liking the tunes. Be strict about this; remember, your job as a DJ is to filter the world’s music into perfectly formed sets, right for every occasion – and you won’t do that without making some hard choices along the way.
For each tune, ask yourself:
Is it danceable?
Usually, of course, the answer to this needs to be a resounding yes. You may love a tune for home listening, but if it isn’t going to work on the dancefloor, you really don’t want it in your DJ collection. The exception to this rule would be ‘DJ tools’ – things you use in your set for effect or a specific purpose. Think classical music for a dramatic intro, or an a cappella that you know you’d like to weave in somewhere, or a famous movie theme you want to surprise people with.
Can I see myself playing this tune in a DJ set?
If you are a huge fan of Latin music but know you’re never going to get any gigs playing that genre, not much point buying it for your DJ sets. If you’re planning on being a mobile DJ, collecting obscure German techno isn’t likely to roll with your crowds. You have to ask whether there’s any chance of you using each track in any DJ set, actual or imagined, in the near future. If not, add it to a playlist on your streaming service for non-DJ day-to-day listening and move on.
Does this tune complement what I already own?
This is a more subtle question, but as your collection grows, it’s an increasingly important one. ever heard the expression ‘capsule wardrobe’? A capsule wardrobe describes a set of clothing items that can be worn together in any number of combinations and still look good. By owning relatively few items of clothing that have been carefully purchased, a person can sport a huge number of great looks. Approach your music collection in exactly the same way. You’re looking for a selection of tunes that form a coherent, flexible whole, which means tunes that stand up on their merits, but contrast well with each other: a nice mix of vocals, instrumentals, slow tunes, quick tunes, old stuff, new stuff, familiar songs, obscure gems, and so on. Another way of framing this question is ‘Am I buying too much of the same thing?’, because if you are, you’ll end up not playing much of it. look for the best examples of as many types of music that you like as you can find.
Is this tune good enough to replace something else in my collection?
This is the final test, and it’s a hard one. When you’re just starting out, it can be tempting not to ask it, because, well, your collection isn’t so large. But ask it, nonetheless. later, when your collection is 500, 1,000 or 2,500 tunes, you’re going to hit the point where you’ve got too much stuff to keep front of mind meaningfully. And at that point, the best policy is definitely one in, one out.
So what’s going to leave your collection in order for this new tune you’re considering to enter? Asking this question will force you to decide if you only like it because it reminds you of something you already own. If you decide that’s true, but actually it builds on and betters that tune, then fine, get the new one – but remove the other tune. Remember, if two tunes don’t complement each other (because they’re basically doing the same thing), you only have room for one of them.
So, any tune that passes all these questions, add to a ‘to buy’ list. Back in the record store, this is where we’d have, say, the ten tunes we could actually afford (whittled down from thirty after some painful decision making) and be heading to the counter. You’re going to do the same: go to your online music store of choice and add the tunes to your cart. It’s usual to have to trawl a few stores to get them all, but Googling ‘buy (name of tune)’ will usually find you a source. Now buy them, and any you can’t buy right now, leave on your list for when they become available.
What format to buy music in
The vast majority of the world’s DJs buy music in 320kbps MP3 format, which is a compressed file format, giving them relatively small (in size) music files that sound virtually indistinguishable from the originals. It is the preferred format in most DJ stores (the notable exception being Apple’s iTunes store, which sells its own equivalent, 256kbps AAC format), and also the format used by digital download pools (specialist sites for working DJs that provide DJ music for a monthly subscription, straight from the labels). MP3s tend to be a bit cheaper than WAV files (the uncompressed alternative), are more widely available, and are easier to manage once you have them in your collection because you can embed useful information such as artwork, title, BPM, and even your own comments in the file itself.
Some DJs swear by WAV files or other uncompressed formats because they say they can hear the difference. I can’t, but if you’re not convinced, do the test yourself and compare the same song bought from the same store in both formats.
Whatever format you buy your music in, there’s work to be done on it once it arrives on your hard drive. We’ll look at exactly what in the next chapter.