Jay Kaufman, is a seasoned DJ/producer from Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, Canada who met with us to share his story about how he became a DJ, what it takes to run a night club, his opinion about the dramatic changes in the DJ industry that have been happening over the past 5 years and how to sustain your DJ career.
Jay, please tell us how you became passionate about music?
At age of 5 I was a weird kid. I preferred ‘The White Album’ by the Beatles when other kids were listening to Raffi; Sharon, Lois and Bram and other children’s musicians. The ‘White Album’ stemmed from when the Beatles were doing loads of the drug acid. This was quite different to the music most kids my age were listening to at the time. As a result, I asked my parents to buy me music more in the vein of that type of stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I still listened to Raffi too – but I was more into the Beatles and the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ album!
The Beatles must have come from your parents…
My Mom is a singer and music always played a prominent role in our house. She was into Pet Shop Boys, Hall & Oates, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, etc. I grew up listening to a lot of synth-based 1980s music. She also used to make fitness tapes because she taught fitness classes and was always making mix tapes, so she frequently bought new music. I often sat in our rec room just listening to the music she would select – which was always uptempo to help her students work off the calories. I guess that’s where my love of dance music came from. It wasn’t long before I started to buy records and tapes that I heard on the radio. When I was in Grade 6 I started to DJ class dances and started DJing off of double tape decks.
Years later, she would ask me to make those same tapes!
How did it work?
At the time there were two tape decks: one to play and another prepare the next set of songs to play. Soon enough I got two of my own turntables, a DJ mixer and started DJing high school dances, weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. – you name it I’ve DJed it!
Loop Dokter. Stage names were a big thing then so I came up with something ridiculous. I obviously don’t use that anymore!
What is your inspiration?
Pet Shop Boys, Human League, Depeche Mode, New Order, etc. got me into electronic music. Groups like Public Enemy, Run DMC, A Tribe Called Quest, etc. got me into hip hop – which is what I started out DJing when I went professional.
How you define electronic music?
Electronic music is created with use of technology. Even rock bands do that now. There are many different genres of electronic music that I couldn’t even begin to figure them all out.
What is your DJ setup like now?
I use the Ableton Live software to mix music. It figures out the BPM and allows you to manipulate tracks on the fly like no other piece of technology I’ve ever come across. It basically allows me to remix tracks in real-time. 20 years ago when I started DJing the DJ would just mix two records together and perhaps scratch if they were a hip hop DJ. The same technology that I bicker about has enabled me to do things that I would have never thought possible! Now the line in between DJ and producer these days is very blurry. Everyone has access to practically the same music at the touch of a button now, so it’s more about how you play the music and make it your own that makes you stand out.
So your transition to professional DJ must have been quite smooth
It was quite natural, yes. When I was 17 I got residency at a local night club called ‘The Lyric’ in Kitchener. I also got residency at gay club that was called XTC. At the same time, the rave scene was also booming so I started throwing raves in various clubs and warehouses when I was 18. Then I went away to Brock University in St Catharines I ran a successful night club there for 3 years.
What it’s like to run a Club?
It’s all about marketing! You can play shittiest music, but as long as there are people in your club and they want to go there, it will do just fine. 10 years ago in a small town that involved a lot of flyering and word of mouth. That has obviously changed with the Internet! You still have to do the marketing, but the methods in which you do it have changed. Back then, flyer distribution was expensive, so for every weekly party we threw, I spent at least 10-15 hours distributing flyers. The venue that I used in St. Catharines was called Gord’s Place and was more of a mod/goth-type venue – so I had to help rebrand it on a Thursday night that was getting 10 people out over the course of the entire night! I also had to create all of flyers in Corel Draw for every party – this was before Photoshop was known – so I had to learn a little about graphic design and computers. The Internet was in its infancy, so most of the work was through word-of-mouth and going to other similar events and handing out flyers. Being a promoter requires you have to be a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none type of person. You need to be able to administer, promote, market, know people, and do everything possible to keep profits high and cost margins low. I’ve always found the best promoters are the ones who do most of the work themselves. The nights those type of people throw are usually better because they’ve poured so much work into it.
Gord’s Place opened up a lot of doors for me in the way of booking because it was so close to the United States border. As a result, I left school to DJ and ‘live the dream’ because I was able to make a living from it for a while. I have DJed all over North America – Montana, Upstate NY, Miami, etc. I made good money and used that money to invest in a studio and I started making my own music.
What type of music was your first record?
It was Progressive House. Most of it was made with a few keyboards and a computer. I put my first record ‘The Fear’ in October 2001 under a UK label by the name of Sonambulist Recordings. You can probably still find it at http://www.discogs.com.
Where are you currently selling?
Now I am mainly sell my music through digital download sites like Beatport .
How did the distribution model work?
The record label used to own copyright for few years and then I would own it after. They would dock money for manufacturing and give you some money upfront. When records are (hopefully!) sold, they take their cut and then after they deducted cost of manufacturing and distribution, you would get the rest. Now the manufacturing costs have gone down due to sites like iTunes, Beatport, DJ Download, etc., but the time spent marketing your music has increased dramatically to make sure it gets noticed! With the advent of the Internet, so much music is easily released at the click of a button without much quality control, so you have to find ways to make your music stand out in every way possible.
So it must be a very hard business?
Now, you can’t sell music. Period! With digital, everyone thinks music is a free commodity. Now you compete against people who are not as skilled, but they believe they are. As a result the market has become much more saturated. When I used to get sent music for promotional reasons, the record label would need to pay for postage, the manufacturing of the record, mastering of the record, a marketing campaign and so forth. In order to do that you needed at least have some money and an investment in your product. Now the overhead for music is so low that it reduces the risk factor of releasing something to the point where supply is greater than demand.
I hate to sound like a grandfather, but back in the 1990s I also had a radio show called ‘Technocracy’ on CFBU 103.7FM – which was Brock University’s radio station. At that time out of 20 records sent to me, typically 10 were good. The labels were smart. They targeted people they knew would love their style of music. Now with e-mail I get 100 tracks per day from all over the world – including places like Ulaan Bator in Mongolia. Out of that stuff, I’m lucky if maybe 10 of them are good! Even the sound quality of the recordings has deteriorated! You don’t hear music that sounds as good sonically as before when people spent a lot of time mastering music. The mp3 in which things are sent out is an inferior format in my opinion. The compression in mp3s lops off a lot of the warmth that is heard in a vinyl recording – or at least to my oldschool ears.
House music from Mongolia?!
Yes, they have their own house music scene there too. I’m sure it’s a small scene, but it exists! Even forbidding places like Tehran in Iran have a very underground (and very illegal) house music scene. The proliferation of the Internet has made the spread of electronic music possible in places like that, so it’s not all doom and gloom! In fact, some of the best places in the world club-wise are where the music would have never reached before without the Internet. Places like Eastern Europe, China, South America and so on are great because while the West has had this music for so long, these places find it all very fresh and new. I find people from these countries are much more receptive to electronic music than the established Western market. People in North America don’t really care much for electronic music now because it’s an ‘old fad’. They’d much rather hear Lady GaGa or someone similar in a club. It’s sad, but true. The underground now exists in places that politics didn’t allow it to exist before the Internet.
What are the marketing trends nowadays?
Now they do what’s called ‘Payola’. Record companies have always done this to some extent, but now it’s even more prevalent. The major label record companies give gifts to radio station managers to play their stuff. I can only imagine how much product those guys (and women too) receive every day. When I say product, I mean just that. Major labels are a money-making enterprise, so they typically don’t see music as a love or art form. For them it’s just a product to be pushed so that the masses will consume it – and hopefully, buy it too! Instead of buying CDs, record labels are getting smart and seeing to it that their artists get exposure on social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc. They’re licensing music to commercials or TV shows like ‘The Hills’ where the artist is clearly displayed on the screen while the song plays. Ring tunes are also a HUGE market too!
While the marketing has evolved, I still think people struggle with the concept of good music. The amount of music available on Internet, which is usually free (whether legally or illegally obtained), makes it impossible to stay on top of things. If you’re just starting to get into a genre, it’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack to land upon something you like. Sites like http://www.last.fm help change that by making suggestions through software. Apple has also gotten smart with their Genius software that does similar things in iTunes. Most of the average music listeners out there don’t seek out music too heavily. They like what they hear in popular culture because it’s readily available. Now, I am at the point where I am happier when someone listens to my music – even if it’s for free – than not listening to it at all. I never started making music to make money, but when you spend 40 hours in the studio working on one track, I think you should be duly compensated for your time. Also, buying software, keyboards, etc. also costs a lot of money. The end user just doesn’t see how much money it actually costs to make music.
So the music industry is dead?
The industry as I knew it is done! Now you need to be very creative. You need to go out on tour. If you’re a DJ, you need to produce and market yourself on the Internet as much as possible. You need a YouTube channel, a Twitter account, MySpace, Facebook, etc. You also need a personal assistant to keep on top of it all! Haha.
Even then there are no guarantees. If you are 5 piece band for example, you need to continuously perform to stay afloat. My cousin is in a band called ‘The Most Serene Republic’ that was nominated for a Juno Award – and even they are struggling money-wise. I am just one person. He has to split the profits of the band 6 ways or something crazy like that. He has to work at CTV off tour to make it happen.
There are still several ways to make it – cell phone ringtones and licensing to videogames, commercials, movies, TV shows and anywhere you can make a buck getting your music out there all help. It’s just become that much more difficult because everyone has a piece of the pie now. That’s good because the opportunity for everyone to become noticed has increased, but you just have to figure out ways to make yourself unique and stand out. Guys like Deadmau5 have succeeded in doing that by making a brand out of himself through putting a face on extremely faceless dance music. He has a Styrofoam mouse-head mask that makes him instantly memorable. Richard Branson’s label Virgin Records recently signed him to a million-dollar-plus deal, so it is still possible for people. I doubt he’d have had that opportunity without the Internet and how he used it to become well-known.
Where your career takes you now?
Now I have a publisher who is trying to promote my music. It’s run by an old friend from my vinyl record days by the name of Barry Gilbey. He runs Voodoo Toddler in Sheffield, UK. The whole point of publisher is to try gain your music wider exposure and recognition – and hopefully make some money too – through licensing your music to commercials, movies, etc. Hopefully all of my years spent in a studio slugging away will start to quite literally, pay dividends!
I want to keep a full time job and have music as a professional hobby. I’m back in school for Network Administration – which is a skill I’ve picked up after spending all of those years getting a studio tan making music on computers! I still DJ here and there and I’d like to score a film some day, but right now the music industry as it stands has made me very cautious. It’s become just that much more difficult to make a living and I’m at a point in my life where I need a steady income. I also want to settle down a bit more and have a family, so the music industry isn’t exactly conducive to someone with a wife and young children. Music will always be a part of my life, but perhaps not in the way it has been in the past. I guess in a way I’ve grown up. It’s either that or I’ve just become wiser. I’d like to say wiser instead of bitter, but I think it’s a bit of everything, really…