Bedroom DJ: The Art Curator Controllerist

“I’m a professional DJ and I don’t mix”:

mixing deskI once read an article about a full time gigging DJ who never mixed. EVER. We all know the type because they are pretty much everywhere, from weddings to school functions to random store openings. The guy literally shows up to an event with a carefully pre-selected iTunes playlist, and spends most of him time making sure the guests are having a good time, NOT mixing.

This particular professional DJ didn’t care for the way other “Djs” mocked him in that all he did was push play. His article wanted to set the record straight: he was just as good a DJ as any of the digital variety (with all the bells and whistles thrown into a set), if not better. Why was he better? Because he was getting referrals for future events, paying his bills, and apparently making the people dance. (All of this with iTunes auto-crossfade.)

The crux of the point was this: Djs can be overly egotistical and blind to the fact that the average club/bar hopper could care less about the DJ because their real concern is enjoying themselves. “Programming Djs” that create very deliberate playlists (i.e. iTunes DJ) and never touch a cue point or effect probably achieve this goal better than a digital DJ (“controllerist”) can with that meddling racket. Not only do programming djs have less limitations of what they play because issues like beatmatching and harmonic mixing are non-existent, but it is also much easier to play any request if you DJ in this fashion. So the truth is, it’s probably correct that for your average bar/club, a programmer who is willing to take and play request may be more suitable than those labeling themselves as “controllerists.”

The DJ & The Contollerist

A fundamental presumption underlying all this is that djing is a public sport. So if a DJ pleases a crowd in the iTunes fashion, he is in fact achieving the goal. I’ll contend that djing is not simply an occupation; it is a love-affair with music. (In today’s world, add a love of technology into that mix). All it takes to be a DJ today is your ipod and a dancefloor, therefore truly anybody can be a DJ.

Ask yourself one thing: do you want to be this kind of dj? Me neither. (I will say this right now, anyway you can support yourself financially is respectable, and I’m not trying to dog people paying the bills with this sort of gig. I actually have tremendous amount of respect for those guys, because they’re their own bosses and I’m not.)

controlleristSo you may not consider yourself a DJ in this fashion, so what to call yourself? A “controllerist.” Controllerism is the art and practice of using musical software controllers, e.g. MIDI, to build upon, mix, scratch, remix, effect, modify, or otherwise create music. So anyone using Traktor fits some definition of a controllerist. (That’s probably YOU if you’re reading this.)

To simplify the definition: controllerists create music. Using other artists’ productions along with innovative gadgetry, we curate (select, blend, effect) our favorite art (tunes and sounds we love) inside of our own personal gallery (the mix). All you bedroom djs out there putting in work on sick mixes because you love it: you’re not just a jukebox, but in fact a Curator of Noise Art.

Confessions of a Bedroom DJ; Why I do it

bedroom djI’ve always been a massive music lover, but never played instruments.  So for the majority of my life, my ability to interact with music was obviously extremely limited, so much so that I never really considered it an option. Before the recent wave of heavy electronic bass craziness, I had never even watched a DJ play a live set that wasn’t in a mundane club. And I definitely never paid money to watch someone dj.

As they say, the only constant in life is change, and in due time I found myself on the dance floor at my first rave/festival. Its nearly impossible to put the conversion experience into words, but suffice to say I’ve not looked back since. The music and the people and the way it all came together were a powerful thing to witness, surely like something I had never seen or felt before.

Once I experienced the mixed music on the dance floor, I stepped outside just listening to my own playlists of tracks I possessed, and sought out DJ mixes to hear new styles and sounds.

Since my conversion happened on Bassnectar’s dance floor, I went there first and found this:

I wanted more, and eventually came to a point where just listening to these incredibly well done controllerist mixes wasn’t going to be enough. I needed to join the fun. So, possessing that necessary hint of technocrat as we all do in this IT generation, enter Traktor; enter the S4 and those awesome Ean Golden S4 videos; enter the Midifighter; enter countless Youtube videos of people shredding controllerism routines; enter the perfect storm of easy music manipulation capability with an array of eager instructors.

After years and years of avid music consumption, the idea to curate art myself was apart of a natural progression (or evolution, as a fan of music) away from passive consumption, towards active participation- and therefore INTEGRATION WITH THE ART ITSELF.

Bedroom DJ as Art Curator

Art is simply the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, and the works produced by such skill and imagination. So every time one of us busts our ass to create an awesome and unique mix, we are creating art.

Many of us have normal jobs in the customer service business (I bartend), and that is partly why we dj in the first place- to escape having to please others and just go about pleasing ourselves. Sure, we’d happily play out given a cool opportunity to CURATE our ART as we see it, but the last thing many of us want to do is play a set to a bunch of folks trying to hear some (insert music you don’t like here).

Truth is, many of us devoted bedroom controllerists do it simply because we love the thrill of a good knob twist. Speaking for myself, spending thousands on gear for a hobby that only I will enjoy is pretty much par for the course. (Surfing, snowboarding, golf, etc.).

To an extent, I agree with others when they say, “djing is a public sport.” But on the other hand, most of us pursue the hobbies we love without the bother of the opinions of othersHobbyist bedroom controllerists don’t necessarily need to try to please others as much as get good at achieving the vision that they have inside their heads. All those hours of practice and learning does not mean people will pay to see it, and that’s ok because not everyone cares about that.

A Schism Abounds: Traditional DJ vs. Controllerist

rock out in your roomDoes every person who goes and buys a guitar think, “I wonder when I’ll be good enough to play a wedding or maybe even a birthday party?” Nope. And just like in the world of hobby guitarists, many of us bedroom controllerists just want to rock out to our own favorite tunes, mixed in the way that is pleasing to us. Many would never dream of wanting to throw a playlist on automix at funerals and grad parties. Instead, we want to have fun creating a mix with our favorite tunes and favorite gear, on our own terms. We have to please people at our real jobs constantly, so last thing we want is to pander while playing music we barely even like!

According to the Djing is a public sport doctrine, Djs essentially play for the sake of making people dance. In many cases, this kind of DJ is our equivalent to the working man. Many tradesmen enjoy their jobs, but readily admit they are not serving up art, because the primary goal is creating a product that pleases the customer.

Controllerism is generally attempting to make some unique artifact using all the technical tools of digital djing as a creative outlet.  In this case, usually the primary goal is not pleasing others on their Friday night, but some sort of creation of ART. (If this sort of controllerism is how you achieve your living, you’re likely a superstar DJ and probably don’t even need to read this!)

What’s the Essence of Your Activity?

The point being, the modern “I’m a professional DJ but I don’t mix” scenario is just completely different to the average bedroom controllerist trying to trick out some of their favorite tracks. The term “DJ” used in the former is essentially a business title.

When you play out for money, the primary objective is pleasing the crowd. All those 9 to 5ers that have to slave away all day, but chose to come to a dark, loud place to spend their money on overpriced cocktails. The paid DJ plays to their tastes, their desires and whims.  The paid DJ is just like the bartender or the waiter or the bus boy- just there to make sure the VIP’s have a good time, and want to come back.

Some people drive trucks for a living, some risk their lives for fun on motorcycles at 200 mph. Both of these activities are motor powered vehicles on wheels going from point A to point B, but the essence of these activities could not be any different. Similarly, commercial painters do projects for customers who need to serve their own agenda, whereas many paint at home as a hobby because they enjoy seeing the visions in their head manifested as splatters of paint on canvas.  Both paint, but the essence of painting means two different things in this scenario. One is to sustain a livelihood; the other is to sustain the soul. This same logic applies to djing.

Controllerist Motivations

Considering many years of my own work experience bartending and being apart of the industry, rarely have I been inspired musically by a bar DJ. (If those djs were all I had ever heard, I would not be writing this article today.) It wasn’t until I got to a real show, with a real dj, that I knew I wanted to pursue it. What I witnessed at that moment wasn’t a Dj simply going through the motions, achieving point A to B.  It was an insanely crazy mash-up of twisted sounds and awesomely intense bangers. That was experiencing the strange. That was experiencing ART. And that’s what left me shaking my head, not the club dj that killed the request box.

Ultimately, I’m speaking to the budding bedroom controllerist community out there. You know, the folks who dj as a hobby, with the ultimate goal of having FUN.

fun dj

When you the bedroom controllerist practice your art, strive to be like the people who inspired you to play with music in the first place: those dope ass art curators that blended sounds and tunes in a way that surprised and stimulated you. Be that artist, in control of the gallery display, meticulously adding your own touch to the whole experience. Put your soul into it. Make it yours. 

If you work hard at this, you’ll find yourself in a space where we you’re not simply just a Dj going from point A to B, but a curator of your own artistic vision. After all, if you want to touch others with your art, it’s got to touch YOU first.

Author credit: Philosurfer

Find him on facebook: facebook.com/philosurfermusic.
Maybe the soundcloud: soundcloud.com/philosurfer

4 comments

  1. Interesting take, but I think there are some misconceptions about what good DJs actually do here, and why they’re motivated to do so.

    Here’s my views on this, being a technically competent DJ; a controller user; and above it all, a lover of music. (Oh, and editor of a website that encourages bedroom DJs to get out there and play in front of other people.)

    To me, you don’t have to mix to programme music in a devastatingly effective manner, a manner that reacts intimately to your audience. This, I attest, is a much more effective (and harder to learn) skill than beatmixing (or cue juggling, whatever). As your tastes broaden and music continues to evolve, it’s actually something you can never fully learn. Mixing, mashing etc improves things and adds a whole new element, sure, but it’s not essential.

    I don’t believe that just because “the general public” doesn’t want to hear a controllerism routine, it has no desire to dance all night to wonderful music, carefully chosen. There is a massive middle ground between avant-garde button pushing and cynical, selected-at-home playlists.

    What you describe as “controllerism” is pretty much true for good DJing, always has been. Replace “using musical software controllers, e.g. Midi, to build upon, mix, scratch, remix, effect, modify, or otherwise create music” with “timing” (and timing has always been the crux of DJing, it’s why all good DJs count) and there’s really not such a gap. Timing – both in what you play (“programming”), and in the exact second you choose to do things, overarches all other DJ skills.

    DJs have always “created” music – they love percussion tracks, acappellas, doubling up etc. It’s just that technology now provides a million new ways to do this stuff. The push, the drive, has always been the same. If they can’t technically do this stuff, they still seek out exclusive mixes that mean they’re playing with expectations – creating something new in their overall mix, if not in every layered second of it. But skilled producers would baulk at DJs thinking they’re suddenly now creators. We primarily play with prerecorded music as our building blocks.

    Now where I agree completely with you is that nowadays, everyone can have a go at doing this. Everyone can consume, spit out, remix, reuse, assimilate myriad sources and churn it into something new. And it can be immensely satisfying to do so. It’s just that I believe carrying a crowd of a few hundred people with you as you do so is both immeasurably harder, and when you get it right, massively more fun. Life-changingly so. (Was for me, anyway.)

    As I said earlier, there’s a HUGE middle ground between playing for fun in your room and cynically pressing play on an iTunes playlist. From the way you speak of clubs (“all those 9 to 5ers that have to slave away all day, but chose to come to a dark, loud place to spend their money on overpriced cocktails”), it sounds to me like you’d enjoy a few nights out in some good ones.😉

    • Hey Phil,
      Thanks so much for reading and giving an honest response. I read every article on your website, and have for years now.

      I’m sure you recognize the post (on your website) that was the total inspiration for the idea behind this composition. In a way, I am speaking directly to that post, as well as the philosophy on djing that I have been able to surmise from reading your blog.

      The gentleman in the post spoke of how effective he was as a DJ because he was making the party jump. That’s completely great, but if it can be (and is often) done with minimal tools (iTunes DJ) then there is something fundamentally different to the activity I am attempting to describe as “controllerism.”

      If a teenage kid buys a Mixtrack Pro because he likes deadmau5, great. Honestly, the idea that someone could learn to be a dj (that successfully plays in public) in 4 weeks shows how easy and it really can be. So when people like me spend days and weeks of life pouring over the Traktor Bible to learn how to map a crazy unique multiple-action FX trick to get a totally unique and weird sound, I think that is doing something different. One can claim that I am not “creating” more than the simple “Song A to Song B” DJ, but I would disagree with such an assessment. Nowhere do I say that controllerists are producers, but I definitely do say that they attempt more interaction with the music than basic A to B style DJs.

      So yes, there is a middle ground between DJing and bedroom controllerism (done for fun and self-fulfillment). But, take the question of the beginner guitar player… is he missing something because he just wants to be able to play for himself or maybe his friends? Should he feel obligated to play out in public? That he’s not a “real guitar player” if he has ZERO desire to play out? Hmm…

      That leads me to the ultimate point: DJing is not a public sport IF YOU DO IT PRIMARILY AS A HOBBY AS OPPOSED TO TRYING TO GET PAID FOR IT. And if it is, then what people like me do should not be called DJing- that’s where the term “controllerism” becomes useful. Hence DJ vs. Controllerism.

      I don’t play with music because it can give me money for doing it in front of other people.

      When you do something as a hobby solely for your own enjoyment, there are less boundaries and you can explore creative avenues more frequently. That is what controllerism vs. DJing is to me. But like I said, there are plenty of superstar djs out there who bang out amazing Ableton LIve style sets where they are practically producing on stage. Props to them.

      Also, if there is anything I’ve learned about the EDM from your site Phil, its that there are two different scenes in Europe and North America. What you quoted from my post about clubs, “those 9 to 5ers,” was actually paraphrased from a comment made by the author of the article you posted (about djing and never mixing). Was he getting the picture completely wrong? Because in California where I’m from, we have a few clubs who specialize in good music, and they usually go out of business within a few years. Of course, if you live in a major urban setting (SF, NYC, CHI) this won’t be the case, but not everyone lives there or close to it.

      The only point I am attempting to make is to draw a distinction between the paid DJ who plays for the crowd, and the nerd in the bedroom spending hours on doing something much more complicated. And, if DJing by definition is a public sport, than many of us who use Traktor for fun may not want to consider ourselves that. That’s all.

      Thanks for reading and responding Phil.

      -Kevin Knight (Philosurfer)

      • There are so many differing styles and methods and variables in any DJ’s work. I can liken it maybe to a photographer. A photographer takes a scene that we can all see and look at, but captures it in one of an almost unlimited list of possibilities. Maybe they use film and develop it in a dark room, maybe they buy an expensive camera and stick the camera on auto mode, maybe they process it in editing software, maybe they deliberately over-expose it?

        Whatever happens and for whatever reasons they produce this work, the ultimate purpose in this, is enjoyment, or maybe it’s money, or ultimately maybe it’s both. Another point however is, that once money becomes involved, maybe the enjoyment sometimes wanes a little. It is an endless list of variables.

        We are all on a path, the path we travel is our own personal choice. So long as we all understand that the choices you make and the path you travel, effects those immediately around you, which in-turn effects the community you are in. That community then effects its larger surrounding and so on until we realize that everything we do, effects the whole world. A little dramatic I know, but I feel this is the way it is. I would say, make sure anything you do, you do it with love and have fun doing it.

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