Tuesday, August 12, 2008

On the importance of the DJ...

From the Yahoo Group "TangoDJ"...a thread that just popped up...

The first post from Yura ::

Posted by: "Yura"
Mon Aug 11, 2008 2:13 pm (PDT)
Hi all,

I think that the imporantce of the DJ and her/his contribution to a milonga often highly exaggerated - and not least by the DJs themselves. The DJ would like to believe that people come to the milonga because they like the music which she or he plays, but this is not true. Rather, this is not completely true. People come to a particular milonga, because they like the room, the location is convenient for them to get to, they can eat well there, because the floor here is just slippery enough, and because a lot of good dancers come there. Nobody goes to a particular milonga only because this is the place where a particular DJ plays the music. Choosing between a milonga in a convenient location, with a long bar, good floor, moderate prices, and mediocre DJ, versus a milonga held in a place not entirely comfortable, attractive, or convenient, but with a very good DJ, I bet that all other things being equal, most people will choose the first milonga.

Various factors contribute to this choice, but there is one lesson from this is that among all the factors influencing the dancers' choice of a milonga, the DJ is far from being in first place. And I belive the DJ should remember this.

Many thanks to Kirill for his help in translation.


Reply posted by Andy ::

Posted by: "Andy"
Mon Aug 11, 2008 3:02 pm (PDT)

hi Yura,

I'm afraid you compare apples and oranges. The point is not to choose
between a good DJ and a bad floor or vice versa, but between 2 DJs at
otherwise similar circumstances.

It also depends how you define mediocre. The main border line is not
mediocre but "acceptable" and this is a individual choice. I don't' know
the name of all good DJ I had ever the pleasure to enjoy, but I
certainly remember the ones that I never want to hear again, doesn't
matter how gorgeous the place, the attendance, etc. are!

Actually the choice between two milongas running at the same time is a
sum of all criteria, like every choice in life. There are "knock out"
criteria and acceptable criteria. The choice is made by the weighted sum
of the criteria after excluding the knock out candidates. One doesn't
have to know anything about decision making theory, it happens
unconsciously. For me the long bar and the prices are absolutely
irrelevant, the floor a little bit, what counts is if one or better
three of my favourite dancers are there and a maximum one or two, better
zero kamikaze dancers attending ;-).


Reply from Tom ::

Posted by: "Tom"
Mon Aug 11, 2008 7:34 pm (PDT)

Sorry, I couldn't disagree more. Well, it isn't about the music, it is
about the emotions evoked by the music.

The DJ manages the energy of the dance and creates the psychological
experience for the attendees. A good DJ can make things work out okay,
a bad DJ can suck the life out of the party, and a great DJ? A great
DJ can create an extraordinary experience. It is an art, not an
analytical understanding.

The DJ is like the master of ceremonies, or in a new-age sense, the
ritual master, the keeper of the drum-circle, if you want to go new-
agey. Once you have experienced a milonga that takes you beyond
yourself, then maybe you understand. If you haven't, well many things
can get in the way: inexperience, bad mood, lack of "good" dancers,
missing your favorite dancers, non-musical crowd, a crowd that just
doesn't feel the music.

You are right that it works better when all the practical things are
in place, but a good DJ creates the psychological experience. This is
what the great DJs from the electro/trance-scene or even the disco-
scene have taught us.

Reply from Jake ::

Posted by: "Jake"
Mon Aug 11, 2008 7:41 pm (PDT)

Yuri Alekseev wrote:
> Choosing between a
> milonga in a convenient location, with a long bar, good floor,
> moderate prices, and mediocre DJ, versus a milonga held in a place
> not entirely comfortable, attractive, or convenient, but with a very
> good DJ, I bet that all other things being equal, most people will
> choose the first milonga.

"... all other things being equal"? We might as well propose that both
milongas are taking place in the middle of a power outage, and vote in
favor of whichever DJ can whistle.

"Most people" would, I imagine, have a better experience at /both/
milongas if no element was unnecessarily compromised but instead raised
to its optimum. Put the strong DJ in the strong venue: it's not very
complicated. Why follow a recipe for mediocrity, when there's an easy
chance for excellence?

I.e., there is no convincing reason to retain a mediocre DJ when you
could have an excellent one (or two), all other things /actually/ being
equal. Ego is in fact the only thing (to my knowledge; I omit the
possibility of malice) that could prompt one to decide otherwise.


And finally, a very lucid analogy from Plademan ::

Posted by: "plademan"
Mon Aug 11, 2008 10:27 pm (PDT)

Thank you Tom for your perspective.

I hope this analogy can provide a parallel perspective.

A good dancer dances steps, rhythms and melodies of the music.
A great dancer dances the emotions of the music.

A good DJ manages the energy and plays balanced tandas.
A great DJ plays emotionally connected tandas that pulls the dancers heart strings.

For me, it is always about the music, which always comes down to the DJ. I would dance on a street corner in the rain, hungry, thirsty, cold and tired if the music (DJ) were good/great. I have left many a milonga two to three hours before it ended because the music being played was crap.

The first poster, Yura, (whom I do not know) represents a great number of tango dancers who I believe don't "get" that tango is about the music first, the connection second, and everything else is not even a consideration.

Well, almost...


Movement Invites Movement said...

Within our Toronto Tango community, music apparently plays a minor role!? The most popular Friday milonga in the city plays the worst music by far. The milonga organizers would probably like to think this is simply OUR opinion, but it is a CONSTANT complaint by Toronto tangueros. And yet, it is the place the majority of people go. If one wants to dance where there is a "milonga" atmosphere, you must go there. Yes, there is a good floor and it is a nice room... but the music is generally horrible (there isn't officially a DJ - the music is played from cds)! Oh, what to do?!

Mtnhighmama said...

Amen, Alex!

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, you got me thinking, Alex. Which is often a dangerous thing :-)

I do not ever recall choosing to attend a milonga because of the DJ. The only way I can tell if the DJ is doing his/her job is when the dance floor is packed with happy dancers.

And the only way I can tell they are not is when there is no one on the dance floor.

The DJ's most important job is to pay attention.

Alex said...

I would have to agree with you Johanna, kindasorta. At a festival or a workshop - I'll go regardless, but if the DJ sucks, I'm gone.

But upon further reflection (grin), I have decided 'not' to go to certain milongas in Atlanta because I know the music selections will be less than desirable (for me) because of who the DJ is. Also, some of the milongas state outright that they are primarily nuevo, with a little bit of trad.

So, most of the time, who the DJ is will not affect a 'yes' decision, but once I am there, what he/she is playing can definitely influence a decision to leave early.

Am I making any sense? God I sure can confuse myself sometimes.

I think the point I was trying to make, is that with sub-par DJ'ing, many people (mostly newbies, who don't know any better) think the music is just fine. I think that's why we end up with people who have been dancing for a year or two (or longer) and have no clue of musicality, or the emotional aspects of the music, which then lead to the quality/character of the connection.

And, if people are influenced primarily by ancillary attributes of a milonga - the venue, the spread, the crowd, and not by the music (DJ), then it seems to me that just reinforces it.

I still don't know if I'm expressing my thoughts....I'll have to think about it more and see if I can come up with a more linear argument.

Anonymous said...

I don't think we're disagreeing, Alex. You're just being much more intellectual about it than I am :-)

The dance floor will reflect when the music is "bad" because it will be more sparse than if the music is "good". So regardless of what people's personal preference is regarding music, the population on the dance floor will dictate the skill of the DJ.

And even though I profess not to really pay attention to the music, I do find myself refusing tandas that don't make my heart sing :-)

Mtnhighmama said...

For me the music is everything in the dance. If I don't feel the music is right, I am simply wasting my time and that of my partner. And, specifically with DJ's, they can just kill it for me if they are missing the flow. Not mine necessarily, but that of the room. I can wait it out a while to see if they can find it again, but I simply can't dance it if I don't feel it.

Though, I am not solely a traditionalist as far as the music goes. It's more about the energy the DJ plays with than which music he or she chooses.

I agree with Johanna, the most important job the dj has is to pay attention. With the addition that the dj has to be there to serve the dancers, not to show off, or to have a set idea that is inflexible. So, not only does he or she have to pay attention, but he or she also has to listen and then give.

Irene and Man Yung said...

Dear Movements,

I don't think that your comment that "the most popular Friday milonga in the City" plays the worst music "by far" is a fair, unbiased and accurate assessment. Just talking about Friday night alone, I'd say that both the Alternative Milonga and the Argentinian are much worse. The Alternative Milonga is worse because the DJ has no concept of any music, let alone traditional music, and let alone music suitable for a milonga. He frequently chooses completely undanceable tracks and there is no logic or rationale behind his music arrangement. The Argentinian milonga apparently only has one, or *GASP* TWO playlists (and you are the ones who told me this) that are played over and over again, sometimes the same tracks repeated several times every night. Even if the music was the best in the universe (and it isn't) that's enough to make anyone sick.
Although I have complaints too about the music at the "popular milonga" - the main one being that the same four or five playlists are being rotated and therefore the music is repetitive - the music that is on the playlists is being arranged in a way that conforms with the way music is played at many of the good venues in Buenos Aires that we have experienced. But even with the repetition their music by no means repeats to the same degree as the Argentinian milonga - therefore I am quite at a loss how you can come to the conclusion that the music is "the worst".
Please guys, don't let your "hard-on" for a vendetta against any one individual cloud your judgment or your objectivity.
By the way, the other organizer (you know, the one that hasn't offended you in the past) has been working with the music over the past two weeks and the results are lovely. It's too bad you have not been able to attend.
If you wish to discuss music or any other issues with me or Man Yung we are open to such discussion and you know where to find us on Saturday.

Dear Alex,

Thanks for your very thought provoking post on music. I've forwarded the link to your post to a few friends of mine who are also interested in how to create the right atmosphere in the milonga.


Movement Invites Movement said...

Dear Irene,

You are completely right about the music at the other Friday night milongas in our community. The Alternative milonga... well, it's "alternative". The music at the Argentinean milonga is indeed repetitive (but besides that, no one goes to dance there). Trust us, this is nothing personal - we think the music is just generally awful at the "popular" milonga. The last two times we went, we were happily surprised that the music was nice though.

Take away the other Friday night milongas and we are left with a milonga that causes people to constantly complain about its music. Yet those same complainers (us included at times) continue to go dance there because it is the place "everyone" goes to dance on a Friday. We are controlled by the masses and the lack of reasonable alternatives.

To re-word our last comment: WE think the music played there is the worst and that is the same comment we hear from many people. Repetitive good music is still better than "somewhat repetitive" bad music.

On a side note - Irene, thank you for putting together the most amazing play lists of music on Saturdays for the practica. We are lucky that you take the time to do that and we appreciate you helping us become a little more knowledgeable about the music ("What orchestra is this?"... "What song is this?... "Who's the singer?" :). We'll see you this Saturday.

Caroline said...

Wow...quite a flurry of comments.

Maybe we dont go to milongas ONLY because of the DJ but I do know that many people avoid milongas where there is bad DJ'ing. If the music sucks, doesn't matter how decent the space is, we are not going. I can think of one milonga in particular that is shunned by most people because they play the most incoherent and frankly just bad music.

Malevito said...

Hi Alex, how are you?

My feelings regarding the importance of the dj are kind of ambivalent. On the one hand, I can understand where Yura is coming from regarding the ego of and reverence for the dj. As one who has studied turntablism and club dj techniques as well as some study with the piano, it seems kind of silly to hold undue reverence for someone who is essentially the one holding the quarters at the jukebox.

(Of course, being a tango dj as well I know that there's a lot more to it than that, but just sayin'...)

That being said, I know--as I'm sure we all do--just how wrong things can go when the dj is bad, or is having a bad night.

As a dancer, I appreciate the foreknowledge of who will be dj at an event ahead of time, and this definitely colors my decision. As Caroline said, if I find the dj not to my taste I will most likely not attend, it doesn't matter how good the venue is or how many people I know will be there. And if I do attend, I probably won't dance (I don't really have a problem with going to a milonga and not dancing the entire night--what's more important to me, as echoed by some others in this discussion, is that I genuinely feel inspired when I dance).

I think good djs have earned their reputations through sound judgment, a genuine love of the music *and* culture, and a developed attunement to the energy of the crowd. I have to say, though, I have difficulty making the distinction between a dj I would consider "good" and one who is widely considered "great".

Having spoken to some well respected djs in my community, there seems to be a consensus that the successful dj is one who essentially becomes invisible. They don't draw attention to themselves, and it is only after the entire milonga has concluded that people can reflect and appreciate the skill with which the dj has helped shaped the night.

But I also think this can backfire in the sense that when a dj gets a reputation people may be more prone to paying closer attention to what they are doing. And also, as there is more awareness and discussion about djs and their work in general it is much more difficult to be oblivious to the way in which music is being programmed. I, for one, can't do it anymore; I'm always analyzing what the dj is doing and thinking about how everything fits together.

Finally, going back to Yura's post, I have to say that I have seen things work out completely contrary to his assertion that most people will choose the more convenient location with a mediocre dj over the compromised space with the very good dj. I think there are a couple of factors at play here: first, for experienced dancers music is of *paramount* importance and they will follow the best music where it goes (as Alex stated, "on a street corner in the rain..."). Second, experienced dancers know that other experienced dancers will follow the good music over the supposedly superior venue and naturally want to gravitate to where the better dancers will be. Third, experienced dancers know that less experienced dancers for whom the music isn't as important will more likely gravitate to the more convenient and attractive venue and so the experienced dancers will be more inclined to avoid it on that basis.

Anyway, these are my thoughts at the mo...

Alex said...

Here are follow-up posts from Yura and Steve on the YahooGroupsTangoDJ forum...

From Yura, replying to Tom's post ::


I agree that DJ holds the energy on a milonga, and his/her role to manage energy and mood is important. But there are two points of view: point of view of a DJ and point of view of a dancers. Try to ask dancers at different milongas why they coming here. And count how often they will name the DJ... :) It seems to me that to many dancers (I think, most of a dancers) DJ is as jukebox -- and nothing more.

As Christopher wrote, there are different types of dancers with different priorities (I completely agree with all he wrote). The purpose of my post was to stress this: to dancers (not to all) DJ is not the most important factor for milonga. Most of the dancers, whom I interviewed, identified following important factors: location, place, time, other dancers (familiar). Very few people named DJ in the list.

It was very interesting result for me that I wanted to share and discuss with forum. Many thanks to all who shared the thoughts on the subject.


From Steve ::

I think place, time and other dancers matter a lot to most dancers, but the answers Yura received makes me wonder how much the quality varies across the djs in the community (Moscow?) that was polled. It also makes me wonder about the quality of the dancing.

There is a phenomenon where the dj can have a big impact on the quality of the dancing, but the dancers don't consciously realize the effect the dj is having. I've been to milongas where the djs stray too far away from music with a solid dance beat. The dancers don't dance very well with each other because the music isn't helping them with the connection. The navigation suffers because the lack of a solid dance beat has too many people disconnected from the music and moving at somewhat different times from each other.

What do the dancers think? They think they or their partners and most are having a bad night and that everyone is being rude about navigation. They don't necessarily associate the difficulties with the dj.

When I dj, I always watch to see how well the dancers are connected to the rhythm of the music and make adjustments to what I play.

In general, I've found it is the dancers who have been to Buenos Aires that are the most conscious and have the strongest opinions about the music that is played.

With best regards,

Alex said...

Thanks everyone for some great commentary!

Here are my final thoughts - especially based on Steve's latest post - and it goes to the more esoteric/abstract end of the subject.

Thought 1 ::
As observed by Steve, poor music selections/mixes can have a negative influence floorcraft and navigation.

Thought 2 ::
Poor music selections/mixes can have a negative influence on musicality, connection and emotion - and ultimately the overall dance/milonga "experience".

Thought 3 ::
Poor music selections/mixes can have a negative influence on the inexperienced or uninitiated tango dancer's music/al "taste", "knowledge", and "understanding" of said tango music.

Thought 4 ::
Based on the aforementioned three "thoughts", "pervasive" poor music selections/mixes can have a negative influence on the tango community as a whole, in the areas of connection, emotion, musicality, and floorcraft/navigation.

Conclusion ::
Ergo, in my view, the importance of the DJ is very high indeed, even if we may not consciously be aware of this factor in deciding to attend a milonga or not. It is only after we arrive at a milonga, and in general for the more experienced dancers, and to a higher degree for those who have been to Buenos Aires (per Steve's observation), that we are able to determine that the DJ may be sub-par, or at least playing sub-par music. A fact which may be imperceptible to less experienced dancers.

It's kinda like really good architecture/design/urban planning. Some buildings/rooms/spaces/neighborhoods/cities just "feel" good. They feel good and cool and right the moment you walk into them. It's an energy thing. You don't know why. You can't determine why or what it is about the place that makes it that way, even if you try.

And so it is with the tango DJ. If they are astute and doing a good job, the only thing anyone notices is lots of good connections/emotions, good dances and a great night at the milonga - they forget the DJ is even there.

Anyway, this is what I was thinking - and everyone knows I think too much.

Sorry for the long comment, it should have been a post, which I suppose I will do now...again, thanks for all the commentary, and all the reading if you made it this far!!!...