Being a DJ requires you to do a lot more than just play songs. Learning to structure a set, mix on the fly, and get a crowd moving all starts with your deck. Artistic growth and technical progress as a DJ can feel like a slow burn – the problem is that we want to dramatically improve as soon as possible, so sometimes we feel like we’re not getting anywhere. You have to Make It Your Career.
A DJ provides the soundtrack to the party and is usually the main event, similar to going to see a band.
Whether it’s learning how to get good at intermediate mix techniques, developing your ability to read crowds and energies during a performance, or growing your network of promoters and booking agencies, sometimes the biggest and most significant gains are the result of years of persistent effort.
At this time, there are no degree programs in DJing. Although DJ schools and classes do exist, a large portion of DJs is self-taught. To lay a solid foundation for success as a DJ, practice is integral. Get familiar with multiple types of technology and mixing software, so that if there’s ever a technological malfunction at the club, you can still play.
Beginner DJs sometimes work for free or for drink tickets, so the highest form of advancement in this career is to become one of the few globetrotting superstar DJs who take home millions every year.
When you’ve got a goal that’s still a while away, it’s tough to feel like you’ve achieved anything today – that club residency you’ve been building towards can feel like a pipe dream if you beat yourself up weekly for not getting there any earlier, or maybe you’ve been meaning to put out a four-song EP of original productions but can’t get past song number three.
Don’t beat yourself up over it: Acknowledge that there’s still a lot more to be done.
Experience & Skills
DJs must have experience with more than one operating system (i.e. CDJs vs turntables), as technology can often backfire, and it’s always good to be prepared. Production experience is essential for those who want to create their own tracks and play them out when they perform. Networking and social media skills are vital for any DJ to build up a fan base. It’s important to get to know Promoters, Talent Buyers, and other DJs. You also have to interact with your fans, whether it’s through conversations and interactions on social media, or through just straight up putting on a good live performance that communicates your passion for the music. To take their career to the next level, a DJ must also know how to produce their own tracks and write their own songs. DJs who write their own songs provide a unique experience for concertgoers and can also capitalize on licensing income.
“First and foremost you must love music. Without the love you’re nothing more than a jukebox,” our DJ source, Josh Chambers says. For a DJ, money can’t be the main goal. “I always tell people if you’re in this for the money then you’re in the wrong place. When you’re starting out there is always someone who will be willing to take your gig and play for free so you have to know that you’re not going to make much, if anything at all until you build up your fan base.” To build that fan base, as well as their professional contacts, DJs must also be comfortable networking and meeting people. In the same way, fun-loving and outgoing types make the best DJs because their excitement translates to the audience, who will also respond in a similar way. Versatility, adaptability, and a hunger for knowledge and improvement are key.
Many DJs work weekend nights, with the most popular nights being Thursday through Saturday. Shifts are usually a few hours long. Beginner DJs usually hold down day jobs and start off by playing slower nights. Depending on the events, DJs will work with Promoters, Bookers, Nightclub Managers, Talent Buyers, other DJs and bands and the DJ’s own Personal Manager.
Most DJs initially get jobs through networking before building a fan base, and therefore a reputation. Competition is fierce. Many people get started in this career by offering to play sets for free so that the bar/club gets to know them, their work ethic, and how audiences react.
DJs earn money from performing, and those who produce their own tracks earn royalty money. Income from DJing can vary greatly, based on if you live in a major metropolitan area, how often you perform and how popular your chosen musical genre is. Certain types of music draw bigger crowds and therefore have a greater demand, and the opposite also holds true. Income also varies based on whether you’re just starting out, or if you’re a world-famous DJ headlining festivals and raves across the globe. On average, a reasonably successful DJ can expect to make a few hundred dollars per show.
Social Media and Associations
Most DJs are not part of a formal organization, but networking is important. DJs who also produce their own tracks belong to a music royalty/publishing/licensing organization. Online, it’s important to follow your favorite DJ’s Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, and Beatport pages to keep up to date with their latest news and to network both with the artist and his fans. “You can follow your favorite artists and a lot of us will respond to you when you want to say hi or ask a question,” Chambers says.
- Get to know the people who book clubs and become friends with them.
- Offer to play a show for free to get your foot in the door.
- Pass out demo CDs or put your mixes online so you can build a fan base.
- Download high-quality MP3 or wav tracks from DJ specific sites like Beatport, instead of stealing them or getting them from iTunes. Your audience doesn’t want songs with bad sound quality.
- Check out mixes by your favorite DJs, then try to replicate what they do, either at home or in your studio.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Practice, practice, practice.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Not learning how to mix on more than one device. Technology can backfire on you easily. That’s why I always show up with my laptop, CDs and a USB stick to make sure I can play no matter what happens.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“What does it take to go from a local DJ to one that is known around the country/world? The answer is you have to produce music. If you’re not writing music that is getting released, you will never make it to the next level.”
Learn to enjoy the journey instead of the destination. You’ll find that towards the end, the greatest satisfaction is in knowing how far you’ve come through all the small habits, efforts, and tweaks you’ve made along the way.
Like Steve Jobs said: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward.”