[UPDATED] In this article Bas Grasmayer recounts how sharing music online has changed and evolved over the years, looking at the rise and fall of his time as a net DJ, and the experiences and opportunities with which it provided him.
Guest post Bas Grasmayer of Music Tech Future
Back when I was in college, my friend and I would go to a lot of parties. We also used to rap in a band together. Up until then, I had always been writing a lot of lyrics and would visit every hiphop gig in my city. When there was nothing better on, we’d go to student parties in a local club that gathered around 800 people every week, and in between dancing and chatting, we’d be rapping our lyrics over the beats of popular songs.
Then one day we stumbled upon the drum ‘n bass scene (with regular parties in my hometown being hosted by the renowned Black Sun Empire). I always thought electronic music was not for me, but it changed the way I looked at electronic music. Instead of trying to make beats on FL Studio, I started playing around with making electronic music. Then, one day, I stumbled upon a simpler tool that allowed me to mix tracks together. It carried the tacky name Mixmeister, but it is still my all-time favourite tool for making mixes from the comfort of (what was then) my bedroom.
I still wish a company like Native Instruments or Ableton would buy this firm, and release a better and renewed version of their software that hasn’t worked on my Mac for years. But I digress.
Up until then, I had been writing lyrics. Lots of them. Daily. I was involved in the “textcee” scene, which is how people participated in online rap back when it was still a little tricky to record and upload tracks. I participated in battles, topical challenges, wrote about complex (and often silly) subject matter, and really got my creativity out — all in text format. It was easy to distribute, light-weight, and it had its communities and forums.
For DJs, it was harder. Bandwidth was not great, and back in 2006 or so, when I started, there were no good online communities. There was no Soundcloud, there was no Mixcloud, and YouTube only allowed videos of up to 10 minutes. My tools of choice, for hosting DJ sets, were YouSendIt, uploaded.to and MegaUpload. They were iffy and you always had to monitor that your files were not taken down, but they would do.
I thought a lot about the format. I never mixed over 80 minutes, because I wanted to make sure that fans (if I had any, and it was hard to tell pre-Facebook & Twitter) would be able to burn it to CDs and listen to it from their cars or home stereos.
I would write detailed information about my tracklists, for a number of reasons:
- It’s only fair that the creators of the music get acknowledged – especially since I was sharing their music without permission;
- If one of my listeners liked a track, I wanted them to be able to know what it was (there was no such thing as Shazam);
- I put detailed time markings, so that people would be able to identify the transitions and the amount of work I’d put into blending tracks together.
I would post them to the forums where I was already going (as well as my MySpace), where I already had my fans because of my texts, together with the links. Here’s an example of such a tracklist:
Then I started a blog on Blogspot to post all the mixes. People would subscribe via RSS and get the posts through their RSS reader. I even added a way to get email updates when the RSS feed would be updated, by using a popular tool at the time called FeedBurner. When posting my mixes to forums, I would also always include download links but also a link to the blogpost, so I could build up my followers there, too.
I didn’t know it at the time, but what I was doing really helped with SEO. If people were Googling those tracks, they’d often find my blog, because not everything was on YouTube, today’s major streaming platforms were non-existent, and the underground was not represented well on iTunes. By sharing my mixes everywhere, I was also generating a lot of backlinks. I was publishing multiple mixes per month. Throughout 2007 I published as many as 35.
THEN SOUNDCLOUD ARRIVED ON THE SCENE
I’m not sure how or when I discovered Soundcloud, but it must have been in its early days back in 2008. I managed to register my first name as my username, which I have held on to ever since, despite people trying to hack my account and even being hit by a trademark claim by an American rapper (after I rejected offers to buy it).
This is where things really started taking off. Now I was able to collect streams instead of downloads. It was so incredibly convenient. No wonder DJs flocked to the platform. All fans had to do now was hit play, but the option to download and listen in high quality was there too. On top of all that, I was able to timestamp my mixes in a much more interesting way: by commenting the tracks.
Something else happened too. By tagging my mixes, it was possible for others to find my work. And by browsing tags, I was able to find other DJs. This was a first. Never before had there been as big a community of DJs. Never before had it been so easy to connect to others. Never before had it been so easy for producers and DJs to connect from the comfort of their bedrooms.
I started listening to other DJs. Commenting everywhere. I continued the same strategy of tracklists and tagging, which maybe also helped my SEO on Soundcloud. But I also didn’t give up on my website until many years later when Facebook was more established and it was getting hard to get people to visit websites. Owning your audience was important, and I always knew this. I needed to have my own place to keep the people who are interested in what I do connected to me.
Then in 2009, Soundcloud changed the rules of the game for DJs.
THE FIRST BIG DJ REVOLT ON SOUNDCLOUD
When Soundcloud started, they allowed everyone to upload 4 tracks every month. Tracks could be of any length, or at least long enough to fit a DJ set, but if you wanted to upload more than 4 in a month, you would have to get a paid account. This was great for DJs, but it didn’t last.
In October 2009, Soundcloud switched over to a model with a maximum amount of minutes per account. Even if you’d upgrade to the most expensive monthly package there was no way to get rid of the maximum. It caused an uproar (link to discussion with participation of the founders – but layout is messed up, because it’s a cached page). I participated and tried to be understanding. The model made sense for producers, who were more likely to spend money on Soundcloud. It sucked for DJs though. I wanted DJs to think about what kind of model would allow for Soundcloud to monetize them and very actively participated in the discussion.
The people who participated in that discussion got lucky, and it’s really a token of how user-centric Soundcloud was in those days. A link was shared with the participants, where they could list their accounts, and they were given 30 extra hours. For me, that was about 30 extra DJ sets and it has lasted me to this day (I never matched my 2007 streak) — and I should have probably mentioned this in my ‘Benefits of Being an Early Adopter‘ piece. And props to David Noel, who was Soundcloud’s community lead. The email exchanges (and exchanges on Soundcloud’s support community) that I had with him stuck with me. I was writing my thesis at the time and when I graduated and got into music startups those exchanges were a big inspiration for my early career.
LIFE GOES ON
As Soundcloud grew into the giant it is today, I grew along with it. My taste grew, my following grew, my tactics and strategies evolved, and I saw new genres flourish on Soundcloud, such as moombahton.
Before all the download-gate bullshit, that make you jump through hoops, follow random accounts, like Facebook Pages, etc., it was pretty convenient to get free downloads from Soundcloud. I actually set up an IFTTT script that would automatically download tracks I favourited to my Dropbox. This way I could discover new music while I was working at Zvooq by day, in passive mode, and then by night play around with the files in my mixes.
I participated actively in the new, emerging online scenes. Commenting on tracks and connecting to amazing new talent emerging from the internet, rather than from a particular network of DJs. This got me a lot of listeners. I started making mixes in which all tracks were available to download for free. This had value in different ways:
- I knew for sure that all DJs would be ok with me uploading this;
- People would listen to them, because they knew they can find and quickly download new tracks through there;
- I would link to all the tracks and afterwards comment on them to let people know I had featured their work. Sometimes they would share my music on their social media (this is before the repost function on SC).
If you’re not communicating your music this way, if you’re not networking with your inspirations, you’re not doing it right. This is probably how I got most of my plays from 2012 to now. Tactics and landscapes change, but some principles are true forever. Participate!
Other tactics not listed above:
- Make playlists on 8tracks with the tracks of my mixes in order to promote my mix;
- Try to win followers via social listening platforms like turntable.fm;
- Make short mixes and post them on YouTube in order to find new audiences;
- Facebook & Twitter accounts through where I would connect to segments of my audience.
MY DEMISE AS A NET-DJ
Then things got harder. It wasn’t any particular issue, but a lot of factors combined to halt me.
I switched to a Traktor S4 controller with Traktor software, so now I had to do all my mixes live. I’m a perfectionist, so this decreased my output. Digging also got harder: the communal nature of Soundcloud changed and a lot of DJs stopped offering their tracks as downloads (even when they’re not selling them). Others would put their stuff behind download gates, which just made it a pain in the ass to collect tracks and way more time-consuming. This also decreased my output.
As the number of mixes I put out decreased, so did the growth of my followers and my exposure to my audiences that were not directly connected to me. Followers ‘churn’ even when they stay part of your follower count. This means that followers go inactive on the platform they follow you on, so the follower count no longer translates to playback or other forms of engagement. This doesn’t matter so much when you’re new, but if you’re working on something for over a decade, it matters.
All of this compounded. It’s been about 5 years since I had a mix that got ~5k plays. And 8 years for 15k. But the lesson here is: to rack up following & plays, you can get lucky with a hit or just be insanely productive.
I’m at peace with what happened and now that I’m in Berlin, with talented friends as producers, plus friends in companies like Ableton and Native Instruments, I’m slowly getting back into DJing and producing. I haven’t put out a track in a decade, and no mix in 2 years, but I’m surrounded by the right people to get back into it… and do things right with all the experience I’ve collected plus that surrounds me. (if I actually end up having enough time — the irony of working in music)
If I had to distill this into key lessons (and I do, because I owe it to you after reading 2000 words), these would be my main takeaways:
- GET THERE EARLY. I got really lucky with being early to Soundcloud, but it also helped that what I was doing back then was not as common as it is now. Stay on top of developments in sounds and genres, and be slightly ahead of the curve, so you can shine a spotlight on up & coming talent. It will pay off when someone blows up.
- BUILD YOUR FOLLOWING. Don’t trust in platforms: own your following. Connect them to your presence in many places, get their email addresses. Make sure your following is loyal, build trust, be consistent. If you’re slightly ahead of the curve, they know they’ll always discover new artists through you.
- ALWAYS CREDIT PEOPLE. Scenes are small. Help each other. If you play someone’s music: list it. Don’t have time to provide a tracklist? Then you don’t have time to be a DJ. Sorry.
- BE HELPFUL. This is connected to crediting: help people to understand the music they’re listening to. They’ll connect to you for this.
- BE CONSISTENT & PRODUCTIVE. My best days were when I was a student. I don’t know how I found the time in between college and 12-20 hours of side jobs per week, but often I’d get home and get to mixing. I’d be doing stuff with music almost every spare minute. That’s the only type of dedication that really works.
I’ve had my run. Maybe I’ll do it again, but in a different way. I still like DJing, but prefer to do it live now. Besides, I have other ways to enjoy music now, such as my day job at IDAGIO, as well as MUSIC x TECH x FUTURE.
But to the generation that’s out there, on the cyber highways, hustling: best of luck & I hope this piece helps you.