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Inconvenience and the Privilege of the Local DJ

January 13, 2011

Somewhere in Revaler Straße 99, someone is very pleased with himself

In this post, I want to make the somewhat counter-intuitive argument that there are some privileges to being a local DJ. In so doing, I’ll also explore how the privliges of being local intersect in surprising ways with vinyl/digital debates and ideas about expertise, labor, artistic value, authenticity, and so on. More broadly, I’ll be making some arguments about how privilege works in Electronic Dance Music (EDM) scenes and why this should make us re-think how we understand our commitment to the values of inclusiveness and equality that are part of the history of EDM scenes (if sometimes in contradictory ways). You might ask why I use the term “privilege” here instead of “advantage” or “benefit.” This is because the notion of privilege helps give me clarity about how the ease or difficulty of doing something can say something about the uneven distribution of access, opportunity, and resources in society. I’ll come back to privilege in a moment, but let’s begin first with brighter side of local-ness.

The reason why describing the category of “local DJ” as privileged is counter-intuitive is because there is already so much talk in EDM scenes about how tough it is to be a local. And most experience and evidence points to this very much being the case: you don’t get taken seriously until you start getting booked for prestigious gigs outside of town and/or get featured in EDM media like Resident Advisor; even once you become an internationally-touring DJ, the hometown crowd remembers you as a local; part of the draw of “headliner” DJs is that they don’t play in your city very often; people see you playing all the time, which means they see your good sets and your bad sets; as you were getting started as a DJ, you played in a lot of warm-up slots and at less prestigious parties which led people to think of you as a “minor” DJ; you’re caught up in the politics and drama of the scene; everybody knows you, including your not-so-attractive traits. But there is also a positive side to being a local DJ: you know the local crowd well and know their preferences; you know the social and political landscape of the scene and can navigate it better than an out-of-towner; home is right around the corner, so travel expenses are cheap for you (and the event organizer);  and, if you also have a residency at a club, you also have a steady gig. Sometimes, in certain ways, being a local DJ is actually a privilege.

And there’s another way that being local can be a privilege: vinyl. Vinyl can be difficult to buy, store, and move; it can be expensive, heavy, fragile, awkward, and otherwise inconvenient. But it’s far easier to spin with vinyl if you’re not leaving home. The easiest situation would obviously be spinning at home, but spinning at a club in your town—especially where you have a residency—is still much easier than travelling out of town. This becomes a kind of privilege when you’re working in a scene that values working from vinyl records over working from CDs or time-coded vinyl+laptop setups (e.g., Serato, Final Scratch, Traktor)—and, let’s face it, vinyl purism is still alive and well in most EDM communities. If you’re a local DJ, playing from vinyl is a much simpler task. A good example of this is Berghain, a club in Berlin: nearly all of the resident DJs play exclusively from vinyl (Tama Sumo, Prosumer, Cassy, Ben Klock, Marcel Dettmann, Nick Höppner, Margaret Dygas), and there are lots of vinyl purists in the crowd there who will critique harshly those DJs that show up with CDs or a laptop. Unsurprisingly, out-of-town DJs are more likely to break with this vinyl-only custom. The “failure” to show up with a bag of vinyl is often taken to reflect on that DJ’s commitment to sound quality, to the difficult skill of beat-matching, to the ritual of record-shopping, and so on; but what this overlooks is that it is also just plain inconvenient to drag your vinyl with you if you’re coming from far away. Inconvenient, but not impossible; inconvenience is key to what I’m trying to describe here, and I’ll come back to it in a minute, but first: privilege.

So, what is privilege? If you consult a dictionary, it’ll tell you that it’s a particular benefit, advantage, exemption, or favor that is not enjoyed by everyone. It’s “a special enjoyment of good, or exemption from an evil or burden” (Webster’s Dictionary). If you enjoy a privilege of some sort, it’s just for you or for your kind of people—whatever that might mean. It can be earned, inherited, bestowed, and even created. It can be something as mundane as the borrowing privileges of your library, or something as critical as access to proper medical care. In fact, those arguing for some form of universal health care in last year’s US policy debates often used the argument that access to health care should be a right, when the current state of affairs has made it a privilege of the wealthy. In any case, privilege makes life easier…more convenient.

But privilege can also be something much broader and deeper. Chances are, if you’ve taken a social sciences or humanities class in the last 20 years, you’ve come across expressions like “white privilege,” “male privilege,” “heterosexual privilege,” and so on. These expressions have found their way into popular media, too, and they usually mean that you’re talking about the kinds of special advantages and exemptions one enjoys by dint of belonging to a particular identity-group. The locus classicus of privilege theory—the foundational text—is actually a very short and very readable essay by Patricia McIntosh, entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (1990). It’s 20 years old and a bit dated, but her list of “invisible” forms of privilege that she enjoys as a white woman is still instructive. McIntosh describes privilege as an invisible knapsack because it’s something that we carry around without really noticing it, and it’s full of helpful things such as “special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.” It’s invisible (and weightless) because it’s always been there with us, because dominant culture discourages us from looking there (or teaches us to be blind to it), because we’re not likely to question something that makes our lives easier. Unlike discrimination, which attaches to the person it harms, privilege attaches to the person it benefits. Furthermore, the person who benefits is less likely to notice privilege because it’s not about what you can’t or must do, but about what you can and don’t have to do. Privilege expands your horizon of possibilities instead of limiting them—or, at least, it doesn’t interfere in a way that will get itself noticed.

Another thing that makes privilege invisible to those who have it is that it mostly happens through indirect, impersonal, and systematic means. That is, it often takes the form of a system that just happens to be set up in a way that puts you at an advantage, rather than actions taken by particular people to target you. Discrimination feels targeted and personal, privilege feels natural and impersonal. Nobody is going to call me and say, “Congratulations! When you go out dancing tonight, you won’t have to worry about being sexually assaulted because of your gender!” I just go out, have fun, and not notice that I’m not being harassed by creepy guys. Similarly, my heterosexual friends can have fun and not worry that their sexual orientation will get them into trouble. Sometimes privilege hides the deliberate actions of certain people (like the police officer who lets you off with a warning because you seem like a “good kid”), sometimes it’s the side-effect of broader social processes (like how some of us can move into a house and the neighbors won’t worry about declining property value); either way, this changes nothing about the injustice of the situation.

One particularly subtle and indirect form of privilege is inconvenience—or, rather, the absence of inconvenience. Inconvenience creates structures of privilege (and un-privilege) by making certain things more difficult for some people than others, rather than by blocking them altogether or actively harming them. It allows the phrase, “Anyone can do [x],” to be a true statement, so long as it’s followed with, “they just have to do [y],” where [y] often means “try hard,” or “be devoted,” or “give it all you’ve got,” or “never give up.” It maintains the fantasy of equal availability of [x] by making its conditions of possibility the responsibility of the non-privileged; it’s up to you to make up for your lack of [y], even while others have the privilege of not having to worry about [y] in the first place. In doing so, inconvenience makes it hard to talk about fairness; it’s easy to articulate a complaint about being prevented from reaching something good, but it’s a lot harder to make a claim about merely being impeded. But you can talk about inconvenience in terms of cost: it’s not that something is impossible for certain people and possible for others, it’s that it costs more for certain people—in terms of effort and resources—and the uneven distribution of cost for the same thing is a form of inequality.

When you think about it, there are plenty of examples of inconvenience as a form of filtration in EDM scenes. Sure, clubs no longer hang a sign saying “No blacks” or “No Irish” or “No unaccompanied women” on the door, but there are those dress codes; and it can sure be inconvenient and a bit expensive to comply with some of those dress codes, especially if your closet isn’t already full of nice  woven shirts, pants that aren’t denim, shoes that aren’t running shoes, et cetera (note that most dress codes say what you can’t wear…and all of the “NO”s on the list tend to resemble clothing that is popular among a certain age range, social class, income range, ethnicity, and so on). But some of us shun clubs that have dress codes and bottle service and proudly go to “underground” parties…but you still need to have transport to the oft-remote locations, you need connections into the scene that will tell you where the party is, you need to have the money to collect the music to build the kind of taste in music that will help you blend in socially with the underground crew, you need the money to dress appropriately and drink appropriately and maybe get high appropriately (depending on your predilections), you need to live a life where you can afford to party until well past sunrise and be hung over for a day or two. This has been even more clear in Chicago these last few years, where some of the best parties to happen have been “private” afterparties in private lofts and unlicensed warehouses; if you weren’t in the know, you sure had to work hard to find out. None of this is impossible, even for someone living a disadvantaged life—it’s just a much bigger hassle when you’re low on money, working a shitty casual labor job with no benefits, supporting a large family, a visible minority that is at risk of being singled out by law enforcement, and so on. Thus, you get the rhetoric of privilege as inconvenience in the form of : “anyone can come to [x] club/party or be part of the scene, they just have to [be committed | attend events frequently | make friends | be cool] or whatever,” which covers over some real differences in opportunity and access. Being a part of a scene—no matter how open and inclusive at the surface—requires various forms of effort, which is really just an allocation of resources that people have in different quantities. Even our energies are limited.

So, this should cause us to re-evaluate how we see our scene (the nightclub scene, the underground scene, the loft party scene, etc.), and how we understand the scene’s commitment to the values of acceptance, community, and equality that have historically been important to the scene (at least at certain moments in history, such as during the early years of raving). This isn’t a problem that can be solved or eradicated; I doubt there’s a perfect way to organize a music scene such that no form of privilege impacts how people access and circulate within the scene. To begin with, there are lots of factors that make attending an event more or less easy (i.e., convenient), and not all of them are under our control. Also, let’s be honest: nobody wants to party with douchebags, so we take measures to keep them out…but who counts as a douchebag? And nobody is fully privileged all the time: we’ve all had the experience of working twice as hard as other people to get the same degree of respect or acceptance in the scene…but we have to be ready to admit that sometimes we are that lucky person who doesn’t need to try so hard. So this isn’t about feeling bad or rejecting the scene or turning it into a utopia (which, admittedly, has been another common theme in underground nightlife). Instead, this is more about: 1) being more modest and more honest about the limits of the claims we make about the openness of our scene(s), and 2) being more willing to recognize and address instances where privilege creates inequity. This—perhaps counter-intuitively—would be the best way to remain loyal to the value of inclusiveness.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Natashka permalink
    January 13, 2011 11:05

    The last 2 abschnitten are very precise, my friend. The scene will always be slightly exclusive and privileged. Quoting here: “anyone can come to [x] club/party or be part of the scene, they just have to [be committed | attend events frequently | make friends | be cool] or whatever,” is exactly the argument I have been having with one person who has tried to fit into our scene but has never felt accepted (well, she was arguing approximately that). The simple reason is she could not effortlessly dress/behave in such a way that people in our scene do, and speak effortlessly on the topics that they speak. So, even though she really did enjoy the music and the atmosphere of the parties, she was still left with a feeling that “people are arrogant and unfriendly” after every party. Finally, she stopped going. Our scene is very accepting, but within the strict limitations: you must satisfy a list of certain criteria. And then – especially if you have been gifted with a conventionally/unconventionally hot exterior – there is a green light for all you please.

    With all that said, I would love love love to see you as soon as possible and be able to discuss all these (and other )topics live….

    • January 14, 2011 13:37

      Too true, maya daragaya! You make an important point that I forgot to cover in the post: physical attractiveness is also a form of privilege, precisely because you get more attention / get more affection / get more invitations / get more gifts and favors and praise and indulgence. And most people don’t notice how this structures their experience of the scene because they’ve always looked that hot. It reminds me of those (shallow, but revealing) reality shows where a skinny person puts on a “fat suit” or makes themselves look disfigured in order to experience life as a non-hot person; they’re almost always stunned at how much harder life is without their good looks. So, yeah, EDM scenes can be wonderful places of acceptance and even protection for us freaks, but we can’t ignore the fact that only certain kinds of freaks feel at home here.

  2. Peter permalink
    January 15, 2011 18:15

    Neat. That’s a clever argument that wouldn’t have occurred to me. The insistence on the superior sound quality of vinyl has always struck me as a canard — especially in a club, given variations between sound systems and the masking effects of ambient crowd noise. The “privilege” factor must account for at least some of its cachet: the only DJs who play from vinyl are the élite with the dedication and resources to do so.

    (Which is funny, because vinyl snobbery is as old as digital audio itself, predating the social stigma of digital decks. Up until the late nineties, it was quite a bit more expensive to get the gear to perform an all-digital set, and vinyl was the choice of cheapskate neophytes as well as audiophiles. Digital controllers didn’t really crack the market until Final Scratch ca. 2001, right? Now that the sample depth and frequency range of digital sound cards outstrip human hearing by such a comfortable margin, I’d be curious to know on what grounds vinyl purists still attack digital sound.)

    But have you thought about it in terms of difficulty, rather than privilege? Roger’s ludomusicology class got me thinking about what constitutes “cheating” in music. He had an interesting thought experiment: say you go to a performance of Rachmaninoff’s 3rd concerto (or any other staggeringly difficult piece), and two pianists walk out on stage and play the thing four-hands. Would you feel cheated, no matter how well they play together? Roger admitted that he might, and so
    might I.

    Along those lines, do you think there’s any rhetoric of “liveness” attached to vinyl?

    • January 15, 2011 19:06

      Thanks for the comments, Peeto! [his and my comments are actually re-posted here from an email exchange we had about this blog post a couple of days ago.]

      I’m convinced (especially when I talk with die-hard vinyl purists), that a lot of this vinyl purism has become performative of a kind of class distinction (or at least an anti-popular distinction, where “mainstream” serves as an euphemism for “low-class” or “tasteless middlebrow”). Interestingly enough, there’s no problem if you do an all-gear live set (i.e., work entirely from sequencers, drum machines, etc. but not a laptop w/ software); working from gear is considered “old school” and “authentic,” and it’s understood as indexing skill, hard work, and “audio geek” knowledge. Same deal with vinyl, although the computer-geek image is replaced by “talented musician,” “music connoisseur,” “selector,” “tastemaker,” or something like that. If you haul out anything that resembles a laptop, CDs, or a hard drive of MP3s, you get soaked in scorn by these folks. And guess what? All of those latter devices are mass-produced consumer commodities that can be acquired easily in most developed countries. In other words: they’re too common—with all that the term implies (if you say it with a British accent).

      So, your (and Roger’s) point about “cheating” is music is totally apt here, as well. There’s a whole discourse about labor and doing your time / developing musicianship that is short-circuited by things like auto-beatmatching and easily downloadable and nearly-free music. (Ironically, most elite DJs don’t pay for much of their vinyl. They get free white label promos of any EP of consequence well before it comes out.) Rebekah Farrugia and Thomas K. Swiss wrote a great article about this in the Journal of Popular Music Studies about 5 years ago. What’s interesting here is that these new technological developments seem to level the playing field, but they also threaten those who feel that they deserve their superior place on the field (whether through work or talent). This is an interesting example of how the work put into earning privilege makes you invested in the system, even if you recognize it as flawed or injust. Furthermore, this can lead to a myopic view of your own development narrative: even if you started off with a head-start through certain forms of privilege, the fact that you put (what felt like) a lot of work into your career encourages you to understand your current status as *entirely* earned and based on merit/effort alone.

      I’ll have to give further thought to your question about “liveness” and vinyl. A notion of “live” music doesn’t really attach to the material object (i.e., the vinyl record), but the practice of spinning vinyl certainly counts as a form of performance that is not non-live (at least for those who are into this sort of music). On the other hand, vinyl performances are usually called “DJ” or “vinyl” sets and are contrasted with the all-gear sets, which are called “live sets”; so the notion of “live” floats around in confusing ways here. On top of that, sets performed with laptops (e.g., with Ableton Live or with softsynths—software synths) have come to be labeled as live sets—so much so, in fact, that the traditional all-gear sets are now often market specifically with “all-gear” or “gear-only” on flyers, to distinguish them from laptop sets (and, of course, to take up the enduring prestige of playing on hardware). The live/vinyl distinction seems to have more to do with the notion that “live” sets involve the active improvisation of music from samples and loops, while vinyl sets use pre-existing musical recordings to craft a longer and interconnected musical work. Mark J. Butler will be coming out with a book on performance and technology that will address a lot of these issues, actually…

  3. January 19, 2011 11:50

    Very intresting! But, … aren’t those limiting factors (clothes, music knowledge, a special taste, etc.) the things which actually define the scene? I mean if the scene would be open to anyone, i.e. entrance to it totally equal for everybody, well, then it could not be a scene, because it would be like everything else. So, you’re totally right, we should be clear about the fact that the scene is not open for everyone and not claim that it’s open for everybody, but also there have to be factors which separate the scene from the rest of the world. It’s sad but there will always be people with more money, more time, better jobs, etc. Maybe i did not understand every part of your text, anyway i really enjoyed reading it!

    • January 24, 2011 22:27

      Hey ooze,

      Thanks for the comments! And sorry for taking so long to reply. It’s been a crazy week.

      Yes, as I acknowledged in the last paragraph, the unequal access to a scene isn’t a problem that can be completely solved. Your comment provides the rest of that thought: it can’t be completely solved because markers of difference are also what make one scene different from another. BUT that doesn’t mean all of these markers are the same, nor that we are unable to make decisions about which markers we use to define our scene. In other words, I’m trying to make two arguments here: 1) exclusion isn’t just something that racist/classist/sexist/etc. snobs do; even well-intentioned people do it whenever they create a social group, so we need to be conscious of the consequences of how we define our scene; 2) just because our scene is currently defined along certain markers (of dress, taste, Verhältnis zwischen Berufs- und Privatleben, social connections, usw.) doesn’t mean that they are unchangeable and necessary; there may be ways to re-define the scene to make it more welcoming… In any case, I think the main point that I’m trying to make is that statements like, “Anyone can join, they just have to show up / be nice / act cool / etc” are not really true, even if the speaker is sincere.

  4. peter-181 permalink
    June 15, 2011 01:33

    Very late comments here… found this blog today via RA, struggled to make some random thoughts into anything coherent here.

    I think about this stuff a lot… I wouldn’t want to play at Berghain (not that I’m at a point where I would be asked) because exclusivity seems to go against the idealism that many people see in this music. Even kicking out someone who’s a douchebag – don’t they have a right to have a life-changing musical experience?

    There’s this dependence on a convention to express idealism when nothing that’s actually there really makes people experience it. Like vinyl purists needing to hear Detroit techno before they can let loose, while someone younger doesn’t get it, or dubstep heads needing to take coke and hear “a fuckin drop” and make sure their friends are dancing too…

    With the internet, with techno being 20 years old, with raves not having successfully dismantled the police, I think there’s a need for some reinvention for the music or the events to really stimulate anybody’s imagination beyond reminding them of something that used to work. Maybe the Situationists were right and art is all a dead end, but I love music and I tend to think things are fractal and cyclical and can start from any point. It’s crazy how just sound can inspire something totally new, or simply confirm an existing social order, just based on patterns, circumstances, the changing relationships the patterns have with the changes in the rest of the world. I don’t have a conclusion for this post, but I think trust, in everyone’s ability to try something new and make it work, would help the music a lot, and the same might be true for some of the social issues you’re talking about here.

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