Louise Chen on the commercialisation of music

Adeline Mai for Vogue.fr

Louise Chen on the commercialisation of music

With her NTS show and eclectic sound, Louise Chen delights crowds around the world. But she’s also one of the music industry’s most astute critics.

Clerkenwell exudes an air of sophistication and exclusivity. Its trendy streets lined with upscale restaurants, chic cafés, and high-end boutiques are a natural stomping ground for fashionable socialites, high-flying creative types, and all sorts of sophisticated folks.

Fittingly, Louise Chen, the Luxembourg-born DJ calls one of the most European-looking pockets of central London her home. Whizzing into the café politely early, she’s instantly distracted by a French bulldog (“I get excited when I see puppies!”) and a rosy-cheeked baby.

Her Instagram bio claims she “hasn’t slept since 1999,” and indeed, she’s seemingly in a different country every week. Her Small Talk parties at Corsica Studios, where she is a resident, and her regular NTS show keep her rooted in London, for the most part.

Chen came up in the Paris club scene of the late-2000s, a hedonistic time when Ed Banger Records were redefining what electronic music made with rock sensibilities could sound like. While interning with the label’s PR agency, she started noticing how some of the club nights in Paris at the time felt like “a bit of a d*ck contest.” So, she created an all-female DJ group called Girls Girls Girls, maneuvering their way through the male-dominated club scene and nabbing a residency at the Social Club that became a staple of Parisian nightlife. Sexism in the industry was rife at the time, and the crew had to fend off critiques from “all sorts of straight white bros” who questioned their legitimacy as DJs.

“At our first fashion gigs, let me tell you,” she says, lifting her hands in air quotes, “every boy was like, ‘Well, they’re not real DJs, they’re sellouts!’” By the time Virgil [Abloh became artistic director] at Louis Vuitton, however, it suddenly seemed “cool to ‘secure the bag,’ and to be paid by major brands.” A gleam of frustration flickers in her eyes.

Recently, she attended the presentation of Pharrell Williams’ debut collection at Louis Vuitton, a decision that was met with critique in fashion circles. The decision to appoint Pharrell Williams as creative director seems to follow a trend of major brands and corporations using musicians as a conduit to prop up their cultural capital. Always switched on to cultural shifts and equipped with witty analysis, Louise observes: “These days, it feels like you're only making music to sell products. As musicians, we're never allowed to just be musicians, this has died for us. We aren't allowed to look tired on tour, we always have to be snatched and tick all the boxes to ensure that you get the sneaker sponsorship, you get the energy drink sponsorship for your tour.”

In a time when music sales have been slashed by Spotify and touring has become as expensive as ever, music becomes a by-product. Has she grown tired of the industry? “I love DJing, but I don't want to do everything that it takes to make a living out of it, it’s taxing.”

With fashion week having wrapped up, I wonder if Louise’s outspoken attitude has recently cost her some fashion gigs. “I definitely think people are a bit sick of me,” she laughs. “But as someone who has been in this business long enough, I think it’s important to keep the pressure on.”