A-Trak on How a Laptop Ban Would Impact Touring DJs

Photo by Shane McCauley

Earlier this week, government representatives met in Brussels to discuss the Department of Homeland Security possibly banning laptops in the cabins of airplanes traveling from Europe and into the United States. Since March this regulation has already existed for the approximately 50 daily flights originating from 10 different Muslim-majority countries, but if it were to expand to Europe, that number would increase by 390. The change is being pursued because of possible terrorist threats from the Islamic State using electronic devices. European officials oppose the plan and say these threats can be addressed using more detection systems. Next week they will come to Washington D.C. to further the measure.

If laptops are banned from airplane cabins, it will affect professionals (and bored people) of all kinds, but we wanted to know what it would mean to touring DJs.

MASS APPEAL spoke to A-Trak, who has been playing gigs around the globe for almost two decades, starting when he had to cart actual records around with him. A headliner at festivals and mega-clubs, he not only relies on laptops for his performances, but also uses them for production work and the business of his company, Fool’s Gold. 

Here he lays out the practical realities of what the laptop ban would mean for him.

A laptop ban would be more than an inconvenience. It would be a huge hurdle to the realities of being someone in a profession who has to travel often literally every day. I actually travel with two laptops, but also I don’t check-in anything. I would say on five percent of my flights I’ll actually add a checked bag. If I’m on an itinerary that’s so complicated with various climates I’ll check a bag, but I can live for multiple weeks off of a carry-on. I’ll have two bags with me. One bag has two laptops, a hard drive and, like, headphones and other stuff. The other bag that has my clothes has multiple back-up drives, too.

This isn’t just for the sake of convenience. I’ve had my bags lost so many times. I travel so much that my statistical chance of how likely it is for my bag to get lost is so high that I refuse to do it anymore. If my bags gets lost, most airlines usually find them, but they usually find them a bunch of hours later or the next day or within two days. So if I’m landing in a city in the afternoon and then have a gig to play that night, I carry-on everything that I need to have.

If I had to check in a laptop, which my entire DJ profession resides on, the risk of that bag being delayed or lost is high enough that it would probably force me to rethink the whole way that I DJ. That’s how bad it would be. There are obviously different set-ups for DJing. There are DJs with just a flash drive or SD card. I could fit that in my pocket and I wouldn’t need my laptop as much for that.

The footnote to be added to everything I’m saying is that in these times there are worse problems to have than this. I’m fortunate to get to follow my passion for a living and to get paid to DJ for a living. I’m very fortunate to be in that situation. There are families being torn apart. You get actual travel bans, not just laptop bans. With ICE deporting people in the middle of cities, there are definitely worse problems to have. I don’t want to sound like a crybaby with this, but I’m just trying to answer the question of what it would mean for a touring DJ to have check in your laptop pretty literally.

“As far as the job in music that covers the widest spectrum of possible settings, DJing is up there.”

I would never say wouldn’t tour in those countries where you have to check-in laptops.  I would just adapt my set-up even more. To put things in perspective, because my technique of DJing contains an element of turntablism and is so tied to the turntable itself, I only DJed on turntables with Serato. Then there was a point about three years ago where I decided to start using CDJs for some of my shows. I still work with Serato as far as the song selection, but as far as the hardware equipment, I started using CDJs more because I had to accept and realize that there were certain conditions and certain venues where it became so cumbersome to be the only guy asking for turntables. It’s a handful of us still asking for turntables, it’s me and DJ Snake and Craze and Jazzy Jeff. That’s it.

A lot of these venues aren’t even built to accommodate turntables anymore. And if I’m playing at festivals that’s outdoors, the sun is going to make my Serato vinyl melt. Or if it’s a venue or festival set-up with such huge bass woofers and speakers, it’ll make the needles vibrate so bad that the Serato signal won’t even read. If I’m playing in a nightclub that does confetti drops during the whole night, I spend half my time literally picking up confetti off of my vinyl and blowing onto my turntables to make sure the needle still tracks. In all those scenarios, now I use CDJs.

That’s an example of a point in my professional career where I was faced with a certain reality and I thought, “Okay. I would be a stubborn ass to continue only using turntables everywhere. How do I learn how to do even more tricks with CDJs?” That way I can be at my best in various kinds of scenarios. As DJs, we get put in a wide variety of scenarios and places and circumstances. As far as the job in music that covers the widest spectrum of possible settings, DJing is up there. If there’s a problem with my laptop, I can just plug in an SD card and play a set. Maybe it’s not quite as technically fancy as what I’ll do with my preferred set-up, but I can play. At least I can give people a show. It’s something.

It would be up to me to put in enough prep work to give me enough flexibility as I need. There’s this sort of conception that with Serato you have access to every song in the world, at least every song in your library. So, for most DJs, it’s like 20 or 30,000 songs that are at your reach at any gig. Any DJ will tell you that they’re not actually playing 20,000 songs. There’s like a couple hundred songs that you’re likely to play.

When you play on CDJs, you can store your music either on the USB flash drive or SD card. I could fit enough songs on an SD card and make more than enough playlists to be able to switch my set around at will and show up at some gig and have some wild idea to play a song that I haven’t played in the last five years. If I’m thorough enough with the prep and I’ve put all those possible songs on the flash drive, it’s fine

A lot of my favorite DJs play on a flash drive or a SD card. They have excellent selection choices. It’s just that I spent years and years and years and years already converting my turntablist meets party-rocking style from vinyl to Serato. To have to rethink that to yet another technology, essentially, that would represent a lot of work. In any case, I would still bring at least my work laptop. Even that I would have to check in. That’s the part that I’m having a hard time even accepting in my head, the very possibility of checking in a laptop of any kind.

It’s a lot of risk to use a borrowed laptop. There is a way to set-up Serato so that everything I need is on an external drive. And if I plug it in to even someone else’s laptop, my playlist could load and I could play my show. It wouldn’t have all of my music, but that would be a way to do it. But I don’t know. I would sooner convert my show to flash drive or SD drive than to try to run my Serato show on an external drive off of someone else’s laptop. Serato is pretty reliable and pretty fool-proof, but still part of that confidence is that the laptop you’re using is a laptop that you’re using pretty much every night. You know the specs are right and you’ve tested it out. It would take a lot for me to show up at just some spot and use someone else’s laptop for an actual headline show and have the whole performance rely on that.

A laptop ban would force me to be even more diligent with back-ups and redundancy systems. I’m sure a traveling graphic designer would give you the same spiel that I’m giving you. There’s this sort of type of profession nowadays, which is sort of like the creative on the go with a big enough weekender bag that you can fit your whole life in it.

“For Trump and America to decide that we can’t bring our laptops to certain other countries, that’s the part that I just find morally wrong.”

In terms of international solidarity, I would never say, “I’m not playing in this list of countries anymore because they won’t let me bring my laptop.” Fuck it, DJs are adaptable. I’d figure out another way to play my set that would fit with the rules of that country. I just hate the fact that it would be Trump that would dictate that, that it would be the U.S. side that would put an obstacle, as opposed to the actual country you’re going to.

For instance, I remember a couple years ago I went to Mexico and they gave me a really hard time because I had two laptops with me, period. They were just like, “You’re allowed one laptop.” I’m like, “I have two laptops.” I had to pull out my semi-adequate Spanish and essentially the conversation was like, “Why do you have two laptops?” “Because I’m a musician.” “How do I know you’re a musician?” “I’m a DJ.” “Do you have a business card?” Then, I’m like, “Who has a business card?” I had to say that in Spanish, which is really not that easy. But I’ll deal with that going to Mexico or whatever country if that’s their rule. I’m a guest there. So just in terms of ethics and morals, you go to another country, you have to adhere to their rules, fine. I’m happy to bring music to the people of that country. But for Trump and America to decide that we can’t bring our laptops to certain other countries, that’s the part that I just find morally wrong, reprehensible.

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