Many articles have been written on what has now become the esoteric art of the opening DJ – or resident DJ as some may be. However, what some have missed in tackling this phenomenon is a bigger picture that is largely omitted in the world of dance music: the elusiveness of “marathon” sets.
Recently, I saw a Chicago club refer to a 2.5-hour set by Loco Dice as “extended,” and found myself both shocked and troubled at the same time, especially as Loco Dice is known for his marathon Space Miami sets. I started to immediately wonder, “Have sets become so short that we need to refer to a 2.5-hour performance as ‘extended’? Extended from what?” I tried to find answers but soon realized that I was asking the wrong questions. The problem did not lie with terminology, but rather with what has become custom in today’s dance music world.
Back in the early-to-mid 2000’s, when I got my start in the London scene as a precocious teenager, in my mind there were four undisputed kings of the dance floor. On one side, the legendary Sasha and Digweed were at the top of their careers, pushing the envelope of sound with sets that transcended a distinctive genre and phenomenal back-to-back sets that are still the talk of this day. On the other, I found myself attracted to the sounds of Tiesto and Armin van Buuren – two Dutch heavyweights whose productions, sound and live performances have since dramatically shifted to the EDM mainstream. Regardless of genre, all four were masters of their own craft and known purveyors of what was and still is the true art of deejaying. Each a pinnacle of dance music in his own right, it was customary to see them billed for 6-8 hour long sets, only truly making headlines with performances that stretched beyond the 10 hour mark. Tiesto made headlines when he famously played in Amsterdam for 12 hours in 1999, while Armin once went for 30 minutes more at The Hague in 2002. Those were the extended set-times that made ripples in the international music circle.
While some may claim that good opening DJs are a rare breed, I believe this has only become true because we have mostly become accustomed to needing an opening DJ in the first place. Why are touring international DJs rarely setting their own mood? Why are there often several opening performers before a main act? While not entirely gone, it’s rare to be treated to a set that tells an entire story from beginning to end, as more often than not we see big name DJs step on the decks ready to close out the club for two hours or so before calling it a night. It seems not only lazy, but arguably a true disservice to a profession that should pride itself on the musical journey it provides on any given dance floor.
As a promoter, I too have in the past fallen for the trap of booking a few too many acts in one night. The reasoning was simple, but faulty: by having three or four separate acts playing I was not only increasing the chance of packing the club but also giving space to local DJs. Although my heart was in the right place, I failed to recognize that good music and well-placed promotion would draw the crowd, instead shifting focus away from the music and on gimmicks to increase attendance.
This week, Chicago’s Paradigm Presents announced their New Year’s Eve warehouse party amidst some undeserved criticism. It billed renowned producer and DJ Matthew Dear as its only act, poised to ring in 2016 with an open-to-close set. A quick review of my Facebook feed highlighted a seemingly general consensus: the line-up did not feature enough “big” acts, especially when compared to other “monster” rosters elsewhere in the continental United States or even last year’s Paradigm party that featured a slew of Dirtybird recording artists. But surely, I asked myself, wouldn’t a well-constructed open-to-close set by a DJ of Matthew Dear’s caliber not be better than several 1.5-2-hour sets by a multitude of different acts? Shouldn’t the quality of the music performed throughout the entire night take precedence over the number of DJs playing?
It goes without saying that I am not asking for a ban on resident or opening DJs, but rather wish to highlight the importance of longer, well-honed sets where artist are given the freedom to truly express their music in full while delivering performances that leave a lasting impression on their fans. I truly value the importance of local DJs and couldn’t put it in better words than those Carl Cox used when he said, “your favorite artist was once a local artist. Don’t wait until they blow up to start supporting.” The fault lies not with the existence of the opening or resident DJ, but with the ever-growing acceptance of short sets that often overshadow the artistic prowess of those performing them. It is entirely correct to have a resident warm up the decks for an hour or two before the main act takes over, but that shouldn’t translate to the current industry phenomenon that sees most headliners perform short sets of current favorite crowd-pleasers before heading to an after-party or their hotel room.
Recently, it appears that this trend may be reverting, with the likes of Max Graham, Gareth Emery and Skream launching open-to-close tours across the United States and beyond. And they were not single occurrences. In fact, over this past Thanksgiving weekend, m-nus head-honcho Richie Hawtin graced Detroit with an all-night performance for the revival of his infamous JAK party, while Italian techno stalwart Marco Carola graced the Amnesia Ibiza decks with several open-to-close sets over the summer. More famously, he played for 24 hours straight at Sunwaves Festival in Romania this summer, outdoing his Winter Music Conference back-to-back 12+ hour set with Loco Dice at Space earlier in March. Looking into the near future, Italian Life & Death duo Mind Against are playing all night long at Spybar in Chicago tomorrow night while New York promoters Resolute recently announced a 50-hour long party over New Year’s Eve with six performing DJs of the acclaimed Romanian techno collective [a:Rpia;r].
This recent wave of marathon performances has truly been refreshing and a welcomed change. I hope we can learn to appreciate four-hour long sets as the norm rather than the exception. I hope that we, as listeners and lovers of dance music, return to appreciate the craft of a set that tells a complete story from beginning to end. I hope we can grow to support and nurture local talent and resident DJs so they too can flourish and gain the praise and recognition they deserve. Ultimately, I hope we can value quality of music rather than focusing on the sheer quantity of acts on a given line-up. Dance floors will be an entirely better place if we do.