A DJ going rogue isn’t new. Earlier this year, in Delhi’s Raftaar High Speed Bar and Lounge, DJ Deepak Bisht got mad after listening to repeated requests for a Punjabi song, which he didn’t want to play again. It led to a scuffle, where Bisht stabbed 30-year-old Vijay Deep Singh, who was celebrating his friends’ birthday, with a butter knife. Vijay died on the spot. A fight followed between Vijay’s friends, DJ Deepak Bisht and the bouncers, where Bisht smashed a beer bottle on Vijay’s friend Meet Singh’s head. Luckily she survived.
We don’t know what’s happening in the DJ world, but the anger is obviously getting a bit out of control. In another incident earlier this year, a DJ shot and killed his girlfriend out of jealousy. The dude actually tried telling the cops that he accidentally shot her while practising shooting. This is a surprising turn of events for Delhi, since the usual DJ fight stories involve uncles merely slapping DJs for not playing Vengaboys’ “Brazil” on repeat.
Sometimes, even DJ-adjacent people are going nuts. A few days ago, this happened—Two dudes were shot in Delhi on 2nd December, for repeatedly requesting a DJ to play a song, in this case “Tamanche Pe Disco”. The incident took place at a family function in Delhi's Palam Village, where Shanky Bhardwaj and his cousin Tushar Bhardwaj kept pestering 19-year-old DJ Akshay. According to the report, Akshay complained to his employers—Sanjay Sharma and Ashish Sharma—who then walked into the party and fired at 23-year-old Shanky and 16-year-old Tushar. The shots weren’t fatal thankfully and the two are currently recovering at a Delhi hospital, according to Deputy Commissioner of Police Devender Arya.
So what’s with the new #aggressionmax behaviour then?
In 2016, Avicii, the world’s hottest spinner of tracks, died after, according to his family, “struggle with thoughts about Meaning, Life, Happiness.” They added, “When he stopped touring, he wanted to find a balance in life to be happy and be able to do what he loved most—music.”
It’s odd to think about it— Avicii wanting a work-life balance—like most of the service class industry. The lifestyle of an average DJ though, involves working late nights and being surrounded by crowds abusing alcohol, and sometimes drugs.
“A lot of DJs, in the nightlife and entertainment industry circles, start drinking more and doing drugs because of peer pressure, the need to network, and to get more gigs,” says Arjun Shah, the CEO of a Mumbai-based talent management company, who works with several of the city’s DJs. His advice: Prioritise a work-life balance, set specific timings for work, family and friends to deal with the pressures of the job. “To deal with the stress, it’s important to take care of both your mind and body: Engage in physical exercise, sweat out the endorphins and intoxication of the weekend.”
When we spoke with Tapan Raj of MIDIval Punditz, one of India’s oldest electronica acts, he emphasised this need for activity even more. He also feels that sometimes the problems arise from the company the DJs keep. “A bunch of DJs abuse alcohol, pharmaceuticals, even prescription medication. Some even start selling drugs on the side,” he tells VICE. “Sometimes, it’s not even you, but you’re surrounded by people who are into this shit, like drug abuse and carrying guns, and then you’re stuck in that thought process, and end up carrying a gun to a gig,” he adds.
According to Delhi-based psychologist Monika Sharma, “The lifestyle seriously affects their mental health. Especially if you aren’t getting proper sleep, as you have to make up for it in the day, and day sleep is qualitatively much worse than night sleep.”
“When your work-life balance is not regular, you respond aggressively to even normal stimuli. The schedule puts them on a different clock from friends and family. If they struggle to meet each others’ physical and emotional demands due to their jobs, aggressive reactions are normal,” she adds.
The aggressive reactions aren’t good for business either. DJing is as much a hospitality industry as a music industry, as it’s ambience in alcoholic establishments, even more so at celebratory spaces like weddings and events. DJ VKey, a Delhi-based DJ who slots his job within the hospitality space, thinks the problems arise out of a young DJ’s inability to handle guests. “You need a certain calmness, which many people don’t have,” he says. “Even if the guest is going crazy, and your manager or bouncers aren’t available, you have a fucking mic in front of you. Make an announcement, ask for security, make the club figure it out,” he added.
Several other DJs we spoke to brought up ‘crowd control’ without getting into the mental health aspect. VKey, who’s been working in the Delhi scene for nearly a decade, said most problems for the DJs arise out of the compounding effect of this cocktail of no sleep+alcohol+drugs+stress of trying to get the next gig.
Sometimes, the cocktail veers toward depression. After Avicii’s sudden demise, several international DJs came out and spoke of mental health problems, of depression, anxiety and loneliness. “Irregular, disturbed sleep, especially if substance abuse is involved,” psychologist Monika Sharma says, “will lead to an increase in stress, aggression, anxiety, and with time, depression even.”
“The links between mental health, long hours, late nights, tons of alcohol and even drugs for some are all related,” says Azaadi Records Co-Founder Mo told VICE. “You do a survey on a 100 DJs and ask them how many actually like the music they play and you realise that they’re scared of experimenting with new music, which can make every set repetitive,” added.
Thanks to more and more public figures speaking out about their personal struggles regarding mental health, it isn’t as strange or alien a problem as we once thought it was. The payoff from fame is multifold and varied. And, yes, from the information stated above, mental health issues resulting from it fame and drugs intensify over time, but what about those who are just starting out?
22-year-old Adi Chaudhri candidly told us he got into DJing because he’s an “attention ho”, and loves it when he’s “spinning and chicks are hooting his name”. When he started working though, he encountered the same challenge of networking. “It’s a matter of hustling and there’s very little work based on merit. You have to make friends in the scene which includes going out every weekend. Sometimes it’s like, “Fuck, I don’t want to go to the club again,” but you gotta take a call on whether taking a breather is more important than making it out there.
“Making out there” vs “Taking a breather” aka having a balanced lifestyle shouldn’t be the only existing polarities, but modern DJing, and exploitative club promoters have made it so. All the DJs under 25 that we spoke to told us the same thing: Promoters try to make you play for free or or lowered fees, and you have to take the deal because you can’t get more work without showing prior work.
Income levels also aren’t what they used to be, especially due to the proliferation of Bollywood music. “Bollywood and wedding DJs are paid higher because they have to be flexible and also play for longer hours. Coming in a close second are mainstream DJs who play at clubs, who have a high billing because of the whole ‘table and champagne’ culture,” says Arjun Shah, the aforementioned DJ manager. “Underground or techno DJs are paid less because of simple factors like beer being the main alcohol sold.”
Kids though, continue flocking towards the shiny lights.
Yash Naik is a 21-year-old, Goa-based DJ trying to make it big the scene as 97 Cuts. Forget about reaching Avicii’s level of fame and psychedelics, this dude is feeling like insecure already. “Things aren’t easy when you’re just starting out, especially when you approach managers and event companies and are rejected again and again. A lot of people have to play for free or accept lower rates for the first few years. And when you suddenly see someone no one knew pop out and open for big artists at festivals, it’s overwhelming,” he tells us.
We wanted to know if he knew why people weren’t giving him chances, when he said, “Most aspiring DJs struggle with this feeling of being on the back foot despite putting in so much effort, trying so hard, always feeling like they’re not good enough.”
So, if some DJs are shooting people and some committing suicide, is the juice—the partying, occasional fame, the touring, the sex and the drugs—worth the squeeze?