Analogue vs. Digital: The DJ Culture Clash

Musicologist Cord Henning Labuhn on the collision of tradition and progression.

Cord Henning Labuhn is a sociologist and musicologist, but you’ll probably know him better as one half of Berlin-based duo Robosonic, whose track, Worst Love, topped the RA charts last month.

Cord has long been interested in the conflict between analogue tradition and digital progression in the music industry. After what seems like a lifetime fishing in the musical floodwaters for favourite tracks… and also throwing his own music back in in the quiet hope that someone else will catch it, he produced a report on the topic.


The meeting place of analogue tradition and digital innovation in DJing has been marked for many years by argument, compromise, inspired collaboration, winners, losers, philistines and hate-preachers.

In an ideal world, DJs would be free to decide which side to take, as would their audience and the labels who publish their music. However, the forward march of computer hardware and information technology has made this question rather more perplexing. Various sections of the DJ population are fleeing to one camp or the other, shrieking from confusion and fear of the unknown. Is that part of tradition? Is this a step forward?

Today’s DJ now has heaps of equipment, apps and gadgets at his or her disposal. The vinyl market still exists, but has shrunk to a niche within a niche. And thanks to social media, even a respected veteran can swiftly end up being pilloried due to a tactless remark on this controversial topic.

You might imagine this debate would already be over. The ‘real DJs play vinyl’ creed has become not just dusty but surreal: online music stores aimed at DJs now deliver millions of tracks across the world, while exclusive promos come mostly by email and only very rarely as test-pressings or dubplates. Laptop-based DJ performances might seem unglamorous due to the commonplace nature of the computer technology, but this doesn’t have to mean they are inferior to the more transparent traditional handiwork of, say, a mediocre vinyl disc jockey.

The ‘freshness factor’ of a new release has sunk to practically zero, and a DJ no longer needs to pick the best five from 100 discs but can instead take the best ten files from 500. People are therefore left searching for more and more needles in a rapidly-growing haystack. It doesn’t sound like such a bad deal for music fans at first: more music is available, and they don’t need to confine their choice to a narrow selection, since the demand nowadays is always for ‘new stuff please, and plenty of it’.

The flipside: we have to cram unbelievable amounts into our ears and then clear them out again afterward. Bad news too for poseurs — unfortunately there’s no longer anything special about being a DJ, at least until something extra is added to the performance. The masses now own masses of music themselves, and have to pick their own selections every day. The more gregarious among them take this into the public arena and ‘play out’. Who are these people, and what are they doing there? How much of what they do is art, and how much of it is providing a service? What makes someone a DJ? How do they deal with their culture’s analogue tradition and digital present?

The greatest challenge for music lovers is still to develop an individual ‘good’ taste and system of filters independent of peer-pressure, elites and the digital herd-instinct.

The contemporary life of a DJ in the digital ether demands consistent self-promotion, showmanship, confident presentation and shrewd networking, not to mention the oft-discussed dialogue with customers which takes place in social networks, where markets are ‘conversations’, fans ‘followers,’ and DJs’ mates themselves DJs. They can also add to their wider public performances with huge numbers of digital contributions in the form of text, photos, videos, graphics, charts and so on.

The extra attention gained like this can be converted into marketable value, but this shouldn’t be confused with musical relevance, quality or innovation — particularly so when it comes to the obvious marketing mechanisms employed by those who try to sell a false picture by manipulating numbers of clicks, plays, fans or even chart positions.

For this reason, the greatest challenge for music lovers, whether DJs or consumers, is still to develop an individual ‘good’ taste and system of filters independent of peer-pressure, elites and the digital herd-instinct. This task remains rewarding for those DJs who reach their audience despite the deluge, whether it’s accomplished digitally online or in analogue format onstage.


This article was originally posted on the FATdrop blog in 2012.