Opinion: Should technology replace DJ Magazine’s Top 100 DJs Poll?

For a scene that looks so fervently into the future, electronic music sure is stuck in the past. Since 1997 Britain’s DJ Magazine has printed its annual reader-voted Top 100 list of DJs, that quite modestly, claims to provide the definite answer as to who is the No.1 DJ in the world.

This DJ popularity contest quickly became the decisive litmus test for dance music, despite its many flaws. The voting for this year’s Top 100 DJs Poll closes at midnight GMT tonight.

DJ booking agents and club promoters worldwide often use the poll’s results to set their artist and club entrance fees. The No.1 DJ in the world can generally charge more than the No.2 or No.3 DJ. And this means clubbers will have to pay more to see the No.1 DJ play a set, than any of the others in the list.

Basing the DJ talent market on a magazine’s online vote makes sense, because we live in a world where no hackers exist and there is compulsory voting for dance music fans.

Of course, it’s easy to poke a hole in DJ Mag’s Top 100, but in order to understand its problems it is important to go back to the very beginning.

It all started quite honestly. When the first Top 100 DJs Poll was launched in 1997 all the magazine wanted to do was rank DJs. Everyone loves lists, and the Top 100 would help the magazine to shift more copies (the Top 100 edition of DJ Mag is always the most popular issue of the year).

At the start, the magazine had readers send in the name of their favourite DJ on a postcard. For the first Top 100, they received about 800 postal votes in total, which were tallied by the magazine’s staff.

It would have been pretty easy to send in multiple votes as there was no security, but back then the Top 100 was of unknown importance to the industry and the staff who worked at the magazine detected no unusual voter activity.

By the time I started work at DJ Mag in 2003, the Top 100 had grown in significance. It was now an online vote, and through a simple form users submitted the names of their favourite DJs, which populated a CSV file. At first, there was no security which meant people could submit multiple votes, simply by pressing their browser’s back button and voting again, and again.

Once voting was over, the enormous file was sent to a man on England’s South Coast who tallied the results manually and removed all of the suspected duplicate votes with the help of some interns. It took many weeks.

The following year the Top 100 introduced HTTP cookies as a way to deter opportunistic cheaters and fans with too much time on their hands. The cookies stopped internet browsers from submitting the vote form more than once. Savvy internet users just deleted their cookies and voted again.

Then came email registration which allowed only one vote per an active email address, and users had to confirm their vote by email. This extra annoying step no doubt stopped the casual scammer, but serious fraudsters (there was now much money to be made by manipulating the results) just hired professionals. For a bit of cash, a hacker could vote for you in the Top 100 multiple times.

Because the poll became so tainted by fraud, in 2007 the magazine took the unusual step of naming and shaming the worst cheaters as they saw it. American DJs Christopher Lawrence and DJ Dan, who happened to share the same marketing manager at the time, were kicked out of the poll for “voting irregularities”.

Another DJ, China’s Tiesmi, was kicked out of the Top 100 after admitting that he had paid cash for votes. For just 4000 Yuan (£260) a hacker registered 100,000 votes for Tiesmi, but after he raced to the No.1 spot within hours of the poll opening, the magazine became suspicious. His DJ friend, Yutise, met a similar fate.

In Hong Kong, a relative unknown DJ Erick Junior was also disqualified after a four-day flurry of votes saw him reach the No.3 position in the poll. Israel’s The Flash Brothers also got busted – they received about 1300 votes from the same IP address, which they blamed on “friends and family”. These are just some of the DJs that got caught. Many no doubt fell through the net.

Why the history lesson? Because it’s important to note that despite the magazine’s best intentions, online voting is simply too unreliable. Even democratic postal votes in Britain, which require registration via a physical, real-world address, have been plagued by scandal.

The fact is, no matter what security the magazine introduces to the online voting system – this year you need a Facebook account to vote – so long as a lonely teenager in his pajamas can hack into the Pentagon, the Top 100 will never be secure. Just yesterday, DJ Mag foiled “a malicious attempt to sabotage the final day of voting in this year’s Top 100 DJs poll.”

For the sake of argument however, let’s just assume that the magazine does manage to make the poll 100% secure. That should at least ensure the validity of the poll’s results, correct?

Well no, because there is still the very visible problem of the obsessive marketeers. They might not want to get their hands dirty by cheating the system per se, but their definition of what is a legitimate dance music fan is rather loose.

Ricky Stone, the self-claimed No.1 DJ of Asia, was perhaps the most successful of this kind. The British-born, Hong Kong-based DJ and producer, recognizing the huge financial potential of being crowned Asia’s top DJ, came up with some remarkably innovative ways to get the average man on the street to vote for him. His insane marketing strategies puts all the other ‘free CD if you vote for me’ emails to shame.

There was a seven week campaign in the South China Morning Post. There was a deal with local internet cafes to display the Top 100 vote page to all new customers at the beginning of their session with ‘Ricky Stone’ already filled out at the top of the vote form. There was the hot air balloon which he flew over Hong Kong with his face plastered on it above the words ‘Vote for Ricky Stone!’

All of these marketing practices were within the confines of the magazine’s rules – after all, which magazine wouldn’t want its readers to fly a hot air balloon above Hong Kong with their logo on it? – and so, Ricky Stone triumphantly wormed his way into the Top 100 in 2005, landing at the very respectable No.48 position, above DJs such as Pete Tong (49), Laurent Garnier (53), Armand van Helden (61), and festival headliner, Fatboy Slim (63).

Ricky Stone remained in the Top 100 for four years, before denouncing the poll in 2009 as nothing more than “a poll of who has the best marketing team”. At the time, he said, “With reference to mainland China – they do not continue to book just for the sake of a number from the list – not anymore. The scene has changed so much in Asia; not only promoters, but more importantly the sponsors have gotten wise and more knowledgeable about the scene.” Yep, an informed and educated public can be a pesky thing for spin.

So DJ Magazine’s Top 100 will A) never be secure, and B) will always be plagued by unscrupulous marketing practices. As such, the poll’s popularity has fallen in recent years, even amongst trance fans, who traditionally were the most ardent supporters of the poll’s results due to the large numbers of high ranking DJs from their scene.

However, even among the aspiring candidates themselves there seems to be a general feeling of apathy. Usually around this time of the year, my inbox is flooded with Top 100-related spam, however this year it seems remarkably quiet. Quite a few of my dance music industry colleagues have reported similar clutter-free inboxes. All of this suggests that the poll is, by and large, on the way out. But what could possibly replace it?

Technology is an obvious solution. There is an abundance of online tools out there right now that can accurately measure the popularity of DJs based around internet user activity. Google Trends for instance, can measure the volume of search terms around a DJ’s name over time. The more times people search for a DJ, the higher they appear on Google Trends. If we assume that people generally only search for things that they like, than this is fair data to use.

Right now at this exact moment, according to Google Trends, the top 5 DJs in the world are:

1. David Guetta
2. Skrillex
3. Tiesto
4. Deadmau5
5. Afrojack

This is however, just the ranking at this current point in time. For the purposes of the Top 100, the results should be looked at from the whole year.

Taken over the whole of 2011, the Top 5 DJs of 2011 are:

1. David Guetta
2. Tiesto
3. Deadmau5
4. Skrillex
5. Afrojack

That is a much more accurate list – to anyone who works in electronic music – than the Top 5 of the Top 100 from last year.

David Guetta is by far the biggest DJ in the world, and he has been for quite some time (Google Trends recognises that he overtook Tiesto for the number one spot midway through 2009). He regularly plays to stadiums of 80,000 people, tops pop charts around the world, and has over half a billion views on YouTube.

DJ Tiesto has been one of the biggest DJs in the world for years, and still sells out Ibiza’s Privilege club (the world’s biggest club, with a capacity of 10,000) every single Monday throughout the summer.

Deadmau5 has been one of the biggest artists in electronic music for a number of years, and this year the profile of American producer Skrillex has soared.

Similarly, Dutch DJ Afrojack has had a meteoric rise over the past few years. Google Trends puts The Swedish House Mafia just below Afrojack.

Of course, Google Trends isn’t perfect. You can only rank five DJs at a time, and it is hard to accurately measure search trends for DJs that don’t have highly unique names.

It does however give us a peek at the potential accuracy of online tools. Don’t get me wrong, DJ Magazine’s Top 100 in its time certainly had merits, but it is from the era of print and magazines. A DJ popularity contest in the digital era should have a much more futuristic approach.

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