Inconvenience and the Privilege of the Local DJ
n 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.