Long Relationships – My Incredible Journey From Unknown DJ to Small-Time DJ
There’s a lot going on in Harold Heath’s brilliantly readable DJ memoir. In the first place it’s an endearing story of a DJ’s struggle towards success – the slow career climb of a professional in dance music. There are details any working DJ will recognise – like a drunk promoter kicking him off the decks so he can have a go himself, or a wildly mis-booked gig that has Harold desperately searching through his box for something that won’t utterly bomb. It’s full of smart descriptions of the craft and the sheer pleasure to be had making people dance.
The bittersweet opening scene is pure Spinal Tap, as he plays rave classics at a gig he assumes must be the end of his career. ‘In the marquee this afternoon, the bleeps and sub-bass of LFO’s UK house classic ‘LFO’ take on a surreal air, as toddlers and children are encouraged to dance by eager parents, whilst some of the other Mums and Dads look on with a mixture of emotions ranging from bemusement to teary-eyed nostalgia.’
However, after the unspoken shame of playing for under-fives, a few pages later he gives you the 180-degree counterpoint, describing a perfect overseas booking where everything comes together beautifully: the crowd, the setting, the vibe. ‘We are at an open-air bar in Varna Bulgaria, on a hill overlooking the Black Sea, on a magical summer evening.’ Amid this beautiful scenery he captures a peak moment as he recalls ‘playing one of my own productions, on a beautiful high-end hand-carved artisan sound system which was forged in the embers of a dying sun.’ This mix of highs and lows is what makes the book such fun, with Harold happy to share the details of both extremes. The journey he takes us on is unflinchingly honest and often hilarious.
The other side to the book, which elevates it to another level, is a brutal study of the scorched-earth decimation of the ‘dance industry’, as we used to know it, at the hands of the digital revolution. As a tech-house DJ scraping an okay living from playing and production, Harold is perfectly placed to detail the incremental changes that destroyed his livelihood. We follow each twist of the business as the money drains away from middling DJ-producers like him, and into the hands of the big music platforms and oxygen-depleting superstars. Around the mid-noughties his career is ticking along nicely. He’s scaled the heights of ‘tier five, maybe briefly tier four’ in the DJ pyramid, playing bigger gigs and travelling regularly to eastern Europe. After this, though, the ground is pulled inexorably from under him.
‘Once music could be converted into digital zeros and ones and be instantly swapped between hard drives around the world without cost, then everything changed and the equilibrium that had existed before simply disappeared.’ He sees deals get worse, advances fall, vinyl distributers go bust, remix fees fall to hobbyist rates, and earnings from releases nosedive. As streaming takes over and social media begins its climb, he dutifully takes to MySpace, and then Facebook, and watches an army of amateurs muscle in on all the previously skilled areas of the business. He describes all this with a perspective gained by hindsight, but also with the eyes of a frontline soldier.
‘As the structures of the traditional music industry crumbled around me, I continued to spend my time DJing underground house parties and producing underground house music, the profits of which couldn’t possibly sustain me financially in the long term… Looking back, I’m still not really sure why though. It seems trite to say, but at the heart of it, I just really loved it.’
In a culture so often defined by its winners, Long Relationships is brilliantly observed reporting from the coalface of dance music. It illuminates the slog of everyday promotion and the occasional glittering moments behind the decks that provide the strength to keep going. It’s a love letter to a culture, and also an important document of the unstoppable economic forces that did their best to vapourise it.
‘The music industry no longer made sense: the kids paid a monthly fee to huge corporations so they could steal music from their favourite artists. DJs had become awful faux-rock stars, thousands of people stood in rows looking at them instead of dancing together to their music. In the face of reality where the old certainties had fallen away, producers and DJs like me retreated online. We created a simplified, cartoon sketch of ourselves and… retreated to the warm glow of the internet even as it started to reduce us.’ Frank Broughton
© Frank Broughton & Bill Brewster