How to Become a DJ
4-Step Guide To Becoming A DJ
4 steps. Sounds simple, right? And it is simple, but it’s not easy. Step 1 takes money (or a generous friend with the right equipment); steps 2-4 take incredible amounts of dedication and perseverance.
Anyone can be a DJ. It’s easy. Becoming a successful DJ is much harder. If you’re willing to put in the work, these steps will get you there:
Some people want to get started on something right away; others (like me, unfortunately) prefer to read more and put off getting to work. For those people, I’ve written everything below. But know this: every important piece of information on this page is also repeated in one of the 4 steps. You should really just get started….
So you’ve chosen to read more…I’ll start by repeating this: becoming a DJ is easy; becoming a professional DJ who earns enough to live comfortably is monumentally difficult. You’ll start out working a lot of crappy gigs for very little money, if you get paid at all. Or even work at all.
If you don’t absolutely love what you do, it is highly unlikely you’ll have the drive to continue doing it through the hard times. But if you love it, DJing is the greatest job in the world.
Follow this 4-step guide on how to become a DJ and put in the work and you will become one of those lucky few who make a living doing what they love.
You can’t be a DJ without the proper equipment. Unfortunately, that equipment is expensive, which is why I recommend you hold off on purchasing anything until you absolutely have to.
If you have access to DJ equipment to use for practice, take advantage. I’ve seen too many people run out and blow a ton of cash on gear only to discover a few weeks later that DJing isn’t really for them. Then they end up selling their equipment at a huge loss.
Whether you don’t have access to DJ equipment or you’ve been practicing for a while and you know without a doubt you’re ready to buy your own, eventually the time comes where you need to spend some money. Some of you may already know exactly what you want and need, but if you don’t, I break it down for you on my equipment page.
If you know an established DJ who is willing to take you under their wing, then you’re set; that’s the best way to learn. Attending a DJ school can also get you access to a professional, but schools aren’t cheap. Most aspiring DJs will have to learn on their own.
I taught myself, as did probably the majority of professional DJs. And many of them will insist it’s the only way to become a DJ. I’m not personally opposed to paying someone to teach you, but not everyone can afford it—I certainly couldn’t when I was starting out.
If you plan on learning on your own, you’re actually much better off than most current DJs were five or ten years ago: these days, there are a large number of resources available to help you speed up the learning process considerably.
This is great news, if you want to start playing gigs as soon as possible. Of course, most of the best online lessons and resources will cost some money, but they cost far less than traditional lessons and there are actually some really good resources available for free as well.
The page on learning how to DJ lists some of the better resources and lessons available online, both free and paid.
So you’ve got your equipment and you’ve learned how to use it. You’ve been practicing every day and your mixes sound great. You’ve even played your cousin’s 8th birthday party and totally stole the show from Binky the clown.
Unfortunately, that is currently the highlight of your DJ career. You need some real gigs—preferably ones that give you money because I’m guessing you enjoy eating several times a day and sleeping indoors.
If you follow the simple step-by-step guide in this section, you will get that all-important first booking. The guide is simple in that the steps are easy to follow; it’s not simple in terms of work. It will require a lot of hustling.
You’re going to have to market yourself and you’ll need to do some networking. There’s no way around this unless you already know the right people. Anyone who tells you otherwise, is lying or already knew the right people when they were getting started. You’ll also want to create your own DJ website. Follow the steps here and that becomes surprisingly easy.
If you hate the idea of promoting yourself and just want to play your music, that’s fine. Do it as a hobby. If you want to become a professional DJ, you absolutely have to market yourself.
In fact, you’ll have to spend more time on that than on actually playing music. That’s just the way it is. I don’t like it either, but it beats the alternative: a real job. So read the guide and start implementing the steps!
Now that you’ve gotten over the hump and have played that all-important first gig, it’s time to think about your long-term career. That’s right, the hard work is far from over; it’s only just begun. Getting more gigs, and then larger ones, will involve a lot of marketing and I know how much most of us hate marketing.
Unfortunately, marketing is absolutely vital. All the top DJs are on top because they know how to sell themselves. You need to sell yourself, too. If you follow my tips in this section and put in the necessary work—hard work and a lot of it—you, too, will become a DJ. A successful one!
Also Known As: MC (Emcee), Announcer, Broadcaster
Minimum Education: None
What does a disc jockey do? DJs can perform a wide range of tasks throughout their careers. Radio DJs may choose which music to play during a broadcast and provide details about each song. They may also read traffic reports, discuss weather reports or inform the listener about breaking news stories.
Club DJs choose playlists of songs to create the right atmosphere for dancers. Some DJs spend a great deal of time developing the skills to create a perfect party mix and to transition seamlessly between songs. Many of these DJs work independently and may take jobs at weddings, parties and other special events. Some club DJs eventually become producers and create music of their own.
Disc jockeys must be able to handle many responsibilities simultaneously. If they are employed at a radio station, they must be able to coordinate with directors, editors and technicians to ensure that every broadcast goes smoothly. If they work independently, they must be passionate self-promoters and have great social skills.
- Deliver both scripted and live broadcasts
- Choose music playlists suited to a broadcast or event
- Interview guests, provide commentary or report news
- Independent DJs must market their skills and find new clients
- Stay informed of new developments in news topics, trends and current events
How much does a disc jockey make? The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that disc jockeys earned a median pay of $27,750 per year in 2012. That figure translates to $13.34 per hour.
The amount of money that disc jockeys earn can vary widely. For example, DJs who work in major urban or metropolitan areas may earn a higher salary than those who work in rural cities. Experience is also a major factor for DJs who earn a high salary. Having a bachelor's degree in a relevant field, like journalism or broadcasting, can help DJs find more lucrative jobs.
Disc jockeys may work full-time, part-time or work independently and set their own work schedule.
The path to entering this profession can vary depending on the type of work that an aspiring DJ wants to do. For those planning on working in radio broadcasting, pursuing a bachelor's degree in communications or journalism may be a good way to start.
Some journalism degree programs give students the opportunity to apply for internships at local radio or television stations. This can be a great way to obtain hands-on experience and develop skills that employers value.
DJs who work in entertainment venues usually do not need a degree to find work. They can learn how to be a DJ through independent study or by learning from established club DJs. Some colleges and universities offer music study courses that may cover some of the skills that club DJs utilize on a regular basis. These skills can include sound engineering, audio production and the use of music computer software.
How Long Does It Take To Become A DJ?
Becoming a DJ in the broadcast industry can take several years. Earning a bachelor's degree in communications or broadcasting usually takes four years. After college, aspiring radio DJs may work at internships or entry-level jobs for several years before advancing to a full-time DJ position.
Becoming a club or party DJ may take several years as well. Learning DJ skills and booking enough jobs to become experienced may take a year or longer. Developing the experience and reputation to work as full-time independent club DJ may take 2-5 years.
Becoming a DJ at a radio station may require a bachelor's degree. Journalism, broadcasting and communications majors can study a wide range of topics. Some of these topics can include voice training, sound engineering, journalism or reporting skills and computer training. A bachelor's degree is not always required but may increase the chances of being hired as a radio DJ.
There are no formal educational requirements to work as a club or party DJ. However, some colleges offer courses that club DJs may find useful. These can include music software training, sound production, marketing and small business management.
In general, disc jockeys do not need formal certification to find work. Obtaining voluntary certification in topics related to broadcasting, like production management or computer training, may be helpful.
In the past, radio DJs needed to obtain a commercial broadcasting license in order to work on the air. This was due to the fact that broadcast transmissions are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. However, this requirement no longer stands and broadcast DJs do not need to be licensed.
Club or party DJs may be required to obtain an entertainment license or small business license in some areas. This can vary based on the location where a club DJ is working.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 2% increase in disc jockey jobs over the next decade. The radio broadcasting industry is not currently experiencing a significant expansion. This results in relatively few new DJ jobs being created. Club DJs may experience small, localized increases in job opportunities as new entertainment venues open for business.
Britain’s late prime minister Benjamin Disraeli said “Beware of endeavoring to become a great man in a hurry. One such attempt in ten thousand may succeed. These are fearful odds.”
Close your eyes and imagine this, you are playing the hottest tunes in a stadium with a sea of raving fans. For a quick second you remember, “It wasn’t long ago when I was in my bedroom, practicing technique, downloading bootleg edits and experiencing approach anxiety before talking to club promoters”.
That’s what most us DJs (and aspiring DJs) have in common, the dream. It is the essence of becoming more of what we are. Very few know how to make this dream into reality, unfortunately only 1 in a 1000 may succeed.
Whenever a DJ has huge success, the press and the public start asking: “How did they do it??!?” Unfortunately, this speculation is often unkind and unfair. The default assumption is that a DJ must be cheating somehow or using some trick to grow fans or get high profile gigs.
This skepticism is actually justified because many DJs do use tricks or shortcuts to succeed. It’s not long before they start crashing down.
Everyone wants to play in the best club in town and travel the world gigging. But most are not willing to pay the price. Occasionally, they may be willing to pay part of the price, but they are not willing to pay the whole price. They always hold back. They always have some excuse or rationalization for not going out networking (marketing) or perfecting their technique (product development) or going out trying to land gigs (sales).
How can you tell when you have paid the full price of success? It’s simple: Look around you.
So what does it mean to pay the full price? What skills does it take to become a DJ, a truly successful DJ? After several years of talking, studying and modeling successful DJs like Kaskade, BT, Dennis Ferrer and Wolfgang Gartner, I noticed a common pattern. They all have an outrageous amount of fuel to keep them going and a high level of certainty – they know they are going to make it.
I concluded this: if you have a strong enough “why” (fuel), backed by “certainty” (optimism), and infused with a high dose of “persistence”, you are in the top 20%. In that spirit, I want to share some of my thoughts about how to become a DJ, how DJs succeed, and why their success is based on hard work, persistence and some luck.
1. Long term focus: Know your ultimate goal
Knowing your utmost goal will help you achieve long term focus. What I mean is, every action you take must get you one step closer to that goal. You must go all in. It’s that target you always wanted to nail. For example, if your ultimate goal is to land a residency in the best club in your city and open for bigger acts, your thoughts and actions should be leading towards that gig. You might not know how you will get there, but you must believe that at some point you will.
Since you know what it is you want, you wouldn’t be focusing on landing wedding or small back-bar gigs. They might be fun and offer some cash, but you might want to focus on playing at similar but smaller clubs which have the same vibe as your “goal club”. Also, you don’t want play at a competitor’s venue. Club owners and promoters have advanced social skills. They watch and know everything.
The quality of questions you ask yourself, determines the course of your actions. For the above example, ask yourself these questions:
- Who is the current resident DJ at the club?
- What music does she/he play and what kind of gear do they use?
- How long has she/he been DJing?
- What skills do they have that I don’t? Beat juggling, music production, shameless-self promotion, fun and outgoing?
- How many ways can I get introduced to the club promoter or owner?
- What price am I willing to pay to land that gig?
Laser like focus and “going all in” determines the quality of your choices.
2. Hard Work: Pay the Price
After visualizing your utmost goal, it’s time to put in the work. Hard work is nothing but developing the necessary habits to achieve your goal. It means you have to be good at lots of small things.
“Greatness is a lot of small things, done well”
But doing many things, although hard, can actually be an advantage for you. It means that there are not that many other people trying to do what you do or capable of doing what you do. For example, popular clubs like booking DJs who are producers that are backed by record labels. Putting in the work to start producing and getting your tracks to a reputable record label might be the next logical step. At the same time you should be focusing on getting gigs and increasing your skills.
In the early days of my career, I had several promoters say they were interested in booking me if I could figure out a way to bring 50 people to the club. I’m not joking. Majority of promoters prefer pure volume over DJ skills and music selection. Plus I thought that was the promoter’s job, not mine. How can an upcoming DJ bring 50 people? That means you have to promote to over 500 people and wish for 10% of them to show up. I knew the only way to get quality bookings was to become a quality DJ, producer, marketer and have incredible people skills. I set out to become excellent in all these categories.
In 4 years, I have learned to produce, got signed to a decent label, remixed a few popular artists and increased my social skills (online and offline). I still have ways to go, but so far it was all hard work in small things that helped me get better in time. These small things developed into habits. Slowly the quality gigs started to come and it increased my momentum to work even harder.
3. Persistence: Stick through it
Persistence is probably the most important attribute in all successful DJs. It’s the person who never gives up – who never accepts “no” for an answer. It’s the heart to keep going after you been turned down by every gig, every promoter and every record label. It’s paying the price in action! The world is filled with doubters who say that things can’t be done and then pronounce after the fact that they “knew it all along.” Look at Wolfgang Gartner, he has been sending demos to record labels for seven years before getting his first record deal. If you’re already a full time DJ you know all this. But others have that extra quality that makes them never give up. And I see this extra dose of tenacity in only about 1 out of 10 DJs that I meet. And if you’re not naturally one of these people you probably know it, too. You see that peer who always pushes things further than you normally would. When are you going to get further out of your comfort zone and be more persistent? It is really what separates the wheat from the chaff.
One major setback for me was when I landed a weekly residency at a new club in Washington DC, primarily playing Deep House. I endlessly handed out flyers, hired an awesome street team and had most of my friends and their mothers in the guest list. But no one would show up and three months later I lost the residency because my dance floor was empty. The club decided they wanted bottle service clientele and needed Top 40/mash-up music. I felt like a complete failure and thought no one would ever book me again.
4 years ago I noticed that I lost my focus and got caught up with the local gigging scene, which wasn’t my ultimate goal. I decided there and then that I’m responsible for my own success, so I re-strategized and got back on track by endlessly improving my skills in DJing, production and marketing. Two years later I was playing at the Winter Music Conference in Miami next to successful DJs and producers.
“To become something you are not, is to do things you haven’t done before”
You can’t consider the first major setback a complete career disaster, this is when you demonstrate what you are really made of. Your true character strength is in the determination to keep going. To remain optimistic, look for the good in every setback (there’s always a hidden message telling you to improve one of your skills), it’s a gift!
Persistence will pay off.
4. Some Luck: Unexpected fruits of your labor
A big part of anyone’s success has also been luck. People don’t like to admit it but skill is 60% luck. If you keep doing the hard work continuously and persistently, I promise you will get a break. When that break comes, people will label you lucky and forget the past 5 to 6 years of hard work that got you there.
In many cases, getting very lucky has to do with timing. Calvin Harris got his big break when his managers kept sending his demo CDs to EMI. In his own words “Had those three people not sent the track at the same time, I’d probably still be Nobby No-Mates, pissing around in my bedroom.”
But Success Is Fragile…
It’s easy to get excited and arrogant when things are going well but it is important to remember that success is very fragile. There is always someone practicing for numerous hours trying to beat you to the top 20% and you are likely to fail if you get complacent or stop evolving.
That’s why you should continuously focus, work hard, be persistent and keep on pushing what you do to the next level. Since you are already reading this, it means you have done amazing work in the past and looking for more. And to thrive in the future, you need to stay humble, enjoy the journey, and continually evolve and improve.
Armed with one of these cheap mixers, a music system belt drive turntable, and two cheap cassette decks, I played my first DJ gigs - and learned all the fundamentals of DJing. Moral? You don't need expensive gear to start (plus, you can do a lot better than I did for a lot less cash nowadays...)
Here at Digital DJ Tips, we absolutely believe that everyone who wants to should be able to try their hand at DJing, however much money they have (or don't have). We simply do not subscribe to this idea that it is a hallowed, expensive hobby only for those with the cash to pursue it, or that if you don't do it a certain way you're not a "real" DJ, or that just because you're doing it on less than ideal gear, you can't learn and get better. (Check out this recent story if you haven't already - it graphically reinforces our point).
Personally, I started DJing on a £20 mixer (see above) that took a nine-volt battery and only worked in mono, plus an single belt-drive turntable and two cassette decks. And I got my first paying gigs with that exact set-up - plus a PA system I hired with the money they paid me! So if, in the words of Lana del Rey, "you've got the music in you", you want to see if DJing might be for you without shelling out piles of cash (or you simply don't have access to the money you'd need to buy pro gear), here are a few suggestions for getting going:
1. Use any speakers/headphones you've already got
One mistake people make is that they think to start DJing, you need loads of specialist gear. Yet you probably already have loads of things that you can use. Of course, you need some way of hearing your mixing, but a hi-fi, a decent "boom box", even your TV's sound bar or cheap gaming speakers can probably get you going on this. (See our good cheap speakers for DJingarticle for some ideas.) As long as you can find a way to plug an input from your DJ set-up into it, you don't need specialist monitors just yet. Also any headphones with a headband will do to start with. Just don't try and throw a party using your home speakers - you'll blow them up, I promise you! Keep them for practising...
SoundCloud is a great way of finding interesting and unusual tracks and legally filling your collection for free.
2. Use free sources of music
One of the absolute rules of creativity in any area is limiting yourself. If you go down the route of torrenting all the music in the world, you're overwhelming yourself (and you're also stealing). But a great way of getting started is simply to fill your collection with carefully chosen free music, that the producers actually willingly give away! And my top tip for where to find it? You don't need to go any further than SoundCloud. There you'll find lots of interesting music, much of it free to download, from producers working in all genres. You'll also have a far more original collection than those moneyed "DJs" who only buy the Beatport Top 100 and think that's all there is to it...
3. Get free or cheap DJ software - and learn the keyboard shortcuts!
All DJing really is is choosing the right tunes at the right time for the audience in front of you. Throw in an understanding of beatmatching, and you're getting there! And practically all DJing software will let you do this, including some very good free or cheap choices. For instance, you can get Mixxx for PC and Mac for free. It's awesome. Or, if you have an iPad or Android tablet, you can get djay, Traktor DJ (iPad/iPhone) or MixVibes Cross DJ (Android) for just a few dollars. Trust me - you can DJ with just what I've described there. No need for any more hardware (except that which I describe in the next tip...)
A DJ splitter cable, either bought-in or made, is a cheaper way to pre-cue your music than having a dedicated sound card.
4. Use a DJ splitter cable to plug your headphones in
One of the few fundamentals of DJing apart from some way of playing two tunes and manipulating their speeds, volumes etc is the need to hear one of those tunes in your headphones privately to "cue" it (get it ready to play over your speakers). With expensive DJ gear, mixers and controllers have this function built in, but with DJ software - assuming you're not using any external gear at the start of your journey - you need to be a bit more resourceful.
You can buy dedicated DJ sound cards that give your laptop or iPad etc two separate outputs, but you can also "hack" this by using a DJ splitter cable, that effectively commandeers the left and right stereo channels of your single output and uses one for the cue (headphones) and one for the master. You can even make your own to save some more pennies. You'll be DJing in mono, but it's a small price to pay for "real" DJing - many DJs I know have such a cable for a backup, or a quick DJ set, without the need to carry a sound card around with them (they're great for hotel room sets, too...)
If you do have a little money to buy gear, a DJ controller is a cheap way of getting going - and this model, while not the cheapest, offers excellent value on a budget, having pro build quality but costing around US$300. Grab our free controller guide (link below) to get the lowdown.
5. It's OK to buy cheap gear, just buy wisely
In point 3, I told you that you can get free or cheap DJ software that'll do the trick. But the truth is, there's an awful lot of poor free DJ software too. And the same goes with DJ gear. Absolutely the cheapest way to start DJing in terms of hardware is to buy a DJ controller, as these offer awesome value for money against traditional DJ set-ups, but if you're buying budget, you need to be careful as there is some rubbish out there. Luckily, we've got our How To Choose A DJ Controller free book to help you choose whatever your budget, and you can always ask on theDigital DJ Tips forum too - we're always happy to help you with this
I'm not pretending that good gear won't help you - of course it can. And I'm not saying "cheap is better" - clearly there are some compromises above, some of them quite big. But funnily enough, expensive gear can actually be a distraction. As you chase feature after feature, thinking that only the very latest innovation on the shiniest new controller (that you can't afford) will allow you to "make it" as a DJ, you're not spending your time doing what you should be doing - making mixes, playing music, and enjoying learning the art.
Just like a beginner photographer wouldn't know what to do with a professional SLR (and would be wasting the features of that camera by always using it on "automatic" settings - think "sync button"...) but could have a lot of fun learning to take good pictures on their smartphone with a decent camera app, so it is sometimes better to learn to DJ with what you've got or can afford easily, only upgrading when you're sure about what you really need next.
Sure a DJ set-up like this looks great and in the right hands offers a wealth of creative possibilities. But do you need something like this to DJ well? Of course not...
The biggest mistake is to let yourself think you'll "never be good enough" using what you have or can afford, or that you're somehow not the genuine article. There are an awful lot of people who think buying lots of DJ gear is the same as being a good DJ, and conversely, there are a great number of DJs who can't even afford hardware, but can bang out a great mix on free software thanks to having taken the time to learn it well, collect good music, and respect the traditions, art and culture of DJing. This is about your state of mind, not the state of your bank balance. And if you're starting out of an extreme budget, we're here for you. We've been there.