This is especially true when the magic trick extends past production method and into authorship—when the illusion is not just how the record was made, but who made it. This particular illusion is troublingly common in electronic music. Though it's hard to quantify exactly how common (this not being something people speak about openly), it certainly extends to the "underground"—that is, the world of independent and not-quite-famous artists who are covered here on RA. Full-blown ghostwriting may be rare, but it's normal for artists to pay other artists to execute their ideas in the studio, then downplay their involvement later on, sometimes not crediting them at all. As a result, many artists get credit for more work than they've done, or are even capable of doing. The average listener is none the wiser.
Many people feel that it's not a big deal. In preparing for this article, I spoke with the DJ and producer Matthew Styles, who makes part of his living as a studio engineer. The term "studio engineer" traditionally referred to the guy manning the mixing desk while a band made a record. In the world of electronic music, it describes someone who handles things like mastering and mix-downs—purely technical matters without much room for creativity.
Ideally, the client presents the engineer with a track that's nearly finished, and the engineer makes subtle adjustments to make it sound as good as it possibly can. But the engineer's input can be a lot more creative than that. For instance, they might make changes to the arrangement—that is, the order in which things happen in the track. In some cases, the client will simply present the engineer with a few stems and samples and let them take it from there. Often they'll sit down with the engineer to provide guidance and feedback throughout this process, but not always.
To Styles, there's a clear division between engineering and "writing"—that is, generating original content. As far as he's concerned, the work he and engineers like him do stays firmly on the technical, non-creative side of things. But even he describes doing what many people would consider co-production.
"50% of the time the music they give you is alright straight away," he said. "Then some people want to do more of a production thing. They have an idea but they don't have the time or the skill set to realize what they have in mind. They come to me and say, 'I want it like this, this, and that,' and I try to realize that."
That might not sound so bad. But let's consider the implications of this. Say you've got two new records, Banger 1 by DJ A and Banger 2 by DJ B. DJ A is a 28-year-old artist who's been making music since she was 16. She spent most of that time making terrible tracks she'd never dream of showing anyone. Then, slowly, she started making decent tracks, and finally she made Banger 1, which was good enough to be released, distributed and bought by you.
DJ B is 28 as well, but over the years he's had only a fleeting interest in music production. He's got a few ideas, including a few samples he's set aside, and he's saved €600 from last year's DJ fees. He made Banger 2 together with a friend—someone who's put in the time and money to build a studio and develop slick production methods. But they're not a duo—DJ B paid his friend for his services and released the record as a solo effort.
On the shelf, there is no discernible difference between those two records. But in fact they are fundamentally different works, with different levels of artistic credibility. In terms of skill and capability, DJ B is not a peer to DJ A, but he will be seen that way. In fact, his record probably sounds better than DJ A's—Banger 1 is only the latest stage in a young artist's ongoing development, while Banger 2 was shaped, at least in part, by the steady hand of a veteran. DJ A is more talented than DJ B, but their records tell you otherwise.
Why did DJ B take this route? In many cases, artists simply want their music to be as good as possible, and working with someone who really knows what they're doing feels like a natural move. But another key factor is what you might call the DJ/producer dilemma. Most DJs need to make records in order to get gigs, but the skill sets of DJing and producing don't always coincide—it's common to be exceptional at one and useless at (or simply uninterested in) the other. But unless you have some other claim to fame (you own a label, say, or are a resident at a well-known club), you'll have trouble getting booked without any records in your catalogue. And so, for many DJs, releasing music is a necessary stepping stone to getting gigs.
This remains the case well into a healthy DJ career. In order to continue getting booked, you need to keep your profile up, and in order to do that, you need to release music. That won't be easy for touring DJs—traveling every weekend usually leaves you with two studio days per week, which, even for talented artists, might not be enough time to get in the right headspace to make good music. Even without a grueling itinerary, creativity is fickle and can peter out for years at a time. But demand for new material stays constant. Many labels push for at least one EP per year and an album every two or three years. Thus, even for gifted producers, the option of "working with someone" can become appealing.
Of course, all of this ignores what many listeners would assume is the only reason anyone makes music: because they've got ideas and they want to. But like it or not, electronic music, even on an underground level, is a business. Its artists are working people with bills to pay and mouths to feed. I acknowledge that I say all this from the comfortable position of not having to rely on making music—or any other kind of art—for my livelihood.
But I find it worrying that authorship is such a fuzzy concept in dance music. To conceal that you've worked with a paid collaborator is more than a white lie. It's dishonest to your audience, and it distorts the reality of the scene. As a critic, it's troubling to think I may have given too much credit to some producers and not enough to others.
More importantly, this practice creates an atmosphere of uncertainty, or even distrust. I hate the steady stream of rumors that "so-and-so doesn't make his/her own tracks," doubly so because, with virtually any DJ/producer you can name, they're basically plausible. And it's worth pointing out that, at least in my experience, these rumors disproportionately target female producers. Styles says that many people wrongly assume he makes tracks for Dinky, his wife.
There could be many individual instances of what I've described here that are sensible and ethically unproblematic. There are countless shades of grey between engineering, collaboration and ghostwriting. But any way you slice it, actively taking credit for creative work that isn't yours, whether it's the whole thing or only part of it, is an act akin to plagiarism. A community of serious and independent artists should not be so permissive of it.