How to DJ: The Skills You Need & the Gear You Want to Get Started
The idea of being a professional DJ is something that excites millions of people all around the world, though not many of them actually understand what goes into making a career out of what some would consider a hobby. It requires a lot of studying, learning, watching, reading, spending, and more practicing than even those who have an idea of what they’re getting into could imagine. So, what does it take to actually make money from creating music and DJing for partygoers? Here’s a quick rundown for beginners on how to DJ.
Watch the Masters
It may seem like being a sought-after DJ is all about the music, but it’s not…at least not entirely. There is so much more that goes into being a truly great DJ, especially when it comes to performing. The best of the best don’t just understand what songs work together and how to seamlessly mix one tune into another; they know they are putting on a show when they are in the booth. This matters more than many people might guess.
If you’re either just starting out as a DJ or if you’re considering becoming a DJ, you need to spend some time watching performances of others, not just listening. If you’re already thinking about DJing out in public as an artist (as opposed to simply creating mixes in the comfort of your bedroom and uploading them online for people to enjoy), you’ve probably already invested an incredible amount of time in listening to and breaking down the mashups, mixes, and playlists constructed by others….but have you watched them?
If the answer to that question is no, don’t fret! It’s not something many people think about, and you still have time to catch up and put in the work. Head to YouTube and search various phrases that will not just give you crowd shots of someone DJing on a stage at a festival somewhere, but which will actually give you closeup shots of what the musician is doing with their instruments. Look for tutorials from others who have come before you. There is a lot out there that can be helpful, you just need to track it all down and dedicate the time to viewing.
If you’re open to working with others, find someone who already does DJ and speak with them about what it took to make it and listen carefully to their advice. Perhaps this person can also teach you the ropes when it comes to actually mixing music and branding yourself, though this requires a larger investment on their part in terms of time and effort, so it’s tougher to find such a mentor.
Learn Everything You Can
Having a good ear for what track can blend into another and being able to sense the vibe in a room are very important qualities a great DJ needs, and it can be tough to teach those things. More often than not, those are simply given talents, but thankfully, a lot of what being a DJ entails can be learned. Now all you need to do is go out and educate yourself or find someone to help you through the lengthy process of becoming a DJ.
If you’re going to go the solo route and do most of the work on your own, you have an incredible number of resources to help you become better informed, more knowledgeable, and better equipped to one day take to the stage and entertain an entire crowd of people.
You might not realize it if you’re just getting started, but there is so much you don’t know you don’t know about DJing and all that goes into it.
First, I suggest you spend a bit of time reading about how DJs who have careers you’d like to emulate got started. What did it take for them to first play for people, and then to score their big break? How long did it take them, and do they have any warnings for those thinking of following in their footsteps? If you’re open to working with others, find someone who already does DJ and speak with them about what it took to make it and listen carefully to their advice. Perhaps this person can also teach you the ropes when it comes to actually mixing music and branding yourself, though this requires a larger investment on their part in terms of time and effort, so it’s tougher to find such a mentor.
Next, if you haven’t been scared off by any horror stories or the realization of how long creating a career can take and the fact no matter what, it simply might not work out, you’ll want to spend a lot of time researching the equipment you’ll be using to make music and perform. What do you already know about the computer programs Logic, Ableton, and Pro Tools? Do you understand what computers are best for music makers and why? What do these things cost, and are you willing to spend a big amount of money long before you make anything back? This last question can turn some people off, as it does take a sizable budget to afford the right computer and a license for one of the most popular software programs…and those only help you get started.
This may be the most daunting part of the outset of your lifelong job as a DJ, but keep in mind you don’t need to know everything before you craft a single mix. In fact, it wouldn’t be smart to attempt to know every single in and out of the business and the technology that backs it before you begin. You can be learning and making at the same time, but you should have a baseline education before you invest significant sums of money into programs, headphones, microphones, decks for playing live, and so on.
You won’t get a feel for the software used by all the most successful DJs in the world until you spend hours, days, probably even weeks or months tinkering with them and seeing what you can come up with. Don’t worry — it’s how it goes for everyone! But, you have to have the items to even venture down this path, and it can be tough to cough up the required cash with no promise of a return in sight.
This step is as simple as it sounds. Once you’ve read up on what others have done, thought long and hard about how much you want this and what you’re willing to do to see if you can make something special happen with your love of music, and once you have a proper computer and at least one program at the ready, there’s nothing left for you to do but begin making music.
Sure, it won’t sound wonderful or particularly inspiring after your first several attempts (hell, it might not even sound like music at all), but that’s the process. As I mentioned above, you simply have to spend time watching how it’s done, listening and reading advice, and playing with the tools at your disposal. You can do all the reading of manuals and how-to’s you like (and I suggest you do), but in order to really understand how something like Logic works and how you can come close to developing a sound and churning out tune after tune you’re happy with, you have to spend a lot of time navigating the interface yourself.
Like spending hundreds or thousands of dollars just to get your hands on what you need to compose, this can be terrifying to some people, because it takes an incredible amount of time and effort, and you have to dedicate yourself to sticking with it.
Reach out to anyone having any type of party. Get together with other musicians and friends and plan your own event you can DJ. Reach out to companies hiring entertainers for weddings and other special events to see if you can work with them in some capacity.
Find Free Gigs and Get Creative
Once you have some tracks of your own, a few mixes you love, the equipment necessary (at least some of it), and the knowledge of how programs and decks work so you can create setlists and ensure everything runs smoothly in the moment, it’s time to find ways to perform.
Some people thrive in the spotlight, while others shrink from it, and while it might seem more natural those who fit into the former group would be more readily suited for this type of work, there are plenty of highly successful DJs who don’t like to show their faces or be the center of attention. For them it’s all about the music, so you can decide what kind of musician you want to be.
However, in order to get your first gigs, you might have to force yourself to be outgoing if you’re not, and you’ll need to do whatever it takes just to get your foot in the door. Spread the word as far and wide as you can that you are officially looking for any opportunity to play live. Tell your family, your friends, and anyone who follows you on social media, as you should have been working on a following by now. Reach out to anyone having any type of party. Get together with other musicians and friends and plan your own event you can DJ. Reach out to companies hiring entertainers for weddings and other special events to see if you can work with them in some capacity.
Not all of these opportunities will be sexy, and there’s a good chance you won’t get to start with what you’re aiming for, but this is how many people enter the race.
Take That Next Step
If you’re extremely lucky and you’re a rare talent, you might be able to skip the previous step and jump right to this one…but I wouldn’t count on it. You need some performance experience under your belt and something of a name — even if it’s just one people have only heard of once or twice in a local scene — before you’re able to take to a bigger stage and truly begin growing your audience and adding to your resume.
The next step can take many forms, and it typically involves doing a number of exciting things you have likely thought of for a long time. Depending on your situation, you might want to reach out to a booking company or a management firm and see if they will represent you. This way, you can leave at least some of the booking to them, which frees you up to make more music and develop your brand more online.
If you’re not at that point in your career just yet or if you are not able to find someone who wants to take you on at the moment, you’ll be doing it all yourself. You’ll need to contact booking people at venues, parties, and festivals, as well as Promoters of all kinds. It can be tough to find the right person to speak to, and then to even get a response, but if you aim low at the beginning (don’t think the mainstage at Coachella, but perhaps a branded event held offsite during the same weekend, or perhaps even the smallest stage early in the day) and keep your ultimate goal in your sights (and, of course, kill the performance, duh!), you might have a future ahead of you in this business.
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