I Fooled the World Into Thinking I Was a Successful EDM DJ—For An Art Project
It’s not hard to become an EDM DJ. All it takes is a bit of practice, a few contacts and, above all, good marketing. That doesn’t make you a musician.
Two years ago, I was sick of nightlife. After starting my adult life as a promoter, it didn't take long before I started to despise this drug-addled world in which everything is superficial, in which men are in the driver's seat, only accepting women on flyers in underwear and where drugs are like the fuel which keeps the engine running. On top of that, I was irritated by the hoards of DJs who were worshipped by promoters and club owners, smugly convincing clubgoers that they were real musicians and artists. Their attitude betrays the avant-garde origins of the music they play.
I was even more disgusted by DJs who contributed to the super-commercialization of that very music. Those who were paid to throw cakes through clubs (and onto wheelchair users) while playing pre-recorded sets. The masses swarm to those sets, ecstatically desperate to be entertained. The music matters to the extent that there needs to be a predictable drop to give hyperventilating kids the cue to throw their hands in the air and screech collectively. It's all about mass entertainment, while the content and culture have become completely irrelevant.
The EDM phenomenon— not the genre, but rather the mass events born of it— is the sad expression of a generation for whom music is no longer culture or art, but just another consumer good. EDM is nothing more than spectacle: boom, boom, and pyrotechnics. It is the funfair version of electronic dance music.
So I asked myself the question: is a DJ nowadays just a puppet who plays music on stage and shoots their euphoric audience in the face with confetti? Does a DJ really still need technical skills, now that even bog standard DJ equipment has an integrated sync-button? Isn't large-scale DJing more about a glittering performance than any authentic substance? So together with Tobias, a friend from the club scene, I decided to try out my own experiment and become an EDM DJ. Spoiler alert: it worked.
It's All About the Marketing
Tobias had worked in nightlife for a while and got the scene completely. For big events, he booked DJs who attracted as many people as possible. He knows which acts work on stage and how much young adults are prepared to pay for which performance. We brainstormed what we would need for quick success: contacts, a bit of skill, and above all, smart marketing. We needed cliché and kitsch— because, alas, it works.
First I started to file my technical skills in a club during the day. I knew from watching how to fit one song to the next. After a friend gave me a crash course, it took just a few weeks before I could neatly mix one track into the next and manage transitions that didn't jar.
Tobias and I decided that two women could be marketed better than one. Nervo had proven that. So I went through my friends in my head and thought about who would be up for this kind of hoax (which admittedly would yield both a lot of fame and free alcohol). We quickly had a second young woman. Tobias arranged for our first performance at one of his parties. It was in May 2014. We had a month's time to prepare the gig and we spent a lot of time in our improvised studio. At the same time, we had professional photos taken, had a logo made, and made a new Facebook fan page. We didn't want to use sexiness as a marketing ploy, like DJ Da Candy, for example, but rather a consistent performance which was clichéed and tacky, but believable.
Play Tunes Everyone Knows
The first gig was a full success for our project, which Tobias and I had been calling our "art project" for a while. We picked the tracks by going through the most successful sets from the last Tomorrowland festival and picking the best and easiest hits. The audience loved our tracks, purely because they knew them already. Because they were predictable. It also helped that that the local DJ scene tore it apart. There was bitching galore, and suddenly the scene was interested in us. We were two newcomers who had appeared from nowhere, playing EDM, and, to the utter horror of the established DJs, were adored by our audience. Those in the know rightly wondered why we were suddenly being booked and questioned our "realness." In July 2014 we played three shows together, including the festival Touch the Air. Each time, the audience got our copied Tomorrowland set and it reliably made them happy.
The team drew its conclusion: the plan (obviously) seemed to work. To be really successful, we would have to invest a lot more time. This was only going to work if we made the project our number one priority. My DJ-partner was studying law, was very preoccupied with her boyfriend, and couldn't make the necessary commitment. So we decided that I would continue alone.
Tobias continued to sell our "art project" brilliantly. Three months after my first gig, I was playing various festivals, including the Zurich Openair between Netsky and Flume and as a warm-up DJ for Crookers. With the festival references under my belt, promoters started booking me not just as a support act for big name DJs like Sidney Samson or Ummet Ozcan, but even as a headliner for their EDM parties. I could barely believe I was seeing myself on flyers less than six months after I first stood at a DJ deck.
Live the Cliché
I rang in the New Year by spontaneously and drunkenly blasting the ever-eager ravers with a few tunes together with the manager of Klangkarussell after Robin Schulz' set. I was there thanks to a booking request passed on by another DJ. "Good fee, 3000 franks [$2976]", she simpered. The location turned out to be "Bums Alp," a bordello somewhere in Zurich's suburbs. But as soon as I was sitting backstage and listening to the headliners' drug-addled conversations, I realized that Schulz & co. must have to deal with far more malicious manipulation. The more successful you are, the more people hate and envy you.
In the meantime, there had been two articles about me in the newspaper, and part of the scene was starting to accept me. They didn't question my DJing skills, since the crowd seemed to like what I did by playing one EDM track after another and waving my hands in the air a bit. My market value rose from month to month, and Tobias could quickly demand a fee of up to 1200 francs ($1190) per gig, which was usually one or two hours. In spring 2015, I was playing 8 to 10 shows per month while studying Monday to Friday. It became routine and I started to forget why we had started the "art project" in the first place.
Give Up Everything Else
My rigid technical college degree started catching up with me and the weekend gigs were putting me under pressure. I collapsed with exhaustion on stage twice. And no: I never took drugs. Too many people around me stared at me night after night with their glazed looks or tried to persuade me to join them for a trip to the toilet with their coke. No, I was overwhelmed by my growing passion for the music.
I started to think more and more about the music I was playing, and the music I actually wanted to play, and my expectations towards myself were rising. I started to play the techno which I listened to privately. Only at private parties, of course, or early in the morning on smaller floors— never on the big stage, since this sound didn't fit with my DJ product and would jeopardize my image.
Get a Ghost Producer On Board
This real passion kept me at the deck. My technical abilities got better and I started to get a taste for music's addictive qualities. I had long stopped playing pre-recorded sets. I spent every minute of my free time looking for new tracks or with the long-distance degree in music production which I had started. Tobias and I knew that we'd only get further if we started to produce our own tracks.
The commercial EDM audience don't give a crap about whether you play your own tracks. Actually they prefer it if they know the song, can sing along, and, above all, know exactly when the drop comes. Nonetheless, to be really successful as a DJ and make a name for yourself abroad, you need to have a few of your own tracks. Since I was still a total beginner in music production despite the degree, we had to get a ghost producer. An actual musician.
It makes me angry that other DJs pass of real musician's work as their own. So at this stage, my producers deserve real credit: I have enormous respect for Ben Mühlethaler and Avesta, who produced my first track. They are incredibly creative and professional, work productively and with impressive passion for the music. Success is not their top priority. What they care most about is making music for a living and being able to pay their rent.
We held off on publishing the finished song. We wanted to wait for the perfect moment. One day, I got an email from the music production company Hitmill, who are behind more or less every jingle and every second pop song. They wanted to get to know me, and come up with a track together. Hitmill provided me with a producer, with whom I got on really well, and with whom I worked on a second track. But before the collaboration was finished, the producer left the company. I finished the track with a different producer.
During the summer of 2015, I played big festival stages like Sonnentanz, the Holi Festival of Colours and Zurich Openair. At the Streetparade Afterparty I played the main stage straight after Bassjackers and Tujamo. All of a sudden, foreign bookers were getting in touch to book me. Hardly any of them knew what I could do or how good I was. But they didn't care. They saw that it worked. For making it "work" they were prepared to pay a juicy fee including travel and hotel rooms.
And then autumn came, together with my last year of university. I was also working as a journalist on the side. It became harder and harder to manage it all and I started to really risk my health. I developed chronic pain, was constantly sick, irritable and tired. I knew that I couldn't continue the project, which had since become my "baby" in this way. Tobias and I knew that to manage the next step in the scene, I would have to put everything into DJing after my degree and give up everything else. We worked with a well-connected set of bookers, with great producers and a keen creative team. We knew that the project could still work. If I was willing to put in the time, the team had a chance.
Then I got a job offer: a full-time position in journalism—a childhood dream come true. I was forced to make a decision. Our "art project" had been created to prove that it really is that easy to make it as a DJ with just a bit of show, spectacle and some technical skills. We had proved the point. Of course we hadn't had an international break-through, but what if it came once we released the finished tracks? An international booker had already expressed an interest. The idea of keeping up at this rate terrified me. I was afraid that my DJ-self, this character, would take over more and more. So I decided to call it a day.
Everything I did was real. I managed every transition without a sync button and I lived each performance. But still I constantly felt I was cheating my audience and the scene by presenting a pure fiction. I have enormous respect for DJs who see themselves as musicians, not as entertainers. A DJ like that is a music teacher, one who brings his audience closer to new and perhaps even revolutionary tracks. Tracks that have more to offer than the identical good feeling of tacky pop melodies laid over electronic beats. Tracks that have the potential to make you think and dream. Electronic music in particular lives off the innovative spirit which made once made it to the expression of a generation. And there are actually loads of DJs exactly like that. Those DJs deserve the platform occupied by cake-throwing pyrotechnic-firing entertainers. But they are rarely found at large, commercial festivals. This problem, too, is commercial: big music companies make huge amounts of money at their orchestrated raves. So electro was "poppified"; made radio-friendly and suitable for the masses.
My DJ project was contrived in and subject to the rules of this new, commercial music world. But what I did there was still real. I understand that what cake-throwers do isn't one bit more authentic that I was. So I have to do what's only right and offer my DJ career as a sacrifice to electronic music culture and its musicians. I'm clearing the stage for those who deserve a place on the stage and who want to move and change people with their audience. Tobias has used his know-how to make an online platform called OneScreener for musicians and DJs and thus offer them a real and fitting platform.
An earlier version of this article misattributed the author as Nadja Cautery. The correct author is Nadja Brenneisen, and we apologize for the error.