Every system has its own power hierarchy. For better or worse, in its nearly two decades, DJ Mag's annual Top 100 DJs poll has become the go-to ranking of DJs. Published each fall, this list allows agents to increase their artists' asking prices, its stats litter press releases for a year, and the industry outside of dance music's inner sanctum are often misled into believing that electronic music's massive and unwieldy fanbase has spoken with a single voice. This year's results will be announced on Sunday, October 18 at Amsterdam Dance Event and the winners featured both on the magazine's website and November issue.
Without fail, the top spots provide a solid impression of today's biggest acts. Armin van Buuren, Tiësto, and David Guetta are mainstays, with tour stats and record sales to back up their placement. Nicky Romero and Steve Aoki are more recent additions to the upper echelons, but equally expected to rank.
Last year's surprise No. 1, Hardwell, came after a string of successful singles and arduous touring, though it was widely understood that his team had mounted an aggressive social media campaign to dethrone fellow Dutch DJ van Buuren from the top spot.
Even more successful at gaming socials for voting were Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, whose surge from the 30s into the Top 10—and above Skrillex, Deadmau5, Nervo, and Calvin Harris —was more than slightly suspicious.
Further down the list, the cracks in the system really start to show. Small-fry DJs place higher than veteran names. Mid-level artists with Facebook likes disproportionate to their gig audiences rank above icons. Accordingly, each year's poll results are met with deafening boos as both fans and industry accuse DJ Mag of unfair treatment and vote manipulation. Yet, year after year, the poll comes back to life like a stubborn phoenix.
So what gives?
It's a pay-to-play system.
There's no two ways about it: DJ Mag's Top 100 DJs poll is a well-oiled machine for the magazine. Because the poll is based on a simple American Idol-style public vote, DJs dump enormous amounts of money into marketing campaigns engineered to get them higher rankings, and a good deal of that money is channeled to the magazine itself.
As evidenced in emails obtained by THUMP (and replicated on this public thread), DJ Mag's salespeople actively encourage DJs to buy a competitive advantage through banner ads strategically plastered all over the voting page. "The advertisements will be flashing in front of voters as they tick off boxes. If that doesn't work, nothing will," DJ Mag promises. The ad packages also require full pages in the print magazine. Essentially, the playing field (the magazine and its website) is skewed in favor of artists who purchase ads at rates from around $18,000 to $40,000.
While advertisements are a part of any publication's business operations, this particular practice would not be accepted in any other voting system. In politics, such proximity to a polling place is illegal; it's called electioneering.
DJ Mag is constantly playing whack-a-mole with cheaters.
The @DJmag poll is full of Lance Armstrongs. Who really gives a fuck?
— Sasha (@sashaofficial)
October 19, 2012
Since its inception, the poll has struggled to play catch-up with cheaters. Introduced in the mid 90s, it started as a fun way for the magazine to organize the (then, relatively small) scene of DJs for its growing readership. The first year's 800 votes were mailed in by postcards, which were tallied by the magazine's staff. The poll was hardly a bellwether for the industry, but it was already wide open to cheats: someone could theoretically vote multiple times. All they had to do is pay for extra stamps.
When the poll moved to an online vote, the magazine still struggled to prevent fraud. According to Terry Church, director of Ibiza Uncut and former editor at DJ Mag from 2003 to 2007, there was no security, which meant people could submit multiple votes simply by pressing their browser's back button and voting again. The magazine subsequently introduced cookies, but smart users just cleared their browsers' caches. Finally, email registration was required. Those too burdened by creating multiple email addresses just hired professional hackers. In 2011, the magazine was forced to extend the voting window due to a hacking attempt in the eleventh hour. Earlier this week, a Russian website posted this year's rankings prematurely, claiming the results were obtained by a hacker.
The poll is hotbed for shady marketing practices.
A cottage industry has sprung up of companies offering to help DJs get higher rankings. Last year, Gareth Emery received a call from one such company, who warned that unless he took out his wallet, he would find it "hard to compete." "I was nearly sick in my mouth," Emery wrote on his Facebook. Instead, he donated the money he would've spent on a campaign to charity. He still ended up at No. 51 on the 2013 poll.
Others are less magnanimous. Earlier this year, someone named DJ Style released this photo:
How blackface was meant to inspire people to vote is beyond comprehension (as is the concept of being "a music's slave"), but the blatant racism sent waves of outrage through the blogosphere.
Remember Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike's 2013 surge up 32 places to the number six position? Not wanting to leave things to chance in 2014, they reportedly had representatives (exclusively women) armed with iPads, roaming the grounds at Tomorrowland this year. The women would ask festivalgoers if they wanted to vote in the poll, then tap to a page where they would be required to vote for Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, who happen to be managed by Tomorrowland's promoters, ID&T.
One raver, a 24-year-old Texas native, relayed his experience of the bizarre tactic. "At first I thought it was a joke and laughed," he told us. "She replied, saying, you have to [vote for them] or you can't vote. I said, 'This is insane. They're not even in my top ten let alone number one.' She then proceeded to take the iPad out of my hand and walked away."
And then there's the case of Ricky Stone, the Hong Kong-based DJ and producer who made a deal with local internet cafes to display the voting page at the beginning of their sessions, with "Ricky Stone" already filled out on the form. Stone cinched the number 48 spot in 2005's poll.
As dubious as these tactics come off, they are supposedly within the limits of the magazine's rules.
For the gain of a few, the poll leaves everyone else with a bitter taste in their mouths.
DJ Mag rightfully disqualifies DJs when illegal methods are detected but unethical practices plague the poll. The few who fail to cover up their tracks become the unlucky scapegoats for an inherently flawed system. In 2007, Christopher Lawrence and DJ Dan fired their manager who got caught unlawfully lobbying for votes. The DJs' names were cleared by the magazine, but the incident left an ugly mark on their careers.
Still, the DJ community itsefl is increasingly apathetic. "Its tending to be more and more irrelevant for a lot of DJs," Paul Oakenfold told us. "Unfortunately it's been proven that you can manipulate the chart… some DJs even show you how to do it."
This year, Diplo stated in his Reddit "Ask Me Anything" that he is going to escape the poll by using an as-yet-unrevealed "special disqualification trick." Dada Life launched a satirical website called Bottom100DJs.com this year, wherein users were asked to vote for their least favorite DJs. Though they placed at No. 35 last year, Dada's Olle Cornéer and Stefan Engblom are ambivalent about the poll. "It's probably important for a certain kind of DJs, but not really for us," they said in a statement to THUMP. "We don't take it seriously. Or actually, we take it seriously enough to start our own award!"
In the end, we're all trapped in a flawed system.
For those who write the poll off as "irrelevant," it's important to note that the its popularity and influence cannot be underestimated. Facebook comments alone on this year's poll clocked in around 23,000. Bookers and promoters in emerging markets in Asia and South America are left with fewer metrics to assess popularity and are thus reliant on the poll's dubious credibility for determining fees. Artists spend thousands of dollars on publicity campaigns. In the same way that artists use "Grammy-winning" or "Mercury Prize-nominated" before their names in bios, rankings in the poll still impart an edge of legitimacy. ("No. 1 DJ in the world" does have a nice ring to it.)
Sadly, the poll has gone from a fun exercise to a cash cow for PR hacks and the magazine itself. Disillusioned fans are filling forums with threads devoted to calling bullshit on the rankings. But DJs, managers and publicists see it as a necessary investment in order to reap substantial financial and career benefits.
With comprehensive editions around the world, DJ Mag itself is a fine publication and an important one in the evolution of dance music over the last twenty years. Yet as the arbiter of DJs' fortunes, its annual poll is a legacy better off ignored.
Michelle Lhooq is the Features Editor of THUMP - @MichelleLhooq