The question I and any successful DJ gets a lot is “how do I do what you do?” In short, the question is how do I become a DJ? This is often a loaded question wherein the person asking wants a simple straight to the point answer. On the other hand, those individuals asked, have the joy of trying to consolidate a very abstract art form down into the aforementioned simple answer.
The truth is, there’s no simple answer and I’m going to lend you my opinion on this here.
This is going to be a highly philosophical approach to the question. Whereas, most people want the technical what-to-do, or the fast-track easy ticket, the truth of it is…
being a DJ is easy…
Doing it right, professionally is not easy. Not easy = work.
Spinning, playing, and mixing other people’s music is the easy part, and I often joke, if you can tap your toe in time with counting to four, you’ve got the prerequisite skills to be a DJ.
This article is not a grand-stand to toot my own horn. I’m not writing this as a great and almighty DJ, no way. In fact, as far as club DJing goes, I’ve really not been at it for very long. I’m doing this out of a frustration I have that is broken down into multi-parts. First there’s the DJ’s out there that act like kindergarten children with saturated egos that treat the role as some kind of novelty. Then there are the industry folks, primarily artists, who at best, see DJs as hyper-fan sycophants (some of them certainly are) or worse, downright thieves. Finally there are the fans, which for the most part have no idea how hard it is to take on the mantle of the DJ. And really, I forgive the fans wholeheartedly, because while they might take your hard work for granted, there should be no expectation on the part of the DJ to get anything in return from the fans. That’s the crux of the job really.
So to all those who ask for the philosopher’s stone on becoming a DJ…. to be a “successful” DJ, there’s no black and white magic bullet, hence the reason it’s worth a blog editorial. Read-on and I’ll try to touch upon a few facets here and hopefully by the end of it, the wheat and the chaff will be separated for those with the yearning ambition to embark on a club-life career.
A BRIEF NOTE ABOUT “THE GLORY”
Before I continue, let’s get one elephant out of the way. Let’s acknowledge that DJs get a lot of attention. I almost feel dirty saying that because some folks completely abuse this attention and let it go to their heads, but it’s true. Everyone loves the DJ. They are the conductor of your dance floor experience, the A-type who has chosen to lead a group of people in a forlorn hope of a shared musical understanding. This kind of endeavor comes with risk. In acknowledging this we must also nod to the fact that the DJ is a brave person. They get up-there and risk humiliation for the purpose of sharing their love of music and art-form with others. In this regard, DJ’s and artists share a bond, often much to the chagrin of the artist. But, we must face the fact, being a DJ comes with a bucket of glory and to some extent, every DJ is permitted, without shame, to dip a sponge in the bucket and bathe themselves in that glory. And this is why people look at the DJ and say “I want to do that too.”
Additionally, it looks easy. Being a rock-star is hard! You have to learn an instrument, coordinate with your mates, and practice continually. Heart and soul, blood and tears, the decision to be the artist comes with a heavier weight, but, being a DJ is easy; you just play the music the rock-star made, done and done. In short order, being a DJ is a much more accessible path to the aforementioned glory.
WITH GLORY COMES RESPONSIBILITY
I could wax eternal about the DJ striking a healthy balance on indulging in the glory and the subsequent ego-flate that is in some respects a DJs right, and in other respects the DJs bane. And keeping it all in perspective, here’s the thing about the glory. It’s a beast. You can either tame it, or it will grow wild, out of control and sometimes bite you. The single greatest skill a DJ can hone is not how to mix and spin, but how to responsibly handle the swelling ego. Exacerbating the situation, there’s the fact that every attention whore on the planet is a fucking DJ. Google those exact words and you’ll find dozens of parodies on the subject. There’s a reason why these parodies exist, because self-made DJs are ubiquitous! These people are the musical equivalent of the start-up film student, or garage band with rock-star aspirations. Only a few, survive. And yet, all these self-same people are more than willing to strut their stuff and reap the glory, even if the only gig they’ve had was their sister’s wedding with an iPod.
It’s because of these people that it’s crucially important that the hard working DJ not rest on laurels unless it’s truly and honestly well deserved, and I hate to break it, but just spinning a successful night is not enough these days.
YOU ARE AN AMBASSADOR
Garnering respect for people on the dance floor is an important aspect of the job. But there’s dance floor respect, and there’s industry respect and sometimes the two don’t really meet eye to eye. Everyone who seeks the old man on the hill secret to becoming a DJ hates the explanation that to be a DJ is to have a primary directive to always be about the music. In other words, if you want to be a successful well-rounded DJ seeking the respect of the music industry you must recognize it is equally important than the respect of your dance floor.
You see, when it boils down to the naked truth, the DJ is just replaying an artist’s hard work, plain and simple. No matter how awesome your mixing is, or how clever your uses of effects are, it’s not your fucking music! An extreme reaction to this idea (especially from artists) is to relegate the DJ into equivalent of an undeserving parasite. I think this is a rather harsh, blanket statement, although I can completely understand where it comes from, it’s unfair to consign all DJs into that of freeloading scavengers.
For the DJs part, there’s an onus to recognize that you are simply a small cog in a larger machine. You are not THE machine, nor are you even a crucial gear in the machine, but you do have a place and a job in making the machine work and that job, if done right can garner you some valuable credibility in today’s musical market.
And let’s talk about that market for a moment! Today’s DJs have an amazing opportunity not to fuck-it-up! As dissemination and distribution in the musical market (especially for subculture brands of music) becomes easier and as a result competition becomes fiercer, ambitious artists who wish to build their creative empires can use the DJ as an ambassador.
So to those who seek the mantle of DJ, remember first! Your job is not to show off your deck skills but to make sure great music and artists your subjective ear prefers, get heard, get purchased and get supported within the community.
IT’S MORE ABOUT PR SMARTS THAN SPINNING SKILL
When I say PR, I mean the art of self-promotion and public relations. Credibility is the name of the game. Once you get past the notion that being a DJ is not all about prancing about on a stage or booth and making that perfect mix. Once you get in your core that being a DJ is all-about the artists you spin, you’ll find that your credibility as a DJ will mature, and then, and only then, can you selfishly indulge in some of that volatile ego-flate that makes the job so damn seductive in the first place.
On a pure selfish level, once you’ve achieved this balance, then you’re ready to start pushing your own PR buttons. AND, this is really important if you want longevity in your career. I’ve watched DJs crash and burn because the instant gratification has not come fast enough. Many of these people have a “build it and they will come” attitude towards DJing. In its worst form, the DJ gets a few gigs under his/her belt and then stands back with a sense of self-entitlement waiting for the masses to worship them. Sometimes this behavior manifests in other ways. I’ve watched DJs rush out and buy all the latest technology in the hopes that their wallet and subsequently their toys will impress people. I’ve watched DJs in one moment decide “hey I’m gonna be a DJ” and 24 hours later they have created a Facebook fan page and are spamming people to “like” it. The build-it-they-will-come attitude is a slippery slope and any DJ worth their salt will recognize that being a DJ is a delicate balance of being that “ambassador” I talked about, practical skill, responsibility and a looooong strategic plan to build layers of PR tools on firmly established roots. Remember if any artist is going to use you as a promotions tool, they want to know their credibility is safe within your reputation.
Yes, you need to get yourself out there! But rushing to market can come across as egotistical, premature and without a foundation of gigs, and credible references, it basically says “look at me” without recommendation. Alternately, being modest is also a liability. Not doing enough to push yourself, especially if you are a damn good DJ is equally a risk. I’ve seen amazing technically skilled DJs rock the friggen house down, but after the dust has settled nay a peep is heard and the person fades into oblivion. I kind of like these guys. Their modesty is often really charming. They are often the kind of people who make music themselves and would rather indulge in that glory on that front (more about this later). Some folks like to remain modest, and want to just play a couple of gigs and then disappear. But if you are trying to build a legacy, you have to know when to strike the PR guitar! You should treat your DJ persona like a brand. Corporations give serious attention to the reputation and message of brands. DJs are no different.
My personal approach to the PR balance is to apply a formula. You are only as good as your last gig. Gig’s themselves are great opportunities to pump yourself. Plus, promoters love it when the people they book are working to promote the party. I’m constantly amazed at how many guest DJ’s we book who don’t even invite their friends to the event. They show-up, spin and expect to get paid and we’re left with a “what did you do for us” feeling. Don’t be afraid to be loud online and in the community when you’re doing a party. Part of your job is to rally the troops and insure that the party is amazing even before you spin the first disk.
When you are starting out, a good rule of thumb is to not create a website or fan page until you’ve got a good solid few months of regular events under your belt. Wait until people talk about you, and ask you back before you go and trumpet your own laurels. Also don’t go making a brand of yourself if you have no intention of constantly planning the next phase of development for that brand. Having a hundred friends “like” your fan page when you play one or two gigs and retire sends a terrible “disposable” message.
Also, being a freelance DJ is recognizably difficult, so booking and promoting your own events is the “on paper” easy solution. However, one will find in reality, promoting and producing events in-itself is a whole other ball of wax and mounds of hard work. But really, every DJ should also be their own mini-promoter, not only pumping the artists they spin but also carefully crafting a communications message, layered slowly over time that builds their name into that credible, reputable good name that will win both fans and the industry folks.
DO MORE THAN JUST Djing…
Credibility, reputation, a focus on the music and a mature approach to “the glory” is all good, almost essential to garner the respect of those paying attention. Anyone can plan and execute a healthy DJ career with these things carefully balanced. However, if you want to really drive it home these days it’s smart to supplement your career in other ways.
The first and often the most natural avenue is to make music yourself. If you are that good at mixing, and that good at having a musical ear than you’re probably only a little tinkering away from making great music yourself. Alternately many musicians themselves do it the other way around and supplement their musical careers by being DJs. But even in this day and age where making music with a laptop is a fairly easy thing to do, those with a passion and an ear for the music they spin are often great artists in waiting themselves.
But alas, there are those out there who have a great love of the music, but feel daunted by the very idea of making music. Add to that, the expense of seriously making music is overwhelming in itself.
Yes, there are those who are simply satisfied with the full-on intention of just being a DJ and you know what? That’s totally cool! There are other ways of supplementing your club career and standing apart.
Traditional radio and pod casting are excellent ways of polishing your DJ career. University level radio or community TV (where it still exists) were at one time, (and in some cases still are) great ways of getting your message and your brand out there. Naturally things like pod casting and and Youtube make it easier than ever to push your passion for music and ultimately your DJ career forward. Yes, there’s a ton of competition and as a result you have to really work hard and be consistently dedicated to stand apart. You have to attract and claim a listener base in order to claim the aforementioned credibility that is so sacred to a successful DJ career.
Both music and broadcast are fiercely competitive and perhaps saturated markets. But other, even simpler methods are at your disposal. For example, if you can establish a successful “scene” blog, or write articles, album reviews, or editorials for already established blogs, sites, or magazines, you’ve got one-up over the modest club-only DJ.
Whether it is any of these things, or full-on promotions for your own events, the whole reason for saying this is to establish the notion that in today’s market, club Djing may not be enough to hold both popularity, and longevity in your DJ career. Be creative, find a way that marks you apart from others and stick with it heart and soul.
THE DARK SIDE
There are a couple of other important questions aspiring DJs need to ask themselves before they even attempt to fly. The first important question is to ask yourself if club life is really for you? That’s a serious question. Yes, there is all that glory, and it’s pretty awesome, but there’s also the fact that successful DJs are always the brides and never the bridesmaids. That is to say they rarely get to go to a club and simply “enjoy” a night out. Consider also a DJ’s night often starts well before 9pm and the trek home to bed is often at sunrise, later if you add the ever popular after-party. There’s also the fact that a DJ must keep their wits about them, staying sober enough to work and do the work well and after be sober enough to network, schmooze and keep that reputation tarnish free. Than there are all the people in the club, some you love, some you may not, all of them you have to put on your game face and welcome with open heart and arms. You are the ambassador of their musical pleasure, and with that you carry the cross of dealing with some really obnoxious people with a smile. So as you ask yourself whether or not club life is for you, also consider you may be doing this for years on end. You really have to love club life in order to commit to being successful.
Then there’s the music. Right now you love it well enough you have the ambition to share it with others as a DJ. Well consider the fact that you’ll have to listen to fuck of a lot of it, all the friggen time. New artists, old artists, classics etc. As a DJ your ipod will be on every free moment you have. Double that if you have supplemental pod cast. Now consider that this music might get really boring really fast. Add further that you’re often hearing the same song over and over as you not only perfect your mixes, but also appease the dance floor who wants to hear that particular “hit”. The trick to avoiding this is to reaffirm to yourself that ‘yes’ indeed, you do love this music enough that you can see yourself listening to it non-stop and never getting bored of it. Also, get used to the idea of loving music that is not of your spinning genre as it often helps you get over the massive listening dump that you are about to unload on your auditory senses.
ANOTHER PATH TO GLORY
There’s one more piece of advice I like to give aspiring DJs. That advice is not to become just another DJ, but to maybe look into the world of VJ. Many folks look confused at this notion whenever I mention it. The world of visual musical stimulation is still relatively new in some musical circles. Hell, some clubs are not even equipped to facilitate a VJ without major technical hurdles.
But consider this; a good VJ can be an invaluable component to a multitude of DJs themselves. A kick-ass visual backdrop can set an evening apart. Also consider that a successful VJ can also dovetail nicely with an eventual DJ career. Not only are you networking and supporting the DJ community in your scene, you are also creating your own brand reputation that could open a number of doors.
I firmly believe that the future of club night entertainment for all genres will require both themed visual and musical components. As the market for VJs is sparse, especially in subculture music, this is a strong suggestion to any ambitious person looking to break into the career.