As with many creative jobs in 2016, DJs are often doing it just as a hobby. Like painters, philosophers, or music journalists, they may take home some pay from their craft, but probably rely on day jobs or wealthy parents to actually pay their rent. That doesn't mean the less glamourous professional side of the industry has disappeared completely though. As I discovered at this year's Canadian DJ Show in Toronto, there's still a rough-around-the-edges underground of uncool DJ culture, keeping it real on the mobile scene.
Originally started in London, Ontario in 2009, the event's also been held in Calgary and Mississauga, but this year's edition was its largest to date. On paper, it seemed a bit like a miniature version of Miami's Winter Music Conference, with boldface sponsors like Pioneer DJ and Canadian performing rights organization SOCAN. However, that illusion quickly disappeared when I entered the Hilton Toronto and immediately saw a booth promoting a new quiz contest button system for pubs.
While trying to get a photo of the device, a rep for a digital music service passed me a couple CDs and a brochure promising monthly deliveries of the newest "dance, R&B, urban, rock, alternative, adult-contemporary, and country" tracks. When I later checked out the files on the promo discs, I found a bewildering array of styles represented, ranging from Justin Bieber to Martina McBride to Armin van Buuren. Clearly they did not have the Resident Advisor crowd in mind.
For a minute, it felt as if I had entered a parallel dimension where the EDM explosion never happened and DJs were still barely scraping by, rather than having their own entire Forbes list. Instead of headlining festivals, the show was dedicated to those playing weddings, bar mitzvahs, school dances, and focussed on the boring (but important) behind-the-scenes minutiae. These professionals not only need to be able to play a much wider range of music than any conventional club jockey, they're also often responsible for their own bookings, marketing, technical setups, and more.
After browsing for a bit, I decided to take in some of the seminars that the show had to offer. The first I attended was about acoustic treatments for studios; surprisingly, it turned out to be much more engrossing than any talk I'd sat through during my times attending SXSW. Later, out of morbid curiosity, I walked into another seminar on "insurance dilemmas," which featured a strangely passionate presentation on why wedding DJs should contact an official association and get proper insurance. As mundane as it might seem, I still found it more stimulating than your average interview with a dubstep producer.
Over in the main exhibit hall, various gear companies showcased all the latest products, including software controllers, lighting rigs, and speakers. The sound system companies were all showing off how much power they can put into small portable packages, which resulted in me being barraged by beats from every angle. The sensation was not unlike being at a big rave where they've put the stages too close to each other, and proved to be too overwhelming and chaotic to deal with for very long.
That's not to say the show ignored contemporary dance music culture completely. Guests included Toolroom Records DJ and producer Funkagenda, former A Tribe Called Red member DJ Shub, and Hi-Bias Records founder Nick Fiorucci. While at least half of Saturday's attendees looked like parents, the other half were young aspiring DJs and producers.
As much as I wanted to laugh at how disconnected most of it seemed from the 21st century, there's something undeniably charming about how earnest and authentic the show and its proprietors were. During the Q&A portion of the insurance seminar, a middle-aged woman stood up and announced she was closing her wedding planner business to pursue DJing, which elicited strong cheers from the audience.While many of the brochures looked like they were designed in the early 90s, and monthly music delivery services seem pretty redundant in the file sharing era, these DJs have actually figured out how to make a stable living from doing what they love. Maybe wedding DJs are actually the smart ones in this industry.
Benjamin Boles is on Twitter.