El-P To Radio: Let DJs Be DJs, And Stop Thinking Of Yourselves As Gatekeepers

from the because-you're-not,-anymore dept

One of the running themes we discuss here is the difference between gatekeepers and enablers, but there’s also a third category that overlaps both of the others to some degree, and is more relevant than ever in a media-saturated world: curators. Though recommendation and matching algorithms are taking on some of the curation roles that humans used to fill (or that didn’t exist before), nobody has ever suggested that there’s no longer a need for hands-on human curation of media.

When it comes to music, the classic curation role is the radio DJ—but, like so many traditional fixtures of the industry, that role has increasingly (though not universally) drifted away from creative personal curation and towards safe, commercially-dictated playlists. Music blogs and podcasts have stepped in to fill the void, and today the best barometer of what’s worth listening to is online, not on the airwaves—especially for those listeners interested in discovering the most compelling acts emerging from small, independent scenes.

Perhaps no genre feels this more acutely than hip-hop, which still enjoys widespread radio play as one of the dominant pop genres of the past decade, but where even the most widely acclaimed indie acts with a decade of rock-solid releases under their belts struggle to get onto DJ playlists. Rapper/producer/indie hip-hop fixture El-P (who dropped by with a guest post earlier this year) recently took to twitter (found via egotripland) and gave a straightforward rundown of why so much of radio is broken and what DJs need to do to fix it. The self-proclaimed “rant” was in response to an New York DJ who was asked why he didn’t play underground records that had a lot of audience buzz, and responded by saying “you don’t just get a slot, you earn a slot”—but even without context, El-P’s points serve as a perfect summary of what it means to be a curator in the modern music landscape. You can view the full set of tweets on the egotripland post, but I’ve copied the sum of the text below:

if you’re a radio station that doesn’t break new great records because they haven’t “earned their slot” you might be forgetting the point.

unless of course you are talking payola. then i get it.

not to state the obvious but that’s kinda why radio is dying. the internet lets you listen to ANYTHING ANYTIME. its a simple truth.

being the gatekeepers of what people hear only works if they actually have to get by you in order to hear it, and thats just not the case.

therefore in order to be competitive with the new paradigm radio programmers need to re-examine their whole approach or what it all die.

*watch it all die, i mean.

just my 2 cents. fuck do i know.

which is not to say radio has lost its power. but to not see that on the horizon if everything remains on the same path is foolish.

personally i feel like radio dj’s should have more autonomy to play what they like/not have to choose from pre approved content. might help.

it certainly would encourage the music to grow if everyone wasn’t desperately trying to make jams that they think fit in with that criteria.

and that would lead to more and renewed interest in traditional radio broadcasts, which would lead to more money for everyone.

but hey i come from an era where we had cats like @StretchArmy and bobbito launching the careers of people who go platinum now. im spoiled.

look at whats happened to the newspaper industry. no one wants their news a day later anymore. theres a metaphor in there somewhere.

also there are clearly many amazing stations that do just what im talking about and breed serious listener loyalty.

it ain’t like i’m speaking some sort of hidden esoteric knowledge/philosophy here. but its worth bringing up now and again.

anyone way its just the opinion of one man. #fuckdoiactuallyknow

one more thought: music is a representation of human consciousness, and like human consciousness it is expansive and varying.

it wouldn’t hurt for everyone to consider their role in the purveyance of that consciousness a little closer.

put simply:ultimately the only thing that should be a deciding factor in radio play is if the dj likes your shit or not. trust who you hire.

if the people consistently dont like what he plays hes by definition a bad dj. you should fire him. but he’s the music guy. let him be that.

*or she

aight “rant” officially over. WHO WANTS SOME FART JOKES!

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Comments on “El-P To Radio: Let DJs Be DJs, And Stop Thinking Of Yourselves As Gatekeepers”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Yup, this is especially obvious in this part of the year where all radio stations play the same 3 Christmas songs over and over again.

There’s also a national station that has the traditional ‘all-time top 2000’ at the last two weeks; People get to vote (mostly out of a predefined list, sigh), and they publish the whole list so you can see exactly when ‘your’ song will be played. And all I can do is wonder why. I mean, it’s mildly interesting what the list is (and remember some almost-forgotten songs), but why tune into that channel just to hear a specific song?

As for the ‘curator as recommender’ part, I still buy the occasional album, but usually only at live concerts. I do not buy anywhere near as many as back when the record store people knew me and had stacks of albums lying around saying ‘you’re gonna love these’. If radio shows have any future left for me personally, it is to provide this role. Automated ‘similar to’ just doesn’t quite get there.

FauxReal (profile) says:

On DJ autonomy, gatekeeper & major label pop music

The problem is the ever loving quest for dollars vs. artistic innovation.

It’s hard for monolithic corporations to react to today’s faster moving trends. They’re too entrenched in demographics and their tried and true methods of market manipulation. Not to mention that for the moment it’s still working for them.

Despite all the great new music out there they still choose to flex their power over the media industries. Music is a powerful medium and when coupled with visuals they still have a huge stick to beat people with. Look at all these music reality TV shows, or the integration of pop music into network television soundtracks. They don’t have to listen to the underground… yet.

They still have the powers of money, market saturation and fame. There will always be artists, DJs and celebrity endorsers willing to compromise themselves for a piece (for some there was never a goal of self expression but to cash in). It all works well with manipulating herd mentality and envy.

When the underground finally bubbles up to the surface with something that’s so intriguing and exciting that the mainstream has to pay attention they can cherry pick what they want, package it and sell it to the masses. (I find great irony in the way marketers can take the DIY nature of punk and hip hop then turn it into slogans like “Be original, drink Sprite.”)

A recent ridiculous example is DJ Shadow getting booted off the decks at The Mansion nightclub in Miami. This high profile club booked him on his broad reaching fame. Then kicked him off 20 minutes into his set to appease their bottle service crowd. They feasted on his street cred and make a few bucks off his fans. This is the 2nd high profile DJ they did this to this year and the word is now out. I’m not sure if their loss of underground attendees and DJs boycotting them will hurt much. But it’s a start.

But all is not lost, their greed is their downfall. If they keep ignoring the creative class, they will continue to become incrementally irrelevant. They can’t stop the march of progress, they can’t stifle innovation. Technology is leveling the playing field in terms of distribution and publicity.

I urge everyone to go out and support your favorite musician/producer/DJ by going to their shows and seeing them in person whenever you can. Seeing actual smiles and hearing praise in person can do a lot to keep them motivated. Not to mention keep them fed. Keep spreading the word and welcome new people into your scene because everyone has to start somewhere.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: On DJ autonomy, gatekeeper & major label pop music

“they can’t stifle innovation”

But in the meantime they will be spending tons of money buying law makers to try and make that happen.

6 Strikes is still hanging out in the background, and given how seriously the cartels take DMCA notices I expect to see them sending notices to punish people who listen to music outside their commercial control. They’ve used the DMCA takedowns to wipe bad reviews off the web, I expect it to get worse before it gets better.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: On DJ autonomy, gatekeeper & major label pop music

It’s hard for monolithic corporations to react to today’s faster moving trends.

That they care about trends at all is indicative of why they aren’t terribly useful. The corporations want to make money. Full stop. They don’t care about things like whether the music is good, innovative, or any of that stuff.

They produce plain vanilla. They have always produced plain vanilla, and will always produce plain vanilla. Because the product that sells the most is the product that offends the least.

I urge everyone to go out and support your favorite musician/producer/DJ by going to their shows and seeing them in person whenever you can.

Yes. I’ve been doing this for decades. Initially, I stopped buying label music because I wasn’t willing to support the criminal organizations that the labels are. Now, however, I’ve learned that the best music available almost never makes it onto a label in the first place. You have to go straight to the artists for the really good stuff.

Zos (profile) says:

kind of interesting timing. My family was in for christmas this year, and i discovered a gap in my fully networked, watch anything any time home set up. I don’t have any methods of getting live sports, never needed one,never cared. My grandmother however is a college basketball fan. So she asked, “well do you have a radio i can listen to it on”?

i had to think about it for a few minutes and realized i didn’t have a flat out fm radio anywhere in the house except the kids alarm clock. Everything was set up to stream local music, or pandora, or various internet radio set ups….

I eventually got her a radio stream from espn, but it took me a few minutes.

people say the reason cable won’t die is because of live sports, i say who gives a crap about live sports? in 3 years thats the first time the question ever arose here.

anon says:


I was thinking about the radio stations earlier this morning and made a simple comment, this sort of takes it to the next level, but misses the big point very clearly other than mentioning one word payola.

The music we listen to on the radio is all pre approved by those who shall not be mentioned it seems, the bigger studios, yes they are big, send a playlist to the radios and it is then passed onto the DJ, who has no say of what will be played when. ANd this si the crux of the problem, given the chance there are many many artists who are just way way better than what the studios take under there wing(but the rights for there works)

Now in a free fair system the dj would be trolling the internet or he would have a few fellow employees searching for what they think could be the next thing or what they think just sounds good, the dj could then start playing them and stop half way through if he thought it was crap and play something else.

But once again the message is very clear, the monopolists have control of what we are allowed to hear on the airwaves and on tv all the time, no or hardly any exceptions.

As i have said before and will continue saying, the lawmakers have always made good judgement eventually, allowing tape and vcr and many other disruptive innovations even though the monopoly has cried out that it would destroy the industry, eventualy they will have to stand in again and show how free distribution that is not done for a profit will increase content available to all, lock it up and the studios will try to lock it away , or even the artists for some reason, just look at how lont it took for the beatles music to become legaly obtainable from the interent, many mnay years after others had decided to release there music online.

The industry is one big mess at the moment with artists nto gettign what is owed to them unless they sue and even then the studios try to use there accounting methods to rip them off even more.

I doubt there will be many people who miss the way the system has been played by the monopolist, it is just taking too long and needs to be changed soon, before more innocent people are found guilty of sharing and there lives are destroyed.

Lets start pressurizing them, lets all send a simple email or letter to our local representatives and demand that the monopoly be removed and copyright be removed from every bit of video and soundtrack, lets demand that if the industry wants to play the game they have to do it fairly, where there control is balanced with rights for the citizens, where music is free for all and nobody can stop you playing it or listening to it, where radio stations are allowed to play music for a very small fee that is sent directly to the artist. Lets get this sorted once and for all, and if you say you dont have time, well coming on this site and reading a comment would probably be enough time to email a few people.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’ve gotten away from radio. Used to be a huge fan of it. Back in the day, college uni stations would setup simulcast for radio sound and tv feed. They’d then put on a concert once a week. Know what? There were no commercials, ever. On the weekends you’d hear entire albums front to back.

Today’s radio station is a wasteland of commercials with the same songs played hour by hour. A rotation of 2 songs a month goes in and 2 get pulled. Why would I want that? Answer is I don’t.

I find again I’m back to the college radio station. No commercials, no repeats within a week. Their end of the year celebration is to play every song in their inventory.

When faced with travel I won’t listen to commercial radio. Forget it. I’ll take along a small library to play instead. The radio on the whole has become uninteresting with no choices. Other than the college uni, I’ve no need of radio anymore.

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