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We see the flyers, we pay our money and all too often they never turn up.
Words: Jane Headon
Cartoon: Stuart Harrison
Published in Mixmag December 1993
It's a familiar story. You've paid £15 to hear your favourite DJ and you couldn't care less about the rest of the line-up. You're well inside the door before you realise he's not actually showing. And can you get your money back? You'd have more chance of being asked to DJ yourself. It wouldn't and doesn't happen with live bands so why should we have to put up with it? And why is it so hard to find someone to blame?
Promoters say it's not their fault, that they book DJs who never show and how can they be held responsible for the ﬂaky nature of the disc spinners? Recently however, DJs have been pointing their ﬁngers at dodgy dealers who put their names on ﬂyers fraudulently, knowing full well that the DJ isn't even booked.
DJs Unlimited are one of the most established booking agencies. "More often than not itʼs promotors using the names on ﬂyers, but the DJs book themselves up so far in advance that by the time something comes around, they've got something else down," says Karen from the agency, adding the warning that "if we have cancellations, then we just blacklist them and take them off our books."
Pete Tong's Friday night show on Radio 1 FM has been looking into the missing DJ syndrome for some time. And he agrees with Karen.
"Initiallly my gut feeling was that there were a lot of dodgy promoters, but some of it was the DJs being ﬂaky. Some of the best DJs are the worst offenders for falling asleep or not bothering."
Tong also cites infuriating circumstances where he's been booked and the contract issued but not returned, and the phone stays unanswered until the day before.
"Maybe the gig folded the day before or he comes on the phone and he's got your money." But if not, he says, "they've effectively cost you a Saturday night. Who's going to look like a bastard? You decide."
Chris Hear at Concorde claims that their agency has a 99% success rate and feels that the problem of the missing DJ could be at least reduced by promoters providing DJs with a map of the town.
"You do get promoters who take it upon themselves to put people on ﬂyers. lt's still a really young market and there are still people who can make a quick buck out of it." He hints that there is a loose blacklist and asserts, perhaps a touch optimistically, that "if everybody stopped working with ﬂaky people then they'd disappear."
DJ Dave Seaman is more realistic. "People are always going to do it. There's always going to be cowboys where there's a buck to be made. Unless you start suing them there's nothing to do. Sometimes people do it, sometimes there's misunderstanding. Sasha can be a classic example. He says 'yes' to a lot of people."
"l can understand what he's saying," replies Sasha's agent James Baille, in response to Seaman's statement. This is just after he's threatened to send this article straight to a solicitor if it blackens Sasha's name.
"People hassle DJs and they say, 'Yeah, yeah,' for an easy life. But all DJs are a classic example of this."
The DJ agency business has mushroomed over the past couple of years from the three originals, FXTC, DJs Unlimited and Dynamic, to over 20 agencies. Dynamix's Phil thinks that although so many agencies could present a problem - with promoters ringing around for the cheapest deal and potential double bookings, they could also provide the solution once two way contracts become standard procedure. "Everything is contracted," he insists. "lf an artist didnʻt turn up, we'd have a go at him."
Dermott runs the Chuff Chuff club in Birmingham. He says they always use agencies and in six or seven years have never had any problems. His advice to promoters if a DJ cancels is to put a board outside immediately announcing the cancellation and to ﬁnd, if possible, some kind of compensatory performer.
"The only problem we ever had was with D:Ream. They were awful, they walked out. They just got their arses in their hands and started giving everyone trouble." D:Ream were given the chance to reply to this. They didn't.
At the extreme end of all this there are bizarre tales of some people even pretending to be other DJs. Dreamt recalls the well-documented case of one individual, a bearded individual no less, making a not inconsiderable sum out of impersonating Sasha in Northern Ireland, as well as another less well known incident when ʻSasha The Bogus' managed to get involved with a woman in the name of his genuine counterpart.
Several promoters allege that Sasha doesn't turn up. "When Sash doesn't turn up how does that make us look?" asks Mark from Full Monty "lt makes us look bloody shoddy."
Sasha's agent, Baille is ready with the defence "If he doesn't turn up there's always a good reason and we don't just drop it on the night. We try to give people as much notice as possible. DJs get ill and there have been times he's got into something that he couldn't get out of. But he's even done it for free because he's let people down."
Alex Lowes, who runs the 4,000 strong twice yearly Southport Weekender, is less than convinced. "Sash didnʼt bother turning up for one of my Southports and he was conﬁrmed and he knew he was confirmed."
"I'm guilty of that," admits Sasha. "I must admit that there were three high proﬁle gigs this year where there were transport problems. I don't have a car, I don't drive and sometimes people let me down. I felt so guilty but Iʼm not as guilty as people think I am. If I say I'm going to do it, 99% of the time I'll try and get there. But I've been accused of missing parties that I never knew about. It's a pain in the arse."
Mark from the Full Monty reckons CJ Mackintosh is a major offender in the 'not turning up' stakes. And for the ﬁrst time an allegation is met with some frankness.
"It's 50-50 with me,“ concedes CJ. "I'll be honest with you. I'll admit, I'll not turn up as I've been in the studio all week and when the weekend comes, I'm in a mess. I just can't make it. I'm knackered. Sometimes I'll phone - sometimes I just won't wake up. I understand the promoter's point of view. Thatʻs why lʼm trying to slow that side of things down"
Pete Tong also puts in a case for the DJ as human. "Most of the times with me, it's genuine mistakes. Itʻs all very well for me to go on the air and be the martyr but I don't want to throw stones at greenhouses.” He points here to a clause on his contract at London Records which could, should extreme circumstances demand it, force him to cancel a booking.
Cream have just celebrated their ﬁrst birthday and are happy to say that the missing DJ syndrome has only hit them three times. One of these was Paul 'Trouble' Anderson who, Cream's Darren says, had half of his fee up front.
Anderson's manager has an explanation. "Minnie, his girlfriend, had an asthma attack on the way in his car and he couldn't do it because of that incident. He's doing Cream in the future, whoever told you got their facts wrong, itʼs all been sorted."
More disturbing than these seemingly genuine misunderstandings is that DJs' names are regularly appearing on ﬂyers when the DJ in question hasn't even spoken to the promoter. The phenomenon unites DJs, promoters and agents in a spluttering collective fury.
"I can't believe people get away with it," says Mark, "but they do. It infuriates us [at Monty] because we want to keep our reputation intact. We're so careful to make sure we're above board. Other people don't give two fucks."
Accused of not caring is Big Medicine's Kenny McLeod. Mentioning his name to a number of people compels them to clear their throat in a most aggrieved manner.
Graeme Park met Kenny McLeod at the Fridge club in London. Park proceeded with caution having been warned from various acquaintances about McLeod, but his Fridge nights went off well, he was paid on time and he agreed in principle to do some dates on McLeod's Big Medicine tour. He asked McLeod to get back with the speciﬁcs as he was going on holiday.
When Park got back from his holiday, he was surprised to ﬁnd a full page advert in Mixmag placed by McLeod for a Big Medicine tour with his name on a series of September dates. Park was unable to get hold of McLeod and says the only communication he received over the affair was clubs phoning him either asking him where he was or conﬁrming his hotel requirements.
"In all my eight years there’s only one gig I haven't turned up for," says Park, "and that's because my ﬂight was delayed for 36 hours and I was stuck in Mexico." He goes on to remember one other time when a tree fell and blocked the path of his car, but the meaning is clear.
"He [McLeod] is using my name for commercial gain. A lawyer would argue you'd be entitled to a fee. If he persists I'll sue him. I canʻt get hold of him. I canʼt get an address for him. Youʼve got to be able to track someone down and be able to physically get hold of them. But he must be off his head to keep doing it!"
McLeod gets back to me swiftly enough and alleges that the whole shebang was "possibly a misunderstanding, hopefully thereʼs nothing more devious," and then ﬂatly states that "we're not the guilty party."
"l've known Graeme for some time," he says, "and he's very difﬁcult to pin down for any dates. After the Fridge he said he'd be able to do some and with the pressure I was getting from Mixmag for their advert deadlines, I went and put his name down anyway." You did? "Yes, then I got a very severe call from his management."
McLeod thinks that the whole thing is down to the fact that "there's a lot of jealousy in this business and we're doing well. There are people who will say and do anything behind our back." He invites me to come and see for myself how good one of his club nights is and says that Graeme Park "got more publicity out of this than anyone."
"The only publicity l have got out of this is people ringing me up saying 'Where are you?'" counters a bewildered Park. "That's bad publicity. I've got nothing good out of this at all. I don't know what he means by publicity. I donʼt think heʼs right in the head to be honest."
Let's get dodgier. Sashaʼs agent Baille is talking about one particularly dodgy promoter - so dodgy he refuses to name the company in print. They put Sasha's name on a leaﬂet when he wasn't booked to play.
"I said to them, ʻIʼve put it in the hands of my solicitors.' The guy said to me, ʻGo to your fucking solicitors, we don't care. We've got more money than you.' Then they said to me, 'Can we have Sasha for the next one, we'll give him six grand cash.' I said, 'No way,' after what they'd done. They're ruthless."
"I've had it happen to me quite a few times," says New York's Frankie Knuckles. "The ﬁrst time I experienced it was in Chicago when a promoter put my name on an ad and I had no knowledge of it. l've had it happen to me quite a few times, but not in New York. New York City has a lot of major clubs, theyʻre pretty much stable in the community, they do a lot of heavy adverts letting the public know who is resident. I have been at the Sound Factory Bar for two years and before that I was at the Sound Factory. Itʼs easy to come to any city and ﬁnd someone like me or David Morales.
Knuckles only works with Primary Agency in England and has little time for those promoters who have put his and David Morales names on ﬂyers fraudulently.
"It's really shitty, it doesn't take much to do the right thing, thereʼs 2,000 people spending £10 to £20 and we're not there. These people are going to throw a party one night and one irate customer is going to know itʻs not our fault and something ugly is going to come out of it."
Southport's Alex Lowes counsels against automatically blaming the promoter and points out that although Paul Oakenfold was booked to play the next weekender, he had to pull out as he was offered the chance to go on tour with U2 to Australia. "We're not holding that against him, he's got the chance to go on tour with U2. But we're putting a quarter page ad in the programme explaining just why Paul isn't playing."
Fair enough surely, but alter the October issue of Mixmag, Oakenfold's agent, David Levy of Primary, wrote an angry letter to the editor complaining about clubs advertising Paul Oakenfold when he wasn't even booked to play.
One ad from Yorkshire club, Hard Times, had even misspelt Oakenfold's name. "It's illegal, itʼs fraudulent and it makes all of us look amateur," fumes Levy on the phone later. "I am extremely powerful as an agent. This whole situation is totally unacceptable to me and I will do anything I can to change it."
Hard Times promoter Stephen Rayns is apoplectic when he hears this. "l can't believe that!" he says. "I just canʼt believe that!" he says. Paul Oakenfold happens to be a personal friend. Thereʼs obviously a massive misunderstanding on that one."
He goes on to explain that the original misspelt ad was printed with the wrong date. Paul had agreed to do a date but he had a commitment to U2. As a special gesture he agreed to spin on October 30th at the club.
"The reason this is coming down," reckons Rayns, "is because Paul Oakenfold has not told his agent he was playing. That is an unbelievable situation that is. He's sleeping at my house!"
On being told of Levy's threats, Rayns is calm. "He's got to be careful because thereʼs litigation looming," and is scornful of Levy's concern over looking amateur. "As his sole agents they can't talk to one another? lf he's that professional why doesnʻt he pick up the phone and talk to me?"
Like most club promoters I talked to, Rayns is aware that advertising unbaked DJs is clearly bad practice. "We give people value for money. We're surely not going to jeopardize that by purporting to put people on when they're not appearing," he argues. Rayns offers to pay for me to see Paul Oakenfold play his club on the 30th. He's clearly serious.
Paul Oakenfold is deﬁnitely a hard man to track down. He's in the studio, he's not around, no one knows where he is. Finally though he calls in. "ltʼs not Steve [Rayn]'s fault," he acknowledges. "Iʼve got to stand up here. If anything itʼs my fault. I probably did say I'd play his gig and over few beers he's gone away thinking he's got me for the gig and I've thought it's still got to be sorted."
Again, it seems merely misunderstanding is to blame. Oakenfold is however clearly plagued by such problems. ln the summer two rave organizers distributed thousands of ﬂyers with Oakenfold in their line-ups. Thoroughly fed up with promoters taking advantage Oakenfold ﬁnally decided to take legal action.
Now, he says, "Iʻve got a lawyerʻs bill for £400." Not that even this has got him anywhere because "the people who put on the gigs have gone out of business." Paul Oakenfold also tried tough tactics back in '88 when he deliberately exposed people in the press. "It doesn't get you anywhere," he notes however.
Currently heʻs toying with the idea of setting up a telephone hotline for people to check whether he really is booked to play somewhere. But he worries; "People will think it's just another money making thing."
Admitting that there isn't any easy solution, he reckons DJs have got to take some of the ﬂack. "DJs have got to stand up and take responsibility," he says. "lf theyʼre playing three or more gigs in a night and their car breaks down then there are problems. It does piss you off sometimes when youʻre supposed to ﬁnish at one and the next DJ doesnʻt arrive until two."
"One way to solve it would be to get DJs to play longer, just have two DJs on and then they canʼt run off to another gig." He knows though that it's something some of the less successful DJs simply can't afford to do.
And so we come back to the same sad mess. Whether itʻs genuine mistakes, DJs who simply can't leave the studio or dodgy promoters, there is only one real loser in all of this. And thatʼs us, the punters.