France discovers art on the DJs' turntables

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The Independent Online
WHEN is a DJ an artist? The answer is when he is French and when he - artistically - plays more than one record at a time. The French music producers' federation has declared that some disc jockeys should be considered creators of music who have the right to claim a small part of the royalties of the records they play.

The decision, seven months old, has caused consternation among music publishers in France and elsewhere. It points to a startling phenomenon: France, the butt of rock-music gibes, is leading the way in the hottest variants of pop music such as techno and house. Both are associated with clubs where star DJs create their own musical sounds by playing two or three records simultaneously.

The Societe des Auteurs, Compositeurs et Editeurs de Musique (Sacem), which polices music royalties in France, decided last year that such DJs had crossed the line from mere presenters and selectors of records to creators of new musical forms. It decided that approved DJs - 60 have qualified - should receive one twelfth of royalties of records they "mix". The argument is that such a DJ is no longer just a compere, or even a performer but an "ephermeral" or "instant" composer.

Sacem collected pounds 12m in royalties from 3,000 French dance clubs last year; this year, the first full year of its new ruling on royalties, pounds 1m will go to disc jockeys.

The French trade association of music publishers has challenged the ruling, saying techno and house DJs are infringing the rights of the original composers. Star DJ-composers also exist in Britain and other European countries but some French DJs have become enormously successful and popular abroad - almost the first French pop musicians to break out of the national ghetto.

DJ Jack de Marseille, Laurent Garnier, Dimitri from Paris and others are in high demand in clubs throughout Europe. "At any other moment in the history of pop," Rolling Stone magazine wrote recently, the words "Made in France" on a disc were "commercial suicide".

The DJs have no trouble accepting themselves as artists. DJ Jack performs two or three times a week in different European cities and issues albums of his live compositions. He argues that, by taking different records and merging them, he is creating a "new emotion ... a different feeling".

The Musicians' Union in Britain agrees. It is making a determined effort to recruit the new generation of DJs to its ranks. "Once you recognise them as musicians," said Tristan Evans, the union's spokesman, "you see that they're manipulating their turntables the way guitarists do with guitars". But does that make them composers?