Live Music Exchange Blog

Are DJ fees killing dance music? – Gareth Whitehead


This week’s blog post is by guest contributor Gareth Whitehead, who manages Bullet Dodge Records, regularly  promotes House and Techno events, and lectures in Music Business at New College Lanarkshire. In it, he highlights the issue of high DJ fees and the booking agents who ask for them, and questions whether there is now a need for collective action against such practices.

There is a growing consensus throughout the dance music industry that the biggest threats to nightclubs and clubbing events are archaic council legislation, drug misuse which can lead to deaths, and property developers who purchase venues for their prime location.[1] Although these problems do play a significant part in what can only be perceived as an ongoing assault on an already vulnerable industry, there is, however, another important factor which contributes to the culture’s demise: DJs who demand unrealistic fees. This article will examine the effect these DJs have on the industry, and will also scrutinise the unprofessional and forceful tactics of the booking agents who represent them.

As a promoter, I have an excellent relationship with many agents and managers and know that their hard work, dedication and commitment to the industry are assets to the scene and to the DJs they represent. They understand the position small venues and promoters are in, they negotiate fees accordingly, and they consistently provide an efficient service. Consequently, I am not criticising their way of doing business, and would like to highlight that they are in the minority. This article will discuss the majority of unscrupulous agents who lack this professionalism and integrity.

In the last 10 years, I have seen an increase in the number of DJ booking agents who have no real industry experience and lack the professionalism needed for any business to function. I believe that the “DIY” mentality born out of the digital era has spawned this insurgence. The internet creates low business costs and has made it possible for anyone to masquerade as a booking agent. This has given rise to a new breed of entrepreneur within the dance music industry, entrepreneurs who do not have the necessary skills or decorum to function in that designated role.

Owing to their lack of experience and desire to exploit the DJs they represent, these agents continually increase DJ fees without any real justification. This undoubtedly makes it more difficult for promoters to meet the agent’s demands, and consequently makes it impossible for smaller events to even exist.

These agents are only interested in securing the highest fee for the DJs on their roster, regardless of the budgets of underground promoters. They seldom negotiate, even with smaller venues, so a promoter has no hope of breaking even if they want specific DJs for an event.

I spoke to an up-and-coming UK and overseas House and Techno promoter (who wants to remain anonymous) about DJ overpricing. “I’m not sure if it’s the DJs outpricing themselves or the agents inflating the fees to make a bigger cut,” he said. “I think some of the more popular DJs – who don’t quite understand a region’s market – at times do have a price tag which just doesn’t line up with their stance in that region.”

These overpriced DJ fees are usually accompanied by ridiculous riders and poorly written contracts, which only serve to protect the interests of the agents and the DJs they represent. As the overseas promoter continued, “They definitely complicate things and at times make things confusing. Contracts are impossible to understand and use language that makes the whole process slower and uneasy. They certainly have not been written by any qualified legal professional. I have found the good ones are very good, but the not so good are very corrupt, manipulative and only using you for your interest to get more money off other promoters with bigger budgets in the same region.”

If the agents and the DJs are the only people who receive inflated payments, how can smaller clubs and promoters possibly survive, especially when the majority are operating at a deficit? It is a problem that established UK promoter Lee Pennington – who has been championing the Riff Raff events brand in Middlesbrough for 13 years – fully recognises. I interviewed him about this topic in October 2016 as I knew he felt very discontented at the way certain agents and DJs were operating.

“Riff Raff grew out of the first demise of the scene, around 2003, when everything went back underground and the ridiculous fees of the 1990s diminished,” he said. “We built an event based on our own residents, but soon we had established artists wanting to play Riff Raff because the superclubs were closing and they needed to turn to the smaller parties for their bread and butter. Naturally we obliged, but we were also booking up-and-coming artists to stick to our underground policy.

“Fast forward to the present day – when electronic dance music is more popular – and a lot of DJs now have new agents and managers, who are all wanting their slice of the DJ’s pie. That results in higher fees and makes it more difficult for us to book them.

“There are some agents who do a great job and understand the industry. They will reduce artist fees to play our event out of respect. But some just decline the bookings we want if we can’t come up with the cash that larger events are paying. And what is sad is when an agent asks for more money for an artist who we helped break and booked in their early days. A lot of these agents were not around previously, and it was grassroots events such as Riff Raff that kept things going.”

For a larger club’s viewpoint on this over-pricing issue, I spoke to one of the bookers at London clubbing institution Fabric, Judy Griffith, who says that she does not pay excessive fees for the DJs they book. When asked what effect she thought DJs commanding excessive fees has on the industry, she told me: “It’s a sign of the times. The effect is that it’s become more risky to put on events.”

If a club of Fabric’s stature finds organising events difficult due to exorbitant DJ fees, it’s obvious that smaller clubs are really going to struggle. For the dance music industry to survive as a whole, I believe there needs to be a mix of large and small clubs. I put this to Griffith and asked if she thinks DJs and agents should reduce their fees for smaller venues. “There is a good mix of both small and large clubs in London and they all thrive alongside each other,” she told me. “As far as we know, DJs do lower their fees for smaller venues. I’ve not had any experience of them not – seems obvious that would be the case. You can’t compare a small club to a big club any more than a club of our size can be compared to a festival.”

I asked if she feels there’s a trend among certain booking agents to out price the DJs they represent regardless of their profile. “A trend no, but it happens, yes,” the booker said. “Just as in all industries there are unscrupulous people – you’ve just got to be able to see through them. Sadly there are a lot of young promoters out there who are too naïve, and some people take advantage of that.“
The utopian assumption that fees are always negotiated in relation to the size of the club is not a true reflection of industry practice. Some booking agents will reduce their fees, but such reductions are often not enough to make it affordable for lower capacity venues to book these DJs. Smaller clubs can refuse the demands of agents, or try and bargain with them, but so often they do not have the leverage that larger clubs may have. It has to be taken into account that larger clubs will have their own concerns and obstacles. However, are they really that far removed from the situation that they do not understand the difficulties faced by the grassroots clubbing sector? I suggest that the time has arrived for a governing body to intercede, regulate the industry and represent everyone’s interests. “It would be a great idea,” said the overseas promoter. “That would make it fairer and easier for everyone, including the new, young promoters trying to add something to the industry.”

Not-for-profit trade organisation The Association for Electronic Music, exists to “represent the common interests of all individuals and companies whose business is electronic music and to advocate on behalf of electronic music as a musical genre.” Although this organisation helps with the development of the musical genre and all its contributing facets, it fails to regulate its members and protect those who operate within it.

The electronic music industry could potentially follow the Concert Promoter’s Association’s approach, whereby all its members have to abide by certain rules and regulations. Similarly, it could be advantageous to adhere to The Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations 2003.

Unfortunately, at present, there is no independent organisation representing clubs and promoters who book house and techno DJs – and the need for it is greater now than ever.

[1] See, for example, ‘End of the party: how police and councils are calling time on Britain’s nightlife’, ‘What Exactly Is Responsible for the Death of So Many British Nightclubs?’ and, less symapathetically, ‘Don’t blame developers for London’s shrinking nightlife – it’s the clubs’ own fault’.

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


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