Ghost of a DJ
by Alex Cosper

Once there were DJs who made crowds go wild. They used energy, imagination and musical knowledge to engineer vibrant crowd-pleasing events. Those days are not completely gone, but more and more public places are following radio's lead of turning to the cost-cutting philosophy of the automated digital playlist. No DJ needed, unless you need someone to make live announcements. In that case, hand the mic to someone who knows what they're talking about. Thanks to 2000s technology, you can be your own DJ.

I jumped into the DJ world straight out of high school, just to make sure I didn't start off my career with a straight job. I had interned at a popular radio station in my senior year, as well as being a DJ at my high school radio station. From this class friends helped me get to know people who pay DJs. My high school friend Sam Cadura got me my first high school DJ gigs in 1980. Through college I worked as a roller rink DJ before becoming a radio DJ and program director in Sacramento at KWOD. The magic started with hundreds of people then spread to hundreds of thousands of people.

The DJ world of playing music for crowds has had an amazing impact on society. DJs playing for nightclubs, weddings, skating rinks, fashion shows, office parties and house parties reach and affect an incredible amount of people. Some DJs mix entertaining personality with music while others hardly ever talk on the mic but concentrate on orchestrating a hypnotic music mix. A lot of DJ work involves dancing crowds, but it can also involve background music, which can almost be anything ... at low volume. It could even be local music, was always my thinking.

In the 80s most of my gigs were high school dances, weddings and parties. A lot of those gigs came from working at KWOD 106. At the time it was a top 40 station and the station would always get calls asking for DJs. The station had lots of DJs but only a few of us had equipment, so we were the ones who got the gigs. Back then the average gig I did paid between 200 and 300 dollars.

The purpose of doing DJ gigs, in my mind, is to have fun and spread the fun. It's nice to get paid, but I would have never done so many gigs if they weren't about having fun. In the 90s I concentrated more on alternative radio. KWOD was a fun independent station and had a great bond with the local community, playing a lot of local music following the success of Cake. One of the important things I learned about radio was that a certain amount of songs beyond the hits are just filler. So why not maximize the filler by playing local music, which makes the community happy?

By the end of the wild west web era of the 90s, I was spending a lot of time working on websites and my own internet radio station, which played all local music of the Sacramento Music Scene. I also began writing about radio and music for a music industry magazine.

Throughout the 2000s I made between $500 and a grand per gig in the San Francisco Bay Area. I also was the DJ for an international hotel nightclub, in which I played for a different crowd from around the world every night. It was a great way to learn about music and culture beyond American hits. I also worked on air at a dance radio station (KNGY/San Francisco) where I learned a lot about dance music and beat mixing.

As a writer, I began writing about everything that interested me about music and sharing music with others. It occurred to me that certain defunct radio stations in my hometown still had admirers years after leaving the airwaves, which is why I wrote The Legend of KZAP. I began interviewing pioneers of freeform radio, which I found to be some of the most amazing American Radio History ever. You see, a lot of radio used to be freeform and DJs got to play whatever they wanted. Most commercial radio DJs from the 80s on have had to follow station playlists.

I was fortunate to be Program Director in a few places, where I decided the music. What I learned from all those radio shows, parties and events was that the DJ does matter, no matter what you call it. For awhile I burned out on the word "DJ" just because it became too stereotyped as kind of a hyped up cardboard character, which I refused to become.

Having fun with crowds is what I enjoy. The majority of gigs were with clients who wanted me to do whatever it took to move the crowd. I usually would get a vibe from the crowd and make some funny comment about it. I rarely flipped on the mic just to babble. If I couldn't think of something entertaining or informative to say I just concentrated on the music mix. I was half scientist, half entertainer.

The DJ lifestyle is in no way threatened by tech. As long as you forget about the money you'll be happy, as many of us venture deeper into presenting music via online media. I have my own private music station on a 2002 Mac iBook that still runs fine in 2011. I keep all music files on their own separate external drive, backed my others drives. All the songs are at my fingertips just a split second away, which is just one of many reasons I find digital music systems to be much more efficient and enjoyable than 20th century stereos.

Not everyone wants to be a DJ but what I noticed over the years is I have met a lot of people who wish they could play their favorite music on their own show for a crowd of friends. It's part of the American pop culture fantasy. Except in the old world most people didn't have time to learn how to program their own music so they relied on DJs. In the sped up new world, we can all be DJs and design our own playlists on gadgets and computers. It's fun and it's worth exploring.

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