There’s no denying it – I’m in deep now. The signifiers of my advancing age are unavoidable. Kids legally drinking despite being born after I had my first cigarette. 20th anniversaries of albums that I vividly remember buying. Footballers younger than me considering retirement. What was once a lone bell ringing in my quieter moments is now full on tinnitus of the brain; a constant dull ache, slowly loosening my tether as I abseil down Zeitgeist Mountain.
For the most part, I’m not that bothered. Although there is still plenty I want to do, there are more pieces of my life in place now than at any point since I was in single digits, so I’m not exactly wishing it away. However, when it comes to work it has thrown up a few more questions.
Ok, exacerbated existing questions.
I’ve spoken in the past about my dysfunctional relationship with the charts. I still check the singles chart and the Radio 1 playlist (even though they are increasingly the same thing since streams and downloads began to count) every 2 weeks, in search of future DJ material. This isn’t my only avenue of course, but it’s important to at least be aware of the latest shite that people are going crazy for.
And that’s the problem isn’t it? There’s very little there that isn’t shite. And it’s getting worse. There’s a noticeable wince every time I press play. I’m lucky to find one new song per trip, but more often than not I’m sadly shaking my head as I close the tab. None of this counts as news of course. People in their thirties have bemoaned the state of modern music for the last 60 years. The younger generation retort with rolled eyes and a smug smirk that says “Face it: it’s not for you any longer old man. Kindly step aside”. It’s easy to resist the urge to smack that look off of their faces (honestly) because I gave that same look to my dad many times. And when someone eventually delivers it to them, they’ll hopefully remember my kindness and pass it on.
The other reason they get away with it is because to a large extent, they’re right. The charts are for teenagers, and always have been. I’m no longer in the Radio 1 demographic. Most other people my age know this and steer clear. Unfortunately I don’t have that luxury because I’m still trying to please the Radio 1 demographic every Thursday & Friday night.
But do I have to? Post-noughties kids (Does anyone have any idea what the hell this decade is supposed to be called) should be the best-informed generation there’s ever been. They don’t have to sneak into their parent’s bedroom while they’re out to find out about the great music of the past. Their trio of gods, Google, Wikipedia & YouTube have done the hard work for them. They should be able to go wherever I want to take them. Not only that, there are plenty of DJs decades older than me who regularly play to massive crowds of all ages. Most of them don’t go anywhere near the top 40. That said, most of them don’t play for seven hours at a time. Most of them stick to one genre of music. Most of them are paid significantly more than I am. Most of them are famous enough to play a Synth-Brass version of the Flog it theme tune and people will still dance.
So where does that leave me?
Frustrated as hell, that’s where. It’s not as if I don’t play new music. I am constantly finding great new music, and I still try, and just about manage, to play at least one new song in every set, The problem is, my new music isn’t the RIGHT new music:
“I’m loving your tunes tonight.”
“Do you have anything a bit more recent?”
“This tune isn’t actually out yet.”
“Oh…..well do you have anything I’ll know?”
“Probably, but without reading your mind I couldn’t tell you.”
*gets phone out* “Well have you got any of these……..?”
The majority of people I speak to on a night out basically want the radio. They want to hear the same songs they hear when they wake up in the morning. And on the way to work. And all day at work. And on the way home. And when getting ready to go out. Everyone wants to think that they have eclectic music tastes, but the same 20 songs from 5 different genres is still the same 20 songs.
This is the uncomfortable truth of the shuffle generation. Despite all that choice, those vast oceans of music to explore, when the dancefloor is full and your pint glass is empty, people want the comfort of the familiar. The warm pat on the back that says “Well done! Everyone likes the thing that you like so you must be cool!” The affirmation of relevance.
In my dreams I’m able to stop the music and explain this calmly yet coldly, watching smiles turn into scowls like air sucked from a balloon. In my dreams there’s no bar manager watching me out of the corner of his eye. In my dreams there aren’t hundreds of younger DJs begging to take my place, willing to turn themselves into glorified jukeboxes if that’s what it takes.
So what’s the solution?
It would be very easy to turn down the quality control. The voice in the back of my head can be an annoying bastard at times. “How are these shit songs any worse than the shit songs you loved when you were younger? Is Easy Lover really better than Moves Like Jagger?”
This is a worrying road to go down, because before long you find yourself questioning your entire process. The other day I was watching Football Focus and they had what sounded like a great song playing over a montage of goals. It was only the instrumental, but there was a funky little riff against backing vocals that sounded like Pharrell holding it all together which convinced me to seek it out.
It was Sing by Ed Sheeran.
This troubled me for days. I re-listened to Pharrell’s latest album - an album I really like. Would Sing fit on there? Sheeran’s voice is still like nails on a chalkboard, but they’re in the same world. Hell, Miley Cyrus is featured on the album (Incidentally I didn’t know it was her until long after I’d been playing the song – cue another round of existential hand wringing). If Come Get it Bae* was Ed Sheeran featuring Miley Cirus would I like it? If I really listened to an Ed Sheeran album would I like it too?
*I fucking hate that word – the most non-committal statement of commitment in the history of language
Thankfully that annoying bastard never wins. Whatever prejudices I have put in place when deciding my music tastes have been honed over the best part of 30 years, and they haven’t failed me to this point. People of all ages still come up to me at the end of the night to tell me how much they’ve enjoyed themselves. I haven’t retreated into an increasingly shallow pool of music. I still feel like the bar staff who’ve heard me play once a week for nearly a year don’t quite know what to expect. It might feel like I’m losing the fight, but the judges have me ahead on points.
What I should do is try to find myself an audience I don’t have to fight against. Pick and choose my shows a bit more carefully. Promote myself a bit better, so I’m in position to get a better calibre of gig to a more discerning audience. I guess I better work on that. In the meantime, the plan is to keep bombarding them with great songs until they just shut up and dance.