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Starting out, part 14

Harold Heath on shopping for music

2018 Apr 30     
2 Bit Thugs

Being a DJ means always hunting for new tunes. Here, Harold Heath weighs up your different options for finding them

There are lots of different ways to access music, but DJs almost always buy downloads or vinyl. No doubt there are some cassette fetishists out there who will happily tell you about the underground tape scene in their home town, or CD loyalists who scour secondhand shops for a 90s Pet Shop Boys remix that they’ll probably call 'Balearic'. - but format isn’t really the issue here. Every DJ has to acquire music, no matter how they play it.

Looking for new music for your DJ set is obviously completely central to success: a DJ without music isn’t a DJ, they’re just a person, and no matter how much of a great person you are, there’s little point in a promotor booking a person to rock their party. They need a DJ. There aren’t many DJs who overlook this aspect of the job, but there are a small proportion of newbies who’ve turned up to their first gig with their headphones, controller and haircut all on point, only to find out that they had no music or trousers, and that they had an exam to finish... oh no, wait, that’s just a dream I had last night.

How and where you get your tunes will to a certain extent be defined by your chosen format. Vinyl has many pros and cons, but one of the great things about buying records is that you can go into a record shop and hang out for ages talking to staff whose job it is to find music you’ll love enough to buy. This is an extraordinarily pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and something you can’t really do online. Trust me, I’ve tried, but all the major online sites completely blank me when I try and chat. Perhaps I’m just not cool enough.

Vinyl shopping online is less fun, but you still get sent a big shiny black disc in the post at the end of it all, smelling like only a brand new record can, an occurrence that never fails to excite and that everyone should experience at least once. You also get to be aggressively marketed to by major record corporations on Record Store (it’s shop actually) Day and you can join in the extensive group misuse of the words ‘exclusive’ and ‘rare’.

Are you up for the download?
As beloved as the vinyl format still is, however, most DJs in 2018 get their music digitally, either legally or illegally. This article will look at legal downloads. If you want to read an article on illegal ways to obtain music for DJing, then you’ll need to leave the iDJ website and go to a different website - something like or, that kind of thing.

The main online dance music retailers have their critics and some of these criticisms are valid, some less so. Such criticisms include:

"Your genre categorisation is patchy at best"

"That’s really not a new release, that’s literally an old disco record with a new kickdrum"

"That’s definitely not deep house"

"I don’t like your Top 10"

"Have you got anything a bit harder mate?"

But all the main sites have their strengths, for sure. Beatport is like a huge great warehouse/hypermarket of dance music. There’s a bit too much music there, truth be told, and you’re going to have to work hard to sift through the quantity to get to the quality. Traxsource is dedicated purely to the 4/4 beat, which narrows things down a bit. Juno will sell you a controller, mixer and some vinyl along with your WAVs if you want, and coming up from the rear and catching up pretty damn fast is Bandcamp.

Bandcamp provides a healthy royalty rate for artists, who can sell downloads, streaming, vinyl, cassettes and merchandise via the site. Bandcamp obviously has a lot of introspective folk music, hard rock and plenty of other bits that probably won't go down too well on the dancefloor (though you never know till you try!), but it's also full of some of your favourite producers and artists, and has quietly grown into a superb shop for DJs.

And finally, there’s nothing inherently wrong about buying a tune from iTunes, either. You’re not betraying the underground or selling out, you’re just buying a tune from iTunes.

It’s well worth paying a visit to more than one online shop, as each of them will have their own promos and exclusives. Inevitably you can’t listen to everything, but the wider you cast your net, the more likely you’ll - to continue the analogy - catch a decent musical fish.

Navigating uncharted waters
The sheer quantity of available music can be overwhelming, but fear not: DJ charts are your friend. Such charts - either on retail sites or elsewhere - are a great way to help you sort through this week’s releases, whether you’re looking for partially deweaponised 90s garage dubs or the very latest in Christian gym-house. You’ll soon work out which DJs submit charts merely to promote their own stuff, and who submit charts that accurately reflect what they’re actually playing. Essentially, a decent DJ chart gives you access to the playlist from someone who is an expert in their field and who gets paid to seek out the finest music available in their chosen genre.

Checking out other DJs' charts can turn you on to things that you might never have otherwise got into. Inclusion in a chart redefines a piece of music, making it more credible - which can make you listen to it more closely, to try and discern exactly what is so good about this eight minutes of congas and keys that Black Coffee has been hammering. Sometimes shopping online can seem disconnected from dropping a tune to a packed room at 3 o'clock Sunday morning: charts give you a chance to listen to club tracks that are working for decent DJs, that you might otherwise have passed over as too subtle or too simple when you listen on your computer speakers on a drizzly Tuesday afternoon.

Of course, lots of DJs get music from promo campaigns but the good thing about shopping online compared to shifting through promos is that it’s way easier. As the process of ploughing through this week's huge glut of promos enters its third day for those poor DJs who are on loads of promo lists, you can head off into the internet and cherry pick from the recommendations of your fave DJs.

Another great sources of info about tunes is online magazines. The iDJ site for example, to randomly pick one great website out of the many on the market, reviews excellent new music all the time and is well worth checking out. Although obviously we would say that.

It's all about the music
If there's one golden rule when it comes to digging for tunes, it's probably "less is more". Go for quality over quantity, every time: it’s better to have spent days finding 20 quality tracks than to have a pair of USBs packed with hundreds of generic tracks that are easy to mix and just as easy to forget.

Always bear in mind that the music is the most important thing - more important than the signature scent you’re just unleashed onto the market, more important than any hype, buzz or traction, more important than Twitter spats, format wars, witch hunts, pyrotechnics, light shows, glitter cannons or splatter gibbons. It’s more important than the numbers on your socials, your online profile or your monetising potential to specific demographics. The music is more important than all of us, so ensure that you fulfil your DJ duty by discovering and championing tomorrow's classics!

Words: Harold Heath Pic: StockSnap/Creative Commons





Tags: Starting out, beginners, novice DJs, buying music, how to buy dance music, Harold Heath