It’s all about who you know.
That’s true for just about everything in life and it’s also true for Djing.
If you have friends who work in a club or who are already established DJs, see if they can hook you up. If you have friends who are club owners or promoters, that’s even better. This is how most people get started in the business.
But what if you don’t know anybody?
Let’s say you’re starting out from scratch in a new area where you don’t know anyone. How do you get your first gig as a DJ then? Obviously, you’ll want to network and establish connections, but I’ll cover that in the next section on building your career. For now, I’ll just give a simple step-by-step plan you can follow to get yourself that first DJ gig.
First a quick disclaimer. I wrote “simple,” but it’s not. It will take a lot of hard work and a lot of hustling. You need to be good at talking to people and you need to be likable.
If you’re shy or you’re an asshole, this will be much harder. In fact, if you’re shy, I’d recommend you don’t be a DJ at all until you’ve learned to get past that. You have virtually no chance of making it if you can’t network. There are plenty of asshole DJs out there, though, so that doesn’t seem to be as big of an obstacle. Still, it’s better to be likable.
Two Free Resources
Before we get into my tips, I want to address one of the most common requests I get. A lot of people have asked me for a more in-depth promotional strategy. Unfortunately, that is not something I have the time or desire to write. There are already plenty of good courses out there for that.
The two best are: The IMA Music Business Academy and the Music Marketing Classroom. The former offers a free e-book entitled “An Introduction to Music Marketing” and the latter offers 5 free music marketing cheat sheets.
Obviously, the full courses do cost money, but since neither of their introductory materials cost you anything, I’d recommend checking them both out and seeing if you like the way they teach. If not, just delete them.
Anyway, on to my own (admittedly more basic) plan.
Step 1: Find Your Target Venue
You’ve probably already got an idea where you’d like to play, but if it’s the most popular nightclub in town that attracts all the top DJs, find an ‘option B.’ You need to be realistic and choose venues that hire unknown DJs or venues that function just fine without DJs. You also want a place that would hire someone like you: mainly this means someone who plays your kind of music, but also someone with your look, vibe, etc.
Step 2: Scope Out Your Target Venue
Once you know where you’d like to play, you need to learn everything you can about the place. Start frequenting it as a customer. Find out when they have DJs and what kind of music they play. What are the crowds like? What days are popular and what days aren’t? What regular events do they have and what is planned for the future? Who is the owner and is he or she the person who handles bookings? If not, who does? You get the idea. Learn everything.
Some of this you can find out from just hanging out at the club, but for much of it you’ll need to talk to the staff. Get to know everyone who works there. And don’t forget to tip the bartenders well. You want everyone to know you and as many of them as possible to like you.
Eventually you’ll want to “randomly” run into the owner. Don’t ask for a gig or anything like that, though. Just make friendly conversation and maybe bring up the DJs who are currently playing there.
You’re just looking for some info you can use, like if one of them will be leaving soon or if one has been causing problems. Any info, really. But don’t say anything bad about them. In fact, say only good things. All you want from this exchange is a bit of information and some face time with the owner.
Step 3: Create your Promotional Materials
You want to get your publicity in place as soon as you can. Professional DJs are expected to have an online presence these days and you need one too. Set up a Facebook page at the very least, but you should really have your own website. Setting one up is actually surprisingly easy: you’ll find a step-by-step guide here. Following the guide, it shouldn’t take you more than 30 minutes to an hour at the most to get your new website up and running.
You’ll also want to set up accounts on Soundcloud and Mixcloud. These are great resources for getting your mixes out there. You have created some mixes for promotional purposes, haven’t you? If not, get on that and put them up on music-sharing sites. Here’s a good article that covers how to effectively promote yourself on Soundcloud (coming soon).
When it comes to creating mixes, I know most owners and/or promoters won’t ever listen to them, but you need to have them anyway. Studio mixes are nice, but you’ll also want to get a live mix up there as soon as possible. Most DJs can come up with a good mix in the studio. Someone who is thinking about hiring you to play their venue will be much more interested in seeing how you handle a live crowd.
If you can create some well-shot (that’s a key) videos of you DJing live, that’s even better. Get these up on Youtube (create your own channel) and other video sharing sites. Include them on your personal website as well, preferably right on the front page. That way you can get a great example of you in action in front of a live crowd (remember: this needs to be a quality video) in front of a promoter or owner the second they reach your site. This will get you hired.
Finally, you’ll want to get some business cards and flyers designed. And I do mean get them designed. Unless you have design experience, don’t try to do this yourself—they will look terrible and you probably won’t even realize it. Trust me on this—I speak from experience here. If you don’t have a designer friend, you’ll have to hire someone. This will cost money, but it’s money well spent. You can find cheap designers on fiverr.com, upwork.com or 99designs.com.
For the flyers, have the designer leave the venue and date blank, so that you can keep reusing the same flyers and just write in the information for each night. That’ll save you a lot of money.
Step 4: Come Up With a Party or Event for the Venue
Some places can be hired out for special events. If that is the case for your preferred venue, consider hiring it out for a birthday party, a work party, etc. That way you won’t have to pay for the event (or at least not foot the whole bill) and you can be in charge of organizing everything, which includes the music. Hint: hire yourself as the DJ.
In many cases, you may be able to get the venue for free, if you guarantee the owner a certain number of customers. If this is the case, you can throw any kind of party you like and don’t really need to organize something that involves pooling money with friends and/or coworkers.
However you do it, promoters are much more likely to agree to host a party you’ve organized with yourself as the DJ than they are to you simply asking for a gig. It’s less work for them, guarantees them a certain amount of profit and it paints you as a promoter as well as a DJ, and just makes you look more professional all around.
You can take this idea one step further by organizing an event that involves other DJs, such as a club night. Doing this on your own, especially for your first event, is exceedingly difficult, so it’s best to get together with other beginning DJs and come up with an event together. That way you can split the costs (mostly promotional) and the work.
And it will be a lot of work, but it can definitely be worth it. If you create a successful event, it could become a regular night at the club or, even better, a regular event around town that moves from venue to venue. There is no better way to showcase your talents as both a DJ and a promoter. Owners will be happy to work with you if you’ve shown you can pull off a successful club night.
Step 5: Ask for a Gig
If you’ve already done step 4, then this step becomes much easier or maybe even unnecessary. If not, and if you’ve got your website, Facebook page, flyers and business cards ready and at least one example of you playing posted on Soundcloud, Mixcloud and on your own site, then you’re ready to approach the owner (or whoever is in charge of bookings).
From your research, you should know when the venue is most in need of a DJ. Ask for a gig to fill that time slot. You should also have an idea what the current DJs make, but that does not necessarily mean you will make the same kind of money.
There’s a good chance the owner will expect you to work for free. That’s fine the first time, but make sure you clarify upfront that you will expect payment for future gigs. It’s best to work out an arrangement where you show your skills for free the first night and get paid for subsequent gigs, with your pay increasing as your crowds increase. This reduces the risk to the owner and you earn what you are worth (if you suck as a DJ, this would be a bad arrangement for you, but so would being a professional DJ in general, to be honest).
Negotiating an arrangement like this also makes you seem much more professional. You want to come across as someone who is used to launching new events or club nights and who knows that it takes a few weeks for the crowds build up. Even if you’ve never done this before and are far from confident, fake it. Owners love working with DJs like this.
If you get turned down when you ask for a gig, don’t give up. Keep frequenting the venue and ask again at a later date. They may just not need a DJ currently, but that could change at any time. Keep trying, but don’t be pushy. If they can’t do your suggested date or event, but offer you another one, I’d highly recommend you accept, if at all possible. You’re trying to get your foot in the door here. You need to be flexible.
Step 6: Ensuring Your First Gig is a Success
For your first gig, invite everyone you know. Force them to come if you have to. Market the gig everywhere: on your Facebook page, on Twitter, etc. If you have even a minimal budget, spend it on promotion. Put up flyers around the venue. Basically, do whatever you can to get the word out. This is your first gig and you need to show that you can draw a crowd. That is how you get a second gig.
I know some DJs feel they should only be responsible for playing the music and the promoter should take care of promotion, but that is simply not realistic these days. DJing is an extremely competitive industry and if you’re not willing to do the work to bring in a crowd, owners and promoters will find another DJ who is. There are plenty of them out there. Talent alone is rarely enough.
Finally, conduct yourself professionally at work. DJing is your job and you need to treat it as such. Show up early and make sure the venue has everything you need to play your set. Stay sober and don’t get annoyed with the customers, no matter how drunk and annoying they might get. Stick around after the gig and promote yourself. Talk to the manager and get some feedback. This is also a good time to ask for a next gig. You can say something as simple as, “Same time next week?”
Those are the basics on getting your first DJ gig. I briefly mentioned a few things you can do to ensure you get a second gig, but I go into much more detail in the next section on growing your DJ career.