When I last blogged about DJ’ing in the lockdown, we’d just taken our first tentative steps into joining the community of Facebook Live DJs. A couple of months on, and our Wednesday evening sessions have become a regular fixture in our week. So much so that we’ve taken to leaving the decks and mixer out on the dining room table (after all, it’s unlikely we’ll have guests for dinner at the moment), so it’s now just a case of hauling the record boxes out and hooking everything up. Our early evening slot seems to work well – we haven’t spotted any clashes with other members of our crowd, and it leads nicely into Steve Stack O’ Wax’s radio show. That’s been one of the many nice things about the Facebook Live DJ scene – although it would be impossible to track every rockin’ DJ who’s doing something on line, amongst our various record nut associates, folk seem to have tried to find a weekly slot that works for them without crowding each other out.
Early on, we were very worried about sound quality – simply relying on the microphone in an iPad or phone to pick up the sound in the room left too much to chance and risked either being inaudible to our audience, or distorting the music if we turned up the volume on the speakers on the other side of the room (not to mention forcing our long-suffering neighbours to enjoy an hour of raging rockabilly coming through the party wall!). At its most basic, the problem was a simple one – how to get the sound out of the mixer straight into the device in the same way as using a plug in mike, but still be able to hear it in the room – and all without blowing the soundcard of the device by pumping amplified sound through it. Chatting with friends elicited various potential solutions involving all sorts of reassuring technical terms like attenuators and bypass circuits, but all requiring some tricky on-line shopping to source the right bits and then a bit of know-how to get them hooked up together in the right order, especially as you wouldn’t actually know you’d got it right until you went live and broadcast either crystal clear music, complete silence, or a horrible scream as the innards of your phone melted. Fortunately, fellow DJ and all-round technical whiz Little Carl came to rescue with a purpose-built set of leads that split the output of the mixer, with one set of plugs for the amplifier feed, and a lead with a phone jack on the end. He’d also overcome the challenge of getting the phone far enough away to be able to see the decks and the DJ behind them by the simple expedient of including a 10-foot lead. Otherwise, if all you can see is the DJ’s face, they could be just pulling up tunes on Spotify or iTunes which isn’t quite the same thing and audiences seem to like the experience of watching someone actually playing records. With the addition of a clamp on phone holder with a flexible arm, we were now equipped to set everything up reliably and quickly every week.
The other technical challenge we’ve encountered is how to engage with our on-line audience. Trying to read what’s scrolling up on a phone screen fixed six feet away is beyond my eyesight and the sight of the DJ’s face looming up close to the camera to read messages can be off-putting to the audience to say the least. In addition, it’s nice to be able to join in the conversation in between changing records and to be able to see what the audience are seeing. If anything, we’ve over-engineered this bit, with an iPad alongside the decks for whichever of us is DJing to watch, and a laptop open as well for the other one to type in messages.
So that’s the technology – but what’s important of course is the music. I guess the experience is much the same for anyone who broadcasts, be it on conventional radio, through podcasts or through Facebook Live, in that you can’t ‘read the room’. No-one’s dancing (or at least not that we can see!), so you can’t tell what sort of thing is going down well, and while you can be fairly certain what friends will like when you see them pop up in the virtual audience, you’d also like to draw in those who light on your session by accident. We started with a couple of shows drawing exclusively on the originals box, not least to prove our credentials as serious vinyl junkies, but quickly broadened out to include repros and reissues on the basis that it seemed senseless to deny listeners the chance to hear fantastic music simply because we didn’t own it in its original incarnation. It’s also been tempting to introduce some themed shows, but the reality is that the audience will vary every week so, again, the danger is that you’d alienate those who dropped in by chance if you stuck religiously to one genre because it happened to be that week’s theme. The exception has been the week I decided to play my share of the set entirely from the compilation LPs available in the late 70s and very early 80s, reflecting the kind of music that our generation consumed voraciously in our early rockin’ years. So, out came Victor Rock’n’Rollers, MCA Rare Rockabilly, Rockabilly albums from CBS, Capitol and Chess, Aladdin Magic and a fistful of the single artist compilations that brought us their original 1950s recordings (as opposed to the dreadful Hallmark LPs full of 1960s rerecordings that tripped us all up at some point). Otherwise, we’ve been trying to blend well-known tracks with rarities, ‘old school’ favourites from the London rockin’ club scene with tracks we’ve stumbled on ourselves, and covering the whole gamut from rhythm’n’blues, hick rockabilly, classic rock’n’roll, doo wop and wilder instrumentals edging into the early 60s.
And it’s been fun, though surprisingly nerve-wracking, but I guess that’s true of any public performance that you care about. It’s easy to become obsessed by the count of those viewing, which of course goes up every time someone clicks on your session, and then goes straight back down when they move on to something else. We’ve got a couple of friends who – in their own phrase – ‘share the sh*t out of it’, which means that the numbers watching suddenly start to shoot up dramatically, with new faces from all over the world popping up. That’s something we enjoy, though, as we love the mixture of old friends chatting away as we play records they’ll largely be familiar with, and new arrivals dropping in, perhaps hearing some of this music for the first time. After each show I also get a handful of new friend requests, giving me the challenge of trying to spot the spammer amongst the nice folk from around the world who share our taste in rockin’ sounds and want to be prompted when we’re going live.
Then, of course, there’s the dreaded Facebook ‘red banner’ which pops up on average every 25 minutes or so to inform us that we’re playing music we don’t own the rights to and then cuts us off a short while later. Given that you can’t argue with an algorithm, there’s no telling it that all the music we’re playing is long out of copyright; equally, Facebook doesn’t recognise PRS licensing which, for an hour a week’s broadcasting to our limited audience is something I’d happily subscribe to. We’ve heard all sorts of suggestions as to how to avoid triggering the algorithm, from slowing down or speeding up records (which kind of defeats the point of playing them) to talking over the top of them (ditto) and neither of us are comfortable with the idea of nattering away for ages between tracks simply to create longer pauses. Besides, our aim is just to share music with a small community of friends for an hour a week, so it’s not a big deal – it’s a shame, though, to hit a decent number of viewers then lose them all when you have to restart the video and see the number drop back to zero!
And now lockdown is gradually lifting, but our feel is that it’s going to be some time before we’re going to be able to start going back to hot, sweaty, crowded venues to trash around on crowded dance floors and, much as I like the cowboy ‘kerchief-over-the-nose look, I’m not sure bopping in a protective mask isn’t going to be much fun. So, we’ll keep our little session going for the time being, sticking to our early evening slot on a Wednesday and limiting ourselves to an hour. And if it gives old friends a virtual place to hang out, and introduces a few strangers to our world of the greatest music ever put on record, we’ll be quite happy!