Archive for category DJing

On The Radio


Tuning In

Tuning In

Radio was initially a live medium of announcers, actors and orchestras. It wasn’t until the late 1920s that it became widely acceptable to play records on the air. A royalty system then had to be developed to pass on some of the income from the advertisers to the songwriters and musicians for their content.


Regulations were soon put in place (by the FCC in the United States and the CRTC in Canada) to cap the number of stations a parent company could own; to prevent the conflict-of-interest that would be brought on if record companies were to own radio stations and try to control what was played; and to ensure that radio DJs had a degree of freedom in selecting music they felt their audiences would enjoy or benefit from.

In the 50s a handful of radio DJs were paramount in breaking rock’n’roll.  Late in the decade America began a federal investigation which effectively stamped out payola (the practice of record labels bribing DJs to promote specific singles), helping to cement the DJ’s role as trusted tastemaker, and eventually, provocateur. In the 60s radio DJs were key figures in a rising counterculture and the 70s brought FM radio, where jockeys had the freedom to present entire sides of albums in high quality stereo if they so chose.

Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton's 'Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History Of The Disc Jockey'

Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton’s ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History Of The Disc Jockey’

Since the 80s, however, a series of policy and practice changes as a result of the mergers in big business have, in my view, pretty much castrated the radio DJ. Huge chains of stations are owned by single companies. Clear Channel monopolizes the U.S. with 1240 stations nationwide; Astral Media (the company behind Virgin Radio), CTV, Rogers and Corus Entertainment are the big ones in Canada.

DJs are handed playlists that they cannot stray from. (Actually the music is on hard disk now, and the next song on the list comes up in computer-selected order, eliminating the possibility for the DJ to stray.) Those playlists are determined by program directors who tend to add songs that are a) performed by established artists on major labels (because unfamiliarity would greaten the risk of listeners turning the dial and missing advertisements); b) no longer than 3:30 (because the shorter the songs, the more of them you can play between commercials); and c) rated highly by focus groups (who tend to react positively to songs that fit an immediately recognizable mold, ruling out many of the songs that would grow on people and promote change or growth in music).

Radio stations identify themselves by a particular ‘format’ – that is, they categorize themselves by the style of music they play. These formats are constantly in flux: if a chain of stations decides to alter what they’re playing and rename the format to appeal to a slightly different demographic, the rest of the stations in that format tend to follow suit. ‘Adult Contemporary’ used to mean Perry Como, and now it means Katy Perry––because it’s a format that plays music by the artists adults are listening to. (It’s also apparently on the verge of being renamed ‘Mainstream Soft’ to try to shake the Perry Como image.) A quick rundown of the formats:

  • CHR – Contemporary Hit Radio/Top 40/Mainstream – for the tweens and teens, currently includes pop, dance and rap
  • AC – Adult Contemporary/Mainstream Soft – for adults, including pop, rock, soul, dance that is quieter or a little slower
  • Hot AC – for adults, but a little rockier or dancier
  • Triple A – Adult Album Alternative – for 30-somethings looking for subdued album-oriented artists like A Fine Frenzy, Missy Higgins etc. – there are currently only 2 stations in Canada in this format, both on U.S. border towns
  • Modern Rock – Punk pop, a la Sum 41 or Hedley
  • CAR – Contemporary Album Rock – Rock, a la Nickelback
  • Urban – the latest euphemism for ‘black music’ – Rap and R&B – there are no longer any urban stations in Canada as Toronto’s Flow 93.5 has changed to CHR

As well there are Jazz, Classical, Country and, in the U.S., plenty of Christian format stations listed by Nielsen:

Nielsen's Complete List Of Current Formats In North America

Nielsen’s Complete List Of Current Formats In North America

Since songwriter(s) get paid anywhere from $1.65 to $25.86 per radio play (SOCAN’s payout rates depending on the station) you’re ideally hoping to get your single charting on as many formats as possible, as Jason Mraz recently did with ‘I’m Yours‘.  It broke a record by hitting number 1 on the CHR, AC, Hot AC and Triple A charts.

The major labels feed their new singles to radio stations instantly through a digital delivery service (such as DMDS in Canada). Established artists’ singles get de facto rotation, newer artists get test spins. With such a closed system, now, how does a new independent artist get a song on the radio?

Generally, by paying an independent radio promoter to get it past the gates. Radio promoters have usually been in the industry, in various capacities, for a while…long enough to develop relationships with program directors at the key stations.  In a sense, radio promoters have supplanted DJs as the tastemakers because they are relied upon to do quality control on the material they pass through. In another sense, however, they have their hands tied just as much as anybody else in the chain: nothing over 3:30, big chorus hook, no long intro without a vocal…all of the same rules apply.  There is not much chance that a radio promoter is going to be able to sneak through something utterly genre-busting by an unknown artist.

Expect a radio promoter to charge $3000-$5000 to take on your single, send it digitally to the stations in the format that supports your genre of music, and then follow up with the stations’ program directors by phone and e-mail for a 3-month period.

In English-speaking Canada, some of the most successful radio promoters include Toronto’s Dulce Barbosa (who graciously educated me about radio formats recently), Dale Peters (also in Toronto) and Oscar Furtado (in Vancouver).

Further words about Canada: federal CanCon (Canadian Content) laws exist here to ensure that our own homegrown music is promoted at radio. So, 35-40% of the material Canadian radio stations play must fulfill two of the following ‘MAPL’ designations:

  • M – Music – The music was written entirely by Canadians
  • A – Artist – The recording was performed entirely by Canadians
  • P – Production – The recording was made entirely in Canada
  • L – Lyrics – The lyrics were written entirely by Canadians

I used to feel that CanCon laws skewed my perception of what was really going on in the world––that radio play should simply be awarded to the best songs by the most polished artists––and I resented the fact that some of the artists Canadian radio had led me to believe were bonafide ‘stars’ hadn’t even scratched the public’s consciousness anywhere else in the world. But I appreciate the unique contributions Canadian musicians have made on the world stage…contributions that were possible in part because they were at first protected here by CanCon laws next to the more powerfully promoted American and British artists. We are roughly 10% the population of the United States, so labels down there have 10 times the selection when looking for an artist to promote. This also means Canadian labels have roughly 10% of the budget their American counterparts get to throw behind their artists’ promotional plans. CanCon laws are a necessity.

The burning question of the moment, however, is how much radio play even matters to an artist’s success these days. In an age when music is increasingly discovered virally on the internet in blogs and links to YouTube sensations posted on Facebook, less people spend time waiting around for a song to come on the radio. Even fewer seem to be sitting around watching music video channels. However one unique feature radio does provide is a linear, programmed stream of music and news that can be enjoyed in the background while at work or in the car, not to mention that bit of human presence the hosts bring. So for the time being, new songs will continue to be broken at radio and songwriters will continue to profit from broadcast. For the independent artist, it’s a question of whether investing in an independent radio promoter will pay off short-term, financially, or in the endgame of building a fanbase.

It is possible to do the legwork yourself, getting your single heard by individual station managers or programmers in hopes that they’ll put it into rotation and, best case scenario, cause a domino effect with other stations. But if you want to hit everybody at once and stay on top of the stations, it’s best to get serious and hire a radio promoter.

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Exclusive vs Inclusive Clubbing

Have you ever noticed that there are two main kinds of clubbing experiences?  Well there are…exclusive and inclusive. And from what I can tell they draw two different types of crowds for two different reasons.

Celebrity At Studio 54

Celebrity At Studio 54

Exclusive clubs rely on guest lists and dress codes to maintain that feeling of exclusivity. If you got in, you’ve met the club’s fabulousness quotient and you’ve been lifted above all that riffraff still waiting in line outside.

Studio 54 in late ’70s New York was the mother of all exclusive clubs. It was about decadent decor and lavish procession, seeing and being seen. Bianca Jagger rode in on a white horse once. It was the preferred club for celebrities to hold their parties at and any mortals lucky enough to get in would rub elbows with the stars and have stories to tell for the rest of their lives. The currency of the club was that rush of feeling like one of the chosen ones…and that could only happen because the rest of the world was excluded from the party.

While it would have been a sight to witness, I probably wouldn’t have actually had a good time at Studio 54 because in general I’m not into that exclusionary clubbing experience.

Music At Body And Soul

Music At Body And Soul

I like inclusive places where anyone can get in, wearing anything, without a guest list hookup. When you’ve got great music and no attitude, people come to dance. There’s an infectious happy energy created by diversity in a crowd.  And you won’t find a lot of posers when people are truly there for the music.

In ’90s New York I had the pleasure of attending Body And Soul held at Club Vinyl. The legendary resident DJs were Francois K, Danny Krivit and Joe Claussell.  The club was the after-after party to Saturday night…it began Sunday afternoon. No alcohol was served, just bottled water.  Whatever the substances of choice were, usage was not overt. There really wasn’t even much of a light show. I just remember three stacks of speakers, a couple of stories high, facing a packed, sweaty, dark dancefloor. And every kind of person was there, absolutely going off to the music.

Dancing At Soul Summit

Dancing At Soul Summit

Late 80s warehouse parties and early 90s raves were inclusive events. Though the location was always mysterious, if you found the place you were welcomed to the party no matter who you were or what you looked like.

On the flipside, gay circuit parties in the late 90s were exclusive: only muscle marys with major disposable income need apply.

A great party that’s still going on in New York is an outdoor jam called the Soul Summit that takes place every Sunday through the summer in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park. It’s like an earthier, free outdoor version of Body And Soul. Diverse, positive and inclusive. These people are strictly about the music and they like it soulful and deep.

Toronto has its own outdoor sound system on summer Sundays called Promise. It’s free, the roster of guest DJs rotates, and you might hear anything from reggae to freestyle to funk to hardcore in one evening. It operates by word of mouth, moves around a bit but generally stays near Cherry Beach.

It’s full of hippies and ex-ravers, young couples with their dogs and kids, the odd soccer team…? Whoever hears the sound through the bushes arrives to find a happy and welcoming party by the water.

Back To Nature At Promise

Back To Nature At Promise

If you think about it, you can pretty much walk into any party and figure out in a few moments whether it’s an exclusive or inclusive environment. Usually if it’s exclusive I tend to walk back out.

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Hard Cuts, Beat Mixing & Train Wrecking: The DJ As Performer

It’s difficult for an audience in a club to know exactly what the DJ is manipulating at a given time and what’s already part of the track they’re playing. Too often I’ve heard someone on their way out of a club crying ‘the way that DJ remixed  the new Britney was fiiierth!’ (or some variation) making it obvious that they believe DJs ‘remix’ songs on the spot, creating a new version of a song by laying an acapella over another track that they’re creating live. Nine times out of ten what’s happening is the DJ is simply playing a remix a producer slaved over in the studio for a few weeks…it’s just a remix that particular club-goer hadn’t heard before.

Blood On Joe Claussell's Mixer

Blood on Joe Claussell’s Mixer

There are exceptions. Joe Claussell is a New York-based DJ who constantly manipulates the music he’s playing. He’ll often have a drum track looped while he twists a knob on his mixing desk in quick rhythmic stabs, teasing the crowd with chopped-up, filtered hints of a vocal track before bringing it in fully.

In Toronto, Deko-ze is a DJ I’ve watched keep four tracks running simultaneously, mixing and matching elements from all of them, looping a beat on a CD deck in front of him while reaching off the to side to nudge a record like a plate spinner sensing the need for a slight adjustment.

Some laptop DJs running Ableton Live are able to perform in a similar way because the software has the flexibility to loop a section of one track while the DJ chooses sections of other tracks to bring in, however the need to develop the physical skill of matching the speed of  two tracks is eliminated because the software does it for them.

What the audience needs to understand is that a DJ spinning vinyl or CDs cannot separate individual parts of a track unless they’ve been supplied individually on a single or a bootleg. In other situations the best they can do is filter out the bass in a track to clear away some drums and expose the vocal a bit more, or filter out the treble to do the opposite. DJs that are acrobatic enough to have 2, 3 or 4 tracks spinning simultaneously are often layering drums on CD decks (they’re able load a perfectly looped section into memory), adding an acapella they obtained somewhere, and possibly adding musical elements from an instrumental mix of another track.  It’s possible to go back and repeat a section of a vocal, or something relatively simple like that, but it’s difficult to apply rapid-fire effects to a vocal.  Often you’re hearing something that’s on the acapella already, or the DJ has done some preparation of the track at home first.

What the great majority of DJs do is play one track after another, and the only time more than one element is being heard at the same time is while the DJ is fading from one track into the other, making use of the drums-only intros and outros tacked onto virtually every club track available today. Essentially, club tracks are designed like Lego blocks.  The next one snaps onto the last one in most any configuration. It’s known as ‘Train Wrecking’ when a DJ messes up by letting two drum tracks get out of sync with each other while fading from one track to another…because, ostensibly, it sounds as messy as a train going off the tracks.

Club audiences have splintered into as many genres as house music has fractured into.  And a DJ that only needs to play one genre, like dubstep or electro, doesn’t have to worry too much about the tracks they play being wildly different in tempo, rhythm or sonic range. Within this realm, the difference between a good DJ and a bad DJ is their taste in tracks, and their ability to read a crowd.

On the extreme side of DJ laziness is Israeli superstar DJ Offer Nissim, who is rumoured to put on a full-length CD created in the studio beforehand and pretend to mix all night from one track to another, collecting a $20k cheque at the end for showing up and ‘performing’!

In the early 90s, when turntables were the only sound source and DJs would begin a night with R&B and rap, progressing to house and eventually hard techno by the end of the night, the DJ had to work hard to learn what worked and what didn’t. Those turntables didn’t have as wide a pitch adjustment range as technology offers now, so beat-mixed music would have to change tempo incrementally over a few tracks.

Some all-but-lost creative mixing techniques include ‘braking’ (hitting the Stop button on the turntable to slow one track dead and then starting the next one, a technique used to start a set in a different tempo) and the ‘hard cut’ (where a DJ would surprise the crowd by cutting from one track directly into another).  Hard cuts were sometimes necessary because tracks didn’t always begin with long drum intros…keyboard or acapella intros were acceptable on a 12″ version and this required the DJ to get a little creative.

One of my favourite creative mixes exists on a mixtape made by Toronto’s Patrick ‘D-Nice’ Hodge in 1992.  It’s somewhere between a regular crossfade and a hard cut:

At 0:23 the piano riff that comes in is from the next record, ‘Back To Me’ by Ubiquity.  This riff is in the same key as the previous record, and it works beautifully with the existing chord progression we’ve been listening to.  At 0:31 he drops the first record entirely, as the beat comes in on the new record.  The fact that he recognized these two records in his crate would work together in this way is one of those happy accidents that happen increasingly often the more attuned a DJ gets to his material.  The second track coming in, by the way, is just slightly flat, because at that time in order to line up the tempo of two recordings, the original pitch of the recordings would slide around as necessary. That’s no longer an issue with CD decks and laptops.

I still don’t know what track Patrick was mixing out of here.  If anyone can identify it, please hit me with an e-mail.

Continuing back in time to the mid-70s when DJs like Tom Moulton in New York discovered disco’s relentless ‘4-on-the-floor’ kick drum pattern, the concept of beat-matching two tracks while mixing from one to the other was born.  It’s worth mentioning that at that time there were even greater physical challenges for the DJ. Most of these tracks were not recorded at a stable tempo, so the DJ was constantly adjusting the turntable to keep the beat aligned, especially if they were trying to keep two songs running together for more than a few seconds. DJ turntables with convenient pitch sliders and robust tonearms/needles hadn’t been developed yet and neither had 12″ singles with extended versions that had long drum breaks for mixing.

Moulton was reportedly the first DJ to make long versions of his favourite songs by editing them on reel to reel tape and bringing the machine to the club that night. Some of his re-edits were later released by the original labels. I also have it on good authority that at Studio 54, staples like ‘Come To Me’ by France Joli would be extended manually by the DJ by mixing back and forth between two copies of the same record. DJing was a highly physical act at the time, and within the technical limitations there was quite a bit of creativity going on.

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Addiction: Fred Everything ft. Wayne Tennant – ‘Mercyless’

Wayne Tennant

Wayne Tennant

Great house music coming out of Montreal in 2009!

Wayne Tennant was the lead singer of Toronto funk band God Made Me Funky, then he moved to Montreal, started recording some solo work and spent some time playing Morocco and recording in the UK.

He’s done a collab with Montreal deep house producer Fred Everything for Fred’s album ‘Lost Together’ (Om Records).  The track is called Mercyless…the single hit #2 this week on Traxsource…the only soulful house online store that matters.  Tastemaker DJ/producer Osunlade also has it in his top ten right now.

Here’s a sampler of the mixes on the single. In order: the original LP mix, then the deeper Fred Everything & Olivier Desmet Remix, then the smooth AtJazz remix.

It’s a slow-burn.  I liked it on first listen…I was addicted to it after a few.  Wayne’s solo EP is coming out this summer.

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Pan & Throw

This blows my mind every time I listen to it:

What you’re listening for is a 16-bar section toward the end of ‘Luv Dancin’ by Underground Solution…circa 1991.  Classic house music on the legendary Strictly Rhythm label. The main hook of the track is a female vocal sample from Loose Joints’ disco classic ‘Is It All Over My Face’. There is a version with a full female vocal as well. But there’s a male vocal snippet from the Better Days Remix of Carl Bean’s ‘I Was Born This Way’ weaved into the tapestry and in this part of the extended version the producer decides to riff on that sample for a minute before winding down and man it gets me every time.

It’s partly the sample itself. It’s got that gospel depth to it…he’s feeling that shit…and the way he ends his phrase, trailing down, to a gritty release…there’s tragedy there.

But there are also choices that the producer and/or mix engineer made: the sample pans left and right, sometimes it’s ‘dry’ (no effects), sometimes there’s a delay throw (certain syllables echo) and sometimes there’s a reverb throw (a big roomy sound on it). The patterns entrance me. So simple, yet so complex. So inspired, so not systematic. I could loop those 16 bars all day.


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