Successful Tech Teams and the Superb DJ Set

The term disc jockey was first coined in 1935, referring of course to the phonograph discs that had become popular for recorded music. Forty years and dozens of musical genre shifts later, the Technics SL-1200 direct drive paved the way for turntablists, still concerned with round artifacts of engraved sound, but doing more live manipulation than just selecting and playing tunes.

Since then, it has come to signify any presentation of recorded music mixed for a listening audience. Drum machines and synthesizers snuck their way into the mix as hip-hop and house music were invented. The use of vinyl record “discs” morphed into Compact Discs and even cassette tapes and reel-to-reel mixing. Eventually, this led the activity of “DJing” into the most widespread application today: digital files played by any variety of control surfaces, from none at all to touch surfaces to spinning metal platters to full vinyl replicants that signaled transport controls to the playback system storing the file.

Building a set is another responsibility of DJing that is done in all kinds of different ways, with all kinds of different music, in all kinds of environments and settings. Whether you’re a radio DJ performing to an unknown audience or at a club holding up the dancefloor, there is an elegant methodology of diversity involved. Even when it’s a prescribed style, a lot of preparation goes into the Superb DJ Set.

What makes the Superb Set? I divide “the work of a DJ” into four basic categories:

  1. The homework of selection. What do I like or want/need to include? (materials)
  2. The spectrum of choice. What tracks make sense with what other tracks? (methods)
  3. The environment of creation. What is the setting and acoustics? (form)
  4. The flow of performance. What happens controlled in real time? (structure)

Regardless of medium (disc or no disc), DJs accomplish each step in different ways depending on who they are. It always involves the collection strategies, stylistic tastes, requirements of the event, attention to form and/or/not structure, personal goals (musical or professional), and the audience itself. The DJ may be a completely free improviser, an experimental sound artist, a wedding MC, a techno junkie, an EDM opportunist, a desert party space explorer, a masterful breakbeat juggler, or an underground house magician. I believe they all include some version of each of these categories.

Ready for this? The same tenets apply to building a Successful Technology Team. Compare:

  1. Homework. Who do I want or need to include on this team?
  2. Spectrum. Who has the right balance of talent that makes sense on this team?
  3. Environment. What are the requirements of the business?
  4. Flow. How does the team interact, collaborate, and ultimately deliver?

Just like the diverse history of DJs and music, tech teams span a vast range of expertise and function, not to mention approaches to organization. I’m talking about everything from day-to-day (or should I say, sprint-to-sprint) Agile teams and purpose-built developer tiger teams to “T-shaped engineers” on multi-functional operations teams and necessarily heterogeneous IT departments. Each of these individuals are like specific tracks on a record, the pieces of music themselves, expertly selected and set into sympathetic vibration and choreographing their own results. The audience is not only the customer but also product managers and project coordinators (not unlike event producers and organizers), and many other parts of the technology business.

In fact, where the DJ and the Technology Leader (let’s call them a ‘TL’) really intersect is diversity in construction and release of control. For example, the homework of the DJ might be crate digging or further exploration of known things online. The TL has the homework of digging into the talent pool and recognizing what they want or need on the team. Both are fraught with mistakes and hidden gems. The DJ selects a diverse spectrum of tracks to mix, while the TL should espouse diversity among teammates mixed together. The DJ’s venue is analogous to the TL’s workplace, what is needed not by the music/team but what shapes the work they do. Flow from track to track and section to section is no different from the team’s ongoing efforts to work together, match each others’ strengths, and support each others’ weaknesses.

The resultant similarity between a Superb Set and a Successful Tech Team is not really a tenet as much as it is the desired effect: the DJ/TL steps back and lets the music/team combine and take control. Once the DJ has prepared their set, when it is in full swing and engaging whatever audience, specific control is lost. External forces – like the energy of the dance floor, requests made by listeners, anomalies and failures in the sound system itself, or even just a scratch in the record – indeterminately affect the materials, structure, and flow. The Superb DJ is ready for these challenges, to help guide both the rules under which they operate and the engagement of participants involved to a harmonious and fulfilling goal.

If that’s not like building and running a great team, I don’t know what is. We deal daily with interruptions and unknowns in running software on distributed networks. Humans are humans, and like scratches in records, they can cause mild-to-severe issues within the team. Requests made by product (or other) managers can interrupt, company events will necessarily intertwine, and unforeseen losses of momentum and energy can mean nobody is dancing anymore.

Sometimes as a DJ I will buy a record because I like the sound or the album art or even just the composer’s name, only to find that its BPM doesn’t match anything I own, or its sound is too harsh to really use in a public setting. It is why it is crucial not to only consider one of the four tenets, but to carry the desire for something great as a thread through each phase of the approach. Intuition is good, but also including close evaluation and clear decision making is better. In that sense, careful listening and observation is as important in musical interpretation as it is managing diverse human personalities and lifting them be successful technology leaders themselves. It might be true that everyone is a DJ because they can just “press play”, but the Superb Set – and the Successful Tech Team – is the reachable dream.

Craque DJ set: Stop Time CD release party

Wednesday night I played after John Harrington’s Stop Time for their CD release party, you can hear the 2-hour set new on CraqueCast or download the full thing directly.

I also have several pictures from the gig for all to see… John moves ALL THE TIME so my little digital camera could never get a clean shot of him!

As many of you may know, I improvise all my DJ sets. So I almost never have a full set list, because I’m just going with the flow. This time I stuck to only vinyl and after recording made a point to note the songs – I may have one or two titles wrong, but here’s the setlist:

  • Savath + Savalas : Rolls and Waves of Ignorance
  • Mr. Scruff : Get a Move On
  • Parov Stelar : Wanna Get
  • Mr. Scruff vs. Quantic : Dub!
  • Tosca : Damentag
  • Quantic : Mishaps Happening
  • Pyokn : Ganesha
  • Peace Orchestra Reset : Raw Deal
  • Shpongle : Dorset Perception
  • Ulf Lohmann : Java
  • Flanger : Bosco’s Disposable Driver
  • Herbert : Suddenly
  • Losoul : Position
  • Amalgamation of Soundz : For Real
  • Mark Farina : Dream Machine
  • Mr. Scruff : Night Time
  • Awa Band : Bababatteur
  • Savath + Savalas : Rolls and Waves of Acknowledgement
  • Dub Taylor : Doin It
  • Rithma : Love + Music
  • Detroit Grand Pubahs : Sandwiches
  • Losoul : Overland
  • Swayzak : Form is Emptiness
  • Soundtrack : Frosty
  • Savvas Ysatis : Out to Funk
  • The Orb : Cool Harbour

This was the first live show I recorded with my new M-Audio MicroTrackII digital recorder… it’s like having a DAT machine without any moving parts, I love it! More on that soon…

RIP: Loungeometry at the Kettle and the Keg

In response to the many sad emails and messages about Loungeometry, the evident is true: Kettle and the Keg has decided on their own to forgo lounge music to try and bring in more customer base. Loungeometry has been discontinued.

At a certain level, the finger can be pointed at the City of Fullerton. Incentives for business to open downtown, efforts to revitalize and bring consumers into the city, extensive renovation projects and residential development… all these things have brought an enormous influx of people, and merchants are struggling to compete for their wallets in the only way they know how: bait them with popular culture.

Ultimately I think it’s just causing growing pains, and Fullerton can’t quite deal with it. The way to deal with the kind of crowd that they don’t want isn’t to limit the rights of the People (and it’s obvious that, after seeing nightly fist fights all over Fullerton parking lots, there is a distinct element of People that Fullerton wishes were diminished), but to diversify how the People can Experience Fullerton.

People complain that the Fullerton PD is too much in evidence (regardless of the fact that their HQ is practically the same block as a majority of frequented Fullerton bars), but would they be if there was not so much to notice? There seems to be a desire by local business owners to grab the attention of city visitors in hopes of catching the most action from their pockets, not broaden their horizons or provide entertainment for a diverse population.

I’ve also noticed that, when it comes to drawing people in, places tend to copy one another. Supply and Demand, basic economics right? I have never taken a single business class in my life, but my experience has witnessed the need for Balance in the Supply and Demand factor, and lack of diversity causes stagnation. The popularity of Hip Hop and 80’s nostalgia is overwhelming to the point where bar owners are hiring those kinds of DJ’s exclusively.

It makes me think that music directors for these places are really more interested in doing as little work as possible promoting their place while going with “the sure bet” in music. These places continue to shift their allegiance to the dollar instead of the music. Picking up the popular item of the day shows how transient these bars are in their attitude; if they believe keeping up with the trend will give them ultimate longevity, then they aren’t thinking ahead nearly far enough.

Are there merchants in this town that are truly interested in what music venues used to be about: presenting, supporting and glorifying great music from ANY genre? Do they have a choice, or do they even WANT the choice? To what extent are businesses responsible for our cultural upbringing? How can they claim to be when they go for what’s hugely popular in a vertical market instead of what can be widely popular over multiple markets? Maybe those are business questions I just don’t understand.

Promoting yourself by yourself is difficult, even when you’re accustomed to it. I didn’t get a lot of promotional support from the people at the K&K, seemingly because a lot of them are in different social circles than I. Many times I felt like I wasn’t being met halfway by the venue: i delivered flyers and media to them which subsequently got lost or forgotten, there is very poor marketing (if you were a block away you wouldn’t know it was there, a lack of advertising in area publications)… the loss of hookahs with no effort to replace them really hurt big, it was a huge draw for the kind of demographic that enjoys the music I play. After they were removed, every thursday we noticed at least one large group of people walk in and walk right back out because the hookahs were gone – with no explanation. One Thursday the place was completely shut down by the control board because of unpaid or late bills. It seemed like when they hit a roadblock, they would roll over and pretend it just didn’t happen.

The worst part about being ‘let go’ by the bar isn’t that I can’t play there any more, but that they brought in a partner to re-do the entire entertainment offering without bringing it up with me. I’ve been there nearly two years, I am hands-down the most reliable and punctual DJ they’ve ever had. I never let the show collapse because of any reasons outside of weather. I did my best to try and find appropriate acts to bring in, had many guests over the months, and a barrage of comments like “you can’t hear this kind of music anywhere else in LA!” I had Ubiquity asking about listening parties and shows there, but now I can’t follow up to try and schedule it.

I brought an entire studio worth of DJ equipment to the venue every week (because I feel it a duty to keep the Vinyl DJ alive, that also included three bags of records); my turntables were even stolen from there once, and I persisted. Along with a steady and healthy reggae following, Loungeometry nights – and all the people supporting me – helped build their reputation as a lounge you could visit and relax with unique entertainment, but it turns out that was a reputation they didn’t want to uphold.

Just for the record, I found out about the “new” entertainment the day before I was supposed to present Loungeometry again. The ‘partner’ apparently asked if I could play different music… that a band goes on first, followed by some other act, and I would be the wrap-up filler DJ at the end (they don’t have DJ equipment, remember).

But that’s not the reason I DJ, I’m not in this just to have a DJ slot where I can be a rock star and get attention. I’m in this for the music, and the nights I put together are solely for celebrating the kind of music you cannot hear anywhere else, but that deserves every right to be heard because it’s great and wonderful stuff.

I don’t mean for this to be a hurtful diatribe against the venue, the people, or the city; but they are things I feel need saying.

Sometime soon I’ll compile a list of some of my favorite Loungeometry music, but in the mean time you can hear archived sets on the CraqueCast.