Night Prowl: There Goes the Last DJ

NIGHT PROWL — “I am a DJ, I am what I play,” David Bowie growled back on 1979’s “Lodger.” Those words resonate today in Bangkok’s nightlife scene, where DJs are measured less for their skills at the deck than the playlists to which they adhere.

It’s no secret that commercial, pop music reigns in Thailand and is digested indiscriminately. Inside most mainstream clubs such as Levels or Route 66, DJs follow the same formula: shape a funky “edge” on the same pop anthems with a drop of dub or electropop sizzle. Mix and repeat. Result: Hordes of dancers losing their stuff to the same boring music.

But if that’s not your jam, the “underground” venues playing proper house, techno, disco and even drum ‘n’ bass are few and far between. Likewise, if you’re a DJ not content to pour some reverb onto a post-psychosis Britney Spears track – like the majority of expat DJs in Bangkok – it can be difficult to sniff out jobs.

Now many of those DJs from the serious-music set are facing an influx of new talent, competition in the local market and cost-cutting by organizers which have driven their pay down and made it difficult to earn a decent wage doing what they love.

 

HUMAN JUKEBOXES

“I had one steady hotel gig for around 1,000 baht an hour,” one DJ said, who talked to this reporter on the basis of anonymity, as he’s afraid of losing more gigs. “I lost the gig because, I know for a fact, that someone was willing to do it for 400 baht an hour. The employer said, ‘you may be a better DJ than this guy, but you’re not three times better. So I can’t pay you three times the rate.’”

These international DJs – some well established in the Bangkok nightlife scene – are now competing with a flood of new talent, many of whom are Thai. Some oldguard deck operators blame it on the evolution of the tech, which lowered the barriers to entry. Becoming a DJ is easier than ever with the rise of “push-and-click” buttons that sync tracks and blend them together and beats-per-minute (BPM) counters which eliminate the essence of impeccable timing. DJs are still tasked with picking the right tracks – although they can all download the same songs off websites like Beatport – but the art of mixing and playing to the crowd is falling on deaf ears. That doesn’t matter, as these new DJs can learn to play well enough very quickly, and most of all they’re happy earning a wage, even if it’s lower.

“They’re willing to work a lot less because the availability for them to find work is less and the priority rate for them is a lot lower,” the DJ source said. “The separating factor between the elite and moderate is not that big anymore, but the devil is in the details. The result is an average or pedestrian party versus a great one.”

 

BUSINESS AS USUAL 

The standard pay rate of a DJ in Bangkok is around THB800 to THB1,000 a night. Ten years ago, it was 1,000 for each hour on weekdays and THB1,500 per hour on weekends. That’s a steep drop, especially factoring a decade’s worth of inflation and cost of living increases.

“Some clubs pay per month and not per night,” another DJ told us, who also requested to not be identified. “For example, THB10,000, even if there are only four Saturdays or five. It’s unbelievable … you have big clubs where the drinks are the same prices as in Europe, and the pay is only THB500 per hour for the DJ.”

Local music and party promoter DJ Jaydubb agreed.

“It’s surprisingly stingy and unprofessional how some of the higher profile venues are when it comes to paying their DJs,” he said.  “You’d expect prompt payments, good communication and a consistency of expectations and obligations, especially for DJ-bookers for whom this ought to be business as usual. The opposite is often the case and the difference between good DJ employers and rubbish ones is enormous.”

For Jaydubb’s parties, which include the popular Berlin Beats and Disco Robot events, he said he tries to “err on the side of generosity” with the talent he hires. Depending on the turnout, these parties can result in a decent rate for a 90-minute set. 

“You will never find me paying someone, say THB2,000 only when there’s 200 paying customers coming through the door,” he said. “I think everyone should benefit from a successful project.”

 

IN THE CLUB

Some nightclubs don’t seem to feel the same way.

Last month, prominent Sukhumvit 11 nightclubs Q Bar, Levels and Bash merged together under one entertainment enterprise called Eclipse Group.

Management sent out a Facebook message, informing DJs their pay was to be cut cut dramatically. The DJs were asked to work in “sets” of five gigs per week, covering all three nightclubs, according to the message. One “set” was to pay THB10,000. Since every gig ranges from four to five hours, that works out to THB 2,000 for a night or about THB500 per hour, which is two-thirds less than the old weekend hourly rate of THB1,500.

Eclipse Group did not respond to an inquiry sent by email asking about their announced changes.

As a promoter, negotiating with clubs is getting increasingly difficult, according to With Love promoter DJ Peppe.

“What’s most annoying for (promoters) is when all the credit of a night goes to the club and not the promoter,” he explained. “There aren’t so many venues to choose from, so people should start to follow promoters and not only clubs.”

 

KEEP ON SPINNING

Since Eclipse Group’s changes, many of Q Bar’s resident DJs have hung up their headphones. But there aren’t many gigs left to find elsewhere. Bed Supperclub was employing a small army of expat DJs and paying them a decent wage, but the nightclub’s been closed since August. If DJs are looking for new joints to make paper, don’t even think about Bangkok’s quickly growing restaurant scene. Many chic and trendy outlets are using live DJs to add an extra “cool factor” to their elegant dinner and décor, but few are paying reasonably.

“A small restaurant or a lounge is not going to be able to pay a proper wage,” said our DJ source. “Any DJ that’s worth his salt is not going to be looking for gigs there, that’s something for when you start off … for example, if you’re a novice and looking to get some experience.”

That’s why so many “talented” expat DJs have left Thailand in the last few years, he added.

“But you can’t go backwards,” he said. “You can’t go from making a certain amount of money and all of a sudden, you’re working at Joe’s Diner.” Thanks to computer DJs, the quality of the music is also prone to fall flat at a certain point – when the DJ is only joining tracks instead of mixing and not entertaining the crowd, it’s the partygoers that are made to suffer from breakdowns that miss the mark and beats that lose steam.

This DJ doesn’t want sympathy for expat DJs living and working in Bangkok – he says he just wants what’s fair. He suggests a system where the promoters and DJs share the risk – if an event does well, the DJs see some of the booty, and if it doesn’t, they also take a hit.

“It’s a simple concept,” he said. “If you’re consistently showing that you can pack dance floors, you should get paid more. The clubs are doing incredibly well and the DJs are getting paid dirt.”

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