DJs play a continuous mix of music via turntables, CDJs, or software at parties, clubs, bars, concert venues, raves, and music festivals. Most popular DJs also write and produce their own tracks.
Nightclub DJ, Deejay, Disc Jockey
$49 an hour1
$21,000 to $46,000,0002
How To Become a DJ
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A DJ provides the soundtrack to the party at bars, nightclubs, concert venues, parties, raves, and music festivals. DJs must constantly work to refine their craft and to produce new music under their own names if they want to stay competitive. They must have a deep love and knowledge of their chosen genre in order to keep the crowd on the dance floor.
The term “DJ” originally referred to people who worked at radio stations playing records on air (vinyl disks) but the role has now expanded widely to describe those who mix music from any recorded source, such as vinyl, cassettes, CDs, or digital audio files, including music sampled from other sources. While the earliest DJs used record players and cassettes played on boomboxes to create their mixes, there is now specialized music software available that allows DJs to listen to and manipulate digital audio files.
Different types of DJs specialize in different areas of the music industry; for example, there are DJs who perform at weddings, private and corporate events, while others specialize in producing music mixes under their own name and performing in clubs, at raves, and in residencies. Contemporary DJs (usually branded into musical categories such as House, Techno, or Hip-Hop) also create and mix their own beats, bass lines, and loops, which are then used by Rappers as the backing track for their live performances.
DJs perform in many additional genres, such as Dance Hall, Reggaeton, and Dub, and some DJs also sing. Turntablists often “scratch” records, and use specialized equipment to fade from one track to the next, or even play multiple tracks simultaneously. Turntabling is considered an art form.
There are Mobile DJs, Producer DJs, Bedroom DJs, and Celebrity DJs. There are still on-air Radio DJs who play records and specialize in fading from one record into another. Some Radio DJs have been considered historically important since they ultimately get to choose the (new) music that people get to hear over the airwaves.
The role and art of DJs have evolved and expanded over time and continues to develop and change as the music industry changes.
To learn what it takes to become a working DJ, we talked to DJs performing in a variety of musical genres, including:
- Cut Chemist
- Lost Frequencies
- Luca Schreiner
- Plastic Funk
Is it hard to become a DJ?
It’s not easy to become a professional DJ who makes money with DJing only. You need to have talent, work hard on your skills, be a bit of a business person, too–you have to be a bit lucky also!
Yes! I think it’s easy to assume it’s all parties and fun–yes, it’s an amazing job and I feel so lucky to be able to do this as my career–but it is also super grueling both physically and mentally. We’re constantly traveling between time zones, giving all our energy into performing the best shows we can and missing friends and family. I think it’s important to recognize the tough parts of any job, as well as the positives.
There are so many DJs out there. How do you get the gig over somebody else? Do you have a Booking Agent that really kicks ass? Are you really active on social media? How do you get the attention to actually get the job?
I think that’s something we’re all trying to wrap our head around still to this day because algorithms change all the time—social media, technology, it’s always changing. How do you become somebody who can make a living at it?
It’s important to just go and make your mark in different situations and different areas. Like I said, I try to take the gigs that are more like nightclub experiences, and then I also try to take the gigs that are more performance-based and experimental, and [I ask myself] how can I be there? How can I be in front of this audience? How can I be in front of that audience? How can I be everywhere?
Adapt to each situation because that’s what’s going to give you longevity. If this market’s filled, then these people will call you, and vice versa. So if there aren’t festivals, and there aren’t performance-based things, or if I’m not producing music that keeps me out campaigning my own brand as an artist, I can still go out there and do nightclubs and keep my skill set razor-sharp as far as having a dialog with the audience and still do my performance skill set in the context of that, too.
I think now it’s almost, like, influencer-based. I don’t know if they’re an influencer and a DJ, or if DJs become influencers, probably a little of both. That seems to be the goal. You want to influence people. You want to share what you love about this craft with as many people as possible.
I see a lot of friends of mine who started DJing in the influencer context really take off with it, and they’re everywhere. They’re always doing things, flying to exotic places: fashion shows to normal nightclubs to performances. They have their hands in a lot of different things, and I’m watching that, and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s the way to do it.”
You’ve gotta have your hands in so many different pots and just keep it rotating. I think that that’s important…and it’s not boring. If you keep doing a residency over and over again, I think anybody would get burned out just doing the same thing over and over again, playing the same, “Okay, what’s the hit this week? What are the hits this week?” Then next week, it’s gonna change, and when you do that for a year, you’re going to be like, “ugh.”
I guess this also massively depends on how quickly you learn and understand the workflow and mixing process in general. Again, there are probably people that can learn to become a DJ within a week, and then there are other people that need a little more time.
How do you start a career as a DJ?
Here’s a real basic step-by-step of how to start your DJ career:
- Decide what genre(s) of music you’ll play
- Listen/watch your favorite DJs in action
- Determine if you want to play records or use DJ software
- Train yourself on DJ software and/or turntables
- Practice, practice, practice!
- Create demo mixes
- Contact bars and clubs to get on their radar
- Promote your DJ gigs online
What exactly does a DJ do?
A DJ is a person that is curating and playing music for an audience of people. Usually, DJs mix two tracks into each other so the audience gets the feeling of listening to a non-stop mix that includes several different tracks.
A DJ is mixing one record with another and creates a music set that makes people dance (if he does a good job), meaning a DJ is working on new music on a daily basis. Most of us DJs are also Producers who produce music for their sets and for the world music market.
I’m someone who performs their own material so I guess you could call that a performance DJ (as opposed to someone who does a residency at a nightclub). If I get a call from my Booking Agent that says “This club wants to book you” or “This event wants to book you,” usually it’s a stage environment where I’m performing.
The first question I ask is, “Is it a stage? Is it a DJ booth?” Just to kind of weed out the kind of things that are expected of the night so I can say yes or no—because primarily I want to express myself as an artist and do my own material. Not to say that I don’t do the other type of gigs but I just want to know what I’m getting into before I book the gig.
Let’s take the performance events. There was a time when I had to bring all my gear. You couldn’t advance it; there wasn’t a budget. Usually, if I’m on an album campaign, I have to bring all my turntables. Sometimes I can advance visuals; sometimes, I don’t. I bring my visual guy and there are screens. Sometimes we bring screens; sometimes we don’t.
I bring it to our Manager and book flights, hotels, [and] usually come the day of a show, do a soundcheck, depending on how big the venue or the event is. Sometimes it’s a festival. Sometimes it’s a three-day festival: things like Coachella, Bonnaroo, stuff like that. But most of the time, it’s a club.
We usually stay the night because it’s out-of-town. It’s pretty simple: you just deal with the Stage Manager and the Promoter and you advance the show. You let them know everything you need if they can advance gear; if not, you bring it. Then you perform for, hopefully, a nice sized audience that wants to hear you play your own material, and everybody walks away happy.
My name is Lost Frequencies and I’m a DJ/Producer–I make what I like to call “indie dance” music and as a DJ and performer, I’m lucky enough to travel the world with my music and bring joy to fans when I tour.
Is being a DJ a good career?
If you’re a music curator, enjoy getting people on the dance floor, and love to party, a career as a DJ can be perfect for you. You have fun, get paid well, and a good DJ is the life of the party. Like any other career, it’s not 100% a party all of the time. You need to build your DJing services into a business, which means you’ll be handling invoices, doing email, and dealing with clients. But if you love DJing enough, those admin tasks will be worth it.
Well-established DJs can command huge fees for providing the music at events, clubs, venues, casinos, cruises, and raves. Popular DJs are like Rock Stars, and come with a strong loyal following of committed fans. Top DJs can earn six figures a night in places like Las Vegas, where they might hold down a residency of weeks, months, or even years. Like the rest of the music, entertainment, and sports industries, there’s a “winner-take-all” effect where a small number of highly successful people take home the majority of earnings.
DJs with an original catalogue of self-produced music can also earn royalties from licensing their music, just like any other Songwriter or Composer would. Recently, DJ David Guetta sold the master rights for his recordings to investors for a reported $100 million-plus. DJs who write and produce their own music have virtually unlimited earning potential, as they can earn licensing fees and royalties from having their music used in movies, videogames, TV shows, and on streaming services.
DJs who spin others’ recordings into live mixes on the spot and don’t produce their own recordings still can have good earning potential if they are good at what they do. Typically working in clubs, on cruise ships, and at weddings, bar mitzvahs, corporate events, and parties, they can bring home several hundred to several thousand dollars per night.
Many DJs travel around the world to stay constantly employed and might work for a season in a resort area somewhere offshore. They might command a weekly, monthly, or annual salary, but more often they are working as freelancers to earn their money.
How much money does a DJ make? According to Payscale.com1, the median wage for a DJ is approximately $49 an hour. The salary range for DJs runs from approximately $21,100 to $221,000+. Of course, superstar DJs like The Chainsmokers can make up to $46 million annually, according to Forbes2.
DJs earn money from performing, and those who produce their own tracks earn royalty money. Income from DJing can vary greatly, based on if you live in a major metropolitan area, how often you perform and how popular your chosen musical genre is.
Certain types of music draw bigger crowds and therefore have a greater demand, and the opposite also holds true. Income also varies based on whether you’re just starting out, or if you’re a world-famous DJ headlining festivals and raves across the globe. On average, a reasonably successful DJ can expect to make a few hundred dollars per show.
How do DJs get paid?
I do a lot of different things. I have an online store for merchandise. I have music that I’ve put out for twenty-five years with various groups and myself: Jurassic 5, Ozomatli, Cut Chemist. I sell shirts, I sell vinyl, I sell downloads, I have a subscription service.
All these things help, and then with DJing and performance being the main thing that I do, touring is, I would say, probably seventy-five percent of my income, with merchandising and stuff like that, because I’m out there promoting it online, sales are better. People go to the gig, if I don’t have merch there, they go to my site and buy it because they saw me play.
I think you can create a brand that’s marketable, create a logo, maybe a slogan, have a website. Have it be simple yet effective, where people can buy merchandise or stream your music or watch your videos. I have a YouTube channel. Have your various social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and just really pound it hard as far as information and content, but have it be unique and figure out what your own lane is so you’re not competing with other people that sound like you, or that you sound like them.
When you find that unique voice, you may find that you have a smaller audience, but it’ll grow. People have to be patient and just stay the course. As an artist, if you want to create a voice and say something that’s uniquely you, that’s why you want to be an artist. To find a response when you send out that mating call, it might take a while to get a response, but when you do, it’s gonna be real, and you’re gonna have a real dialog with that audience, no matter how big or small. That’s what I’m in it for.
I squeak by. I make my living. It’s very humble, but the audiences that I get are people I can really sit down and enjoy conversation with them. It’s like an intimate dialog. I’m not like Tiësto or DJ Snake where I can go and play for like a hundred thousand people, but I love the dialog that they have with their huge audience. I’m just over here with my little two to five hundred club capacity of people and totally loving it.
This is quite a tough question as we artists massively depend on playing live shows, which have all got canceled for this year. Of course, as an artist, you also make money from releasing music and selling merchandise online, but I’d say most of us artists are having a really hard time financially due to the corona crisis.
It varies very much–an established DJ headlining a major festival event will undoubtedly make more money than a smaller club resident, for example, but most DJs make their income via touring over music. On the other hand, a smaller DJ might be able to do more shows as they don’t always have to travel that far.
Everyone is trying to promote their music worldwide on their socials. Livestreaming was the main tool during lockdown, now everyone is trying to find concepts on how to DJ (have parties) with keeping the corona distance rules.
In Germany, we are very creative and have had drive-in festivals, now we have beer gardens where people are allowed to party in groups at their tables and a lot of artists are now pushing merchandise more. That is the only way to survive.
How much do DJs earn?
Generally speaking, a DJ earns an average of $50 to $100 per hour in a city center. DJs who perform at weddings and corporate events can get paid even more. A DJ can make between $600 and $900 for one wedding. And if you can also sing and/or play an instrument, you become even more valuable and can charge more.
Most DJs claim very high job satisfaction. They really seem to love what they do and feel grateful to be earning their living in the music and events industry. It’s important to consider that DJs (and most musical performers) are a part of the wider entertainment industry, and are also connected to the events industry since they are usually working in venues or on stages in front of large groups of people.
People will always demand live entertainment for events, so having a career as a DJ can provide good job security for people with the right skills. As long as there are parties and other types of gatherings, there will be a need for live music, and DJs provide this service to meet the demand in the market.
With the lockdown from the COVID-19 pandemic coming to an end, many are predicting a flowering of the live music and entertainment sectors since there will be a huge pent-up demand as people start going out to concerts and clubs again. It’s likely a good time to be working as a DJ and the next years should see positive developments and the live music and events sectors should predictably see strong growth. It’s always a great time to be in the music industry, and for right now, even more so!
For those starting out, investing the time up-front to learn the required skills for a DJ is a recommended logical first step. Learning about the gear used, and what the sonic possibilities are, as well as learning about music should be top priorities. It would also be smart to follow the leading DJs and study what they do in order to be so successful. If you can shadow someone locally that can also be a good learning experience.
Getting a job as an Assistant will teach you to set up the gear, including lights and sound reinforcement. You could also take a few classes or private lessons from more accomplished DJ performers.
Setting yourself up in business as a DJ also requires you to learn about business and especially marketing. Starting a company and attracting clients (and fans) is part of the art of the music business. If you are willing and eager to put in the work required, it’s possible to build a solid business as a DJ performer, Composer, and Producer, and earn enough income to support a good lifestyle.
What kind of lifestyle does a DJ have? Many DJs work weekend nights, with the most popular nights being Thursday through Saturday. Shifts are usually a few hours long.
Beginner DJs usually hold down day music jobs and start off by playing slower nights whereas superstar DJs play to massive crowds.
What makes a DJ famous?
Most DJs get famous by creating hit songs and performing regularly. When they play out, they create a mix of songs that keep people on the dancefloor. Top DJs tour relentlessly, playing an all-nighter in Berlin one night and a beach party in Thailand two days later.
Becoming a superstar DJ is basically the same as becoming a Rock Star. To get there, you make music people love, attract a loyal fanbase who comes to see you spin live, word of mouth spreads, and as your audience grows, you’re more likely to get a label deal or get signed by a Manager who can help you get more money from live gigs.
Along with all of this comes name recognition. People go see these big name DJs because they know what they’re going to get and they want to hear their favorite songs. That’s why they’re willing to pay $30+ to see a well-known DJ and more likely to stay home when it’s a DJ they’ve never heard of before.
Starting out, as in any business, will put you on the ground floor, at entry-level. What does that look like? First, you want to develop solid skills. Many teach themselves or use online tutorials such as on YouTube. Others might go to school for music and learn music production and engineering. There’s no substitute for hands-on experience, so getting access to the best gear and learning to use it effectively should be an important priority.
Also, being trained as a musician will be very helpful for most people, since as a DJ you will be manipulating musical elements (i.e. rhythm, harmony, melody) and using musical sounds and even songs and instruments (some DJs also sing or play an instrument as part of their shows).
In the beginning, you will be a newcomer and it will seem like there’s a lot to learn about many different areas, from technology to music to business. That’s all as it should be. Fortunately, as a young person, you also have the time and the ability to learn.
Working as an Assistant or an Intern to an established DJ is a great way to learn the ropes further. You can also start out with DJing at friends’ parties, or local bars, clubs, restaurants, or event halls. Most people work their way up from the bottom over time, to see how far they can get with it. That might mean working on a club circuit for a while and then breaking out of that to larger events.
In reality, there aren’t many huge “breaks”–mostly the small breaks add up to something that looks good to outsiders. Most people will never see or appreciate the long hours and hard work you put in to get to where you are, they think that you woke up one morning fully formed as an artist and walked out on stage to meet gigantic acclaim from fans.
You might start out working on a bill with other DJs or bands, and as you develop your following you work your way up to headliner. There’s a big difference between the “Rock Stars” and the working nameless DJs banging away at clubs and parties, both in pay and working conditions. Only a few make it all the way to the “top” but there are many nice places to end up on the journey which is your career path. Not everyone can make it to Rock Star status, and fortunately, there’s room for many others along the spectrum of fame and fortune.
How long does it take to become a DJ?
It depends on the individual; lots of DJs, myself included, taught ourselves at home using tools on the internet, watching tutorials, and experimenting and learning from failures.
I feel like coming up through the scene now there are so many artists across different genres, it’s difficult to breakthrough in an industry that is so saturated and a huge part of our culture now, so I don’t think it’s possible to put a time limit on something like that. Everyone is different and that is what makes every journey unique.
I would say a couple of months because there’s so much more information out there. I don’t think I was club-ready for a few years. I started when I was twelve and then I started doing a couple of house parties here and there when I was fifteen, and then I don’t think I did my first real nightclub until I was eighteen or nineteen.
There’s a DJ school here where I live, by the Beat Junkies, one of the world premiere DJ crews for the last twenty-five or thirty years. They have everything from classes on how to use software to how to scratch. Depending on what type of DJ you want to be, they have classes specifically for that, and I think a semester is like a few months. I’ve sat in on classes and there are people who walk in there that have never DJed before and they walk out of there ready to go.
For people who just want to be club DJs, there are classes on blending, what types of music, and what types of software you want to use.
Do you want to use Traktor? Do you want to use Serato? Do you want to use Ableton? Do you want to implement more production into your type of DJ stuff? There’s everything under the sun in that school, and now I think they offer online schooling as well.
This is really hard to tell, as there are some people that have a bit more musical knowledge and learn way faster how to mix two tracks into one another and then there are people that need a little more time and training to understand and get a feeling of how the mixing process really works.
You can learn DJ skills really fast nowadays, it’s possible in a day to learn how to mix a record. The feeling of how to read a dance floor, how to entertain people, and to understand the real art of DJing with creative DJ skills can take many years to learn. I also think you should have a talent in music to be a good DJ; some things you just can’t learn.
Experience & Skills
As mentioned previously, having music training will be a plus for anyone entering the industry as a DJ. There’s a lot to learn about how music is put together, the different elements of a song, how the musical sounds are created, and of course music production. Building skills in music will give any aspiring DJ an advantage since they will have a good understanding of musical values and what makes music good, also in the ear of the listener.
Understanding how all the DJ equipment works, how to transport it properly, how to set it up and run it, and troubleshooting the technical problems that inevitably occur will also be valuable skills to have. Knowing how to fade one song into the next, and build your program so that it suits the room and the people in it is also important.
The basic equipment used by most DJs includes a laptop computer (usually an Apple Macintosh–not all DJs use computers for performing, but many do), a digital audio interface (usually with USB connecting ports), digital-audio workstation (DAW) software, a DJ controller which includes a crossfade mixer (and usually includes the layout with two turntables), a microphone to speak to the crowd (or rap, or sing), and a PA system with effects, amplifiers, and speakers (many clubs will supply the PA and lighting systems).
There are many music production software products which would be useful for DJs, especially if composing their own tracks, such as Ableton Live, Pro Tools, Cubase, and others, plus there’s software designed specifically for DJing, such as Serato and the djay mixing program for Mac. Deckadence is a virtual DJ console and mixing tool developed for Windows and MAC which comes in “House” and “Club” editions. Others, such as Final Scratch, seek to bridge the gap between digital audio and analogue sources such as vinyl and tape.
The DJ plays a certain public relations role, representing the face of the venue and their own company, so it might also be very useful to have some good interpersonal skills and learn how to interact with people in a party or celebratory environment.
I’ve watched as a DJ “works the room;” going from table to table to talk to individual guests and patrons and get their names and preferences so they could personalize their music to the individuals and group. DJs are professionals and they must learn to comport themselves as such when operating in and among different types of people and audiences.
They also need to have negotiating skills as they will have to negotiate contracts and terms of their engagements. Understanding how business works, and especially marketing, is very important for a DJ or anyone else in the music business. For many of the skills mentioned here, there is no substitute for on-the-job learning, so getting out and working professionally as soon as possible is a great way to accumulate crucial knowledge and gain experience. Indeed, experience is the best teacher of all.