The wages of spin

As tech advances make it easy to mix your own sounds, music lovers are seizing the chance to realise their digital dreams. Ben Sin checks out a boom in DJ classes

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 July, 2014, 3:13am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 July, 2014, 6:33am

It's a warm September evening at Bisous nightclub in Central, and Craig Dungey is celebrating his 42nd birthday by recalling his youth.

You Shook Me All Night Long by AC/DC is blasting through the amps. The senior insurance professional has heard the song a thousand times before in his native Australia, but this time it sounds a bit different: Dungey watches, fascinated, as the young DJ manipulates the bassline using the EQ dial on the music mixer, altering the sound of the classic rock track.

When he realises the DJ is a student at Sol Passion Music, performing for the first time as part of the school's "Dare to DJ" programme, Dungey thinks about his missed opportunities. He loves music, and has told close friends and family of his regrets at not pursuing the hobby during his younger days. Fortunately, his wife Belinda believes it's never too late to go after your passion.

The next day, she booked a session at Sol Passion Music in Wan Chai for her husband and their 11-year-old son, Aiden.

A week later, father and son are in a studio, where they learn more about the fundamentals of being a "disc jockey", such as "beatmatching" (syncing the beats of two music tracks together so they don't clash sonically) and "phrasing" (transitioning between songs without breaking their musical structure). The Dungeys return for more sessions.

A month later, on Halloween, Craig takes the booth for the first time at a friend's party. A few months later, in March, Aiden makes his debut at the Beertopia craft beer festival. "I was a bit nervous being on stage in front of 100 people," the younger Dungey says. "But I got to play some of my favourite artists, like Deadmau5."

"Girls soon surrounded his booth," his father says.

Like many youngsters today, Aiden, a Year 6 student at the Australian International School, enjoys electronic dance music, a genre often associated with clubs and raves that has gone mainstream in the past decade. The growing prominence of EDM and its many subgenres - such as dubstep and tech house - has led to increasing interest in the art of DJing.

This growing demand brought Australians Ed Rollo and Mike Vera to Hong Kong. Having been DJs and event promoters in the Sydney clubbing scene for years, they saw the potential here.

"We came out here to do something with music, but we weren't sure exactly what at first," says Vera, who arrived in 2012 with just a backpack. "We were considering everything - just DJing, or organising gigs, we weren't sure. We just wanted to be part of a community of DJs that shared their passion and learned from each other."

In Sydney, the two had organised an open-format club night in which professional and aspiring DJs shared the stage.

"We visited every bar and club in Hong Kong, spoke to as many musicians and DJs as we could, to try to suss out the scene," says Rollo. Eventually, they realised there was a demand for DJ lessons in Hong Kong. And so DJ and music production school Sol Passion Music was born, in June 2013.

Other newcomers include SonicInsights, DJ4Life Academy and Soda Mix DJ School.

Wong Tin-ho, who has been conducting classes at Baron School of Music since 2006, says:

"The combination of better technology and the maturation of Hong Kong's music scenes - it's not just fluffy top 40 stuff in bars now - makes it so easy for people to get started that the market for DJ schools has really bloomed."

Wong, as DJ Tinho, represented Hong Kong at the prestigious DMC World DJ Championships in London in 2007. "I have so many more students now compared to five years ago. And the students range from 12-year-old girls to middle-aged men."

Cassady Winston, better known in the alternative nightlife circle as XXX Gallery founder DJ Enso, says he, too, is often if he teaches DJing and "for whatever reason, more and more of these queries are from girls".

Pseudo-model and celebrity DJ Suki Wong Suet-yik, 25, has an answer: "The image of hip hop - having 'swag', being 'street' - is cool these days."

Wong was a model for years, appearing in music videos and magazines, but her career really took off when she took up Djing; she now flies around Asia performing at clubs.

Dream jobs such as these fuel the demand for DJs. Sol Passion Music offers courses ranging from one day to 10 weeks: the first is an introduction to the fundamentals, and the latter is a complete programme that includes lessons on how to use DJ hardware and software. Vera and Rollo say most students sign up for the four- or eight-week course but eventually switch to the 10-week programme. At the end of week 10, students are ready to perform gigs - which Rollo and Vera set up.

Gigs aren't restricted to the nightlife scene, either. Sol Passion Music was approached this year by both Art Basel and Affordable Art Fair to set up performances - and young Aiden was, again, on stage for the latter event.

The school has taught about 70 students so far, and the number is growing so steadily the school will move to bigger premises next month, the partners say.

"The advancements in digital music technology have made DJing accessible to everyone, and so everyone wants to DJ and make digital music," Vera says.

Hong Kong native Sean Rogers, who co-founded SonicInsights with fellow DJ Dennis Zelazowski, says technology "has softened the learning curve and reduced frustration for beginners".

Software such as Traktor Pro 2 (released in 2011), for example, lets one "sync" beats between tracks automatically, eliminating the once-crucial DJ skill of managing beats of each track. The shift from vinyl and CDs to digital music (a DJ's entire music collection can be stored on a hard drive) has also made DJing far less costly.

"It definitely helps that there are so many free downloads available. I can practise at home," says Charles Lam Ka-ho, 26, who has completed the 10-week course at Sol Passion Music and is now on the digital music production course.

Lam, an architect, says the courses help him to relax. "I don't really plan on being a regular DJ, but I like music a lot and I wanted to do something fun after work," he says.

Age is no deterrent: another student, 14-year-old Jacob Nasr, has had his appetite whetted after performing at events, and is now considering a career in music production. "Music is and always will be a huge part of my life," he says.

"Kids today are just so tech- savvy," Craig Dungey says of his son Aiden. "They have their iPhone, Xbox and other gadgets. It's great that Aiden is trying to create and mix music at home. It's so much easier now. During my youth, you would have needed a studio. Now you can do it in your bedroom."

"The talent is here, the money is here," Vera says. "We just need grass-roots programmes that can help musicians grow, and for all of us to learn from each other."