Bartosz is a well respected member of the Swing community in Poland and I was fortunate enough to grab a few minutes out of his busy schedule to talk DJ’ing. Out of his many years of experience, he has formed strongly held beliefs on the importance of making good decisions, not easy ones. I hope our conversation encourages both dancers and non-dancers alike to re-examine how they look at convenience in their lives. And better appreciate the art form that is DJ’ing!
Greg Austin Hi Bartosz, how’s it going?
Bartosz Przybylski It’s good, thanks for asking.
Greg Excellent, as we begin, if you could give us some background information… how you got into dancing.
Bartosz How I got into dancing? Let’s start with that I never liked dancing. I never liked Swing music and I didn’t even listen to it. I probably didn’t even know that it existed and didn’t pay much attention to Jazz either. Then, at some point in life while doing my Culture Studies: Comparative Studies of Civilizations in Kraków, and working with many different cultural festivals, I found out some people were looking for volunteers for a Dragon Swing Festival. It was about some Lindy Hop dance, and because I liked Hop Hop culture, I thought it was probably something similar. I checked the videos on YouTube and what I found was a completely different dance than I was expecting. Different music, different energy and the spirit of the dance. I got interested and I signed up. I became a volunteer and started working with my present school, Kmita Swing, long before we had regular classes. I was not a dancer yet when I made this decision and tied my life with Swing. I liked the atmosphere, openness, energy, people. This dance and it’s community was perfect for me.
Greg Is there one way to sum up the atmosphere and energy of Lindy Hop?
Greg Excellent. Ok, and how did you start DJ’ing?
Bartosz It was around a year after I started dancing Lindy. I wanted to have more dancing parties in Kraków, but there were not so many dancers yet, and we danced only once or twice a week. I wanted to dance more and I started throwing socials here and there, to the point that if I am correct, once in February we had 17 dance evenings!
Bartosz It was a lot. Sometimes we had only 6 people coming to the parties, but we were still dancing. Comparing then and now, it’s a big change. It was a time when I wanted to do something more for the scene, and also a time when I starting teaching Lindy. Everything came together. I was playing music on the parties, making playlists from all the music I could get from the DJs I’ve met, teachers, and any other place. After a year or two, I started going more into …DJ’ing.
Greg That’s interesting, you say that you were playing music at parties, but you didn’t consider yourself DJ’ing. What’s the difference?
Bartosz There’s a huge difference. I found this nice metaphor that I am used to use. It’s about 3 kind of people.
First is PM, “Playlist Maker” – someone who prepares the playlist at home and then puts it on the party and just leaves it this way.
Second is “LSS”, “Laptop Song Selector”, when you have songs and you are choosing them mostly by the tempo to make it possible for dance, or change playlists on the spot, having a few to use.
And finally there is actual DJ’ing, which is more, as I understand now, a work of art. It is the use of experience, different skills, accessible tools, instinct, and many collective ideas, to choose the next song on the fly – feeling, reading and responding to the mood on a dance floor, while keeping some general narration or music frames, for example playing only Big Bands Swing.
It comes with many questions, that people usually don’t ask themselves. How to start? How to evaluate what is happening on the dance floor? What to look for next? How I can inspire people? How I can make them interested more into music? How not to repeat yourself? There are many layers on this topic.
Greg So it’s much more an art form to be a DJ?
Bartosz I consider DJ’ing an art form. You have some resources and you use them to create something new for dancers to experience, something unique but accessible to dance, and feel.
Greg Gotcha, so creating instead of consuming?
Greg Being a DJ means you have to know your music very, very well I take it?
Bartosz You need to know your music by heart. From the very first beat till the last second of the song. I never play a track that I don’t fully know. I never play a song that I haven’t listened to completely. I need to know from which album it comes from, which year. I need to have an opinion first. Behind every song there’s always some story, some themes or musical ideas. So it’s good to know the potential of the song and have a personal connection with it.
Greg I was impressed when we were talking this past weekend at the Kraków Lindy Invasion and you heard a song and said, “Oh, So-and-so played this song 3 nights ago in the first set.”
Bartosz Yeah, I think it’s normal for DJs and probably only for us. It’s not normal for people who just make a playlist. On the parties I can tell if “My Baby Don’t Care For Me” was played twice on Friday at the beginning, then one more time by another DJ, and then also on Saturday and once more on Sunday. Sometimes it drives you crazy to hear the same song used every night or the same playlist. People who don’t put attention to the music, they don’t realize it, but for me, it’s always like a fresh memory. I connect this information with a DJ, with a party, a place and even dancing partner, and it helps me with choosing my songs better. I am not even thinking too much about this, it just comes to my mind naturally.
Greg This is going to be a fun question. Is there one song that you’re in love with right now?
Bartosz I listen to Swing music every day for a lot of purposes and I have collection of few thousand songs. Yesterday for one hour straight I was listening to “Moten Swing” by Count Basie from Chairman of The Board (1959), because I was preparing a special class built on this song. And I love that song. I learned to like and enjoy Swing music so there’s always hundreds of songs on my mind.
To add one more, something recent, it would be “Jitterbug” by a Swedish band from the 40’s, under the lead of Seymour Osterwalls. It’s a rare one, not very common. I heard this one first time on Athens Rhythm Hop festival in Greece, played by Felix Berghäll, a famous Swedish teacher, during his class. It got my attention since the first hearing. Sometimes you just know it’s good and sometimes your body tells you that, and you learn to love the song and enjoy moving to it. And sometimes you need to give it more time to get used to it or build better dancing skills and wider understanding of Swing music to start appreciating it.
There are many old songs, that you won’t find on streaming services, or they are not possible to get by regular means. Some you will find only on vinyl. Some bands you can find only locally, And sometimes the quality of the recording makes it impossible for people to enjoy on a dance party, so it stays at home, with you. It’s always easier to work with something that is already known by many, served on the plate, which doesn’t require much time and work for a future DJ.
Greg Let’s talk about this “easiness.” Today with the internet and music streaming services, such as Spotify, it is easier to create playlists, it is easier to share playlists, and you don’t need to own the music. These services have made it more convenient to play music at parties, but what do you think is the cost of this convenience?
Bartosz That’s a good question. For example, Spotify, the most popular service to use nowadays, it is simply illegal for DJ’ing. It’s clearly states in its terms and conditions that it is for your own use, non-commercial purposes. Paying for the premium account doesn’t let you use freely all of the music. I think many people don’t realize this, or they don’t want to admit to that.
And even so, you are getting newer and newer applications for DJ’ing from Spotify, to use whatever the resources they have, just to keep you as long as possible from buying the albums and CDs. Renting music from streaming services, that may go away any day, and then you will have to move on to the next future app. So for me it’s not my music, not my playlist, it’s borrowed.
If you don’t want to say goodbye to your favorite bands, buy the albums. Every musician will tell you first, go to a concert, then buy a CD, or a digital one, from any source on which the band is promoting themselves, then buy a few songs if you don’t want everything, and the very last, always the last option, will be Spotify and similar services. If you check on Google how much money musicians are actually getting for their Spotify views, you will realize how small it is. If they are not on the top, then it’s nothing. Whatever dime they earn, they still have to divide it between all the musicians, producers, label records and so on. They use streaming services for marketing purposes. And finally, artists can block their songs or just give a sample of the album, not all the good stuff. Which makes sense, as for this you will have to buy whole CD.
For me, as I am old fashioned, I believe the first time I went on Spotify, I was searching for something that I already had on my hard disc. I couldn’t find some of the songs, or they were blocked in my country, or they didn’t had the same versions, so I knew from the beginning it’s not a place for me. It was better to buy the full album, find a vinyl or exchange songs with friends, and then you had them forever, not bound to an online platform. And for the record, the search option sucks there.
Greg That’s interesting because I think a lot of people think that Spotify is convenient because it has all the music.
Bartosz But it doesn’t. It makes an illusion, an impression of comfort that is has all the music, as much as any other free-to-use program. Their business model is to keep you staying on their site for as long as possible. And it will do anything to make you think this way, that you don’t need anything else than Spotify. Still, it’s better than piracy or illegal downloading.
Greg I’m curious about the growth and development of a DJ, how do the music streaming services help and hinder this development?
Bartosz There’s a big transformation that is happening. For me, becoming a better DJ comes with understanding the music. Just playing good stuff may be the same or similar to hitting shuffle random playlist with good music. If there’s no difference, then why do we need DJs? Computers could do all the work for us, right?
Before we had Spotify in Poland in 2013, we had maybe 2 or 3 people playing music, and after that, within the next years, the numbers grew to 8-10, all thanks to easy access and low cost. I remember I had to look for music everywhere, asking other DJs, asking bands, teachers, friends and so on, looking through the albums. Now you can download a playlists of many international stars and top performers and already call yourself a DJ.
How many times I’ve been in this situation when I liked someone’s music being played at a party and I went to ask about it, and that person couldn’t tell me what the song or artist was? They had completely no idea without checking on their playlist first. And then I could see all of the recently visited playlists, which were from of all top DJs and I knew where their music came from. Copy and paste. Little disappointing. Nowadays people don’t come very often to ask about the music, to show some appreciation, or even just to give feedback. Many use Shazam, another application of convenience. They only come to ask you if they cannot find it using Shazam. And that happens quite a lot.
Anyway, coming back to the topic, using streaming services isn’t all bad. For example, as a DJ or a teacher, you can influence people with your choices and this is still important. You can give them quick access to good music so they can better learn what Swing is. Or you can make a playlist of songs that you consider a cliché to play, just for education and opinion. You can promote bands and artist here as well. I wouldn’t, however, call it an equal argument to buying music on your own. There are plenty of amateur DJs who are relying on Spotify and its resources and still being limited with their experience, and understanding the value of having your own library.
Greg Let’s talk about some of the benefits of owning your own music. If you own your own music, you’re able categorize it, organize it, add comments, and really understand it more completely. That’s correct, right?
Bartosz Yes, as a DJ, I am building my own library. I am buying songs, categorizing them, sorting them out. I have all the information that I need in one place, and I can easily make a filter, find whatever I need, with all my comments to it… songs for specific tempo or instrument, exact years or genre, even how many eights of intro, for competition purpose, or even add lyrics, if I would like to sing it. On Spotify you cannot do that in the same way.
Having your own library means that you spend the time with music and you know it. There’s no other way around, no shortcuts. It builds ideas in your head, how to make it all better. How to make it the most comfortable for you to find the right song while you are DJ’ing. You may be in a situation where a MC asks you for something short and specific, and you need to be ready for it – if you would like to be a professional.
Greg Are all of these issues we have been talking about being discussed in the Swing world? Is this a common thing that people are talking about?
Bartosz It’s a common thing, not only for the Swing community. Every now and then the topic comes back and the same arguments go on. People who are using streaming services are not happy if you tell them it’s not good for playing or DJ’ing and they won’t bother, because it saves them time, money and work. But the cost is paid by the other artist. Many times they will excuse themselves by saying it’s expensive. But if you really look at the prices and compare it to your daily expenses, sometimes this one great song you need, only costs you, say the price of a beer. The only exception is when you live in Iceland, in Denmark or Switzerland. Then for one beer you could probably get full album… laughs.
But yeah, DJing from Spotify doesn’t give you a great environment to work with the music, and doesn’t give you all the tools you could use. Without them, you are not progressing as a DJ. That’s my opinion, belief and experience. With one year of paying for a subscription, you could actually buy enough music to DJ for long time, and it would be more legal.
Ultimately, deciding whether to own your music or use a streaming services is basically a choice between what’s good, and what’s easy. If you choose the good choice then you may become a better DJ and your scene will progress as well. If you make an easy choice, then you must accept the costs that come with your convenient choice.
Greg The good choice or the easy choice, that is the question?
Bartosz Yeah, that’s what matters when you’re an adult.
Greg If someone is a “music player” and they are interesting in becoming a “DJ,” are there some resources that are available that you would point people in the direction of?
Bartosz Well, it’s not an easy step, to become a DJ. Foremost, you need to understand the role and responsibility you are taking on upon yourself. Everyone will count on you to make the best party, to bring a success for the event, to make your scene have a good reputation and so on. You are but one person and you will stand in the critics line all the time. It may be heavy, especially after experiencing some failures and letdowns. So you should be well prepared and get ready to always get feedback. Dig up whatever you can before going into it. Find people whose music you like. Talk to them. About their experiences, their beginnings, their thoughts on music, now and then, how it evolved and changed.
Greg You mean experienced DJs…
Bartosz Yes. There’s always someone ready to give a helping hand, if they are asked properly. I was searching Swing DJ forums, groups and blogs to find all the tips and I found many. But also, many times I unfortunately found too much self-promotion and advertisements.
Greg You were hoping to help create a good place for DJs to communicate, right?
Bartosz I’m thinking about it. This weekend in Kraków, I am organizing and leading a workshops for Polish Swing DJs and anyone interested in playing music on parties. I will share my thoughts, my knowledge and experiences, in different contexts and perspectives. Building a library, and all dos, don’ts, tips, tricks, catches and cookies. Also there will be free lectures about Swing music and Count Basie. It’s first event like this in Poland. If it works, I hope to create a local platform where we can help others to solve all kinds of problems, to share experiences and talk about obvious things, without self-advertisement.
Greg This sounds very inspirational! I wish you the best of luck with this DJ workshop this weekend, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from you, both on and off the dance floor.
Bartosz Thanks Greg for this interview. A real pleasure. I love talking about music. So, see you on the dance floor.
Interested in contacting Bartosz? He graciously opened up his email address for those who would like to continue the conversation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.