Entertainment

Welcome to 'Peak DJ', Where Even Department Stores Have In-House DJs

This once devotional art form has been reduced to background fodder for tech-enthusiasts and small-plate diners.
Ryan Bassil
London, GB
March 31, 2020, 8:45am
DJ launch event
A DJ playing at the opening launch event of a new H&M store in the Clarendon Centre, Oxford, via Alamy

The definitive sound of any DJ in the 70s and 80s? Probably Larry Levan pumping MSFB’s “Love Is the Message” to an enthusiastic crowd of coked-up NYC disco kids and celebs (Grace Jones, Madonna, Keith Haring) at the hallowed Paradise Garage hall. In the mid to late 90s, there was the sweet tones of UKG. Mid-00s, key-fiend dubstep. And today…? Well, I’m pretty sure today will be defined by the lull of a tech-bro “djing” Spotify's Ambient Sounds playlist in a co-working space.

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The latest of these anemic and not-even-club-adjacent DJ experiences is in a new WeWork in London. Located near Westminster Bridge, the 290,000-square-foot, 16 story co-working mill has, among other things, a barista station (pump ‘em up, pump ‘em up with coffee), a half pipe (cool but presumably annoying?) and a DJ booth, where, per an Architectural Digest quote from WeWork creative strategy head Hayley Slavitt, “local DJs play live music to create the ultimate ambience in the space".

That late stage capitalism has bent DJing into its "Work Hard, Play Hard" motto is disconcerting – as open plan office jobbies attest, music on the overheads is rarely conducive to working – but it’s also not a surprise. Today, the DJ is everywhere: in restaurants, bars, hotels, office spaces, launch events, high street shops and gyms. As one senior account director at an internationally renowned and award-winning ad agency told me: “Getting a DJ for a brand is pretty standard now.”

From "dude in a Patagonia hoodie spinning Roy Davis Jr’s 'Gabriel' to early thirties hypebeasts" at every launch event, to the fact that drinking in a relatively nice bar now usually involves shouting over slowed down industrial drone music, to disco – that greatest, most transcendent of all genres – booming from the ground floor of Topshop’s flagship Oxford Circus store, it’s plain to see we live in an age where DJing is consistently removed from its traditional nightclub roots.

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So how did we get here?

The key word in most instances is "added value", AKA giving consumers something on top of what they’ve already paid for (i.e. a co-working space, but with an added DJ). “If there’s something happening in a store or an influencer event or a product launch, there’s always a DJ requirement there now,” explains that same advertising director, who wanted to remain anonymous because of client confidentiality. Their past experience on events for several household name clients has taught them one thing: “The idea is to get a good atmosphere. It all adds to the event, rather than having a standard playlist in the background.”

David, 19, was booked to DJ in the Edinburgh location of once popular department store House of Fraser, where he then worked. They hosted an experience called "The Black Out Event", where the shop’s windows were pasted with black paper so punters couldn’t see what was inside. Due to the blacked out windows, the idea was that the consumer could never know what was going to be in the store… until they went inside. Once among the clothes and homeware, they were greeted by local businesses hawking gin and chocolates, circus performers, and David, who DJed from the store’s balcony to three different floors.

“They were trying to bring back shopping in real life instead of staring at your screen on Amazon,” he explains. “But it was odd.” David had been instructed to unify the brand’s various target markets. This proved difficult: “You would have your mum coming in with her gals to buy a coffee, some bed linen and a dress. But it was also young rich and affluent people from Spain or America who could afford a Gucci handbag.” He ended up mixing SOPHIE into Abba. “People who enjoy PC Music as a genre and a brand will get that,” he laughs. “But you would have your grannies coming up going ‘I don’t understand why you’re playing this, what is that music you’re playing – it’s really, really awful.’”

Of the various non-club DJ gigs, blasting palatable Jamie xx tunes to a shop floor of disinterested customers sounds particularly tiresome. Drew, who goes by the name Dull Life, played a student lock-in event at the Brighton outpost of Urban Outfitters in 2016. “It was OK for the first hour but it was pretty dead. I was absolutely dying for a piss but I had to keep it in… and everyone just kept asking me where the changing rooms were. In the end, I played for four hours, by myself, without a break,” he says. The speakers weren’t even working. “It was just the ones in the ceiling and the left and right panels were on different floors – it was so weird.”

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So why book a DJ if the speaker set-up doesn't even function? “It’s a safe bet to add interest and novelty to something otherwise a bit boring,” explains Drew, who also plays clubs, parties and private events. “That said, people can go shopping – and still shop – without having music played to them.”

Of course, we don’t need music to be played as we go about life. But it’s not just brands and advertising execs who are responsible for shoehorning DJs into any space with speakers; average bros with a heightened sense of taste are complicit too. As anyone who has been cornered by a drunken nu-jazz lad will tell you, someone is always trying to shove their taste in your ear holes. Take Arya, who started DJing in his local London based restaurant by asking if they wanted someone.

He’s aware his work is functional. “As a DJ one of the areas of expertise now is providing background music," he says. "Someone might be there on a date and you’re trying to match yourself to the vibe people might want.”

He's trying to give people something new: “I started out playing disco and funk music. I collect records from Asia. I get records from Japan, Indonesia, Thailand. I play soul. I play jazz-funk.” In his opinion, having a DJ in a restaurant adds to the overall experience (again, added value). “It’s like when you’re in a restaurant and you meet the chef."

Away from the corporate spaces and low-lit small plate restaurants, the UK’s DJ scene is constantly shifting in new and exciting ways. The 2010s saw the introduction of the deconstructed club movement, with DJs and producers like Jam City from the UK and Total Freedom in the US pushing retro futurism toward a non-cis dancefloor. Instrumental grime night Boxed LDN practically owned the middle of the decade. New, warped takes on old genres consistently pop up; as Chal Ravens wrote in DJ Mag earlier this year, “the UK remains, as it has been for decades, a musical melting pot”.

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But given the drastic number of closures of mainstream UK clubs in the past few years – not to mention the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on nightlife – the average person is now more likely to come across a DJ in anywhere but a nightclub. The “vibey” background "chunes" in a cocktail bar for people who aren’t listening, even though they’re paying well above average on food for the experience. Before the UK-wide COVID-19 lockdown closed its doors, the Soho location of infamous celeb food spot The Ivy had a DJ spinning tunes every Friday and Saturday, during dinner and brunch. The similarly high end Ace Hotel had DJs performing in their lobby. So did Soho House and the Shoreditch based location of sushi restaurant Nobu.

Given the culturally feeble yet moneyed situations it’s currently found in, DJing is the next politically influenced art form or idea (punk, grime, feminism – whatever, baby) to be marketed for nothing more than brand-pleasing capital gain. Part of me wonders what’s next. Punk gave us Brewdog, Feminism gave us The Wing, but DJing isn’t even currently en-vogue or cool enough for investors to want to cash in. That already happened with EDM. Instead, the art form has become functional.

In this strange world where technology increasingly takes precedence over human interaction (get your Amazon package using a drone!), DJing is one of the few instances where big business has sat back and said “Nah, get a human in for this one.” Despite the use of algorithms on streaming services, there’s something to be said about having someone hand select music for you. It’s just that when it comes to business, it’s less about a “genuine” and “authentic” experience, and more about the bottom line.

“At some events there’s not even a specific dancefloor, it’s just about content capture,” says the Senior Account Director. “Even if the night is shit and there’s no one there, there’s clever videography you can do to make it look pretty slamming even when that might not be the case.”

Really, this clandestine, dull phenomenon is about creating something brands perceive to be cool, or can market as such, despite the experience being completely opposite. "Even for a smaller scale launch at say, a phone shop, for a product launch, there’s going to be a DJ there. If there wasn’t, it would feel weird. It's a pre-requisite now."

@ryanbassil