Harold Heath wonders if he would have got away with it too if it wasn’t for you meddling kids.
One of club culture’s favourite irritants, the spectre of ghostwriting, made an unwelcome return last week. Berghain DJ and producer Barker took to Twitter to pass on a bit of tasty industry gossip he’d received. Now if I posted on Twitter every time I heard something particularly juicy, then you’d know for example, that XXX XXXXX hasn’t made his own music for a decade and that XXXXX XXXXX stole a XXXXXXX of XXXXXX XXXXXXX and then XXXX it XX XXX XXX. I know right? But I don’t, so you don’t.
Barker’s hot gossip was the following tweet, since deleted:
A friend who ghost produces told me he does stuff for Drumcode. Which artists, I asked. Oh, all of em.. they take the tracks and assign them to someone….
Predictably the Tweet generated a fair bit of controversy and commentary, including denials from Adam Beyer and other Drumcode artists. Aside from a cursory lesson in internet etiquette and indeed a beginners guide to the legality of defamation, what this episode also tells us is that ghostwriting is still a very divisive subject, one that is guaranteed to cause strong reactions.
Ghostwriting hits at the very heart of DJ and dance music culture because above all else, dance music prizes its authenticity. We’re for real, we don’t compromise: this is underground culture in all its gritty, honest glory. From the earliest days of Hip Hop, Detroit techno and Chicago house, authenticity, integrity and realness have been central to dance music’s ethos, even as it splintered off into the countless sub-genres we have today.
Ghostwriting is a challenge to that sense of authenticity and one which generates substantial anger – but it’s often a vague, unfocused anger that isn’t quite sure of its target. Is it the ghostwriters themselves? Are they the problem? Or are they just another victim of global capitalism and the fall-out from the digital revolution, trying to scrape out a meagre living whilst clinging to some kind of meaning in their working lives?
Ghostwriting hits at the very heart of DJ and dance music culture.
Should we be angry at those who are pretending to have created something they didn’t, the DJs releasing tunes that they’ve not actually made? Certainly, if our ire is going to be directed somewhere, then these fakers would seem to be the logical target. But there are grey areas around the edges of ghostwriting. It’s one thing for a producer to sell a completed piece of music to an artist to pass off as his own – and I can’t in good conscience ever support or defend such clear bullshittery – but surely it’s quite another for a DJ to offer an initial audio sketch or idea, then sit with a professional programmer or engineer who can help them realise their sound. Many DJ/producers learnt their trade sitting beside a more skilled engineer or programmer, many still work like that. Perhaps we could dial down our instant rage and consider the nuance of the issue. And yeah I know, nuance isn’t fashionable anymore, it’s an outdated idea, which has an air of compromise to it, and perhaps even empathy, which doesn’t sit well with our contemporary rage-first, ask-questions-later approach.
But clearly, there are shades of culpability, differing tones of blame; there are crooks and liars, but there are also those who are compromising their ethics in one area to pursue their underground art in another. There are those desperately in love with their niche of electronic music who aren’t hustling any kind of living from their art and who occasionally programme for others, for cash, to live. Then there are the hapless young who grew up knowing nothing except a world where you pay for your fifteen minutes of fame: you buy the likes, the fans, the music and build your career on a foundation of fakery.
It’s worth considering the very structures of the industry themselves that simultaneously deprive many producers of the ability to earn a living wage whilst imploring up-and-coming DJs to continually generate content, including reams of disposable music. And whilst I’m certainly never going to cheer-lead for those who choose to release others’ work as their own, there’s a bigger picture here. Fake likes, bot sales, inflated social media stats, ghostwritten music – none of this is even carried out behind closed doors anymore, for many in our industry it’s simply what we do now. The path to big-time DJ success has become tainted by commerce to the point where lies and fakery are entirely the norms, not even commented upon; deceit has become standard business practice. And if that path to DJ success, that narrow, low-brow, mendacious path, is the option that is held up as simply ‘the way things are done now’, and as the method most likely to deliver results, is it any wonder some DJs choose the fakery route?
Who should we be angry at? Is the ghostwriters? The zombie DJs? Werewolf PRs? Like so many contemporary ills, our anger often ends up targeted on our peers, when most of us are working within the same broken system.
Obviously basing your entire career on a lie is indefensible and clearly there’s a constant battle between the authenticity of our scene and encroaching commerce, but it’s worth remembering that the world of ghostwriting is a broad one, with blurred lines, shifting boundaries and uncertainties – just like life. And behind every ghostwritten track there’s a producer getting paid.
Last word on the subject goes to acid house revolutionaries the K.L.F. who wrote an entire book about how to write a hit single, the essence of which was if you want to make a big tune, book some studio time with a decent engineer then head off down the pub while they get on with it.
Harold Heath is a journalist based in the UK. Follow him on Twitter.