So here you are, a college graduate wondering what to do with your future. The job market’s not looking so hot for a well-rounded liberal artist like yourself. Besides, you want to work outside the Jack in the Box. You’re a rugged individual who will carve your own Oregon Trail!
Have you ever taken over the hi-fi at a party and played the right songs to make people dance? Have you gone to a club or party with a live DJ and thought, “I could make this crowd dance too?” Do you love music more than almost everything? Do you obsessively collect music? Do you get the urge to share your exquisite taste in music? Do you love dancing and making people dance? Are you creative?
If you answered yes to these questions, you might be ready for an exciting career as a DJ!
(Notes: 1. Exciting career as DJ not guaranteed, very difficult to achieve and very unlikely; uncomfortable side effects may occur. 2. This article is about becoming a DJ who is predominantly a live entertainer and improvisational artist, not an experimental postmodern found sound illbient collage artist doing art gallery background music.)
Just follow these easy steps and you’ll be well on your way.
First off, consider my proposed four pillars of a DJ entertainer and practice each for 2-6 hours a day.
1. Collector: You should be obsessed with music. You are an ambassador of excellent music. No one else has a clue, or the time to seek out wonderful songs and put them together. This is your job. Keep searching for the best cuts in your favorite style as well as other styles. Be open minded! Digging through dusty crates may not be pretty, but you have to do it!
2. Technician: Learn how to use the gear (more on gear later). Not all great DJs have had amazing technical ability, but you must have some. Become one with your mixer, turntables and fancy CD players. Know every knob like a part of the lover’s body you don’t have because you practice so much. This is your only love! Know just when and how to twist, pull, and thrust them just right. Your audience’s ecstasy depends on it.
3. Selector: You can’t just play songs willy-nilly, silly! Your job, as a live DJ, even before being a great mixer, turntablist, or fancy-pants show-off person, is to work a crowd. They are why you’re doing this. Playing the right sequence of great songs is imperative. Learn to feel what a crowd wants, and they will learn to feel what you are doing. You are an entertainer; these songs are your repertoire.
4. Hype: No one’s going to discover you in your bedroom and whisk you off to Ibiza or L.A. to play for thousands. You have to make a name for yourself and sell yourself. If you wind up in a club or bar that isn’t already known for being the hot spot for DJ good times, you need to become a promoter and bring people out. Then you need to sell the music and your style to them. Remember, not everyone is as open minded as you. But by now you know how to grab someone, pull them close and work them into an orgasmic frenzy of good times with your mix of selections from your collection, right?
Now, get some gear! Industry standard, top of the line Technics 1200 turntables cost $500 apiece, a quality mixer will be about the same. DJ CD players are around three bills apiece. Ouch, right? Especially if your graduation gift was only 100 bucks and a cheese log. You can start cheap with some low-end gear and get set up for $500-700. Avoid the packaged sets of gear, pure shit usually. Get direct drive turntables, belts are no fun. If you plan on playing with more than two turntables, CD players, samplers etc., you’ll need a mixer with three or more channels. If you’re going to be a turntablist and scratch a lot, get a nice mixer with a cross fader made for scratching. Don’t forget nice headphones and needles.
Think about format: Vinyl versus Compact Discs. It’s amazing but understandable that CDs are becoming popular for DJs. There are even CD players that come close to emulating the versatility of a turntable. Vinyl is still the standard and there is nothing like it. DJs have been fired from clubs for using CDs. This may change in the future. People are now DJing with their computer library and a dummy record hooked to a laptop that triggers the sounds. We won’t go there.
A mix of formats is probably best. There are some songs that you may never find on vinyl and vice versa. Remember, your job is to entertain, so do whatever is necessary.
Now go sell yourself. Go out, listen and meet DJs, meet your future audience. If you find a club or go to party you want to play, find out who the booker or promoter is and talk to them. They will probably want a demo CD or mini-disc so give them a recording of an hour-long set that reflects who you are in five to 10 minutes. That sounds impossible, true, especially when playing live is different than playing in your bedroom, but give it a shot.
If you get in, great. Always watch out for shady promoters, bookers and owners who disrespect the DJ.
Hosting your own club night or party. This is much more work than doing a shift in an established club or a set in a 10 DJ bill, but can be very rewarding. There are dozens of bars, restaurants, nightclubs and unused warehouses that don’t even know they need a party yet. Some will even have a sound system. If not, you’ll need to find one. Rent the room or warehouse or sell yourself to the club. Clubs will usually let you in if you promise to make them money. Make fliers and hustle. Getting the word out and convincing people to come out is hard work but necessary. When people realize what joy you will be bringing into their lives they’ll come. Once again, watch out for shady assholes and haters, which brings us to our next point.
Don’t be an asshole or a hater. Ask yourself: Why are you doing this? Not for the money, which may or may not come. Fame, popularity? Hot sex from DJ groupies? Free drugs? Wrong reasons and not likely to happen very often. You may only play in front of people once every couple of months, depending on what you play. The only reason to become a live DJ is for the love of good times and good music. You are an ambassador and provider of good music, but you are still part of the audience too. Give them and yourself what you both want. Yes, you are a creative, improvisational artist capable of working thousands of people into an ecstatic frenzy, but don’t let it go to your head.
(Inspirational information for this article came from the great book “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: the History of the Disc Jockey” by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton.)