You've heard of rap music ghostwriters, right? The guys who pen the words someone else performs, and get no credit for it?
A similar phenomenon is taking place in electronic dance music. In fact, a significant number of famous DJs aren't responsible for the music released under their names.
Those culpable usually have arrangements with an underling or an associate, ranging from commissioned edits and tweaks to outright purchases of entirely finished works. In fact, a whole industry of “ghost-producers” and engineers prop up the careers of a few brand name DJs who fistpump their way to fame and make millions.
Though speculation is rampant, those in the industry are hesitant to explicitly out any of their peers. Superstar DJ David Guetta is most frequently mentioned as someone who's likely using ghost-producers. On his first three albums, almost every track credit lists French house pioneer Joachim Garraud as co-writer and producer. A notable DJ in his own right, Garraud wasn't even mentioned in the marketing, which was odd.
Garraud himself was quoted as saying Guetta is “not a musician”and didn't know how to use a computer before they met, though he has since denied saying as much.
In any case, though the ghost-producing practice has been rumored for decades, recent revelations — and subsequent outrage — have brought it into the spotlight.
London-based DJ and writer Ben Gomori noted that the practice was rampant in an article last year for Mixmag.
“I think it's pathetic,” he tells us. “It's the apex of the materialistic, charlatan, ostentatious desire of certain types to become a 'superstar DJ' for the love of status rather than for the love of music.”
Meanwhile, EDM duo PeaceTreaty told OC Weekly earlier this year: “When you get more involved and you start working with bigger people, having ghostwriters is just the way it is. Everyone that's big doesn't write their own music.”
Naturally, then, there are those who make an honest living off of writing for big name DJs. Kenny Hanlon (not his real name) is the silent writing partner for a marquee name DJ — you've heard of his boss.
Hanlon is your typical music nerd, a bookish 32-year-old technician with a nimble ear and a relentless stamina. He handles the vast majority of his employer's studio work from his bedroom in Pasadena.
“Most big DJs have a stable of writers, beats guys,” he says. “For the most part these are young kids. Generally their payment is 5% of publishing…but 5% of a few million dollars is better than 50% of nothing.”
Despite making a healthy income as a ghostwriter, Hanlon acknowledges the pitfalls of the process. “A lot of ghostwriters sign agreements where they're not allowed to work for anyone else or do their own thing. They're getting locked into signing non-disclosure agreements. It's predatory because a lot the kids have no understanding of the music industry.”
The reality is that the business of music has been in a state of flux for the majority of electronic music's existence. “In the early 2000's, you could still just be a DJ and make your name by mixing records,” Gomori said. “Now you have to produce to succeed.” While the top DJs can make six figures in an evening, most everyone else will make four figures a night if they're lucky.
With so much money at stake, the big DJs tour constantly on the festival circuits and try to stay relevant via branding partnerships and a feverish release schedule. Many don't have the time or mindset to tinker their way to perfection in the studio, or even to keep up with current trends.
When faced with the choice of spending 350 consecutive hours at a desk fine-tuning the details of a track or paying some teenager to do it while they instead hose down women with champagne at Vegas nightclubs, many choose the latter. Ghostwriters fill the void and keep business running smoothly.
“Ghosting isn't unique to dance music at all,” says Hanlon, “Andy Warhol made that famous. He didn't do shit. He had a factory.”
But what constitutes authenticity in the performance of electronic music? It's long been known that many of these guys are doing less work on stage than fans assume.
It has never been easier to make professional-quality music, yet more and more performers farm out their creative workload. Some of the most successful have removed themselves so far from the creative process that they're more akin to CEOs of advertising agencies than artists.
Let's face it: Purists who care about who is actually writing the music probably aren't listening to mainstream crossover acts anyway. Aging ravers may feel a loss of ownership when it comes to electronic music's capitalistic pursuits, but art becoming business is a road well traveled. Perhaps Tocadisco, another rumored Guetta ghost-producer, put it best: “Nobody cares if it's your track or other people's track as long as the party is good.”