DJs select and play music for people to dance to and enjoy, in nightclubs or at celebratory events such as parties and weddings.
Being a DJ involves choosing and combining music for different audiences, creating a seamless soundtrack for people to enjoy and dance to. Common activities would include:
- Attending venues and events to play a ‘set’
- Buying new music and keeping up to date with the music scene
- Negotiating with agents, club owners and promoters regarding hours and pay
- Building industry contacts
- Establishing a reputation with residency appearances
- Helping to organise events to provide a forum for their music
- Planning material
- Practising and experimenting with new combinations and techniques
DJs are almost always self-employed and earn money on a flexible basis, in relation to demand for their services. Some DJs can earn as much as two or three thousand pounds an hour, some even more, but the number of people who actually do is very small, and many work for a much more modest sum, around £20 – £100 per hour. While the hourly rate is relatively good, the main times of activity are weekends and only one or two hours may be required in one evening, so in general the money is quite inconsistent and unreliable.
DJs are paid to gather a crowd and keep them dancing and having fun for as long as possible. This means gauging the mood appropriately and playing records to suit the target audience, using music of different genres and with different characteristics to engage and hold people’s interest.
No formal qualifications are required to be a DJ, the most important thing being knowledge of music, crowds and equipments. Many DJs develop an interest in producing their own music and experience of sound engineering and use of different computer software programmes is the standard way to make this happen.
Being a DJ requires a range of skills, including:
- A good ear for rhythm
- A sense of timing
- Good inter-personal skills to assist networking
- The stamina and energy to motivate people
- The ability to manage business accounts
- Technical ability
- Creative talent for mixing music together
Many DJs love the job because they work in a place they regard as the ultimate working environment: a nightclub. There may be a lot of travelling involved in the work but conditions are usually comfortable. However, inside the club, there will almost certainly be very high noise levels, and numerous DJs damage their hearing irreparably in a short space of time by having very loud headphones and monitor speakers surrounding themselves when they are working and practising. This is a real problem and one that is not easily avoided.
Experience is an asset to the DJ. Knowing what song to play when can make the difference between a good night and a bad night, and this is something that comes with experience of playing in front of large crowds. It is also important for the DJ to be familiar and confident in using a wide range of different equipment in different venues (sound systems, audio devices, mixers and so on). Without this knowledge it can be difficult to enjoy the freedom to achieve the best personal results when playing.
Most DJs work freelance and are therefore self-employed. However, some nightclubs employ people on a regular basis and others work for record labels, usually ones they have an involvement with. Other employers come in the form of individuals and organisations who need the services for individual functions or gatherings. Again, though, these come on a casual basis.
Although there is no formal career progression to DJ, in the way of exams or qualifications, there is a clear hierarchy of popularity to be ascended. The proof of a career progression is in popular support and bookings, which increase with success. DJs aim to play to the biggest crowds at the biggest clubs and seek to establish a local, national, and ultimately global reputation. Global centres of recognition include Ibiza, Amsterdam, New York and London, and these are the places people want to play. The most successful DJs often find work on public radio stations, or try to start their own, and this helps to spread their name and build their reputation. This can also create a platform for other projects.
Many DJs choose to start organising their own events to increase their share of the profits, and some even buy their own nightclubs. Others start record labels and sign new DJs and producers to them, or start radio stations.
Also known as…
- Disc jockey
What’s it really like?
Tommy Rio, 25 is a DJ working in Bristol. He gives us the inside story on what it’s really like to work as a DJ.
How long have you been working as a DJ?
Around six years, since I started university, really. I got really interested in house music and the club scene and started to think it would be great to be the one in charge of the music. I then bought some decks (turntables) and started buying records. This was very expensive, though, and soon I realised that it was much cheaper and easier to use CDs, so I started saving for some CD decks. Once I had these it was very easy to get access to lots of music and although some people are purist about using CDs I don’t have a problem with it; the equipment opens up so many new possibilities, as well.
I started doing a regular night, every Wednesday, and this was popular with lots of the students. This was good experience and I got to know lots of people in the local scene, including club owners, and established the beginnings of a reputation.
What do you do in a typical day at work?
Being a DJ, I only work at night, and only a few nights a week. I have a regular event at a club in Bristol and so I spend lots of time organising and promoting that, contacting other DJs and using the internet and social networking sites to raise awareness of the event. I am always on the look out for new music and I spend a lot of time listening to tracks and recorded sessions on the internet, picking up new ideas and keeping my ear to the ground as far as current styles and trends are going.
If I am playing at an event I spend some time getting an idea of what I am going to play, making a rough plan. I don’t stick to these plans rigidly but it helps to have a good idea of what you want to play, and to have a few tried and tested classics ready. I will usually go down early and get a feel for the crowd and the night and then go from there, and what I play depends on when in the night I go on. Some events, such as ones organised by me or my friends are quite informal and we can change things around to suit the crowd: if there are lots of people really up for a party we can get things going sooner; other events are more timetabled and you play a fixed slot and then go off.
What do you like and dislike about the job?
Controlling a big crowd is one of the biggest buzzes I can think of; I just love it. There is a real connection between what you play and the mood in the club; it’s like conducting energy. Putting into practice an idea you had at home is great, too, and being proved right about a hunch or a new tune is exhilarating; it gives me goose bumps. I like the people as well.
The obvious downside is the money, which is not very good and you often have to supplement it or work hard to find regular slots. There is money to be made but the industry is very competitive and you have to work really hard to break in and build a name for yourself.
Any other advice?
Network – it’s very important to make lots of contacts, especially with the promoters who organise events. Sending lots of demo tapes is good as well, but getting people to listen to them is hard and it’s so much easier to get involved with things if you are friends with the people in question – sometimes it’s not the best DJs who get to play, but those who know people on the scene.
Know your music and work hard at taking your playing to the next level. Listen to other people and think about why they succeed. Also, make every set you play special. You have to get the motivation going and really want to do something people will remember and identify you with. The glamour of DJing is something that appeals to many people but the reality of working at the music all the time is more important.