The Unsung Hero’s Story: A Look At The EDM Visual Jockey

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As we all are aware of, music isn’t the only defining aspect of a live electronic music show. You’ve got the vibes, your extended family, and hand and hand with the music…you have your accompanying face-melting visuals. The DJ’s are the new rockstars, the fans are the new “headliners”…so what does that make the visual jockey (VJ) operating the massive L.E.D. screens and intense light shows behind the scenes? Forbes decided to continue their coverage of electronic dance music by exploring these unsung heroes’ contributions to the spectacles of electronic music shows.

“It’s like being a rockstar without  being a rockstar at all,” muses Dave Wexler, aka Strangeloop, who’s VJ creativity has been lent to live shows of Skrillex and Flying Lotus.”You might be the most visible part of the show because you control these 1,000-foot LED walls…but you’re not the center of focus – sometimes I feel like I’m some kind of ghost in the machine.” Wexler also runs the AV-collective group Teaching Machine.

“People really expect it to be a show,” states Vello Virkhaus of V Squared Labs, and is the official VJ and visuals director of Ultra Music Festival. “I think DJ’s are getting more and more interested in the process and having their own unique [visual] style.” The DJ/VJ synergy process kicks off with mood boards (a la story boards in the film industry) used to ultimately create those “feels” that we all know and love. “[Skrillex] was actually much more involved than almost any artist I’ve worked with,” Wexler says. “He really cared about the visual show because he thought that it was an important part [of the show] and I think increasingly artists know that.”

Not surprisingly, Armin van Buuren has also been working closely with his own specific VJ-collective since 2008, Netherlands-based Eyesupply and Carlo Ruijgers. “We have a time code system which we developed for Armin in which he can play any track he wants and with certain tracks we have the visuals that run in sync with the music,” Ruijgers says. “For a couple of tracks we made special visuals, and whenever he plays one of those the visuals run so you can see the lyrics or the vocal artist on the screen.”

In an industry that continues to blow up and expand in proportion by the day, the wow-factor of the live show is becoming increasingly important. According to a 2012 Nilsen report, Dance/Electronic is the fastest growing genre in terms of total tracks sold (sales +35.6%) and a recent EDMI study found that 73.8 million Americans consider themselves EDM fans…up 14% from 2011.

In taking advantage of this current boom, many are visual artists are flocking to the VJ line of work despite the sometimes wild west nature of the business. Without copyright organizations monitoring visual shows, most visual creators hold no publishing rights for their shows and in turn they earn no money when their visuals are performed by others. Despite this fact, though, the top VJ’s are generously compensated for their efforts. According to the article, they can make upwards if $100k for an hour and a half of tour quality video – $1,100 a minute, with 60 seconds of top-notch content requiring a full day’s work, according to Ruijgers. While VJ’s for venues specifically tend to make between $500-$1,00 for a well-paid show, while some make only a couple hundred.

The article ends with an exhibition of awareness of DJ’s and VJ’s on the importance of constant evolution to retain interest among fans. “I think as long as we keep innovating and trying new things we’ll be good,” Tiesto told Forbes. “But as soon as people are doing the same sets over and over I think it will die quickly.” This self-awareness of the scene on not allowing itself to become homogenized and stale is one of my favorite things about EDM in general. Not only EDM, but with outlets like Forbes continuing to release Grade A quality articles on electronic music with such a focused, positive and professional scope in addition to a variety of sick new visuals per these unsung heroes from “behind the curtain”…I see good things ahead for a long while.