DJing is a craft that can be divided down into two aspects; technical & artistic. The basic technical side can be acquired relatively quickly. The artistic part is the catchy bit.
It includes everything from what you perform, when you play it, how you perform it, everything that went before it, what comes after it, where it clicks into the overall narrative you want to present, how you expect the people to react to it, etc.
Malcolm Gladwell states that it takes about ten thousand hours of practice to reach mastery in a field, which implies even if you are at the top of the game, you still have a lot to discover.
In this new guide, you’ll learn exactly what steps you need to take to progress to a successful DJ, including:
- Difference between bad, good and successful DJ
- Developing your own style
- Reading the psychology of a dance floor
- Networking without an agent
- Adapting and diversifying
- Lots more
Let’s get started.
How to Be a Successful DJ?
First of all, what sets established DJs apart is that they have a sound where, even if they’re not performing tunes they produced, you can still tell it’s something that they’d play if you know that DJ.
To be a successful DJ, you need to make a seamless and hypnotic mix for dancers that want to get lost in the music. After that, it’s a grab bag of improvisation, knowing the gear, and the entirely different but essential soft skills like networking and promoting other DJs and events.
I think that DJing is like sex – if you like it, you’re open to every available technique. Some techniques are touchy. Others are natural, some are true classics, others require tools and tech support, and all are sufficiently documented on the internet. Do your study, practice with your gear.
If someone picks up a recipe, follows the directions & cooks a tasty meal, that person can truly call themselves a cook.
When a person can look at the food in a fridge & then make a fantastic meal from scratch based on their vast knowledge of nutrition, taste combos & the palette of their customers, that person is a chef.
It’s the same with the people who mix music for others. Successful DJs are just that – chefs of their profession.
We are all entitled to our conclusions and personal judgment, of course. But we can do ourselves a favor by assessing people’s end products rather than the means they use to get there or deciding to do it.
The best example that comes to thought is an often observed divide within hip-hop and electronic DJs. I’ve heard many turntablists saying that the techno DJs are “afraid to touch their records.”
Now, maybe that Tech-house DJ sucks or perhaps he doesn’t. But why must we judge what he does with an unrealistic set of credentials?
Bear in mind that what other disk jockeys do or say has no importance on your value as a DJ. Do things according to your own needs, listeners, gigs, and talents. And let them do according to theirs.
Difference Between Bad, Good and Successful DJ
A bad DJ is usually showing up to their gig late to having their complete DJ list on Soundcloud and not considering if there is a steady internet connection.
A good DJ is frequently prepared, shows up to a gig on time, and has the proper equipment.
Successful DJs are exceptionally prepared. They arrive at the prior sets to guarantee they do not accidentally play anything other DJs played and do a soundcheck to assure all their equipment works appropriately.
Bad DJ is not disabling operating system noises, makes mistakes due to not knowing software that causes tracks to be stopped halfway through, lacks fundamental knowledge about a mixer, and has many sound problems.
Good DJ has decent experience with the equipment. He’s familiar with the software to know the unusual quirks of what they are working with. Has a program to sample music while they are DJing so they can create/edit a playlist on the fly.
Succesful DJs know their gear like the back of their hand and can troubleshoot everyday situations. Have backup equipment if the organizer doesn’t have the proper gear to pin up their laptop to a sound system (unfortunately, frequently than one would hope). He’s usually familiar with the most common sound systems as well to troubleshoot problems that can happen.
A bad DJ is unknowledgeable about tunes and makes bad musical decisions. He plays music unsuitable for the venue, has transitions between tracks that make no sense, and/or has the same sound the whole night. Often decides to go with a pre-made playlist.
Good DJ is familiar with their music. He has listened to all the tunes that he chose to DJ beforehand and knows what makes it suitable for different scenarios.
Successful DJ is knowledgable about music. Each tune they mix has a clear reason and is a conscious choice. If asked about the tracks they play, they can inform you about it and why they chose it.
Feeling the Floor
Bad DJ doesn’t pay attention to the crowd. He gets occupied with the laptop and doesn’t look at the people. Or, even worse, dances all the time and ignores DJing duties besides putting on music.
Good DJ responds to the audience and does things like playing newbie-friendly music if they are playing for that type of crowd. He follows the floor and makes adjustments based on whether everyone looks worn or is sitting out.
Successful DJs are incredibly attentive to the room/listeners. These DJs almost have a sixth sense that by observing the room. They can tell which groups of people have been sitting out for a while and find things to encourage them to dance. They will consider things such as what kind of event it is, the mix/skill level of dancers at the venue, and other factors to make choices to motivate the crowd to dance.
1. Develop Your Own Style and Stick to It
Successful DJs have their own sound and follow that. They don’t grow it for fashion, but to create a sort of anti-fashion, we could say.
Trying to please is the worst thing that can happen to a DJ as much as politicians – by doing that, you only express your desire to have authority and discard all integrity.
The middle ground is an awful position – a position of emptiness and only self-interest, a situation for reptilian chameleons that turn color to suit the conditions, so they don’t stand out and seem non-threatening.
Good DJs don’t care about anything besides principles, and they’re the most respected ones. Whether you like their mixing or not is irrelevant in this regard.
The art hasn’t diminished, but the understanding of it has. Those that can do it have adjusted with new skill sets made possible by technology, but democratization has dropped the entry rate.
The fact that actual reportage of fakeness is almost non-existent indicates that ‘art’ is seen as easy, as throwaway.
Any DJ should be somehow different. He should try a weird thing or two with the music choice.
Even if people want to listen to the same old pop songs, a good DJ will mash them creatively. Being pleasantly shocked is the name of the game.
Like one time, I heard deep Pink Floyd samples in the middle of a house set, which was refreshing and resonated with the crowd there.
You can love DJs like Funtcase because he goes mad behind the decks, which matches with dubstep. Fisher performs rowdy, high-energy tech-house sets and acts like he’s in the audience, piano hands, jumping, and all.
But on the flip side, DJs like Chris Lake have a contagious smile that normally turns to a smirk when he drops a tune the people are feeling. He’s much more subtle, but you know he’s controlling the crowd and has them in his palm.
The moral of the story is that a successful DJ finds a style and holds on to it no matter what.
2. Practice Reading the Psychology of a Dance Floor
Knowing your listeners and reading the room is crucial to feel the mood of the audience and affect the crowd’s temper.
It may be the most challenging and essential thing as a DJ unless you play the same floor fillers every gig.
But even then, you want to recognize when to play what track, and not to ruin specific songs by playing them at the awkward moment when they barely have any effectiveness.
Successful DJs walk into a club, and within a few minutes, they know what’s going on and which direction they want to take.
A great DJ takes into account stuff as:
- How long has the crowd been rocking to warmup/previous DJs
- The time they play at
- How tired the people are
- Drunkness level
- Are they using any other drugs
And anything that makes the crowd somehow different than ordinary.
Performing at an underground rave where people are taking psychoactive drugs affects the music. Playing at an all-ages club night is entirely different.
3. Engage With the Dancers
All the dancers. It’s surprisingly easy to become far too concentrated on your laptop, on your playlist, choosing that specific, perfect next tune, and stopping awareness of what’s going on in the audience.
Successful DJs try to hold most of their attention on the dancers – which makes track selection much more relaxed and helps them enjoy themselves more.
At its best, DJing can seem nearly like dancing with a whole room full of people at once – and when you’re in that state, you’re mixing best.
At Tomorrowland last year, I noticed how the DJs’ moods were influencing how I was feeling at that time. Carl Cox had a huge smile on his face throughout his set, and that put a massive smile on my face. Amelie Lens was dancing the whole time throughout her set, and this made me dance even harder.
It looks to me that the artist should always be more into the music than everyone else.
But I also don’t consider the DJ should be the focus of attention. It’s just that they should be more exciting than furniture.
I’m not speaking about swinging your arms, fist-pumping, Jesus-posing, or frequently bringing attention to yourself.
I’m more about naturally flowing with the music, whether that’s a head nod, propelling a foot back, dancing at the moment, humping the decks, and similar.
4. Start Letting Creativity to Lead You
The surprise factor is massive. You need to know what tune to transition into that’s going to catch the crowd off guard and go crazy.
Uniquely layering tracks is also impressive, not just going tune to tune with transitions. Last year at one small festival, I heard Traumer’s Triade blended with Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, and it was beautiful.
Successful DJs select a series of outstanding tracks and use them to build a unique show, improvised to fit the time, the room, and the audience perfectly.
A DJ’s ability to hypnotize the masses is due to the combination of tune selection, technical abilities, and the creative brain to tie it all up into a complex bouquet of vibrations that take the listener on a trip.
The opportunity to change someone else’s product into something separate from itself is a fantastic aspect of DJing.
For example, Solomun’s performance at Sonus in 2018 was climactic because, during the whole time that I was there dancing, I could see him watching us. His perception of us allowed him to pick his next song based on what he thinks will keep us flowing. For him, it was imperative to be as creative as he could, in order to adapt.
5. Leave Your Ego at the Door
Be a performer but not a diva.
The DJ is there for the dancers, not the other way around. He should be a humble soul, who drops their ego and honors music, and is there to maintain the flow.
A musician and listener all in one. You play other people’s music. Never forget that.
So appreciate the music and recognize that as much as electronic music producers need DJs to perform their music, DJs need the tunes as the means of their trade.
If you DJ with a sense of meaning and intend to present the best possible performance of the songs you love to play, you’ll eventually become a successful DJ.
Most crowds come for the music and to fool around to excellent mixing, and most are not that interested in what persona’s performing. They just desire to have a great time and be touched by your set.
Reading the room also demands your ego to be in place, and that’s why it’s hard these days for some DJs. Your music selection will never shine if it’s not done carefully and cohesively. It would be best if you were on top of the game with both.
6. Respect Other DJs
When you finish up, don’t be one who says, “just one more song, bro!”
Furthermore, don’t be one of those assholes who intentionally leave the FX on or shifts all the EQs down or turns the signal to phono on the channel only to throw them off when they’re about to start a set.
And if other DJ needs to set up equipment before performing, be kind. You’re full of confidence after the near end of your mixing, but the next DJ is concerned. Be generous, help where you can.
This is art, not a flippin’ sports competition.
This leads me to…
7. Be Open to Other DJs
And I don’t mean only professional, but strongly positive.
When your passion shows, and you’re conscious of your qualities, you spontaneously become more accessible to others, as you’re not closed, insecure, or shielded.
Your trust in yourself that results from the skills you have, protects you when facing those negative emotions.
Also, you notice other passionate artists working on their visions, and you crave to help them. What occurs then is that you quickly build a network of like-minded characters.
As it’s likely to be enthusiastic and self-aware on all roads in life, not just music – your network will be broad, not narrow.
You’ll find a passionate partner, someone who understands what makes him or her different and is excited about your profession. Your DJ friends will be exclusively those who “get it,” as you do.
By circling yourself with somebody who shares your characteristics, you’ll have a genuine support network, which is a vital part of accomplishing anything.
The pleasant thing is that you’ll want to support these folks because you appreciate and fancy them for the values that you share – and they will feel the same for you.
8. Find a Mentor
Find a mentor. You can practice all you want, but sometimes that practice leads to bad habits.
Learn how to take constructive criticism. The people who will adequately lead you and help you progress are going to be the people in the future listening to your sets and giving tips.
Too many people refuse to listen to advice from anyone, which is frustrating.
With years comes experience and with experience comes knowledge. Why wouldn’t you want someone who can lead you in the right direction?
9. Network a Lot
Taking it upon yourself to address promoters, agents, and festival managers could define your career. Those people might hold the key to a fantastic chance.
Every successful DJ will credit part of their progress to developing relationships with guys responsible for their big break.
However, understanding how to talk to those guys and what information to give them can be an exact science. Most of the time, you only have a few minutes to speak to an important person in your field and promote your product, so it’s essential to make each minute count.
My friend, promotor, said that if you’re playing at a club you’ve never performed in before, you should regularly touch base by email or phone before the gig at the time of booking, and repeat closer to the day.
If needed, you could also visit the club. That will help develop relationships that then point to referrals and more venues.
DJing has evolved. Today it’s a business with business rules. Promoters know how it all works and what’s needed to launch a career.
Many artists are real social media stars and spend more time on Facebook and Instagram than discovering tunes or recording songs.
Thanks to the same social networks, there is also a developing educated and intelligent crowd that is open to the fresh and the unfamiliar.
It All Comes Down to How Many People You Can Bring
Being a successful DJ is also being a successful businessman. Managers and promoters usually don’t care about how good of a DJ you are, except if you’re just plain awful. It’s all around the wealth for them.
And what brings money? People.
You don’t ask a festival manager or promoter to listen to your music. You tell him, “I have this many subscribers on YouTube, followers on my Instagram, I can get you this many people,” etc.
- Do some promo tasks for the people who usually bring the artists to your city
- Reach out to them through social networks and do it for free
- If you’re good enough, they’ll return a favor.
DJs need to be capable of selling themselves while growing a brand, and social media is the most powerful way to do so.
Imagine the potential of building your following and then shoving them notifications of where you’ll play next.
10. Don’t Be Afraid to Adapt and Diversify
DJing’s guiding teachings should be that of compliance to adjust, by having a broad enough knowledge of their tracks to be able to do this but remain within the music they fancy.
The vast spectrum of new music accessible within genres nowadays, besides the back catalogs, means there’s no reason this should be hard.
Because how do you even know what people want to listen to? They don’t fill in a survey at the door. You have to be fearless enough to give them faith that they will be open to what you’re playing.
What makes a successful DJ is a skill to make it look simple, and I mean truly simple.
I fully agree that it’s not brain surgery, but in the 21st century, where infinite tools are at the disposal of guys who want to get into DJing, the medium often concentrates on the art.
Your goal needs to be to radiate effortlessness when you perform, whether that be blending different genres, accurately handling the system you’re are playing on, knowing your limits, or quickly scanning the crowd. The technical aspect comes way down the list.
11. Keep an Eye Out for the Latest Tunes and Technology
There’s barely anything awful than mixing to an empty dance floor because you picked the same tunes as just about every other DJ.
Successful DJs are used to thinking outside the box and creating and leading the trends.
Your goal is to wow your fans, again and again!
Of course, the songs you play depend on the kind of live venue you’re performing at and who you’re playing to.
If we’re talking about a wedding or a birthday party, popular music dance songs will do. But, if it’s an event that’s more sewn to a genre-oriented crowd like a club venue, you need to know your material.
Websites like Mixmag are perfect if you want to stay on top of the newest music as are internet music stores like Beatport, where you can find a diversity of mixes tailored to DJs.
It’s not just the freshest tracks you need to be up to date with. Your sets are only as good as the gear you use to build them!
Whether it’s a controller, a set of headphones, or new earplugs, you can use lots of technology to maintain your sound unique and your fans engaged.
With that said…
12. Start Buying Lots of Music
It would be best to have an extensive library that you know to its core. You should always add fresh tunes and old standbys to your collection.
More people care about what music you mix than how you mix it. You can craft a set with flawless transitions, but if you play dull tunes and there is no flow, it’s going to be bad.
Be sure to have various ideas for different occasions. If you play a tech-house set at 2 am and get invited to perform someone’s birthday at 11 pm that afternoon, you won’t have much time, so it’s best to have a file with good daytime tunes set.
I’ll add that being capable of playing any genre of music gives a completely distinct kind of self-belief.
This is not me saying to play events with tracks you’ve never heard before, but particularly in the start pushing your comfort zone can help.