By no means is the time honored tradition of digging through dusty bins and crates disappearing from DJ culture. Instead, technology has actually re-invigorated the practice and brought it again to the forefront with many new releases being pressed up into (at least) limited editions after an absence from the scene. That said, the digital world has fundamentally changed music discovery not just for DJs and audiophiles, but for general consumers who now have the opportunity to explore new artists, or even genres, that would have been impossible in the big box music stores – and even mom and pop shops* – of yore.
Today, 64% of teens discover and look for new music on YouTube – a platform not even designed for audio only files. And the reach is impressive – beyond large video channel platforms like YouTube, there is an explosion of resources from social networks to blogs at the fingertips of DJs and music aficionados exploring niche areas, once unreachable beyond dusty binds scattered in record stores around the world. But vinyl as a format – even CDs – had their limits in regard to storage. When Serato Scratch Live was released to the public in 2004 it changed the nature of the game. Coming up, DJs would lug crates of their rarest finds – including some specializing in ’45s – to their gigs or friends basements to show off their eclectic tastes and classic finds, like archaeologists unveiling their ancient discoveries to awe their audiences. Now these “crates” can be terabyte sized hard drives of obscurities from around the globe.
But when the digital became more powerful than the physical, with the ability to play digital audio files on time encoded vinyl, the possibilities for DJs exploded. From niche blogs with obscure recordings of European 60’s funk and jazz, exotic samba and digitized, dusty recordings of rare Afro-Caribbean rhythms to forum communities, torrent and video sites, and digital record pools; the sheer access to music is expanding.
And it goes without saying that this explosion of new sounds brings new creativity and mixes. The ability to merge digital “crates” with physical vinyl through technologies like Serato means that music discovery has fundamentally changed. DJs do not have to change their core behavior in regard to rocking the decks like their forefathers Grandmaster Flash, DJ Scratch, DJ Premier, Pete Rock and so many others who used digging not just for DJing but for laying the sonic foundations for Hip Hop through sampling.
But this discussion goes beyond DJ culture to the broader conversation of music discovery, which has been pushed to the forefront largely by new services that employ complex algorithms to bring new music to consumers looking for something fresh, and yet familiar in regard to feel, genre, tempo etc. Pandora – built on top of the ambitious and groundbreaking music genome project, and Spotify, are daily conversation topics, and platforms that offer an experience essentially the same as passive digital record digging. They are expanding the musical palates of the average person to unprecedented levels, and this is a good thing. A good thing for music, the discourse around creativity and new genres, and as this article has focused heavily on, good for the DJ who not only has greater access but often more informed audiences and fans who follow the threads driving their sets and samples.
The recent talks of new cash coming to MySpace to compete in this arena, and tap into the plethora of independent bands and artists is an exciting proposition for the future – both for listeners and independent musicians leveraging one of the first social networks that simplified online collaboration and cross-cultural communication. An independent channel, similarly structured like a Pandora or Spotify, could offer an outlet to creators and listeners. Even Trent Reznor appears to be getting into the curation game through a partnership with Dr. Dre’s Beats Audio.
The digital music landscape is exciting for many reasons, particularly for those who have realized the opportunity to take the time honored tradition of “digging” to the digital crates hiding secret gems previously scattered around the world but now discoverable through digital digging. Hey, the more music, the better.
*I fundamentally believe that “mom and pop” music shops continue to help drive the core of DJ culture by embracing physical vinyl. This piece is not meant to detract from their importance, rather point out how the landscape has changed for those embracing digital formats.