Whenever you start something new, whether it be riding a bike, driving a car or starting a new job, there’s always a learning curve associated with it- that’s just the way it is. Even the most talented people have to adapt to new situations in order to succeed. DJing is no exception to this fact.
When I signed up to be a DJ for my college radio station, I went through training so that I knew how to use the equipment- there was even a manual on hand to reference in case things went wrong. Despite this, there were still things I wish I knew before having my first show, like how to upload my songs to the DJ library and have them stay there (often times they would disappear due to technical issues, which was annoying).
If you’ve ever been a DJ, whether it be live or on the radio, I’m sure there’s things that DJ’s often wished they had known before starting out. So here are fourteen things you should know before you start DJing.
1. Be Prepared for Technical Difficulties
As great as technology is, it is not without its issues (if you’ve ever used the Internet, you know that pages are often slow to load, and sometimes browsers can quit unexpectedly as well). This one almost seems like a no-brainer, but it’s true: nobody expects this to go wrong, but they inevitably do.
In terms of DJing, there are a plethora of things that could go wrong. Songs could fail to load, you may encounter issues with the
PA system, or your equipment may not even turn on at all. Therefore, it’s good to come prepared. Be sure you know how to use your equipment beforehand, so that you minimize the chance of making a mistake and having something not work. This means reading the instruction manuals and practicing with the equipment long before you take that gig. If something does go wrong, this is where reading the manuals will come in handy.
You can also try asking for specific tips on online DJ message boards. In my experience, people are usually more than willing to offer advice for how to deal with/fix technical problems- if for some reason they don’t know the answer, they can usually refer you to a website or person who can help. As bad as technical issues are, the truth of the matter is that the more they happen, the more prepared you’ll be for them, and the better you’ll be able to handle it. So, stay optimistic, and be sure to come prepared!
2. Be Ready for Unexpected Silence
Along these same lines, if you use your laptop to DJ, you may run into the problem of unexpected silence; due to things like system crash, hard drive failure, or even something as minor as a disconnected wire. It’s a good idea to bring a Y-cable (RCA to mini-jack) and a media player pre-loaded with a DJ mix, and plug it in before you come on. This way, if you find yourself with a large crowd and sudden silence, you can switch to the tracks on your media player to keep the music going while you restart your system and attempt to fix the problem.
3. Treat Your Sound Person with Kindness
It’s no secret that a DJ’s best friend is the sound person, so make sure to be kind to them. Introduce yourself and be respectful, because if the sound person feels disrespected, you can tell by the way your music sounds on the dance floor; and your guests will likely not be very happy.
4. Familiarize Yourself with the Venue
If you’re seriously thinking of becoming a DJ, you’ve probably asked yourself the following question: “How do I get my first gig?”
As noted by DJ Charlie Sputnik of the Musicians Institute, the key to getting your first DJ gig is to think of places where you’d like to perform, and visit them regularly (chances are, if you want to be a DJ, you have some
venues in mind already). I’d suggest having 3-5 places in mind, because if worse comes to worse and one of them doesn’t hire you, you’ll at least have a few more options- it pays to keep an open mind. Choose a slow night or get there before the crowds arrive, and start shooting the breeze with the bartender or door person. You can actually learn a lot when staff has time to talk (which nights are available for local talent, who books performers, what’s the best way to submit a playlist, etc.). Be sure to make a good first impression with the staff, because this is crucial. If you do, I’d say the odds are pretty good that the decision-makers will hear about you before you meet them.
5. Check Out the Venue’s Set-Up
Congratulations, you just landed your fist gig! Now what?
Once you land a gig, it’s important to visit the existing DJ booth before the date of your gig. Don’t be that guy who shows up the day of, only to realize you have no familiarity with the venue’s set-up whatsoever. It not only makes you feel dumb, but there’s a good chance that the show won’t go as well as you’d like, either.
If you plan to use your own equipment, let the venue know well in advance- some places would rather have the DJs use the house equipment, so check ahead of time. Afterwards, leave the equipment the way you found it (reconnect existing cables, “zero” the levels, and make sure the booth is clean). Cleaning up after yourself and leaving things the way you found them helps you make a good impression with the owner and gives you the best chance of getting hired again.
6. Know the Deal with Security
Security is always an important factor for DJs to consider. Depending on the venue and the number of people expected, you may have to limit access to your booth. Also consider whether it’s worth having a rope or security guard on hand. Make sure you have the contact info of the booking agent or venue manager with you, in the event that an intoxicated patron starts acting belligerent or disrespectful.
7. Choose Your Guests Wisely
From time to time, DJs will get paid based on the number of people who pay at the door. If this happens to you, DJ Charlie Sputnik advises limiting your guest list. It’s great to invite a few friends (after all, you hope they’d support you), but Sputnik says that “each friend not paying a cover means one less person on your tally!”, so keep this in mind. If this is your first event at a venue, limiting your guests is particularly important; as drawing a fairly large paying crowd will help you make a good impression with the venue.
There is a darker side to this, however, which you must be aware of. Recently, the question of “What did you wish you knew before DJing?” was asked in a DJ group on Facebook. One person replied by saying the following: “How my so called DJ colleagues of mine that once supported me by showing up to my club gigs and stealing my style of mixing, and shazzaming music I play. Then realizing they only showed up because they had every intention of one day stealing my job. Watch who’s watching you. I speak from experience.”
There are plenty of people that are willing to help you on your DJ journey (a quick search for DJ message boards will no doubt prove this), so this is not to say that you should go into gigs paranoid or with a chip on your shoulder. But having someone steal/replicate your style can certainly happen, so I would advise only inviting people you trust. Or at the very least, keep your guard up and pay a little more attention to your friends than other people at the venue, just to be safe.
8. Listen from the Dance Floor
It’s important for DJs to know the specifics of their room, especially since there’s not always a sound technician on hand. During the process of sound checking or early on in your set, you should walk around the dance floor and listen to what you hear. The volume, EQ and sound quality often sounds different from what you hear inside the DJ booth, so make sure it sounds good from both sides.
9. Audience Awareness
Audience awareness is important in any profession, especially DJing. If your audience wants to hear techno or EDM, but all you have is rap and hip-hop, they most likely will not want to see you again. I get it, it can be tough to gauge an audience beforehand, especially if it’s your first time playing at a venue. This is where talking to staff at the venue will help, because they can tell you what type of crowd usually comes, and what genre of music they want to hear.
Also, if you are playing anywhere where minors may be present, be sure to only use “clean” versions of songs. The last thing you want is a parent yelling at you for exposing their kid to the expletive version of “Young, Wild & Free” by Snoop Dog & Wiz Khalifa. Plus, this could also hurt your reputation. So be sure to know your audience as best as you can and plan your set accordingly.
10. Build the Set
If you are opening for a big-name DJ, you want to build momentum with your playlist. You want to steer clear of playing all the current popular tunes right away and avoid playing current hits from the headliner. Not only does this steal the thunder from the main act, but it may also make you look bad.
I’d be lying if I said that playing a solid opening DJ set is easy, because the truth is it’s harder than it looks. In most cases, the dance floor is still pretty empty early on, people are just getting settled and wondering if and when they’ll make their way to the floor. You should keep your songs interesting and upbeat, and gradually pick things up over time to lure people in. It takes time to master the skill of a quality opening set, but the more you do it, the more prepared you’ll be.
11. Comply with the Venue’s Policies
Every venue has different policies, so make sure you comply with them. For example, if the booking agent or venue manager asks you not to play music from a certain artist or particular genre, don’t play it, even if people request it. It’s important to please the crowd and make sure people like the atmosphere, but it’s more important to agree with the person booking and paying you, especially if you want to get hired again.
12. Take the Occasional Song Request
It’s almost inevitable that people will request songs from you, and it’s fine to take requests from time to time to keep people happy, and the good vibes going. Don’t feel obligated everything people request, however, especially if they don’t offer a tip. A DJ is not a jukebox, and if you take one request, you may find yourself with a line of people asking you for all types of songs. You have to draw the line somewhere.
A good rule of thumb is to ask if the song request fits with the current set. If it does, then great- by all means, play it. But if not, politely decline. If they become insistent that you play the song (and trust me, there’s always at least one person at every venue like this), DJ Sputnik suggests that you “tell them you do not have the song with you, or that management asked you to stick to a particular style (which may very well be true!)”. The key is to find a balance between taking requests to keep the crowd into it, but also remaining true to yourself by playing the set you already prepared.
13. Have Your Set Ready
As previously mentioned, there are certain situations where you don’t want to use “crowd pleasers”, aka popular songs. However, there are situations that call for these songs, so it’s good to have a few on hand and ready to go when the moment arises.
The best situation to use “crowd pleasers” is when you notice the dance floor start to clear out (maybe it’s getting late and people are thinking of heading home, or maybe they’re just not that into your set). Whatever the reason, using a “crowd pleaser” in a situation such as this will usually be successful. It brings people back to the party and prevents a shockingly empty dance floor. No one likes to see the venue become a ghost town during an event, especially the management. So, put on your thinking cap, and add a few of these to your playlist as soon as possible.
14. People (Often) Do Not Respect the Art of DJing
Let’s face it- unless you’re a DJ, you don’t know the tricks of the trade and how much preparation actually goes into DJing. The same could theoretically be said of other jobs that look easy but actually require lots of effort behind the scenes, such as being an actor or professional athlete.
In the aforementioned DJ Facebook group, several people expressed their opinion that DJing, as an art, does not get the respect it deserves. One person said that DJs will often work for “chicken wings and pitcher of beer and $50”, while others said that “everybody thinks they are DJ” and that there is a lot of hate between DJs. It’s inevitable that you will run into people who don’t respect you (whether it be compensation you think is subpar, people who call themselves DJs but really have no clue what they’re doing, or verbal abuse from other DJs), so be prepared for this. I think the best thing you can do is to just remain true to yourself and your DJ style, and ignore those who dislike and/or irritate you.
If you plan to make money from DJing, it’s important that you know your worth, and try to get a fair price for your services. Don’t charge crazy money if you’re just starting out, because nobody will hire you. Yet, it’s equally important not to take lowball offers, such as free food and drinks (unless that’s all the venue can do, in which case you’ll have to decide if it’s worth the publicity). I’d recommend asking on online DJ forums and message boards to see what people generally charge and go from there.
15. Stay Humble
If you are a god enough DJ, you may get gigs multiple times per week, and could potentially reach celebrity status. But don’t let this go to your head. It’s important to stay humble, and thank everyone who gives you an opportunity to play; even if it’s only once. Bragging about what you’ve achieved and acting like you’re better than other DJs will result in you being shown the door, no matter how talented you are. Nobody wants to hire someone who is up on their high horse.
16. Invest in Quality Gear
A common complaint among DJs is that you replace your initial gear a lot quicker than you’d think. This usually happens because people don’t spend much on DJ equipment, but you know what they say: “you get what you pay for”. To avoid this, consider going the extra mile to purchase quality equipment. I’m not saying you need to spend thousands of dollars right off the bat, but if you have the option to go for something that’s $50 or $200, go for the more expensive option, because it will probably last you longer; and you’ll save yourself a lot of grief down the road.
17. Get Help Moving Equipment
Speakers and DJ equipment is a lot heavier than you think. Several people in the scene mentioned that they have back issues from moving heavy speakers without help, so it’s important to have help with this. More hands make less work, after all. Another good option is to get a ramp door trailer to hold your stuff, so you can roll it out when arriving at the venue.
18. Find the Right People
Networking isn’t just for your average worker who wears a suit and sits in a cubicle all day- it pays dividends for DJs as well. It’s important for you to find people you get along with and trust, because this will really help you moving forward. Attend shows, conferences, and get on message boards as much as you can. You can even ask fellow DJs if you can shadow them, or have them teach you how to get started. It’s all about who you know, and if you don’t have a group of people behind you, good luck getting gigs and advice from fellow DJs. Harsh, but true.
By no means is this list exhaustive. The music industry and DJing are constantly evolving, so this list is bound to grow in the near future. However, some things never change, and these tips should definitely help ease any nerves you have before you start spinning those records and give you confidence when starting out.