Our advice: abandon this detestable career before you start
You’re playing a prime-time spot on the main stage during the final night at Tomorrowland. Your logo is flashing on the giant screens, your name is written in huge glowing letters above your head and you’ve just dropped your signature track as the pyrotechnics fire and the whole place explodes into a frenzy of movement and light. You’ve made it, you’re an international superstar DJ.
You’re rich, you’re famous, you’re followed by hordes of groupies and worshipping fans. You live a VIP lifestyle, jetting around the world to play at the most beautiful clubs on the planet. Your days are devoted to listening to music, making music and playing music, and you spend every summer in a luxury villa in the Ibizan hills where you drink cocktails by the pool in between gigs
Who wouldn’t want all of this? But before you set out on your journey to DJ superstardom, here’s a guide to why you really don’t want to be a DJ.
1. It’s hard work at the beginning
Make no mistake, the life of a novice DJ is not easy. You may imagine living the DJ lifestyle entails turning up late to a gig, spinning a few tunes and the spending the rest of the evening sipping champagne in the VIP room or being whisked away to the next venue in a chauffeur-driven limo. Don’t be fooled: it’s hard graft at the beginning and you need to be willing to put in the hours.
2. You won’t earn much
When you start out, you won’t have a name, you won’t have a following and you won’t be able to command much of a fee. The life of an unknown DJ is one of scrapping around for whatever gigs you can pick up, gobbling up anything that is thrown your way. You’ll have to accept low pay – and you might find yourself playing out for free, just for some exposure.
3. It costs a lot to get started
Becoming a DJ involves a significant financial investment before you can even start and you’ll need to acquire at least the minimum amount of equipment to begin with. The cheapest way to DJ is on your laptop. By using open-source, free software and illegally downloaded music, the only necessary investment is a splitter and a couple of leads, an initial outlay of less than €20. If your ambitions are no loftier than becoming a pub DJ, your expenses can stop there. However, if you have aspirations to play in a club, you will need a bit more than that.
You can probably lay your hands on a cheap all-in-one controller for €150, something that still runs through your laptop but gives you some physical knobs to touch. However, most serious DJs use a pair of CDJs and a separate mixer and the kind of equipment you find in the top clubs or at festivals will easily set you back a good €5-6000. Of course, you won’t need to spend that much initially, but an entry-level set of Pioneer equipment is still going to make more than a €1000-sized hole in your wallet.
It doesn’t stop there though. You need a good pair of headphones, you need speakers to play through and, of course, you need to start collecting some tunes. You can rely on free downloads, but if you want club-quality music that will sound good on a big system, you’re really going to have to pay. By this point, the expenses are starting to add up. And you still have no idea if you can actually DJ yet.
4. You’ll need to spend a lot of time listening to music
This one might not sound so terrible since, in theory, you should be in this game for the love of the music – but any DJ worthy of the name needs to spend an inordinate amount of time listening to new material. First, you’re going to have to build your collection. In the old days, that meant scouring the local record shops to pick up the latest cuts and white labels and haggling with crafty vinyl pushers, which at least used to be quite fun. Nowadays, you’re more likely to spend your time alone in your bedroom late at night, wearing a pair of headphones and staring at a computer screen, as you systematically work your way through all the new releases on Beatport, check out what people are uploading to Soundcloud and generally try to track down the tunes that will make your set stand out.
5. You’ll need to spend a lot of time practising
Before you embark upon your new career as a budding DJ, you will have no idea how good you’re going to be – but one thing is for sure, whoever you are, you’re going to need a lot of practice before you master the art. First, you need to learn how to beat match, much easier now in the digital age than in the Technics era, but still an indispensable skill. Then you’ll need to learn about musical keys, BPMs, fading, looping, drop mixing, scratching, using effects and twiddling lots of knobs like a pro – and, most importantly, not pressing the ‘off’ button so the music grinds to a halt just as your thoughtful and well-constructed set reaches its triumphant climax.
6. Your early gigs won’t be particularly gratifying
Be honest with yourself. Your dream might be to destroy the crowd in the main room at Amnesia or to secure bookings in the biggest clubs in London, Berlin or Amsterdam, but at the beginning, that’s not going to happen. When you start out, be ready to play weddings, birthdays, school discos, funerals or whatever else might come your way. You’re going to need to adapt, too. It’s no good playing a storming set and imagining you’re headlining at Cream when the dancefloor is filled with grannies. You might have a few unfortunate requests, too. If your crowd wants Despacito, you’ll have to grit your teeth and play it.
When you graduate to playing in an actual club, it might not be much better at first. It could be some grotty hole full of sleazy old men or drunks. Or sleazy drunk old men. If you’re really lucky, you might manage to land yourself a residency warming up at a plush club with beautiful décor and an expensive sound system. But your slot is from eight to ten and people don’t start arriving until midnight. After a few weeks or months, it can become quite depressing when you find yourself showcasing your prodigious talent to an empty dancefloor night after night.
7. Being a clown on the mic
DJs at school discos and weddings have always had a mic in their hand. It has forever been an integral part of their craft to cajole their audiences into doing congas or participating more enthusiastically in the YMCA dance. But at some point, somebody thought it would be a good idea to give a microphone to the big-room EDM superstars and now it’s expected of any DJ to talk to the crowd throughout their set when really, they should be concentrating on their job and communicating through their music.
The good news is that neither a high level of eloquence nor advanced proficiency in English are required to make it as a superstar DJ. As long as you can master the expressions ‘put your f***ing hands up’ and ‘make some fu**ing noise’, you’re good to go. Perhaps you didn’t set out on your DJing odyssey because of your passion for shouting banal obscenities at large crowds of people but unfortunately, it now goes with the territory, so you’ll just have to get used to it and conform.
8. You’ll develop an unhealthy lifestyle
Something you need to accept from the outset is that this probably isn’t the healthiest career choice. The party scene has always involved drink, drugs and smoking packets of cigarettes, and such insalubrious activities are almost expected. Even if you manage to avoid this aspect of the DJ circuit, you will find your days are short and your nights are long. Once you hit the big-time, you will spend your life flying around the world, napping on planes or in hotels and developing terrible sleeping patterns. If you value your health or even your sanity, you might like to think about pursuing an alternative career.
9. You’ll become electronically insecure and will develop a social media obsession
An unavoidable part of a modern DJ’s work is building a social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and anything else that can help increase your fame and hype. Improving your online visibility is a full-time job in itself but it’s something that can’t be neglected. Once you make it big, you can probably delegate online duties to a social media manager, but then you will find yourself obsessing over how many likes you have and why other DJs have far more followers than you.
10. You’ll become emotionally isolated
You’ll find yourself lonely up there in the DJ box, separated from the crowds of people dancing below. You’ll start constantly reaching for the microphone to ask tentatively, ‘is everyone ok out there?’ just to reassure yourself that the people haven’t forgotten about you and that they still know you exist.
11. You will probably lose all fashion sense
With one or two notable exceptions, the more famous they become, the worse DJs tend to dress. If you become an EDM superstar, despite the millions in the bank, you will have to submit to wearing the unofficial uniform of a plain black t-shirt for all your biggest shows.
12. You’ll probably embarrass yourself in front on hundreds or thousands of people
As a small-time DJ playing in a dingy club full of people who have had too much lager, it won’t matter when the beats clash or your mix doesn’t quite come off how you’d imagined. But when you’re on stage in front of thousands of clubbers who idolise you as a god, you won’t be spared the blushes when it all goes Pete Tong. And rest assured, it will happen. Probably in the middle of the biggest gig of your career.
13. You probably won’t make it
The sad truth is, even if, despite all these warnings about why not to become a DJ, you obstinately insist on devoting yourself to this thankless career, you probably won’t arrive anywhere near the top. How many millions of kids kick a football in the park with dreams of pulling on the national jersey at the World Cup? Of those, a small percentage might turn professional, but how many reach the end of their playing days and look back on a career spent knocking about in the lower leagues with the high point being one season playing for a mid-table team in the third tier?
How many millions of bedrooms are there with their own resident DJ? But how many of those bedroom DJs actually ever play in front of a crowd? Some might turn pro but will never progress beyond spinning their tunes in the local meat club where most of the punters won’t remember the music the next morning anyway. Festival headliners are few and far between and to become one, you will need a combination of talent, charisma and a large portion of luck, without which you will be destined to spend your career swimming around at the bottom of the DJ pool.
Do it for love
If you decide to pursue a career as a DJ, the best advice is this. Do it for the right reasons. Do it for the love of music. Do it because you live for the thrill of working a crowd. Do it because dropping your biggest track and watching the dancefloor react is the oxygen you breathe. Do it because you feed on the energy of the club, without which you would starve. Don’t become a DJ because you want the fame, the money or the VIP lifestyle. It’s going to be a long, hard road and you probably won’t reach the end. If your only thought is for the riches that lie in wait, you will almost certainly be disappointed. If you do it for love, at least you will enjoy the ride.