Innovation vs. Imitation – By Stu Chisholm

May 27, 2013 by Stu Chisholm

HAS INNOVATION LOST THE BATTLE?Innovation-standout-glow

In those dark, dark days before Mobile Beat, and even before the Internet, a great many Americans launched careers as mobile DJs. Innovation was a daily occurrence, since we were basically making it up as we went along.
My first (and oldest) road cases were made to spec from a drawing I sent in, since no case company made a configuration suitable for DJ work. More importantly, while some of us may have borrowed from bands, the content of our shows was up to us! A DJ who paid attention and crafted routines according to tradition and what was in-demand usually was more successful. We did our own thing, becoming distinct and vital. Yes, DJs swapped stories and tips, but few outright imitated the others. As one colleague once put it, “If I imitate [a popular DJ], then I’m playing ‘follow the leader,’ while he moves forward. That means I’m always behind and will never be the leader myself.” That sentence always stuck with me.

I was reminded of that recently when reading messages on one of the online DJ forums. Since my start, there has been an entire generation that has had the benefit of experience and advice of hundreds of DJs handed to them through the many books, websites and more than a couple of decades of Mobile Beat. While this has arguably made what we offer a better “product” to clients, it can also be said that what we offer has become more homogenous. The charge that “all DJs are the same” is truer now than ever before! And while innovation is still around, it has both been stunted and even made into an industry itself.


The first time I took note of this, it was extremely subtle. DJ expos and seminars first began to appear and some extremely innovative DJs began to market their ideas. I noticed one in particular because it was something I routinely did myself; taking notes at gigs of everything both large and small, from which mics needed batteries to a tweak to a routine that might have made it work just a little bit better. This idea was fleshed-out in a presentation, and later a DVD, by the now highly acclaimed Randy Bartlett under the title, The 1% Solution. I thought it was utterly brilliant! (And still do.)

Over the years, a great many other DJs have created incredible innovations that have become seminars, books and DVDs. Almost gone among the average DJ is the brute, uncelebrated innovation that every DJ had to do in bygone days. Every new idea gets tagged with a “TM” and books, videos and seminars are built up around them. This divides DJs into two classes: innovators and emulators.

This isn’t necessarily bad! After all, this is exactly what trade schools do; students take classes from those with greater knowledge and/or who have created some radical new innovation (or even an entire field) and, once graduated, go off into the world to emulate them. The biggest difference, however, is that university-level students are required to contribute to their field of endeavor before leaving school. In short, innovation (or discovery) is mandatory.


Another brilliant innovator that I first saw at a Mobile Beat show in Chicago is Todd Mitchem. When he was announced to the crowd and came out onto the stage, several people nearby said, “Who does this guy think he is?” Within a few minutes those same people were dancing, singing and swaying arm-in-arm having the time of their lives! The seminar-inside-of-a-performance was a classic demonstration of basic audience interaction and nearly everyone present was instantly sold! I know I was. I still count this as one of my landmark experiences that literally changed the face of my shows.

So why wasn’t this concept more successful? After a huge promotional push and a lot of books and tapes (later DVDs) being sold, it’s very seldom I see any conversations on forums about creating interactive routines. Sure, there’s lots of discussion about various workshops and other well-known, well-promoted concepts (video montages, the “Love Story,” etc.), but the blood-pumping excitement of Mitchem’s audience interaction concept is barely mentioned anymore. In fact, Mitchem retired the concept for a while, only recently returning, due mostly by popular demand from his small-but-loyal fan base. (Count me among them!) Why? One word: innovation. When it comes to interactivity, innovation is required. To innovate, one must have original thoughts and at least a minimum level of creativity. It’s not easy. Nobody is going to hand it to you, or even sell it to you. Could this be why so many entertainers are wowed by the result when they see it, yet shrink from embracing the concept for their own shows?


It’s easy to pick on people, and this isn’t my goal. The great innovators of our industry are also exceptional self-promoters, and have improved what we do to the point where today’s DJs are a world apart from those of even 20 years ago. You cannot assign blame for them capitalizing on the general lack of innovation by turning their own concepts into a cottage industry. In fact, I find myself reading the forums and realizing that I am also a part of this dilemma! When I wrote “The Complete Disc Jockey,” the economic recession was making life difficult for mobile DJs. They needed a lifeline. So I tossed them one in the form of various things they could do to maintain their bottom line in the face of a shrinking customer base. I advised them to add things like video, uplighting and photo booths so that they could maintain profit margins despite less bookings. In areas where the recession subsided, DJs didn’t abandon these upsells, but now enjoy the even greater income because they’ve followed this advice. I’ve been both gratified and irked by this; happy that so many DJs survived and thrived despite the poor economy, yet disturbed that what were once unusual extras are now part of the expected standard compliment of DJ services.


If nothing else, DJs are observant. They have to be. They not only read crowds, but they know which way the wind is blowin’. So, for the few who aren’t content to follow the crowd and actually do innovate, they’ve also taken a cue from the Randy Bartletts of the DJ universe and have packaged their own ideas into slick presentations, hoping to be the next star of the DJ firmament. It’s a near perfect realization of Ayn Rand’s philosophy: the creators and the takers, except in this case, we call them “customers.”

So what, you may ask, is the problem? If following industry leaders isn’t bad, what gives? If creating and selling new concepts isn’t evil, who cares?

The short answer is an oft-asked question: what sets you apart? Aside from banal posts about how you fix a problem with Virtual DJ, where you get your custom gobos from and what kind of DMX uplights you use, that is the #1 question on DJ forums when it comes to content. In an industry where one group is following another and becoming more and more homogenous, we’re told time and time again that the one thing you need to do is distinguish yourself from the crowd. It’s as mind-boggling as a women’s magazine, with exercise and diet tips side-by-side with waist expanding recipes! Mixed messages anyone?


In the marketplace of ideas, we DJ/consumers need to pick and choose what works best for us. Just as we don’t go into a store and buy everything we see, we don’t need to jump on every trend. Put your show FIRST. Like the famous food pyramid, your business model should also be pyramid shaped, with you at the top. The #1 thing you have to offer that nobody else can is yourself, and readers of TCDJ know that personality is like a muscle: you can build it up! Your show centers around you (even as you focus on your clients). A client isn’t hiring your cool video projector, laser effect or photo booth – everybody’s got those. They’re hiring YOU.

Next, bring in those things that support your show. If you’re not a gifted singer, then maybe take a pass on offering karaoke. Conversely, if you ARE a gifted singer, then maybe karaoke would make a great centerpiece to your performance! Decide on that basis, rather than what the DJ company down the road is doing. Or the guys on the forums. Remember: you’re not out to be everything to everyone.

If you’re working before a live audience (as opposed to the radio guys), then you are already an “interactive DJ” whether you know it or not. You will make your announcements, direct activities and invite people to dance at the very minimum. So why in the world wouldn’t you build on that? Combine your personality with audience interaction and you’ve already got something unique! Check into Todd Mitchem’s Let’s Get Interactive!, and innovate! And, of course, keep checking in here for upcoming information on feeding your inner creative monster. Until next time, safe spinnin’!

Stu Chisholm, a mobile DJ in the Detroit area since 1979, has also been a nightclub DJ, done some radio, some commercial voice-over work and has even worked a roller skating rink! Stu attended the famous Specs Howard School of Broadcasting and has been a music collector since the age of seven. Stu’s guide to the profession, The Complete DJ, is available from ProDJ Publishing.


Filed Under: 2013, Mobile DJ Performance Tips