Disclosure Unplugged: Why DJs Need To Step Down From The Stage

We need to stop treating DJs as performers if we're to preserve the original ethos of clubbing
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We need to stop treating DJs as performers if we're to preserve the original ethos of clubbing

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It was revealed yesterday that Disclosure's set at Capital FM's Summer Ball was 'mimed'. That is to say, the equipment they stood in front of was very obviously not plugged in. A photo was posted on Facebook of the offending incident, drawing waves of disapproval from fans and champions of 'real' music.

As embarrassing as it is, pouring scorn on the pair for lacking musical integrity is missing the point. The shame shouldn't be with the two young kids making a living making garage-pop, the fault is with our current culture which hails DJs as something they're not: performers.

The question shouldn't be 'Is their equipment plugged in?', but 'Why are they on stage in the first place?' What exactly do the promoters and the hundreds of spectators shipped in off the back of their name expect two music producers to do? A dance routine? Put on a wig and mime Jessie Ware's vocals to Running?

Somewhere during club culture's journey into the mainstream, the lines between DJing, producing, and live performance have gotten seriously muddled, until we've gotten to a point where two boys are forced to make complete tits of themselves on stage because nobody, from the industry heads to the promoters to the fans, really knows what they're doing there.

As a case study, let's compare two similar music videos which highlight the problem with 'DJ as performer'. Firstly the ultimate live band Guns n Roses' with Paradise City. The band stand on stage in front of a packed stadium. Axl Rose, ever the peacock, struts up and down the stage, mic in hand, belting out notes only dogs can hear. Slash stands to the side, hair over his face, fag in mouth, an excitable Duff gees up the crowd behind him while Adler bashes the drums like Animal from the Muppets on speed. It's live, it's spontaneous, and the energy from the five musicians resonates with the tens of thousands in attendance. It's brilliant.

Last Saturday I saw a similar music video, this time for EDM poster boys Swedish House Mafia's track 'Don't You Worry'. Similar thing: stadium crowd going absolutely batshit crazy as the trio take the stage. Only this time the cut back to the stage is comparatively underwhelming to the point of comedy, as we're faced with a sparse table, a set of CDJs and three blokes jumping in the air pumping their fists like excited European football fans. Something has seriously been lost in translation between these two performances.

When those people bought their tickets to the SHM 'concert', what exactly were they paying their money for? If it's purely to jump up and down to trance-pop with thousands of likeminded people then I can't argue with that. But the fact that is they're being lured there with this bastardised version of DJ culture, twisted and manipulated to the convenience of music industry bigwigs, and that is a real problem. It also highlights why Disclosure have found themselves in such an embarrassing situation this week.

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Disclosure, like the three maniacal baseball capped Swedes in the video, are pop stars who make their music using software on a computer - despite the apparent confusions of some promoters and fans alike - that's not the same thing as DJing on a set of decks. It's a different skill, different environment, different reasons. The people at an event like Capital FM's Summer Ball are there to hear the songs they've heard on the radio, but you don't make White Noise by standing at a set of Pioneers in the same way Slash plays Paradise City on his Les Paul - you just put the CD in and press play. If the music industry is going to try and peddle electronic music to rock and pop audiences, they need a more considered way of presenting it. Just sticking the pair on the stage with a set of decks in front of them is an insult to the act, the people who've made the effort to be there, and to DJs, who work hard to preserve their culture and don't want to see it dressed up and sold off like a cheap whore.

That's not to say that DJing and producing are mutually exclusive. Quite the opposite. At the the birth of the modern club, people like Nicky Siano, Larry Levan and Ron Hardy were producing and editing tracks for their dancefloors, but they didn't put their own faces on the sleeves. When the image of the person making the record becomes more important than the music itself, then the scales are tipping in the wrong direction.

But as with most (all) things in the music industry, it boils down to money. Big names sell tickets, and tickets generate revenue, regardless of the damage that may cause to the culture they're selling.

The reason all of this matters is because this confusion between producer, DJ, live performance and club night, is affecting the underground, which has traditionally been immune to the shortcomings of the mainstream, and sets a worrying precedent for the future. How many times have you heard someone say 'people don't dance in clubs anymore', and to an extent they're right. Of course you can still find nights where people go old school hell for leather, but in general, it's fair to say that dancing is becoming replaced by 'watching' or worse, 'recording'.

Maybe we should be looking at the role of things like Boiler Room, whose insanely popular live webcam streams encourage a voyeuristic approach to clubbing - one of spectator rather than participant. As a devout fan of Boiler Room and the positives it brings to the club world, I for one would like to see them take more responsibility and encourage wider involvement for the new generation of clubbers. Remind them that clubbing isn't about going to watch a show - from the minute they walk through the door they are as much an integral part of the party as the DJs themselves. Put the focus on the party, not just the person providing the music. Perhaps with that attitude we can start to reclaim the fun, all-inclusive culture we fell in love with in the first place, and leave the stages to the egos.

Follow me @tomdisco