How to not make a career as a DJ
If you are currently among the 100’s of thousands of bedroom DJs working your ass off to become the next big DJ. Stop
Or at least pause for a moment
You are most likely focusing on the wrong things that will end up working against you and your DJ career.
I want to share many of the mistakes that I’ve made as a DJ in hopes that you don’t take a similar path.
Learning to say no to gigs
Although I started DJing in 1991, I didn’t really get into beatmixing & full electronic sets until 1999. I’ll get into the back story in another post, but let’s talk about from 1999 forward.
When I started out, I would play anywhere I could & I really thought that this approach would take be up the ladder to bigger & better opportunities. For a starting DJ, it is good to try to get some live experience under your belt, but be selective, even in the beginning. For most gigs I got offered I would be told to “do what I do best”, but that would almost always change pretty quick.
Within 20 minutes I’d get approached to play a music genre I had no intentions of having to play. This only stands to put you in a catch 22 situation. If you stick to your guns, you look like an asshole because you’re probably playing to the wrong crowd, most of which don’t dig your vibe. If you play for the crowd, even though it’s not at all your style, you may make some people happy, but you’ll be building a reputation for playing music you don’t like. This will only lead to more opportunities to play gigs like this. From first hand experience, this is a path to shitty gigs and a lot of frustration.
Don’t play for friends who don’t “get” what you do
Another mistake I made was playing gigs in all kinds of different genres at different parties & accepting bad sound systems & worse promotion. Now this isn’t bad if you want to build your reputation as a party DJ who will play anything to get the crowd going, but if you think of yourself as an artist with a specific vision, this could really hurt you in the long run.
Your reputation will build by word of mouth & pretty soon you’re going to be asked to play all your friends weddings & backyard parties. They might love what you play at the party but the second you try to invite all these new fans to a gig with your unique style, it’s going to be a mess.
Some people are going to come for Disco, others for top 40, some for 80’s & then there are the rockers, the goths & funk fans. Welcome to Jukebox city. You now have a reputation for playing music you don’t even particularly like. Nothing against any of these styles, but if you have a musical vision, this is not how to build a following.
If you are only DJing for the money, this is probably the best way to make it easily. These people usually don’t require a whole lot of finesse. They just want to hear their songs. Easy gig if you are familiar with a lot of music.
If you want to be the next Sasha, Richie Hawtin, Skrillex or Armin Van Buren, this is not the path to get there. Choose your gigs wisely. Play with likeminded artists. Choose your style & stick with it, even if you have to say no to a lot of opportunities.
Be careful about taking these gigs on the sly as well, because while you’re digging for the clean versions of all the new top 40 hits, your competition is digging for the new dancefloor gem & spending her time promoting her unique sound. If you take your focus off your ultimate goal for too long, you’ll find it tough to get back in the groove.
I’m almost embarrassed to say this, but with some crowds I played for, they didn’t get beatmatching at all & would complain that I was “just playing the same beat all nite” even though I was mixing several styles. I would purposely have to trainwreck some of my songs just to let the crowd know it was ok to cheer for the next song. True story. When you get in the habit of dumbing down your skills & just playing the hits, you’ll find that your skills won’t stay as sharp as you’d like when you really need them.
Don’t judge yourself by the opinion of those who don’t understand you. More importantly, make sure to associate with more people who do understand you.
I found myself in a sticky situation as a DJ because most of my friends knew me best as a guitarist playing indie/alternative music. I had a lot of success as a member of a few rock bands, so those were the people I was surrounded by when I chose to set down the guitar & pursue electronic music. When I made the switch, almost none of them got it.
I battled to make my passion for electronic music palatable to my old fans but it never worked. I was just watering down my vision. I ended up putting my electronic music passion on hold & playing more 80’s/indie gigs. I enjoyed playing music I liked to my friends & getting paid but I started to lose the big picture.
Every time I steered back toward electronic underground music, there seemed to be a backlash. I was slowly being trained to believe there was no future in the music I really loved. I was my fault though. I should have spent more time seeking out people who were into my style & promoting myself unashamedly as the artist I wanted to be known for. Taking the lazy path will never get you the hard results.
Poor equipment/Bad sound
This should go without saying, but it’s really important that you know what equipment will be supplied at a gig & how good the soundsystem is. You might be able to get away with “ok” sound if you are playing popular songs to a drunk crowd, but if you plan to challenge the listener with unfamiliar music, you’re going to need clean sound and good subs. There is really no shortcut.
If you are asked if you have a sound system that you can bring, there’s a problem. It’s going to most likely be a backyard party potluck of barely working equipment. On top of that, they will likely be turning everything up to 11 just to fill the room with sound. It’s going to sound terrible & you, the DJ, are going to be remembered as very unprofessional.
Now I’ve done plenty of DIY parties with less than stellar equipment, that ended up being a lot of fun, but I was generally playing safe familiar party music. These parties will likely do nothing for your career, so make sure you don’t get associated as someone who doesn’t generally have high standards.
Get out while you’re on top
If you are lucky enough to score a regular paying gig, playing what you love & getting paid for it, congrats to you. Enjoy it while it lasts, but always be scoping out the next hot spot. Overstaying your welcome at one location is a sure way to spoil your reputation. I learned the hard way that although you might be treated like a king while things are hot, eventually every hot spot cools down. If you stay beyond your expiration date you’ll notice that you’ll recognize fewer & fewer of your supporters showing up. As you lose supporters, they are replaced by a new crowd that probably aren’t coming for you. If you are playing music that is at all challenging to the average listener, expect trouble.
Typically what would happen with me is, I’d get a gig playing for free or cheap until I built the night up enough to ask for money. This would usually work out well in the beginning & I would end up playing a few nights a week, playing what I wanted to play & getting paid pretty decent for it.
At this point, I would be feeling great & there would be free drinks & high fives all the time. The problem comes in usually within 6-9 months. Your club doesn’t want to turn away any business, especially if you have a slow night here & there. Unfortunately, if you are playing underground music, the venue is only going to support your vision when the money is good.
Clubs get scared though & instead of reinvesting in this unique & dedicated crowd you’ve built, they start wanting you to play more for the masses, adding top 40 to your sets & basically playing for the people who walk in off the street instead of your devoted fanbase.
Soon enough this shift starts to scare off your intended crowd and bring in a less educated audience who just wants to hear pop music. At this point you should have seen this coming in advance. Hot clubs can only stay hot for so long & if you overstay your welcome, you will become a mockery or a sell out to your biggest supporters and when that happens, good luck getting them to trust you again. If you start getting people asking you these questions while you’re DJing, quit immediately!
I made the mistake of sticking around until I was playing to a crowd who could care less about my passion for music & would probably be just as happy with a jukebox. By the end I lost all the respect I had gained & I was finally fired.
The club would also accept private parties on my night in a completely different style of music. This would make money for the club in the short term, but it also confused the people who come and support me for a specific reason. If this happens to you, be prepared to contact everyone you know & tell them the night is cancelled until the following week.
I didn’t have the confidence to say no to easy money and I put up with my “art” being watered down more & more until it was unrecognizable from my original vision.
Do not make this mistake! Get out while you’re on top & use your current reputation to get into another club willing to pay you well to do your thing. If your timing is right, your crowd will follow you. If you wait too long, you’ll be lucky to make $50 a nite. They just won’t trust you if your last gig ended up a flop.
DJing Vs Producing
Popular opinion would have you believe that by practicing hard at your beatmatching & programming skills & accepting every gig you can get, you will climb that tall ladder towards success.
Though this may have been true at one time, that time has passed for all but a very lucky few. The art of the DJ has been demystified, and without mystery, there is no draw. Everyone understands how it works and everyone is doing it these days.
I’m not suggesting you give up your passion but rather to change your focus so that you can aim yourself in the direction of success once again.
Let me get to my point and not mince words. If you want the big gigs, you’ve got to build a big name, and if you want a big name, you’ve got to produce compelling unique music that people connect with & remember. Only then will you have an opportunity to put yourself in front of the right audience for your style.
If you aren’t producing your own tracks or remixes, you have very little chance of breaking into the larger DJ market, so you better get used to getting underpaid at your local bar, playing to people who don’t appreciate your unique style & skills.
Lets be honest. How many unknown DJ’s do you support on a regular basis? I can honestly say that if I haven’t heard of you through something you produced or remixed (and I don’t know you personally), I’m not gonna pay to see you. Nothing personal, but I’m more likely to spend my money on a sure thing.
The only chance you’ve got is if you’re opening for another DJ, and even then, your job is not to put a spotlight on yourself. Your job is only to set the mood for the headliner. This isn’t a terrible thing per se, but it will hardly give you the visibility you are probably hoping for. It’s not like rock bands where the opening band has the chance of stealing the show & being praised for it. If you steal the spotlight from the headlining DJ, you’re an asshole. If you’ve read my post of DJ etiquette, you would already know this.
Unless you’re in a big city, being a resident at a local club might not get you much visibility outside your city, although it’s possible that you might be able to leverage your position to open bigger doors.
The fact of the matter is, although the big clubs want to stay current, they aren’t going to take a risk on a “no name” unless you have friends in high places, willing to put their ass on the line for you. If your name is mentioned to a club promoter, you better hope he’s heard of you, because there is a long list of people fighting for your position.
Once you start making music & remixing artists in your field, you’ll find the doors open more easily, even though there is still competition. Getting top DJ support of your music is a huge way to grow your name. You stand to get much further in this business producing your own stuff & building relationships with DJ’s that play your stuff. This will raise you to a new level in people’s minds. Ironically, you don’t get gigs based on your skills. You get them based on how many asses are going to fill the club for your sets. A skilled DJ in an empty club is not a risk any club promoter is going to take.
Your job as an artist is to negotiate well. Don’t accept the first opportunities that are put in your lap. Learn to say no & tell them to come back when they can offer you something appropriate. Meanwhile practice your craft so you’re ready when the right gigs start coming your way.
Know who you are & what you like and don’t accept gigs that are going to taint that vision. Of course you’ll have to build your way up the ladder, but make sure your ladder is propped up on the correct building before you start climbing. Don’t try to fit in by becoming something you’re not or you’ll find yourself in a trap that is hard to remove yourself from. Especially if there is money involved.
Socialize with likeminded artists, even if you can only find them online. It’s going to be extremely important that you keep in contact with others in similar genres. It will make what you are doing feel more relevant, even when most people you know don’t get what you do.
Lastly, don’t let anyone try to tell you who you are as an artist or what you should be. Don’t change who you are by chasing someone else’s dream. Put passion in whatever you love, whether it’s ambient, electro, polka or whatever. You & your passion are enough. If you don’t start believing it, no one else will.
Be kind & please share this with any aspiring DJ’s you know. You might just save them years of struggle & they will thank you for it.
Here’s to your prosperity.
Next, you’ll want to learn what to avoid doing as a DJ.
p.s. – If you are interested in diving deeper into DJing & want some great tips to help put you in the creative flow when building sets, make sure to check out my ebook for Kindle.
Instead of focusing on all the technical aspects of DJing, I come from an angle of mindset, organization & inspiration. By doing certain things in a certain order, you can dramatically improve the results of your DJ mixes. If you’re a DJ, do me a favor & check out the link below. You can download a free sample of and if you like it, it’s only $2.99. Comments & feedback are greatly appreciated.