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DJ livestreams are under attack just when we need music the most

Facebook, Instagram and record companies should let the music play

A pandemic ravages the globe, traps us in our homes and menaces our paychecks. Racism scythes us down. Cities burn. More than any time in recent memory, we need the healing power of music — yet the world’s biggest social media and music companies are pulling the plug by cracking down on DJs.

Facebook and Instagram are interrupting livestreams, leading to cries of pain from world-famous DJs like Jazzy Jeff and Questlove. DJs don’t own the rights to the songs they play, and Facebook, which owns Instagram, is telling them to obtain legal clearances that have always been provided by clubs, radio stations and other performance venues. Instead of encouraging DJs to bring quarantined audiences to Facebook’s venues, Facebook is labeling DJs as copyright thieves and cutting off their performances midsong.

Even Facebook seems confused about the logic behind the crackdown. Last week, the @Instagram account, which has 352 million followers, advertised a Thursday night DJ set by the duo Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia, who began their legendary partnership in 1990. Then Instagram cut Bobbito off in the middle of playing the Tony Allen song “Get Together” on Comet Records, part of Bobbito’s trademark mix of rare cuts.

DJs Stretch Armstrong (left) and Bobbito Garcia (right) attend the Def Jam 35 Night Market on Oct. 3, 2019, at Villain in Brooklyn, New York.

Johnny Nunez/Getty Images for Def Jam Recordings

As Bobbito restarted his livestream, he spoke about the problem to his audience: “I respect all composers, publishers out there, producers, get your money. If the record industry is protecting you, then so be it. I support that,” he said. “If the record industry is being selfish during a pandemic when people need DJs to provide music … then yo — you’re wack.”

Then Bobbito wagged his finger at the camera and said, “Most likely it’s because you’re greedy, and you’re wack.”

“How do you tell DJs to stop doing this thing that since the beginning of time gave people some sort of joy, speaking the universal language of music? You’re telling them not to speak it.” — DJ Clark Kent

The figure we now know as the DJ revolutionized music by birthing hip-hop in the 1970s, extending and blending records in ways that inspired dancers, rappers and graffiti artists to invent a new culture. DJs became established as artists in their own right, cutting records into collages and captivating crowds with each flex of the wrist.

Making something fresh out of another artist’s song is the origin story of hip-hop. Five decades later, hip-hop has evolved from fighting the system to dominating it. But the tension remains between borrowing songs and giving them new life — the current fight between Facebook and DJs is just a remix.

It was prompted by the explosion of DJ livestreaming, which combusted on March 21 when DJ D-Nice’s Instagram jam drew more than 100,000 visitors, including Stevie Wonder, Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama. Since then, with clubs closed and house parties more contagious than the Isley Brothers song, DJs have plugged into Facebook or Instagram Live and let the music flow. On any given day, you could find DJ Clark Kent, Questlove, Jazzy Jeff, 9th Wonder or some cat you never heard of doing their thing on the ‘Gram.

Questlove (left) DJs during the High Fidelity New York premiere at the Metrograph on Feb. 13 in New York City.

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Hulu

These sessions have helped listeners momentarily escape the suffering of quarantine and despair, especially when the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd dragged America into another emotional abyss.

“Experiencing that first night of D-Nice, it felt very special. It shifted. Something changed, like, maybe I can deal with this quarantine,” said Amy Collado, a Bronx, New York, resident who tunes in regularly to DJ sets on Instagram. “Music has literally, for me personally, kept me afloat. I don’t know how I would have been able to function without that break, without feeling close to people without actually being next to them.

“I’ve been saying that DJs are essential workers, too.”

This is the environment in which Facebook chose to post “Updates and Guidelines for Including Music in Video.”

“As part of our licensing agreements, there are limitations around the amount of recorded music that can be included in Live broadcasts or videos,” Facebook’s May 20 statement said. “While the specifics of our licensing agreements are confidential, today we’re sharing some general guidelines to help you plan your videos better.”

The guidelines are murky and feel like descendants of the music industry’s history of unfair recording contracts that have robbed artists. They said Instagram Live DJ sets could be “limited.” They said DJs should play short clips instead of full songs, and even then, “recorded audio should not be the primary purpose of your video.” Instead of permitting certified party rockers from Roddy Ricch or Kendrick Lamar, the guidelines offered free access to a slush pile called the Facebook Sound Collection, featuring the likes of Neko Fuzz and Geo Wavy.

Facebook declined to comment on the record. The three major record companies, Warner, Sony and Universal, did not respond to requests for comment. Their rules basically deem it illegal to DJ on Instagram and Facebook without a performance license from an agency like BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) or ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). But even if DJs do manage to navigate the legal labyrinth of royalty permissions — mechanical, sound recording, composition, performance, publishing — there is no apparent way to alert Instagram that they are spinning by the book.

The music industry has always encouraged DJs to play records in public, because they introduce new music and artists to the public and can dictate what’s hot. But as music has moved online, the record companies’ calculus has changed.

DJ Clark Kent celebrates Pusha T’s Daytona rap album of the year at Dior Men’s Boutique on Feb. 8, 2019, in Beverly Hills, California.

Donato Sardella/Getty Images for Dior

A few well-connected DJs are now playing full songs on Instagram with no restrictions, often with licenses bought by corporate sponsors. The majority who lack the necessary relationships are getting kicked off regularly, says music attorney Ian Waldon. “The record companies are saying that it’s not necessarily fair use, and it’s not a marketing or promotional situation where we have an established relationship with this particular DJ,” Waldon said.

The thing is, only a select few of the biggest-name DJs get paid to spin online. The vast majority, even well-known selectors like Questlove or Stretch and Bobbito, do it for the love of music. Meanwhile, Facebook, which made $18 billion in profit last year, makes money off the data it harvests from everyone on its platforms. While Facebook already has deals in place with the major record companies, it decided to call the cops on the party.

“How do you tell DJs to stop doing this thing that since the beginning of time gave people some sort of joy, speaking the universal language of music? You’re telling them not to speak it,” said Kent.

Kent also is a producer with publishing rights to a long list of hits and has worked at record labels, so he cares about copyright laws. But he understands the catalyzing role of the DJ, and noted that streaming numbers have exploded for artists on the recent Verzuz battles, which also have been curtailed by Instagram.

“How unfair is it to cut off DJs, when at the same time their livestreams are helping you?” Kent asked. “This pandemic is a different time. You have to use different measures.”

Bobbito, who also is a music producer and filmmaker, respects the concept of intellectual property. His own compositions have been bootlegged. That said, “I bought these records. I paid a mechanical royalty for the vinyl, I paid the label their share for the master. I’ve contributed to the record, and now I’m playing it in my home, which is my legal right. If I were to have a house party and invite 200 people, ASCAP or BMI is not gonna bat an eyelash. I am in my home, with 200 people in my IG Live. They are enjoying the music in my home. No one paid to get it. I’m not getting paid by a sponsor to play the music. I’m sure that legalities are involved, but …”

Still, the implication that DJs are stealing music is a bad note coming from Facebook, which was founded by a man accused of stealing the idea that became Facebook.

Yes, the art of DJing has become corporatized in the decades since we first plugged turntables into lampposts to rock park jams. Hip-hop conquered the world, and now we have to play by the rules. Like B.I.G. said, mo’ money, mo’ problems. But in these trying times, Facebook and its music industry friends should allow us the musical therapy we need, the ladder for the soul that is hoisted when people come together looking for the perfect beat.

In other words, said Kent: “Just let it rock, yo.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.