DJ Mag recently announced their annual ranking of the top 100 DJs worldwide. There is always a lot of controversial discussion around rankings like that. Many people wonder why their favorite DJ is not even on the list while others might disagree with the top 10 due to their personal taste in music. These discussions come and go every year, but the polls and rankings continue.
I understand that rankings have a certain appeal, and I also understand why people are of different opinions concerning the winners and losers of such rankings. However, I would argue that rankings in music are fundamentally flawed. The best thing to do with them is not to discuss them or argue about who is better, but to simply ignore them.
There are many good reasons why rankings are flawed, but I would like to summarize them to two main points:
The rankings of DJ Mag are based on a poll of their readers – which sounds like a fair methodology, but really isn’t.
How would a single person make their choice? Well, probably based on the DJ sets he or she has heard in the previous year. I don’t know any numbers about how many DJs the average DJ Mag reader sees performing in a single year, but I would assume that it is a rather small single or double digit number. If people now vote their favorite based on the few DJ sets they have actually heard in a year, this vote will be biased towards DJs who play in bigger clubs – simply because DJs who play in bigger clubs usually have a bigger audience and therefore a better chance to get a vote. Even if someone votes for their favorite local DJ, those local DJs will have no change against DJs who play in big clubs and travel around the globe. A DJ that is only active in a certain area will never get to the top, no matter how good he or she is as a DJ.
But couldn’t you say that DJs who play in bigger clubs get those gig because they are better DJs? Sadly, no. I have written about this before: A DJ typically raises his/her market value through success as a producer. If you don’t believe me, read this article by Deadmau5 (position 12 on the DJ Mag ranking). DJ skills and production skills are two very different skill sets, and a good producer is not necessarily a good DJ.
Even a jury couldn’t do a better job here: Their judgement would also be highly subjective and based on their personal tastes in music. If you like those subjective rankings, there are many examples for that. I particularly enjoyed DJ Yoda’s recent reply to the DJ Mag top 100 where he lists his personal list of favorites. At least the subjectiveness of this list is quite obvious.
Rankings raise false expectations
Even though ranking methodologies might be flawed, one might argue that the ranking just needs a little bit of fine-tuning and then it’d actually be fine.
I believe that this is also wrong and that there is no fair and reasonable way to rank anything related to music in a top 100 list.
The reason why people like electronic dance music (or any other kind of music) is because it triggers emotions in them. Music can make people happy or sad, enthusiastic or calm, it can help them cope with difficult situations or simply make an evening with friends more fun. Saying that one type of music (or in this case one DJ) is better than another is like saying that one person’s emotions are in some way superior to other people’s emotions. Does this really make sense?
Music can trigger emotions, but people’s emotions also influence how they will react to a piece of music. So if I am in a really bad mood and I would go see one of the “world’s best DJs”, would this make me happy? Maybe yes, maybe no. It will depend very much on the type of person that you are, the kind of music you like, the people you are with, the venue, the day before, your current state of mind and many other factors. Certainly, a DJ can make or break a party, but that’s equally true for a local DJ as for a superstar DJ. The expectation that a “superstar DJ” would make you 100 times more happy because he has cost the club 100 times more money too book is simply unrealistic. Maybe the superstar DJ will make you happy, maybe not. I have seen examples of great DJing both from big names as well as unknown local DJs. Experienced clubgoers know this, but those who haven’t experienced this for themselves will come with unrealistic expectations – and are likely to be disappointed.
Why do the rankings continue?
So why do those rankings still exist? I am pretty sure that the people who make those rankings are smart people and have also thought about methodology and are aware of the flaws. So why do they still do it?
The obvious reason: Because people talk about them – and when people talk about them, the website that publishes them gets more clicks and with clicks comes advertising revenue.
Popularity might be a part of the reasons why those rankings exist, but I think there is more – and maybe this is even one of the few reasons that speak for rankings.
Electronic dance music has become a global trend, and millions of people listen to it and go to parties. Most of the experiences that those millions of people make are very local, coined in one of the thousands of clubs that exist around the globe. The music that is played in all those clubs is very different as there are hundreds of genres and billions of different ways to combine all the music that has been released. What you hear in a club in Cologne might be very different from a club in Tokyo – or it could actually be very similar in some cases. So if you are a global DJ magazine, how do you write about all those different experiences?
One way to do that could be to simply collect reports of all those different club experiences, make a selection and turn a global DJ mag into a collection of stories from around the world. This is certainly something that would be doable and even appealing – but the various music blogs, forums and Facebook already do a pretty good job on that.
The other thing that you could do is look at the things that connects all those local experiences – and producers who travel the world and whose tracks are played around the world are one of these common things. I assume that it is also much easier to differentiate yourself as a global magazine with a reporting style focussed on the connections than by focussing on the individual stories. Even though those global connections might be only a minor factor in the local experiences, they are still a connecting factor if you look at the big picture. From this perspective, a global ranking is more or less a very rough summary of the sounds that are played around the world.
I understand why some people like to read that. However, this is exactly the reason why I stopped reading the big magazines years ago. Music is highly subjective, and experiences are usually local. A personal information diet with a focus on blogs, forums and selected Facebook, Twitter and RSS subscriptions do a much better job of informing me than the big magazines ever could – but you probably have to be a real music nerd to say that…