The DJ’s Sweet Spot: Music, Culture & Belonging in the Modern Age

Photo by Taylor Alarcon (@scenebytay)

Photo by Taylor Alarcon (@scenebytay)

As a musician, DJ, producer and general audiophile, it’s safe to say that music has become the predominant way I’ve connected with people in my short twenty-three years of life. Yes, I consider myself to have a diversity of other interests such as, professionally, user experience design, and recreationally, photography, rock climbing or writing poetry, but talking about, discovering, composing and consuming all different types of music [admittedly except country — I’ve tried, and just can’t get into it] has always been the first, most frequent and easiest way I connect with other people.

Given this affinity for pretty much all things musical I’ve evidently found myself as the dude in the corner of the party manning the AUX cord, both in high school and college, often times a go-to for friends looking for new hip-hop, jazz or reggae tunes, as well as, more recently, an actual turntable DJ here in my newly adopted home city of San Francisco. Now all of this is not to say I’m a know-all be-all when it comes to music or music-related topics, but I did find this background to be helpful context as I go into detail about some of the discussions and experiences I’ve had when consuming or sharing music throughout the years, either informally over text or formally through many of my DJ sets, either live or recorded to SoundCloud (shameless plug: @philosomatician on SoundCloud).

The DJ’s Sweet Spot

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Now, let’s all take a second to remember the last time we went to a party, to the club, a wedding or a general good-time event that involved a DJ, or at the very least someone handling the AUX. We all know that feeling when the right song comes on — at least for most of us, it will end up being a song that we know, i.e. something that feels familiar, not just to each of us individually but to other people we are with. With that shared familiarity comes the courage to acknowledge it, groove to it and sometimes even sing along to it — share the experience. Because that’s exactly what music is: an experience.

Although there is so much incredible, often unknown music out there, it is rare nowadays that a DJ will play a new, underground or unknown song during her set on a Saturday night at an event filled with people, no matter how good she thinks that particular song is. Why? Because, to my earlier point, the audience will be unfamiliar — everyone wants to feel included, and for that to happen, the DJ has to carefully pick music that she can assume members of the crowd will not only know individually, but know as a whole, allowing them, again, to share in that experience together.

So, yeah, duh, the audience has to know the song that the DJ is playing [typically] for them to have a good time.

While all this is good and true, the fundamental question I pose to readers is this: is there a point at which a song becomes so familiar that the satisfaction that accompanies it actually starts to spiral negative, into dissatisfaction or even aversion? (Stick with me here)

The more we think about this, I think the very obvious answer is yes.

Let’s all take a second to remember that one time we were at a party and the DJ threw on something that had already been severely overplayed, either by the radio or by DJ’s at past events. This song, although maybe at one point popular, enjoyable, familiar and perfect for the occasion, has now become the bane of your very existence (think, Hotline Bling by Drake, or pretty much any song by Pitbull).

It gives you a headache; it makes you want to leave (*cough* Fancy by Iggy Azalea *cough*).

This is true even in less party-like settings: hanging out with friends in a dorm room or around a bonfire during the summer. No one wants to hear a song that they’ve heard a million times, but nonetheless they want to and often enjoy hearing songs that they are still familiar with, allowing them to share the familiarity and satisfaction of the music together.

When a friend asks which song is your current favorite, often the last thing you’ll say is the most popular song out, even if it truly is one of your favorites; you want to choose a song that they know and may agree with, but also pick a song that reflects your individuality and uniqueness in your musical preference, something that says something about you.

My point is this: the DJ’s sweet spot lies somewhere between familiarity and uniqueness.

When consuming music in groups, much like in other facets of life, we generally like to experience it together; we want to be with people who can share the enjoyment with us.

On the contrary, we also want to feel as though the experience is something unique to us and our group, allowing us to bond through that shared preference or experience. When playing music for your friends, you typically want to play a song or artist that most people in the group are familiar with and people will therefore be excited when it’s played, but also avoid playing a song that absolutely everyone in the world knows or is severely overplayed on the radio.

Musical preference, although formed even by people who often do not consider themselves creative, is one of the most ubiquitous, simple creative choices that we all make as consumers of the industry.

Even a common characteristic in long-term relationships is for partners to “have a song,” one that is chosen carefully, a reflection of and association with a moment in their lives that now creates a shared musical experience. This, at least between two people, is the sweet spot: right smack-dab in the middle between familiarity (you are both familiar with it; neither of you don’t know it) and uniqueness (neither of you have heard the song so many times or in so many other circumstances that it had become a headache; nor was it shared among so many people that you did not feel unique in your musical preference).

Human Nature

Thinking more deeply, I think it’s safe to say the principle of The DJ’s Sweet Spot is a larger representation of human nature and many of our most innate desires. Whether socially constructed, or biological in nature, the idea of belonging has always been a tricky one in human history. Today, I argue, it too has a sweet spot.

Much like our consumption of music, we all in some way or another want to be included. This idea of inclusion is conceived only by shared experiences, whether that be with people in the group, a song that’s playing, a TV show being discussed or maybe an idea that everyone grasps intellectually. Everyone wants to feel included, and everyone seeks, at least to an extent, a feeling of familiarity and comfort with other people.

Existing simultaneously, however, is a deep human desire to be unique. This one is a little more debatable, depending on people’s priorities and preferences, but for the most part, most children growing up enjoy having their own distinct and personal interests when it comes to music, clothing, sports, entertainment or the like, while also receiving great satisfaction from the ability to share those passions and interests with other people, the idea of “fitting in,” with hopes of attaining at least some minimal feeling of inclusion. We want to feel unique in our perspectives and preferences, but also understood, even in our most simple creative decisions.

[Bitter]Sweet Spot

So, again, this is where the Sweet Spot lies. A perfect blend of familiar and unique, of inclusion AND diversity, allowing us to simultaneously connect with others through shared passions and interests while also maintaining our individuality. For different people, the sweet spot lands on different spots on this spectrum, but nevertheless, this sweet spot is one of the most fundamental principles that DJ’s, artists, athletes and “regular Joe’s and Jane’s” alike must take into consideration as they form their identity, identify what it is they’re passionate about and push their contributions into the world.