“PERTH is the Las Vegas of Australia.”
Local DJs are the hype of Australia thanks to Covid, says one of the city’s stars who’s hit the international big time.
While the rest of the world is left with empty dancefloors and dry bars, Perth’s nightclub scene is thriving. Its best DJs, including the likes on internationally renowned duo Slumberjack, are stuck in town and outsiders haven’t been able to breach its hard borders. In some ways, Perth’s problem is an over-saturation of DJs.
Fremantle DJ Ben Renna is one of those riding a wave of success and his first track release is scheduled for later this year.
Renna says he followed all the typical steps to establishing himself as a professional DJ, and is still behind the decks at a variety of nightclubs and venues in Perth after 10 years; his regular gigs in Melbourne and Sydney are on hold because of Covid-19.
“I’ve been remixing for a number of years … I’ve remixed for Sneaky Sound System and other small labels and people along the way,” Renna says.
It was already an impressive CV for an emerging DJ, but Renna wanted more – his own original music.
“I just needed to put some original music out and thought ‘fuck this I’ve been remixing for everyone for so long, it’s basically creating an original from scratch’,” he said.
“People don’t realise that creating a remix is almost the same as making an original track … all you have to start with is the vocals.”
He sent a few original tracks off in the hope of landing a record deal, and his determination paid off last year with a two-track deal with Sydney-based company Central that will lead to this year’s release.
Kayty Smith is resident DJ at The Court Hotel on Beaufort Street and is enjoying the extra exposure as her social media fanbase grows.
Smith said her start in the industry wasn’t the typical path: “I was a club manager for seven years before I learnt to mix.
“The DJs I knew would be making more money over a weekend than I did in a whole week.”
Luckily for Smith, the industry connections she made while running the venue combined with some savvy online engagement to fuel her stage persona.
Her insider’s knowledge meant she was also a hit with management as she was great at generating revenue.
Smith exploited DJing secrets like “sticky fingers”, a term used by DJs to describe purposely playing something crap every five songs. This helps cycle the crowd between the bar and the dance floor, keeping the venue open longer and giving bar staff more hours.
Smith had previously also worked as a “promo girl” at Air nightclub, using her social media profile to encourage punters down.
She decided this line of work, as well as managing, was going to expire at some point in her 20s, so she made the strategic decision to add DJing to event coordination.
Smith knew she would have to work harder and smarter than the male DJs in the Perth scene.
“Back then, if you wanted to be a female DJ, you had to wear makeup, you had to be thin, you had to have platinum blonde hair.”
She had a background as a beautician so found it easy to play the image game, but set clear boundaries and wouldn’t follow the lead of many female colleagues who constantly posted sexually provocative “thirst traps” to grow their profiles.
“I knew I wasn’t as pretty as the other girls that would come and go but I’m funny and that doesn’t fade,” she said.
She even took a screenshot of a troll’s message “you’re ugly” and posted it as a self-promotion.
“Come down tonight and use the codeword ugly to get free entry,” she recalled.
Whatever was thrown her way, Smith weaponised it for her own personal gain: “Work smarter, not harder,” she said.
But there were real dangers to being a female in the event/ venue/DJ industry, and Smith details some horrific acts against her by senior staff.
“I’ve been beaten up and worse for making a mistake or for no reason at all,” Smith said.
She shares many of her problems and openly talks about mental health issues on her social media platforms.
“I make self-deprecating posts all the time… I guess it just connects to others,” Smith said.
“Look, I’m just a girl struggling to pay my rent, just like everybody else.”
Brandon Willington, who performed as Wilco before retiring two years ago, made the observation of Perth being the Australian Las Vegas.
He tasted fame after creating and releasing Literally Fuck Genres in 2017, a mix that went viral and even had the world’s top DJs sharing it on their social media.
Many expected Willington to seize the moment and tour the world, but while he did head to North and South America to test the waters, he wasn’t interested in becoming a globetrotter.
“That’s not what I wanted, I tried the whole tour thing but my place is here in Perth,” he said.
His “musical journey” was more typical of many DJs, playing house parties until a lucky break got his first nightclub set at Dusk in Joondalup, now known as Arcade.
“I met the manager and he liked me, he actually offered me weekly sets on Saturdays that very night,” Willington said.
Impressed by his drawing power, the club’s owners booked him for their other venues, such as Metropolis Fremantle.
“Every single event you would do, you would meet someone who enjoyed the music … one person would lead to another person then another person and so on.”
The young DJ was networking before he even realised it.
“From there it was all luck, or actually chance, that’s a better way to describe it,” he chuckled.
Most local DJs have an expiry date as the next big thing hits the scene, but Willington got to make his own choice and decided to retire and concentrate on marketing and event co-ordination.
He saw it as “the next chronological step … running events and managing venues and club nights”.
Two years after stepping away from the decks, Willington still banks his well-known rebellious streak by posting outlandish status updates on his Facebook page to promote his events.
While some might raise an eyebrow at Willington’s references to heavy drinking, drug use and pretty dark humour, it’s been very successful, resonating with many in the clubbing community who see the darker parts of themselves reflected in his online character.
Nik Thomson was also managing a venue before adding mixing to his CV, but he was already a gifted musician.
Thompson was front man for indi rockers 44th Sunset, who were signed to Sony Productions after winning a schools band competition in 2013 and ended up touring Australia. Listening to Triple J sevenish years ago, you would definitely have heard one of their songs.
After fans decided their music “just wasn’t in anymore,” Thompson said he fell in love with club life and particularly its electronic music.
He soon picked up work as a manager, but his passion for music was still strong and he had the luxury of the venue’s setup to practice mixing after hours.
Mixing came “rather naturally” and his knowledge of song structure and music production, picked up at the WA Academy of Performing Arts, gave him an advantage over other up-and-coming DJs and gigs soon followed.
He also knew the value of social media marketing and alternative ways to engage with the public. While studying marketing at Curtin uni he became the president of the Electronic Music Appreciation Society, two areas that helped his DJing career blossom.
“EMAS is a great way to learn how to properly condone yourself in the industry,” Thomson said.
It was a mutually beneficial relationship, with the society’s membership and prominence getting a good spike during his reign.
Thompson has taken a step back from DJing these days, saying he “finds it hard to be objective” playing events he’s coordinating, but agrees that the industry is in a strong position at the moment.
by SAXON OMA