Interview with Bill Brewster Part One
Bill Brewster is a name that is synonymous with DJing and dance music in general. Not only did he co-author a superb chronological history of the DJ but he also established the dance music hub that is Djhistory.com. Bill has also taken time alongside long time collaborator Frank Broughton to write the popular and influential "How to DJ (Properly): The art and science of playing records". Of course beyond all of the writing, there is the music, Bill is a veteran DJ who plays across the globe and promoter who co-ran (with Broughton) the infamous Low Life night that ran for 20 years in London and subsequent weekend party that last ran in 2015. Brewster and Broughton met in New York in the early 90s and since then have been prolific in documenting, participating and promoting dance music to a discerning audience. Then there is the regular foray into new and sometimes old tracks with the Djhistory podcast, and the record collecting, indeed lots of records. When it comes down to putting the hours in, Brewster has grafted harder than most following his passion for dance and electronic music. We thought it would be good to chat to him about record buying, DJing, the health of dance music and where we might be in a few years time.
We started by asking whether record and music buying was more or less easy than it used to be?
It is definitely harder as there are more releases but then there are more records out there. With the more releases there are more tracks to find, I don't think the quality has gone down but the volume has gone up. So it's easy to think that there are no good records, but it is so much harder to find the quality ones. 95% of everything is shit, you can say that about curtain design down to music. The job of the DJ is to find that 5%, it is more challenging but it can help you present music in a unique way. Each DJ finds different things that are interesting and you don't always necessarily find the same track. 25 years ago we were all pretty much playing similar records. There was a finite amount of records coming out each week and the good ones were jumped on. Whereas now there are lots of good ones that are missing the boat or being lost in the pile and so there are records that I find that I work out that no one else is playing. I play them for a year or so, although it can be harder to find those records, it can also be more rewarding. I think patience and digging skills are more rewarding now as it is undoubtedly harder to find good records.
20 years ago we only had vinyl and that was deemed to be a quality indicator as we only heard music that had been pressed onto a physical format. Do you think vinyl still acts as a gatekeeper to some extent in that if it is a physical pressing it has more chance of being good?
I don't know if it is psychological or whether there is any truth in it, but I do think people take vinyl more seriously as a format as it costs more money and therefore there is more financial commitment to the release. This isn't to say that it is better but people psychologically think it is better. If you have a digital only release it is very easy to get it out there, with a physical release there pressing plants that have backlogs so it can take you ten weeks for your vinyl to come back. There is a lot more faffing around with vinyl due to the lack of pressing plant capacity. That said, when I go into record stores and listen to new vinyl I don't notice a measurably better quality of releases then there was 25 years ago.
Websites like Discogs are great for discovering and buying music, but there are flaws with it too - in that it is hard to discover bargains and gems. Has the market become inflated and change due to Discogs growth in popularity?
I think generally it is a benign thing for most people buying records, they will have the records you want in the condition you want to buy, at a price you want to pay. Where it can be a problem is in the higher priced records and I don't know whether it's causing inflation but often people are asking for prices they wouldn't necessarily get. I do find these days that things go slightly cheaper on Ebay, I do look on Ebay a lot more. The joy of Discogs is that it is there and you do not have to have to wait to see if you have won a bid, I want a record by Friday then Discogs is great.
Whilst on holiday a couple of years ago I stumbled on a record shop at the back of a pet shop in a small town. Do you think serendipity still exists in record hunting?
You do still get them, but it is harder as most people are aware of Discogs and Ebay, so you go to those out of the way places and they are often priced the same of Discogs. I go out digging with a mate and we pick a direction and head out that way. He is a travelling salesman so knows every half decent town in the lower half of Britain. He discovered a really good store in Spalding - which is the tulip growing capital of Lincolnshire - at the back of a gardening store. The prices were reasonable and when I came to pay the owner knocked another five quid off, so those people do exist, but you have to look harder to find them. It is the joy of being in a record store and just finding interesting things, that is something you can't replicate with the Discogs, Juno and Beatport experience. I'm not saying you are unable to find the unexpected with these sites but it is much rarer.
Do you ever buy records on spec, based on their sleeves and artwork.
Yes I do, especially in charity shops, especially in charity shops with 50p and quid records, especially if they have a percussionist or drummer that you know about. I always buy records that have space titles in them or something to do with Africa, stars, cosmic; I look for all of these things. I take a punt on a lot of things and it was how I found Supermax, an Austrian rock, group and I found them as they had interesting titles on an album I bought for 20 pence in a charity shop 20 years ago which lead me to investigate more of their stuff.
Every year now we have Record Store/Shop Day, some critics of the event feel it's going against the original ethos of helping minor, independent labels - what are your thoughts on Record Store Day?
Originally I thought it was a good idea but unfortunately what's happened is the major labels have got involved and have squeezed the independents out. We're seeing major labels repressing releases that no one needed to see on vinyl again and at the same time they have taken up the spare capacity at pressing plants. So things that are worthwhile are getting put back to the back of the queue and losing out. I think it is good for record stores but the big labels are doing something really pernicious with it that will possibly ruin the whole thing.
What are your thoughts about the revival of vinyl, is it something that can be sustained - we have limited, old recording plants and it is very costly to buy. We hear stories of people buying records when they don't own a turntable.
I don't know whether it can be sustained to be honest, it is very hard to predict where it will go but it feels very much like it is saturated. I've heard anecdotally from distributors that sales are poor for individual releases. Sales have not gone up per-say but the amount of releases across the board have. This has maybe created the illusion that vinyl has grown but I am not totally convinced it is sustainable. Vinyl from now till whenever will never go back to where it was and move on from a semi-cottage industry. The average person is happy with their streaming and downloads on iTunes.
We've seen great leaps in dance music and production over the years, do you think the real progress has happened with better quality production over the last few years?
I think just the progression with software and the capacity of computers and laptops has allowed producers to make good quality music without the need of a studio. You could maybe do pre-production in a bedroom and go elsewhere to finish the track, these days you don't need to do that. I have friends with studios who have a laptop set up, they have speakers and few bits of kit and what they do sounds really professional. The only reason you need a studio now is when you work with vocalists and musicians. It is nice being in a studio but it is not financially viable.
Many producers have moved from larger analogue set ups to a more streamlined minimalist digital studio, whilst some have gone the other way and back to analogue.
One of the guys I work with has recently moved from digital production to bringing in some analogue gear as you do get a different kind of sound using the analogue gear. There is something about analogue that you cannot replicate with digital. It is the slight unpredictability of analogue that I think is the exciting aspect about it. With digital the outcomes are predictable and analogue there are less so.
You've documented the history of the DJ in your book Last Night a DJ Saved my Life and in the last few years we have seen DJs go to new heights as superstars, where do you see the role of the DJ going next? These days anyone can have a go at DJing using their mobile devices and therefore believe they have the ability to DJ.
There is a misconception on what it is to be a DJ. When we wrote 'How to DJ (Properly)' we did a lot of interviews with the media and broadsheets and they were really fixated on the concept of mixing. That is the thing that people see a DJ does but that is like saying the skill of a carpenter is just hammering some nails into wood to join bits together. It is not a skill, but it is part of the job, it is a craft, it is skill insomuch that any old idiot could learn to mix in a fortnight. The skill of a DJ is about being sensitive to the crowd, about programming and about choosing the right song for the right moment. Those kind of things come from years and years of experience and you get that from doing lots of bad gigs and learning from your mistakes. The problem with the scene today is that good DJs are not rewarded with work, good producers are rewarded with DJ work. It is about being a good producer to get DJ work now and those two roles overlap massively and a lot of really good producers are really good DJs but there lots of good producers who are really shit DJs. There are plenty of really good DJs who are not good producers who do not get the rewards - that is the tragedy of the scene we are in right now. Often really good DJs don't get enough work because they are not making tracks, there are very few out there who are more focusing on the DJing with the only one I can think of now being Ben UFO who has forged a really good career purely off of DJing and not producing.
We touched on the sync debate earlier in the blog, what are your thoughts on that?
All the stuff about mixing and syncing is a red herring, I don't have a problem with people syncing as they've still got to know which record syncs with what record. The skill of the DJ is finding the music goes with the mood and you can only get that from making wrong decisions that go into your memory bank. I have gone into places where no one is dancing and your job is to make them dance. You can go into a room that holds 150 people with just 50 people in and turn it into a party, with experience you can do that. It all comes with experience and knowhow.
A DJ friend of mine once said "selection trumps the mix" it's a motto i've taken to heart as I get older, how much do you think that's true?
It is an old phrase but absolutely true. I would rather hear a DJ who cannot mix at all playing really great records than a super smooth DJ playing dull records. To a certain extent the posturing DJ has always had the attention but like pop music in the charts most of it is rubbish but there is good stuff in there as well. I don't think you should ever be despondent because the wrong people are being mega-successful as being successful is not always the main aspiration for most DJs; just getting work with the biggest aspiration for being a DJ. To make a living in music these days requires a lot of determination and will and those people who are doing it have my respect. I am lucky that I have made my living completely from music with a little bit of writing about football from about 1993. That is an achievement in itself when it is difficult to make a living in this business, people do not want to pay for writers they do not want to pay for photographers, they think it should all come for free.
We are increasingly seeing such as the arts and culture being knocked back due to austerity and other reasons. It doesn't carry the same importance as such as engineering and technology but it is one of our greatest exports.
This is something I don't get, they respect people who go and work in banking but we don't respect the people working in music and the arts that this country produces in great numbers and almost most of them have never been encouraged by people. The great spurt of creativity that happened in the 1980s was caused by unemployment. I was on the dole for three years in the 1980s and for me it was like a working class college, we just got on with things. We made fanzines, put club nights on and put on benefit gigs for the miners and raised money.
Do you still think we have the cultural and music tribes we had throughout the 1960s to 1990s with the mods, punks, hip hop and rave tribes for example?
No we don't and I feel a bit sad about that to be honest. One thing I loved about British music is that it came with its own style, it wasn't just a case of being a mod and listening to The Who and Tamla Motown or R&B it was about having a mohair suit, and having a Tonic Suit and having a Ben Sherman shirt, it was about having brogues and red socks to go with your brogues, it was about having a look. I think the tribes have broken down and I don't know why that is really, it seems like everything is thrown together in a mishmash, I don't know if that is a good or bad thing. If you listened to The Cure or the Mission you had your hair back-combed in a certain way, you could tell what music people listened to because of their hair and I liked that. Maybe it is to do with the fact that it is a deeply stratified society in terms of class that those tribes were able to stratify in youth culture in some unique way.
We'll pick up part two of this interview in a couple of weeks, stay tuned.DJ with digital music discovered with Trackhunter
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