How to be a Pro DJ

Understand the gear before buying the gear (RRFC grad Hadley Alley)

A good DJ has a massive amount of music at their fingertips. They know how to mix Billy Idol with Billie Holiday and, say, add the occasional Billy Joel hook if that’s what they’re after. In other words, their transitions are tight, the hardware is legit, and they know how to get the crowd moving. But above all, they have a love for music and can’t wait to share it with the masses.

The best DJs travel the world, make millions of dollars, and keep a busy schedule to stay in front of their fans. But they all had to start somewhere. Whether it was two turntables and a microphone, a new Casio keyboard, or an Akai MPC they got for their 14th birthday. Then they worked, worked, and worked some more.

Learn The Basics

Compared to the start of such luminaries as Grand Wizzard Theodore and DJ Kool Herc, DJs today have a treasure trove of digital music, software, and hardware specifically made for them. But where to start? Spending thousands of dollars on the latest gear doesn’t mean too much if you don’t how to use it.

Start small. As they say, you gotta learn to walk before you can run. A couple of turntables or CD changers, a 2-channel mixer, speakers, and a mic is a good start – and it won’t cost more than the price of your car! When you start getting serious and have a little bit of experience, you’ll know exactly what you need and where to start spending a little more money, investing on the gear which best serves your mode of production.

Recording Connection grad Emily Stamer
Recording Connection grad Emily Stamer aka Lucii the Alien

The same mindset applies when looking for your first gig. You probably won’t be seeing the inside of the Hollywood Palladium anytime soon – unless you have a ticket. A friend’s house party, a wedding, or that dive bar down the street are great places to sharpen your skills and get used to playing live. As you start playing those early gigs, you’ll also be learning one of the most important things a DJ needs to know: how to read a crowd.

Understand Your Audience

So unless Cannibal Corpse is requested by the bride, you won’t be playing death metal during her first dance. Maybe later on once crowd loosens up. The objective for your first performances is to learn how to cooly observe and even imbibe the room. Once you really understand how to read a room and recognize rising excitement, bliss, boredom, and all the shades in-between, you’ll have one crucial skill that can keep you working in the business.

Dancing at the club
A Good DJ gets the crowd moving

Even if you’re playing the right music for the right crowd, there’s more work to be done. They’re looking for more than someone just playing records. You need to know when to bring the crowd up, then chill them out.

Perfect A Persona

You don’t need a bedazzled motorcycle helmet lined with LED lights for your shows, but you do need to know how to hold yourself and project some personality. The crowd can feel it if you look disinterested in what you’re doing. If you look like you don’t want to be there, they probably won’t want to be there either. At least not to listen to you. Charisma counts. It earns you points, so if you don’t have any, get some.

When you’re starting out, your charisma needs to be adapted to suit the audience. There are times when a sweaty, pump-fisting, shirtless DJ can whip the crowd into a frenzy. A Sweet 16 birthday party is not that time. While the kids might adore you, the parents may raise an eyebrow, and they’re the ones paying you for your time.

Hopefully, you won’t be playing bar mitzvahs and weddings for more than a year or two while you develop your sound, style, and onstage presence. There is one trait you’ll want to perfect from the start: responsibility. Do what you say you’ll do, arrive when you say you’re going to arrive, and play what you say you’re going to play. Dependability goes a long way in an industry where the less-than-reliable element runs rampant.

Take Care Of Yourself

Axenzo Recording Connection grad extern DJ career
Recording Connection graduate Axenzo in Vegas

At some point, you’ll want to start making some money, right? When you first start out it’s pretty likely that you’ll be paying the bills working at an electronics store or gear warehouse, waiting tables, or submitting to the stark reality that is working in a gray cubicle. You’ve gone the distance, put in too much work at night and the weekends to call DJing a “hobby.” You’re good. It’s time to start getting paid real money.

Just like anyone striking out on their own, you need to set your rates commensurate with your experience. Club owners want their venue packed, and if you’re bringing people in, you need to get paid. It’s a feeling-out process to be sure, so if you can’t land any gigs because of your price, you may need to dial it back a bit.

But be careful. You don’t want to be known as the DJ that works for peanuts. You’ve already been doing that. Even if it means a few more months selling garage door openers, make sure you get paid what you’re worth.

Never Stop Learning

No matter where you are on your journey, there’s always someone else that’s already traveled that path. Seek out established DJs that you like. Listen and watch, and even ask for a moment of their time. Don’t demand answers to your questions – be respectful and don’t act too big for your age. Do it right and they just might pass on a tip or two.

Recording Connection pairs future DJs with experienced industry professionals in a real-world setting. Our students get in and learn the practice of the craft and artform via one-on-one instructional lessons in-studio and via our eBook curriculums, written by professional music makers. We have programs for those who are just starting out as well as experienced musicians, looking to expand their knowledge base.

The Recording Connection Live DJ Program gives you the opportunity to work with a touring DJ. You’ll learn the software, hardware, how to make relationships in the business to help further your career, and more. While many of our students find work after they’ve completed their training, it’s most often the ones who saw the value of the program and made the most of it that “go pro.”

Are you ready?

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