Katharine Joo

Brown University

May 2008

 

Bedrooms and DJs: Spaces and Identities

 

 

Abstract: This paper serves as a cursory exploration into the ways that bedroom DJs (so named for the typical location of their informal studios and practice spaces) are using recently developed technological and online resources to master what was once an enigmatic skill. I will first define the online Web 2.0 environment in which I examine bedroom DJing and then describe the impact of the instructional videos of YouTube phenomenon, ellaskins. By examining the demographic actively participating in the community created by these videos, I will then demonstrate how bedroom DJs both correspond to and diverge from the sociological definitions of amateur, as characterized by Richard Stebbins. Although the process of professionalization in the musical world, typically defined through a novice-amateur-profession progression, can be kept intact, the boundaries between these groupings and relationships are more unclear in an online context where the private-public dichotomy no longer upholds. Furthermore, as DJ equipment and software has become more affordable, increasing numbers of aspiring DJs have sought out instruction in order to try their hand at mixing, scratching, and spinning. In parallel, the abundant DJ instructional websites and videos have initiated the democratization and “mainstream-ization” of a skill that was once self-taught or learned through apprenticeship. These developments are appropriating the subcultural values of DJing and augmenting the ways youth can approach the process of identity formation in the postmodern age. Lastly, I consider why females are underrepresented online within the bedroom DJ demographic although they constitute a large majority of students at DJ academies. By drawing upon various media and sociological concepts as well as responses solicited through email and the Skratchlounge message board, I consider the ways in which bedroom DJs that use online resources such as YouTube reveal themselves as amateurs, consumers, and individuals exploring transitional identities.

 

 

Web 2.0, YouTube, and DJ Tutor

 

                 The term Web 2.0 was coined by Tim O’Reilly in 2004 in order to describe the new direction in which web developers and users were taking the online experience. For example, the Web 2.0 era has produced new ways of consolidating knowledge (Wikipedia), new ways of constructing personal sites (blogs), and new ways of sharing media (YouTube). The aggregate of technological developments classified as “Web 2.0” is identified by user-generated content, an “architecture of participation”, and a bottom-up approach using the “web as platform” (O’Reilly 2005). As such, Web 2.0 is not a technology per se but rather a philosophy embedded within a technology. This philosophy is in brief, “to mutually maximize the collective intelligence of the participants” (Hogg et al. 2006).

                 Although YouTube, a well touted and popularized video-sharing web site, may fit the specific technical criteria stated above, whether it in fact lives up to the utopian vision and philosophy of Web 2.0 remains contestable. Lawrence Lessig, founder of the non-profit Creative Commons, claims that YouTube lacks a true ethics of sharing because users are not permitted (at least legally) to download the videos that are uploaded to the site (2006). However, I would argue that this restriction has a nominal impact upon the majority of users, whose videos do not require previously uploaded content as raw material for their own creative works. This includes the portion of the bedroom DJ community that uses YouTube primarily to record their performances within a private setting and offer them up to fellow DJs for critique and recognition in an online, public sphere. In fact, this type of discourse is readily enabled and encouraged by the YouTube user’s ability to contribute to a bulletin-board text commentary and to post a “video response” replying to uploaded content. Thus, the difficulty of downloading the videos of other users does not prevent the cohesion of a community that is based on the content of their videos and not on the act of creatively reappropriating them.

                 The bedroom DJ community on YouTube owes much to ellaskins, a British mobile, club, and radio DJ named Johnathan Lewis who first began uploading instructional videos for aspiring DJs in August of 2006. As of April 2008, ellaskins was the 19th most subscribed user with over 12,000 subscribers and has uploaded over 1,300 videos, making him one of the most prolific uploaders on YouTube. In addition, Johnathan operates a website, DJTutor.com, in collaboration with American mobile DJ Brian Redd, on which viewers can find embedded versions of their instructional YouTube videos covering a complete range of topics, including equipment, software, music selection, scratching, mixing, and finding work.

 

Ellaskins’ tutorial on scratching

 

 

Briansredd’s tutorial on beatmixing

 

 

                 The DJTutor.com homepage welcomes its visitors with a bold, utopian declaration: “DJ Tutor has revolutionised DJ training, created a worldwide community of up and coming DJs, started the first ever ten minute mix video competition, and given the world a new motto: Practise and N Joy.” Nonetheless, considering the limited avenues through which aspiring DJs in the past could learn to operate two turntables and mixer, “revolutionised” is a reasonably accurate term for how YouTube has been harnessed as an educational tool. Brewster and Broughton (2000) chronicle the DJ’s rich history in their book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, which recalls a time during which DJs were primarily self-taught or, if they were lucky, learned the skill through an apprenticeship with an already established DJ. For example, disco DJs Steve D’Acquisto and Michael Capello mastered their art under the tutelage of legendary DJ Francis Grasso, inventor of the beatmatching technique. Even when mentors were absent, a number of influential DJs acquired seemingly superhuman turntabling skills by virtue of their sheer tenacity and talent, among them being Grandmaster Flash, whose ability to manually sample and loop records decisively shaped the hip hop genre.

                 Today, the once narrow avenues for gaining knowledge and skill have widened to a grand boulevard populated with likeminded DJs in training, making this once inaccessible and arcane skill available to all. As Johnathan enthuses:

 

the bedroom dj has found out that by now going on the web they can see that they not only can get free advise and help in all aspects of the dj industry , but the most important fact  is THEY ARE NOT ALONE! the bedroom dj can now see that on the other side of the world there is a chap/ lady, like them, same age, same music style ,playing on the same kit and liking the same music.

 

The most accessible representation of this community of bedroom DJs on YouTube is found through DJ Tutor’s original “tenminmix” competitions. To enter, participants use the video response function on YouTube to submit videos of themselves performing unedited mixes of ten minutes in length. Entries typically invoke varied commentary which include criticisms about transitions between tracks, questions about technical specifications, as well as general words of praise and encouragement.

 

tenminmix competition instructions

 

 

a tenminmix entry

 

 

The Bedroom DJ as Amateur

 

                 The label “bedroom DJ” is occasionally used to suggest a person’s limited turntabling skills in the same way that the more general term “amateur” is often disparagingly employed to describe a poor performer or performance. In its sociological usage, however, amateurs are not marked by their lack of skill but rather by their possession of it. Stebbins (1977, 1982) rejects the dichotomizing distinctions made in reference to skill or monetary compensation between amateurs and professionals. Instead, he defines modern amateurs as those engaged in the hybrid pursuit of “serious leisure,” and assigns them a position intermediate on a progression beginning with hobbyists and volunteers on one side and ending with professionals on the other.

                 Although this progression from amateur to professional may seem unidirectional, professional DJs often return to an “amateur” status upon retirement or a career change. Stebbins makes this distinction by further subdividing the amateur classification into the pre-professional, the pure amateur, and post-professional (1977). In contrast to the post-professional described above, the pre-professional aims to make his/her leisure activity a source of income, while the pure amateur does not intend find employment or has failed to do so. Brian Redd, co-instructor on the DJ Tutor website, also specifies these three types among his and Johnathan’s audience:

 

There's a pretty big audience of teenage boys who make themselves visible.  They seem to bounce between wanting to eventually do club & mobile work.  However, I think many of them are ultimately just looking for a way to express themselves thru DJing.  Some of them are getting low pay gigs and seem to really enjoy the rush of playing in front of a crowd.  Others are into one type of music and are very uninterested in catering to clients who may want something other than what the DJ has in their personal favorites collection.

Then, you have the UK Kitchen DJ.  The DJ culture there is very different than what's happening here state side.  It's a bit like how many here in the US might take up Guitar as a hobby.  There, it's turntablism.  Most of them are not trying to gig; they just love to spin records. They range in age from teen to people in their 50's.

The other group that comes to mind are the former club DJs.  Many of them have started a family and are probably a little too old to be playing in most clubs these days, but are dusting off their turntables and getting back into it.  YouTube gives them an audience, which they love.  The only trouble with this group is, for the most part, although they have a wealth of knowledge they could be sharing, they don't seem to want to do much of anything except throw down mixes.  They don't usually reach out to mentor the younger crop.  It's more of a "Look At Me" sort of thing.

 

Thus, versions of the pre-professional, pure amateur, and post-professional are also found within the bedroom DJ community; they are identified by Brian Redd as: the teenage boy who is either looking for work or does occasional gigs, the UK Kitchen DJ who turntables for pleasure without “trying to gig,” and the ex-club DJ who resumes his former mode of employment as a current mode leisure, possibly with the intention of reliving his glory days on the internet.           

                 One feature not used to distinguish between amateur and professional DJs, however, is the DJ’s skill. In response to my queries on the Skratchlounge message board about the goals and intentions of bedroom DJs, one member posted:

 

a bedroom dj's just someone that either hasnt had the chance or perhaps the desire to take their skills to another venue. it has no reflection on talent. I know people who are better than me yet i play clubs/gigs etc and they dont... personal preference and opportunity play a large part.

 

Along the same lines, another wrote:

 

Most DJs start out in the confines of their own bedroom […] But keeping it in the bedroom does not mean stagnation. There might not be commercial interests...hence self gratification. Those that venture from the bedroom may have something to prove. But in my humble opinion....bedroom DJs are not natural born performers. But they may be talented nonetheless.

 

                 Lastly, Stebbins notes that amateurs typically present their knowledge and skills to a public composed of family, friends, and fellow amateurs. In addition, an amateur’s standards for excellence are set by the professional, whose work is reciprocally adjudicated by the amateur who has the advantage of possessing a more generalized field of knowledge. These interdependent relationships constitute what Stebbins terms the “Professional-Amateur-Public system” (1977, 1982). However, within online settings such as YouTube, these relationships are much less distinct.
                 The ways in which DJs today use the internet further problematizes these amateur and professional relationships and groupings. For example, it is obvious that Johnathan, as the creator of these instructional videos and one of the tenminmix competitition judges, assumes a mentor role for his bedroom DJ viewers. However, can he be considered a professional although most of his recognition derives from his dedication to instruct and guide rather than his public performances? Furthermore, could DJs that perform mixes in their bedroom and sell them online with considerable popularity be considered professionals even if they do not perform in clubs? Or do they remain within a pre-professional amateur status?

                 To gain greater clarity about why even using the detailed definitions provided by Stebbins has become a slippery matter, we must understand how the Web 2.0 world has confounded the distinction between public and private spheres. Returning to the second Skratchlounge posting, the observation that “keeping it in the bedroom does not mean stagnation” is true precisely because the bedroom itself is no longer a private, solitary space, for those who have an internet connection and a computer at their fingertips.

 

A Private or Public Pleasure?

 

                 The internet is often conceptualized as a public sphere, a veritable agora within which one may engage in discourse with the virtual citizenry. Web 2.0 seizes and expands upon this idea by providing a “creative commons” in which users are encouraged to contribute to a communal work-in-progress. In contrast, DJing in one’s own bedroom, a prototypical private space if there ever was one, marks this activity correspondingly as a private pleasure, especially if one has no intentions of DJing in public. In earlier times, the only way to engage with other DJs for the purposes of learning and camaraderie would have been to invite them into one’s home. However, with video camcorders and an internet connection at their disposal, bedroom DJs are now easily able to upload videos of themselves performing for fellow amateurs or general viewers to critique and appraise on YouTube.

                 Bedroom DJs, whether they are present in a bedroom, basement or personal studio, are present within a physically private space. However, I would argue that once they place themselves in front of a camcorder with the intention of uploading the captured video onto YouTube, bedroom DJs enact their performance within a transformed hybrid public-private arena. For this reason, the often made association of amateurs with private pleasure and professionals with public performance is questionable within this context.

                 Nonetheless, the hybridity of online experience is especially attractive for individuals undergoing an extended period of transitional identity, which typically implies adolescents within Western social structures. In his investigation of Jennifer Ringley’s invention of JenniCam, which entailed the installation of several webcams in her college dorm room, Victor Burgin (2000) interprets JenniCam as an opportunity for Ringley to play-act an adult identity in front of the camera, which represents the public (and perhaps male) gaze. Furthermore, he hypothesizes that the Jenni character itself functioned as a “transitional object,” a psychoanalytic concept first promulgated by Winnicott.

                 Many scholars have seized upon the paradoxical ability for internet users to be active but anonymous within public online settings in order to propose that the internet facilitates growth and exploration of identity, especially for those experiencing the stereotypical identity crises of the postmodern condition in addition to adolescence. Among them, Sherry Turkle (1995) investigates computer-mediated interaction in Multi-User Groups and argues for “virtuality as transitional space,” in which the self is composed of multiple identities that are cycled through depending on the online context. Also, in a Swedish case study examining adolescents participating in discussion groups on religion, Mia Lövheim (2005) finds that the internet allows youth to assume more flexible and ambiguous identities, thus constituting a space for growth and transition.

                 The fluidity of identity that is reified in these previous two examples are both dependent on the use of the internet as a dialogic medium, devoid of visual or aural cues to disclose the “real” identity of the individual. However, keeping in mind that identities are always performative one should not assume that the video medium necessarily binds individuals to fixed identity or is a less useful for exploring the multi-faceted self. That is, there are more identities to be explored beyond those of gender, race, and age, although, like the bedroom DJ, they often contain connotations of such distinctions.

                 It is also useful to consider this blurring of private and public spheres using the sociological lens provided by Henri Lefebvre (1991) in The Production of Space. Lefebvre rethinks the concept of “space” as a physical location and instead demonstrates how it is perceived, conceived, and lived as a production imbued with social significance. Or simply put, “(Social) space is a (social) product” (26). This idea has special relevance because Web 2.0 is conceptualized as being founded upon the synergy of its online participants.

 

“Mainstream-ization”

 

                 Further unpacking of the term “bedroom DJ” is necessary not only because the public/private binary has been confounded but also because the once underground DJ culture has been appropriated for mainstream consumption. This now familiar process has been well recounted within the rave subculture by Angela McRobbie (1993) and Sarah Thornton (1996). Also, in his widely cited work, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige (1979) uses the British punk subculture to exemplify how the recalcitrant Other is “recuperated” into the mainstream through the commodification of subcultural signs, such as clothing and music, and the domestication or normalization of previously deviant behavior (92-9). In an identical fashion, the DJ too has experienced the effects of having various dance subcultures, such as techno, house, and hip-hop, propelled through the cyclical process of co-option, commercialization, and re-presentation to a mainstream youth culture.

                 In addition to audio compression formats such as MP3, which have allowed the physical conversion of hefty boxes of LPs into a single hard drive, the increase of DJ-related technology and online resources has magnified the accessibility of turntabling for the general public. For instance, do-it-yourself DJ software and equipment packages such as Rane’s Serato Scratch Live and Numark’s DJ-In-A-Box capitalize upon this trend towards democratization and accessibility. Also, Pacemaker, the first ever pocket DJ mp3 player, allows users to “mix, play and perform, anywhere, anytime.”       

                 The online instructional videos also represent a transition away from close guarding of authenticity and skills (e.g. scratching off of labels to conceal identity of record). Joseph Schloss (2004) notes that among the hip-hop DJ community, “digging in the crates” (i.e. physically searching for potentially valuable records) serves an important authentication function for aspiring DJs and producers. Therefore, one might expect those who profit from the technological advancements cited have found some detractors. Brian Redd states:

 

The Traditionalists can say what they want about new technology, but it's here and it works.  Virtual Vinyl programs like Serato Scratch Live have been great for DJs.  In the old days, we use to have to work really hard to hunt down tracks.  Most of the record shops would hold back the hot new cuts for only a select group of DJs.  Today, we can download virtually any cut we want or join a DJ only CD music service for a very reasonable price.  It's my guess that many of these former select DJs are the ones most upset about the new technology out there.  They no longer have that unfair advantage.

 

So, my thought on this is:  Today, it's less about your exclusive rare cuts and expensive gear.  It's more about creativity.  The playing field is pretty even, so you can either put a great set together or you can't.

 

                 Perhaps the most definitive indication that turntabling has reached the mainstream are the physical institutions devoted to teaching the DJ craft. The DJ Scratch Academy, which has locations in New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami, offer courses in traditional DJing as well as digital DJing with Serato Scratch LIVE software. As a recent NY Times article notes: “Becoming a club or party D.J. has added a new — and more achievable — dimension to the standard rock ’n’ roll dream, and schools have emerged to help make it a reality” (Koeppel 2007).

                 In Modernity and Self-Identity, Andrew Giddens (1991) outlines four “dilemmas” that one encounters in late modernity while constructing a personal narrative of the self. The last of these is “personalized versus commodified experience.” He states, “Modernity opens up the project of the self, but under conditions strongly influenced by standardising effects of commodity capitalism” (196). The growing popularity of bedroom DJing is a veritable example of this claim. Adolescents consume the material commodities (i.e. DJing equipment, tracks, software) and conceptual labels (i.e. bedroom, mobile, club DJ) resultant from the mainstream-ization of DJ/dance subcultures and use them to support the process of identity formation. Additionally, with access to an online community of fellow bedroom DJs, adolescents may enact this preparation for adulthood in a hybrid private-public domain that permits the freedom for exploration while retaining a degree of security.

 

Shooting the Gender Gun

 

                 Finally, I would like to pose a remaining question: in spite of the democratizing nature of Web 2.0 and the new technologies that make turntabling more accessible, why are most of DJ Tutor’s devotees male? (The most obvious way of perceiving this gender disparity is through DJ Tutor’s tenminmix competition video entries among which most performers are visibly male.) When asked about this perceived prevalence, Brian Redd replied:

 

The truth is, we really don't know who's watching.  We only know who's making the most videos and posting the most comments.  Although, who's really posting comments is anyone's guess.  On the internet, you can be anybody you want.  Even if the comments are mostly from the male audience, there are hundreds of times more views than comments on most any video J and I post.  So, who knows? 

 

I know there are women watching.  They don't make as many videos, but they watch.  I've done a lot of tech questions for them via email or youtube messaging.

 

                 It is certainly possible that there are female bedroom DJs “lurking” around Johnathan and Brian’s YouTube videos, that is, watching but not participating by posting video responses or text commentary.

                 Within the North American hip-hop DJ demographic, Mark Katz (2007) cites technophilia, competition, and the misogynist lyrics found in hip-hop music as reasons for the lack of female DJs on the hip-hop battle scene. Although bedroom DJs on YouTube represent an online and more diverse group, these three factors can also be generalized to this demographic. For instance, the possibility that males have been socialized more strongly to embrace technology and competition would explain the paucity of tenminmix entries by female DJs. In addition, an insidious form of misogyny is still observable in the fetishization and sexualization of female DJs in the dance club scene. As a consequence, female bedroom DJs may be averse to uploading videos of themselves for fear of invoking comments related to their physical appearance rather than their turntabling.

                 In contrast to the lack of females on the battle scene, Katz notes that forty percent of students at New York City’s Scratch Academy are female. In addition, Brian Redd mentions that he often communicates with females through email and YouTube messages. These two observations might indicate that females may generally prefer face-to-face learning and one-on-one communication, in contrast to the rather anonymous and impersonal nature of virtual interaction. Therefore, paradoxically, physical classrooms may be more gender neutral than the internet, where identities are never completely certain.

 

Conclusion

 

                 The term “bedroom DJ” is used to make the distinction that the individual has not yet crossed over into the professional sphere as a club or a mobile DJ. However, as we have seen, “bedroom DJ” is an ambiguous designation used freely to refer to a diverse demographic that does not generalize to a particular vocational aspiration or level of skill/talent. This paper serves as a cursory inquiry into the bedroom DJ identity in an online YouTube community where this identity raises questions regarding amateurism, public/private space, and cultural appropriation.

However, because the classifications of “amateur,” “public,” and “private” too have proven ambiguous and perhaps even obsolete, the “bedroom DJ” designation resembles a constructed trope rather than a pre-existing identity. Keeping this “constructedness” in mind, more detailed cyberethnographic research is required to understand how bedroom DJs envision themselves as hobbyists, amateurs, pre-professionals, and competitors. Further topics of inquiry may include determining whether the “bedroom” as a transitional space and the YouTube medium allow male adolescents to explore their identity in way that is, as yet, less accessible to females.

 

 

 

 

 

References

 

"O'Reilly -- What Is Web 2.0.", Retrieved 4/15/2008, http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/a/oreilly/tim/news/2005/09/30/what-is-web-20.html.

 

Brewster, B. and F. Broughton. 2000. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey. Grove Press.

 

Burgin, V. 2000. "Jenni's Room: Exhibitionism and Solitude." Critical Inquiry 27(1):77-89.

 

Giddens, A. 1991. Modernity and self-identity: self and society in the late modern age. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

 

Hebdige, D. 1979. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Methuen.

 

Högg, R., M. Meckel, K. Stanoevska-Slabeva and R. Martignoni. 2006. "Overview of business   models for Web 2.0 communities." Proceedings of GeNeMe:23-37.

 

Katz, M. 2007. "Men, Women, and Turntables: Gender and the DJ Battle." The Musical Quarterly Advance Access.

 

Koepell, David. 2007. "Mix, Scratch and Spin: You, Too, can Become a D.J." New York Times, Jun 3, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/03/business/yourmoney/03dj.html.

 

Lefebvre, H. 1991. The Production of Space. Blackwell Publishers.

 

Lessig, Lawrence. 2006. "The Ethics of Web 2.0.", Retrieved 4/15/2008, http://www.lessig.org/blog/archives/003570.shtml.

 

Lövheim, M. 2005. "Young People and the Use of the Internet as Transitional Space." Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 1.

 

McRobbie, A. 2002. "CLUBS TO COMPANIES: NOTES ON THE DECLINE OF POLITICAL CULTURE IN SPEEDED UP CREATIVE WORLDS." Cultural Studies 16(4):516-531.

 

Schloss, J. G. 2004. Making Beats: The Art of Sample-based Hip-hop. Wesleyan University Press.

 

Stebbins, R. A. 2004. "MUSIC AMONG FRIENDS: THE SOCIAL NETWORKS OF AMATEUR MUSICIANS." Popular Music: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies.

 

------. 1982. "Serious Leisure: A Conceptual Statement." The Pacific Sociological Review 25(2):251-272.

 

Thornton, S. 1996. Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital. Wesleyan University Press.

 

Turkle, S. 1995. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Simon & Schuster.