Your Theme DJ Night Is Fast Food

Philadelphia birthed this shit, why is it stagnating?

There is nothing more boring than local DJ politics. However, as a working DJ myself — both in Philadelphia, and now New York —politicking, and discussing the health of “the scene”, as it were, is as much a part of DJ culture as playing the records themselves.

Something that struck me recently was a meme posted by a friend and Philadelphia party maker and DJ, Jason Hunter, smartly critiquing (and poking fun) at a party trend that has run rampant in Philadelphia that has overshadowed the nightlife that I had come to know Philly for. In reaction to that meme, Philadelphia culture blog reached out to a number of DJs and nightlife characters asking them what they thought of theme nights. What I saw as an opportunity to really speak on some of the real issues stifling and stagnating nightlife and night time culture in my home city, was instead, sideways praise, and almost fully endorsing all of the parties that have become some of the only real money makers for venues and working DJs in the city. This is — no doubt — indicative of a much larger trend in nightlife habits, and I think this particular subject deserves some contextualization.

Theme nights are nothing new, especially in Philadelphia. A DJ called DJ DeeJay has been the reigning king of theme nights in Philadelphia for well over a decade. His model of picking three popular artists for each party (eg: Madonna Michael Prince) has pleasantly given the city its fare share of cheese over the years, and wasn’t ever trying to be anything more than it was. And there’s something to be said for a good theme night. They are predictable, the artists have more than enough hits to go around, and for Philadelphia’s 2am curfew, four hours is no feat to fill. DeeJay (David John Cassidy) remarks that “a playlist doesn’t know how to read a crowd” when asked about how “Spotify is ruining the club scene”. And he’s absolutely right, Spotify does not know how to read a room or “what to play to stop a fight”, however, this model blurs the lines between a playlists and DJs that indifferently plays the hits. And there is also a big difference between the former, and a DJ that thoughtfully sifts through an artist’s b-sides, or spent a lifetime of fandom collecting rarities and wanting to present something for the diehard fans as well as the casual patron that “just wants to dance”.

I think the overwhelming popularity of this particular trend in Philadelphia is a mirror, not only of the way technology has changed the way we consume music and interact with each other, but also the popularity of nostalgia culture (which was touched on in the BillyPenn post) and idea of a DJ is in 2017. Also, the way that nightlife has gone from something to discover and come of age in, to becoming a consumable product. Much of this has to do with changing demographics, economics, the influence of corporate money, and the difficulties of sustaining a healthy community of creatives, venues and people that make nightlife happen. I hope to touch on all of this. This is not just happening in Philadelphia, but Philly is my home, it made me the DJ that I am, and full disclosure: these are my friends.

It is a popular topic of discussion among DJs and party throwers about how phones have created a generation of not entirely present party goers. Over the years, the “Dance Floors Are For Dancing” signs have turned into “No Phones On The Dance Floor”. I cannot tell you how frustrating it is for a DJ to look up and see a rapturous dance floor, and smack in the middle of the action there, is a group standing still, faces illuminated by their phones. Now, that may seem like a small thing, but you have to understand that is a signal that attention spans are shorter, thus creating an environment for DJs, venues and party makers to try to keep patrons engaged as long as possible as they are likely already looking for the next thing to do. This, so that they a) come back, b) spend money at the bar. It is worth noting that nightlife cannot ever be divorced from the economics of making nightlife happen. So, it is understandable from a business perspective how — given the circumstances —appeasing the lowest common denominator by appealing for volume at the sacrifice of supporting originality is an enticing proposition. This is an argument as old as time — Art v. Commerce.

But for Philadelphia, a city with a small, concentrated arts district sandwiched in a downtown thats barely a mile wide, a strict and very expensive liquor license issuing process, an outdated, public transit system, and a 2am curfew, you can understand how the battle for attention (and dollars) could push DJs, venues and promoters in the direction of a something like a theme night to keep the lights on.

What’s wrong with fun?

In short: nothing. In fact, that’s the whole reason we do this. That is, to make fun happen. But fun and the fun economy in America, at least, has changed over the years. I am of the belief that for a the newly twenty-one, and those who may not have grown up in places with a vibrant nightlife community (such as the suburbs) — and I emphasize community — all they have is Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook to see how much “fun” they’re not having. Also, given their hyper-exposure to such tailored for the Gram experiences, when that generation finally gets the chance to engage with nightlife wherever they are, they already have solidified, preconceived notions about what “nightlife” or going out is. And it’s doubled down by venues and their poor attempts to duplicate the mediocrity. This presents a myriad of problems because if you’ve already made up your mind about what something is and isn’t supposed to be, there is absolutely no room for discovery, and you’re more set up for disappointment. Thus, the idea of a Theme Night is appealing because you know exactly what you’re getting.

Too, participating nightlife has morphed into a ‘going out’ culture rooted in consumption only — or — consumption has been conflated with culture, thus mere financial support counts as participation or support of culture. This has has turned nightlife into an increasingly middle class endeavor. And as the definition of middle class skews more white and wealthy, coupled with primarily poor and poor black cities that try to cater to this growing demographic with disposable income, the culture that made the city appealing in the first place gets snuffed out because the community that made it what is displaced because of rent increases, and replaced with something that looks more suburban — or — a fast casual version of a city.

For Philadelphia, a primarily black city, and much of its population as a whole hovering at or below the poverty line, the efforts taken by developers and culture prospectors alike, have really done a number to overshadow, or completely remove the culture that has propped up Philadelphia as a weird, vibrant city. A city where you can go see a punk show in someones living room, go dance to house music in a gross, cigarette smoke filled basement of a gay bar, or see and dance to — quite literally — some of the worlds best DJs of any genre (IN THE WORLD) play to two hundred people in a diner. All of this before 2am (and a little bit after).

Who is a city for?

For many Philadelphia residents, and the black and poor residents especially, Philly is not a ‘weird city’, it is their home. And Philadelphia proper has been their home or their family’s home for generations. Philly has many of the country’s most racially diverse neighborhoods, whilst also being one of the earliest victims of Redlining, a racist predatory real estate practice that dramatically shaped the way urban centers like Chicago and Philadelphia look — physically an racially. Redlining also set the stage for much of the social decay that we are experiencing today along economic lines.

Philadelphia has a very deep history of segregation even though it is a northern city. For example where I grew up on The Main Line — a wealthy, mostly white, suburb— was at one point farm land and the location of many of the vacation homes and estates for the wealthy politicians and business people that worked in the city. Sprinkled all along the Main Line (which runs along Route 30) there are little hamlets of almost all black neighborhoods, that back in the 18th, 19th and much into the 20th century, were where the domestics and their families that worked at the estates lived. Also, Philadelphia and the western suburbs are separated by City Line Avenue. On one side you have the wealthy Winfield and Wynnewood neighborhoods and right across the street, you have one of the poorest sections of West Philadelphia. City Line Avenue was The Red Line, and the economic affects of that decision are still very present in Philadelphia today.

Why is this important? Because having spent my formative going out years years in Philadelphia, where segregation (self and otherwise) is still very much a part of the night time economy. Too, it would seem, is also an integral part of it. This hasn’t ever been illustrated to me more clearly than when I was hired to book DJs for a small bar in Center City, and the owner said to me, a black person, “don’t let it get too dark in here.” Knowing exactly what he meant, but not wanting to lose my $200 a week, I nodded and told him I understood. Because I did.

While this made me incredibly sad, it became abundantly clear to me that — at least in Philadelphia — music was used by venues as method to keep people out, not bring people in. And this presented a real quandary for me, personally and creatively, but even more broadly, for a city who’s very identity is built on more music than anything, was now saying thanks but no thanks, and offering very little to the community that gave the city its culture in the first place.

Now, Philadelphia is not only black, it is also poor, and being broke is a universal language. Too, Philadelphia is home to an Ivy League university and dozens of colleges and universities in Philadelphia proper and scattered across the otter suburbs. This means that along with the natives, come a very large transient population that really has no incentive to invest in local culture (aside from going to Wawa) or lay any roots because they’ll likely relocate to New York (like I did) or some other bigger market with a more diverse employer pool. Also, as the enterprise of acquiring a higher education becomes an almost solely middle class endeavor, our Universities are also appealing to that dollar and buying up large swaths of real estate. The University of Pennsylvania and Temple University are two of the largest real estate holders in the entire cities, and they are also located in two of the poorest parts of the city.

So, as the universities buy up properties for student and faculty housing, and add the amenities that go with it, they attract students and families that are more interested in those amenities than in the people that they are displacing and replacing. Now, I can’t knock amenities entirely, but again, at what sacrifice.

Who gets to define culture?

Culture and nightlife are not amenities. Nightlife is people, and these people — bartenders, bussers, porters, door people security guards, lighting technicians, promoters, DJs, emcees, dancers, graphic designers, record stores — are an important part of the fabric of any urban center. And for many cities, especially abroad, it may be their sole export. Philadelphia, the birthplace of disco and a lot of the DJ culture and styles that rule nightclubs today, the world over, has become a pacified version of itself, catering only to the beer drinking, gastropub seeking crowd. Shit, that may even be you.

This many seem like a harsh assessment, especially sitting high and mighty in big ol’ New York. But this is also true of much of New York’s nightlife, as well as San Francisco, LA, and so on. The only difference is that New York, for now, doesn’t have to fight for volume.

But when “culture” becomes inaccessible for whatever reason. Be it being co-opted by corporate dollars, or bled dry to the point of disappearing completely by transient — albeit very predictable — populations, you’re left with a city that has to parody itself. Not for lack of talent, 0r want, or even effort, but it is because we a society have ceased to put any weight on the value of actual discovery.

Theme nights are accessible, easily packaged concepts that are fun. But so is fast food, and I don’t think anyone would argue with me. And objectively, they can be a nice vacation from much of the scene that can take itself a bit too seriously. But when a community that has birthed so much of what call ‘DJ Culture’, and has so much more to offer is backed into a corner socially and economically that they have to pander, and completely redefine what the city is known for, there is something very wrong.

What is a DJ anyway?

Not to say that DJs should be millionaires, but because some are, it has vastly warped compensation for your local working DJs. That is, the prospect of becoming famous, or at least enjoying the superficial aspects of being the quote-end-quote DJ, coupled with the availability of various technologies to make anyone a quote-end-quote DJ, has flooded the pool with even more transient folks who haven’t the time, nor the interest to really be a part of the community to they hope find glory in.

Venue ownership has a lot to do with this decay as well. Economic pressures aside, seeing how eager some younger DJs are to have a place for their friends to drink, many venues are trading in “opportunities” and “exposure” instead of actual money, thus undercutting actual working DJs. For those working DJs however, seeing their options dwindle to actually make an honest dollar doing what they love, but also providing a service to said venue and their patrons, you’re left with a very narrow set of options. Especially when the constituency of your city has changed, your friends have aged out, or a venue is no longer interested in your tropical dubstep night.

What’s wrong with a little nostalgia?

Again, nothing — until it becomes all there is. And without being too topical, nostalgia can be nice, but it is also inherently backwards looking. And when you have an entire culture based on looking backwards, it becomes more difficult to foster a forward thinking community. Too, the whole nostalgia thing is more than likely a symptom of us being so inundated with information and bad news. Thus, we revert to things that are familiar and comforting — like fast food. And objectively, there is nothing wrong with that, but we have an entirely NEW generation that isn’t being given anything new, except the devices they can use to look backwards. Or more importantly, the new generation is being sold the idea that everything new to them is new and innovative to everyone else.

In a time where music — and more importantly new music is more available than ever via many more mediums, the impulse to stick with what people know is completely understandable, especially when you account for the economics of actually being a working DJ in 2017. But in a social and political climate where our confirmation biases are reenforced day in and day out. And as a result, people are less likely to seek alternative points of view, this trend presents itself as far less innocuous — and even more troubling — than it would seem on the surface.

In the irreverent words of DJ Cosmo Baker on a comment thread about this article “People having fun sucks.” He was being sarcastic, of course — point taken. And complaining about DJaying also sucks a big fat one.

Though, themed DJ nights — particularly the ones centered around current pop acts — are populism disguised as niche. But this is not about the DJs or local DJ politics, this about the ecosystem that supports DJs and everyone else involved; the creators of the culture. The health of nightlife, the diversity of your local ‘scene’ and the service industry at large are a canaries in the coal mine. And the homogeneity of the culture within these communities and the cities where they should thrive, is a signal for the death of discovery.