Sell By Dave’s Rant: Cowell, you plonker!

In the first of a series of occasional rants, our resident “bearded grump”  SELL BY DAVE gets hot under the collar about Simon Cowell’s latest “shit-fest”…

Here at Bedmo Disco HQ, we’re not massive fans of X-Factor/Pop Idol-style reality TV shows. In fact, we can’t remember the last time we consciously watched one of those glitzy, Saturday night “star-making” borefests. As many have pointed out over the years, they’re little more than souped-up New Faces style talent contests played out for the financial gain of villain-in-chief and all-round cynic Simon Cowell (pictured above). They might not exactly be killing music (the underground is as healthy as ever, thankfully), but they’re probably not doing it much good, either.

Normally, we wouldn’t bother commenting on anything Simon Cowell or X-Factor-related, but something caught our eye yesterday that we couldn’t let pass by.

When loitering on Facebook, we noticed a link to a Music Week story posted by the chaps behind the fine House of Disco website and label. According to the story (see here), Cowell has turned his attention to one of the only strands of the music/entertainment industry he’s previously left alone: DJing.

Straight away, the blood began to boil here at North Street Sound. The basic gist of the story is this: Simon Cowell’s production company has developed a format for an “X Factor for DJs”, which will “capture the incredible rise of the DJ phenomena”. The story quotes Cowell as saying: “DJs are the new rock stars”.

Oh dear. For starters, the concept of the “superstar DJ” has largely been discredited over the last few years. As some of you may know, I worked for a dance music magazine called IDJ for the best part of a decade, during the period when “superclubs” and “superstar DJs” were at their peak. I left IDJ in 2008, by which point the commercial dance music boom of the late 90s/early 2000s had long since disappeared up its own overhyped backside.

So, Simon, you’re a bit late on this one. If you’d done this in 2001 you may have captured the zeitgeist – now you just look like someone’s dad stumbling around a club looking for inspiration. “Wow, DJs are cool, let’s see if we can rinse that scene for more cash!”

There’s also the tricky problem of how you judge whether a DJ is “great”. A bugbear of mine during the IDJ days was what I thought of as the erosion of DJing as a standalone artform. In the old days, top DJs earned their reputation through being masters of their craft. They were in tune with their dancefloors, fearless selectors, skilful craftsmen (and women) and knew exactly when to take risks. They got more bookings because they were brilliant DJs. These days, the argument continued, DJs are no longer booked on the strength of their DJ skills. Instead, promoters book “names” – producers who have made records that sell well on Beatport, or Juno, or wherever. Some of these producers will also be skilled and talent DJs; others, though, can barely beatmatch two records and play little more than obvious floorfillers. Thus, really great DJs without productions to their name are neglected by all but the most dedicated/nerdy promoters (and, obviously, other DJs). For proof, check out either Resident Advisor’s Top 100 DJs poll, or the consistently laughable DJ Magazine Top 100 DJs.

It is difficult to judge DJing without hearing someone play in a variety of environments, to different crowds. It’s this that makes traditional DJ competitions virtually pointless. The DMC World Championships and contests of that ilk are notable exceptions. It is far easier to judge a short set by a shit-hot turntablist than 15 or 20 minutes from someone who plays house, techno or drum and bass (for example). Besides, being a fantastic turntablist with skills for days doesn’t necessarily make someone a great DJ; put them in a club with three hours to fill, and they may struggle.

In my opinion, being a great DJ is about more than just rocking a party or having great technical skills, however important these may be. Personally, the best DJs I’ve heard – and the ones I respect the most – are those that really dig deep, are comfortable in almost any environment and will take the dancefloor in different directions over the course of two or three hours. The music they play is far more important than how they play it. I don’t care whether they use vinyl, CD, Serato, Ableton, Traktor or eight-track tape; formats are just a means to an end. It’s the music that matters.

I would also say that great DJs know how to play at different times, and can adjust their sets accordingly. Some of the best DJs I’ve heard over the years are residents – i.e those that do the “graveyard” slots at the beginning and end of a night. “Warming up” is an artform in itself, and one that many DJs – particularly those new to the game – simply don’t know how to do. If you’re on early doors, your job is to set the scene, soundtrack the socializing of punters and then gently coax them on to the dancefloor. If you treat the warm-up like a peaktime set, you shouldn’t be behind the decks – unless those decks are in your bedroom (or perhaps those in a trance/hard house club).

I’m also firmly of the opinion that many DJs get better with age – something that doesn’t neatly fit with the youthful make-up of club crowds. It doesn’t necessarily take all that long to get the basic skills to be able to perform an adequate DJ set, but it can take years to learn how to read a crowd, structure a set and get that distinctive flow and style associated with the very best. Older DJs – or, at least, those who’ve been doing it for a few years – also tend to have a broader and deeper knowledge of music, meaning that they can mix-up old and new records together in a way that puts both in context. I might be alone on this one, but a set of the 20 hottest new tunes is dull. Mix it up a little, please!

Taking all this into consideration, it’s hard to see how Cowell and his cronies could put together a TV format that does the artform any justice. For starters, DJing isn’t the sort of thing that makes for great television, unless DJs are being judged purely on short, turntablist style showcase sets. Turntablism, for all its merits, is something that does not appeal to the vast majority of DJs, let alone people sat at home watching on television.

Judging DJs on pure technical skills alone is also deeply flawed. There are some fantastically technically gifted DJs out there who cannot be considered “great”. They might be able to mix on four decks, or have a distinctive style that marks them out from the crowd, but if they play boring, mundane, obvious or lifeless music, they’re wasting their talents.

So how will Cowell and company judge DJs on their new reality shit-fest? Given his track record, probably with a panel of aging DJs or young wannabes whose names are well-known but whose talents are, for the want of a better word, lacking. Realistically, Cowell’s judging panel would almost certainly be a mix of zimmer-frame pedaling idiots who lost all passion for music 30 years ago and shiny-shirt wearing electrohouse numpties barely out of the womb. And Skrillex.

Unless the panel consists of Larry Levan’s ghost, the re-animated corpse of Sir Jimmy Saville, and a loudmouth American turntablist who can cut and scratch with his genitals, I’m not interested.

Given that this sort of contest will attract the most annoying and pointless type of wannabe DJ – i.e those whose obsession is not with music, or even helping people to have a good time, but rather climbing the slippery slope of international twatdom – perhaps they should be judged not as DJs, but whether they fit the “Superstar DJ” mould.

This would undoubtedly be the best way to judge them. Ignore the music and their supposed skills, instead focusing on the following categories:

• Quality of haircut

• Self-obsession

• Entertainment ability (e.g do they jump around behind the decks with their arms-raised skywards)

• Boy Racer factor (I.E do they play music that would be bought by townie idiots in souped-up Vauxhall Corsas)

• Personality (i.e are they an utter bell end?)

• Drug threshold (i.e how much nose candy can they hoover up while playing over-produced kiddie-friendly drivel)

• Wardrobe choices (do they look like any other tool out at terrible city centre bars on a Friday or Saturday night?)

Or, to put all of those into one question: do they cite the Swedish House Mafia as a major influence?

To be serious (slash boringly nerdy) again for a minute, I am actually as saddened as I am angry by this move from Simon Cowell. DJing is a valid and creative artform that has consistently struggled to be taken seriously. Most DJs don’t take themselves seriously, but they do take what they do seriously. Making people dance isn’t rocket science (obviously), but doing it brilliantly, with style, thought and knowledge, isn’t as easy as people make out. Or maybe it is, and I’ve spent far too many years thinking and writing about it.

Either way, none of this will worry Simon Cowell. As long as all the DJs have a juicy, tear-jerking back story and make good TV, he’ll be laughing all the way to the bank. Again.

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4 thoughts on “Sell By Dave’s Rant: Cowell, you plonker!

  1. Mr Burrage. says:

    Simon Cowell shudnt be aloud to stamp his brand on it,a tv show wud work and be great but not in that x-factor format…..a dj show needs to be done with a little more class than that…..sasha and digweed must be feelin like someones walked over there graveSomeone called him a genius on stco,s facebook page, .he,s not a genius i contacted simon 2 years ago because i had an idea about a dj based tv show and max clifford,s P.A told me he was to busy to consider it….wot a coincedence he,s going to do it now and may i say in the wrong format … doing it the same as x-factor and BGT wud ruin the club scene and prime time tv.Iv try.d e-mailing him but hav heard nothing…..sorry this call for a major protest on behalf of every established dj and up and comin dj plus every clubber world wide….time to call the sun newspaper i think and stop them lot makining a mockery of a much loved and respected part of the music indusrty.

  2. nicely put bearded grump, though you eem to have such a firm grasp of what it’s about that I can smell a job offer loominng from Cowell Towers!

  3. Mooch London says:

    Great read, my thoughts exactly!

  4. lulu says:

    Wow, you brought up a lot of great points that I say all the time. The only part that I don’t agree on is I think the dj should be able to mix, not rely on thier handy dandy gadgets. I do hear wrecks and it throws me off, it takes me out of the moment. But everything else is straight on point! Well said. I’m glad i’m not the only one that feels that way.

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