Bonobo, Animal Collective, Polica, and Others Ride DJ Sets to 'Success'
Who needs instruments anyway?
In certain internet circles, few things elicit as much of a mixed reaction as the announcement of an artist's DJ tour. "END ALL 'DJ SETS'!!!!!!!!!!!! Who goes to these events? It's like going to see your favorite sports team, play their highlights from Sportscenter [sic]!" writes one commenter on Brooklyn Vegan's announcement that Animal Collective would be embarking on another DJ set tour. "The DJ Set Tour. The last refuge of a talentless rogue," comments another.
Though the latter perspective seems to be an extension of the great "just press play" debate of 2012 -- an argument, prompted by Deadmau5, on whether DJs mix live behind the decks at a show or whether they simply "press play" on a pre-recorded mix -- the reality is that DJ set tours are easy for artists (and often pay well) -- and, importantly, popular with their fans.
"It's more lucrative and less hassle," says Simon Green, a.k.a. Bonobo, a producer who plays a DJ set at Brooklyn club Output tonight, Feb. 5. "Organizing six people is hard, and everything you play needs to be rehearsed, and it's expensive to keep people on the road for a month. In that case, you're taking a tour bus with lights and production, but in this case it's just me with a backpack and a toothbrush and a laptop. You can show up an hour before you play as opposed to being there until 11am listening to snare drums being hit at different frequencies."
Though some DJ sets can feel like the artists onstage are, indeed, just pressing play -- Animal Collective's DJ set at Brooklyn Bowl in November of last year, featuring a tepid selection of early '00s rap and a scattered crowd milling around the bar, had the vibe of a lame house party -- Green mixes in his own music with those of his influences and admirers. His BBC1 Essential Mix from the spring of last year is essential listening, indeed, and gives a good idea of his range: Vangelis, a Tourist remix of Sharon Van Etten, Maya Jane Coles' take on his own "First Fires." And his DJ set tour is sold out, even though he claims his audience is made up of hardcore fans who don't mind the absence of a guitar.
And neither does he, even though the rest of EDM seems to be moving towards more of a live-band feel in 2015. "Honestly, I prefer DJing," says Green, who also toured sold-out shows with a live band this summer behind his 2013 album The North Borders. "I come from this perspective of a club DJ, where it's about representing new, progressive music. It's exciting to bring something onto the set that I heard that day or something I've learned that day. It feels more spontaneous."
For other non-electronic artists, DJ sets can bring an added financial bonus, however incremental, to a full-band tour. Polica, a Minneapolis-based alt-R&B five-piece, has spun after-hours on 2011's Give You the Ghost and this year's Shulamith tours. A few of their accommodations, including New York's Ace Hotel and the Congress in Tucson, Ariz., allowed them to stay there for free in exchange for spinning a few hours a night for hotel guests. "Certainly not every hotel wants you to DJ," frontwoman Channy Leaneagh tells Billboard. "It's a great deal for the band."
When she's not enjoying building a "collage of songs" featuring the likes of Arca, Jon Hopkins, and Jamie xx in exchange for a bed, Leneagh can make up to $1,500 extra DJing after a show with Polica's producer, Ryan Olson. "None of us are turntable scratchers or cut chemists or anything like that," she says. "It's about creating the mood and sharing music that you like."
Such an early band/late DJ performance works well for venues, too. In the case of the Brooklyn Bowl, which often hosts a single artist from Thursday through Saturday, it would be massively inconvenient for a band to break down their equipment following an early show to make room for a later act only to set it up again the following night. A DJ set, which requires minimal material, allows the venue to maximize the space and the audience.
"I can do 8-900 people at one of those shows by retaining some of my early audience and then bringing a whole new set of people," Brooklyn Bowl talent buyer Lucas Sacks tells Billboard. "We try to tailor to what the early show is so we can bring in however many people for the early show and 4-500 more for the late show. Like on New Year's Eve last year, we had Tanlines DJ after Delta Spirit."
The opening of Output, a DJ- and producer-centric venue, across the street has actually helped business, not detracted from it. "We get a lot of foot traffic over here that we didn't used to see a few years ago," he says. "If you're going out with your friends and [Output] is $40, while Brooklyn Bowl is $12, $15, even $20, you're going to come here, because you can eat and drink and bowl, too."
But when it's a DJ like Bonobo and the tickets are $15-$20, not even bowling can distract from that.