Why DJs Will Always Steal Music (And Why We Won’t Help You To Do It)

Phil Morse | Founder & Tutor
Read time: 6 mins
Last updated 6 April, 2018

vinyl browsing
By any means necessary: Cratedigging is part of what DJing has always been about, but there’s more to how some of those records got there than you may think….

This site does not condone stealing music. We don’t talk about it, and we don’t help people to do it. It would be biting the hand that feeds us. Hell, it would be biting our own hand. After all, increasingly DJs and producers are one and the same thing.

Ah, but it’s not all as clean and easy as that. You see, DJs have always stolen music. In fact, so have producers (Amen break anyone?). Damn, is there anyone who’s not got their fingers in the musical till in this business? The answer is basically, no.

All creative people steal

We’ll get on to DJs in a minute. The thing is, though, art has always been about “borrowing”. Shakespeare only wrote one of his plays himself – did you know that? They all bear his name, sure, but the rest were reworks of existing stories that were written by other people (in other words, he stole them). His trick was to make them immeasurably better.

If it was good enough for Shakespeare (and artists of all types ever since), is it any wonder DJs and producers have light fingers when it comes to making music?

Hang on though, you’re probably saying. There’s a difference between sampling, or basing an original work on something else, and simply stealing finished tracks for your DJ sets, isn’t there?

But is there really? Think about it this way. A DJ plays a great set of 30 tunes, and because he can’t buy them, he obtains a handful of those tunes by non-legal means.

How is that so different from a producer making a new tune and basing it on 30 elements, a handful of which are samples lifted from other records?

The thing is, both the DJ and the producer are driven by the same impulse, and it’s a righteous one: To do the best they can to express themselves through music.

So as artists, we’re driven to perform the best we can, using whatever we can find to help us to do that. Here are some stories from my youth, that demonstrate pre-digital DJs royally upholding this tradition…

Stealing music in the pre-digital era

Home taping
When I was a teenager, we ran a cool, studenty mobile disco. We got to play end-of-year parties for our local colleges, that kind of thing. We spent half of our time taping FM radio, editing those tapes to cut out the DJs, and using the tapes to supplement the 7″ singles we were also buying at the time, in order to construct the best DJ sets we could. I was king of mixing into and out of cassette from vinyl!

We were known for our quality music. Without that late-night dial-turning, scouting for hard-to-find sounds, we couldn’t have done it.

The great promo scam
In the UK, there used to be (still is, though much depleted) a promo-only vinyl network. Record companies would press 500 or 1000 promotional copies of a new track, and send them for free to working DJs to play in the clubs and to garner feedback.

We would lie through our teeth to get on these lists.

Promo single
A promo single label: Note the ‘not for resale’ line (click to enlarge)

We’d fabricate audiences (you generally needed to play to 1000 people a week to get on them), and we’d mock up flyers to get accepted. Then, we’d say anything to keep the promo companies happy when we were on the list. (The new Mariah Carey reggaeton mix? Yeah, great. I’m actually getting away with it in a techno club! You’re the best. Now, can you send me some more free vinyl please?)

All because we knew one day, they’d send us a bomb only 500 other DJs had, 450 of whom were too dumb to realise and so would never play it.

It gets worse. We’d then take the 95% of those promos that we’d lied about liking, and sell them to our local record shops (the tunes were always marked “not for resale”. Every single DJ ignored that). The record shops would mark them up massively and sell them to other DJs.

So there were normal DJs, in normal record shops, buying music that was, if not illegal, certainly breaking the rules. None of us came out smelling of roses. But you know what we did with that cash (usually without even leaving the store)? Spent it on records. Quite often other DJs’ promos!

Why postmen were such good DJs
Here’s a line I didn’t cross, but I saw all the time. My DJ friend was a postman, one of many DJs locally who also delivered mail (the hours were compatible: club > work > home!).

Also understand that we lived in a town where every third person had a vinyl bag over their shoulder and a bunch of flyers for their latest night in their jacket pocket: DJ-ville, in other words.

So there were rich pickings down the Post Office (recall the promo companies, sending out thousands of free records to “DJs”). I heard stories. Many records didn’t arrive at their rightful doorsteps. Postmen played wicked DJ sets. Their DJ friends always had the latest tunes. My mail on occasion arrived with records missing or opened. I’m not saying my friend was involved in any of it. But it happened.

Bootlegging and pirate radio
Anyway, back to the record shops. Much of our music was in short supply. Much of it was played on the radio months before it was released. Luckily, bootlegs were there to help. With a nod and a wink, many big releases were available on white label, under the counter.

Sure, the quality was sometimes poor, but we didn’t care: we could at least play them in our sets. We felt like we were buying black gold, not dodgy back-of-a-van illegal pressings.

Pirate radio used to help us here too. Often kind-hearted radio DJs would say “here’s the new tune by X, I’ll play it all the way through without any talking, fade to fade. Cassettes ready!”

Pirate radio
Pirate radio: It brought under-represented music to our bedrooms – and to our cassette players.

(This, by the way, is why I only have limited time for sound quality arguments. Sure, we taped on good quality cassettes, with the best equipment we could afford. But it was FM radio, dammit! We were never, ever slated for our sound quality when we constructed our sets from all manner of such sources. Sound quality matters – but not above art.)

You know what? It was all great fun – like a gold rush, or the Wild West. You lived and died by the tunes you played.

So here’s the truth: This all happened because it is in our genes as DJs to steal, to borrow, to beg, to cajole – to obtain by any means necessary.

I had a superstar DJ spend half an hour talking me out of one 12″ single of mine at my club one night. He’d heard me play it, and bribed me with everything he could think of to get it. And he was a superstar DJ – there wasn’t much that wasn’t available to him. He won.

Theft in the digital age

Mindless theft vs “by any means necessary”
So let’s fast forward to now, and I want to get one thing crystal clear: We don’t condone theft of music. We cannot morally tolerate people mindlessly filling their collections with free music.

But there’s a world of difference between that kind of behaviour and what we used to do as pre-digital DJs.

The equivalent of what I described from my early DJing days nowadays is you, a digital DJ, buying as much music as you can find that you love, and augmenting that with copies of the tunes you need to have – obtained with a glint in your eye from whatever source you can damned well find. (Note, “because I can’t afford it” is not a valid argument here.)

Spotify: The biggest record shop in the world, but note that it also has the option to buy downloads.

When you eat, sleep, breathe your music, and when you live for your next DJ set, of course you’re not going to be put off getting that one killer remix you’re been lusting after for weeks just because the source is illegal. We’d be foolish, never mind hypocritical, to preach otherwise.

Torrents, blogs, begging SoundCloud producers, hacking streaming sites to download from them, direct-recording your computer’s audio, re-editing excerpts of huge tunes to make a five-minute version you can play in your sets – it’s up to you to decide what you believe is fair game.

Real DJs are the biggest fans of music pretty much by definition, so they’re also naturally the ones most motivated to obtain it by any means necessary. But there’s a world of difference between illegal and immoral (hell, the rave scene wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t), and as a digital DJ today, it’s more important than ever that you work out where you draw the line for yourself.

Finding your own way
What upsets me is people who habitually steal everything. Here the motivator is theft itself, not music. There’s no respect, and no love.

You think we used to keep playing our cassettes or badly pressed bootlegs as soon as the proper release arrived? No! We bought the releases, and treasured them. We couldn’t wait to get rid of the dirty goods.

So a word for all of those who continually email and message us here asking the “best” place to obtain free or illegal tunes: We know many such places, and we’re not telling. Because that’s simply not what it’s about.

Search for the tunes you want, and get them by legal means. If you can’t? Ask your conscience what you’re prepared to do to get that tune – and start digging.

If you think we’ll give you a shortcut to this, a shortcut to doing what DJs have always done – basically, cratedigging – you’re missing what DJing is all about. There’s no one holy grail place, no one “secret” stash of nicked music, that’ll make you great. DJing is about finding any number of clever and exclusive routes to the gems you want, in order to assemble the best set you can possibly play.

And while it may not always be possible to do it legally, it’s certainly still possible to do it morally. But finding your own formula for doing this is going to be one of the things that marks you out from the pack as a DJ.

You’re on your own on this one!

When do you think it’s OK to obtain music for free, or from illegal sources? Do you think if you can’t get music from a legal source you shouldn’t get it at all? Are you in a part of the world where you can’t buy the music you love legally? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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