Do you DJ for Love or Money

This is a repost of an article from 2008.

Resonant Vibes Blog – Paul Dailey – July 2008

Art or Business – Do You DJ for Love or Money? 

 Are you a wedding DJ that spins a pre set playlist, a mainstream club DJ that plays the top 40 in the same order, week after week?  Or are you the opposite end of the spectrum, an underground DJ that plays the most obscure tracks that only “educated” club people can truly appreciate?  Do you DJ for the love of money, or the love of music?

 On the surface this question is innocent enough and most newbies would quickly answer “of course, I do it for the love not the money.”  But dig just a bit deeper and you will find a much more complex set of issues.

For the most part, everyone that gets into DJing does it because they love music.  Sure there are some that are frustrated actors, comedians, karaoke flunkies, while other do it because they are drawn to the technology behind it and the idea of using programs like Ableton to put 5 or 10 different loops together to create a new track.  But generally, the driving force behind most people’s decision to start DJing is a love for music and wanting to use that love to move a crowd.

Often it is a world class DJ like Josh Wink, or John Digweed, or Paul Van Dyk – that lights the first spark, sending us off to find the music they play, so we can learn to do what they do.  This in itself isn’t a bad thing, as whatever you inspiration it is the initial stimulation that matters.  You also would be hard pressed to find better DJs to model yourself after.  But herein lies the problem.

In this instant gratification society, it often comes down to wanting the ends before the means.  In wanting to fight like Chuck Liddell or Tito Ortiz, without putting in the years of hard work in the gym.  In wanting to cook like Gordon Ramsey or Todd English, without understanding they started at 16 washing dishes and chopping vegetables.  The best DJs in the world, like the best of any profession – didn’t start on top.  They learned their craft over years of painstaking trial and error, and on the front lines working with a mentor, and acting as an apprentice. They carried someone else’s records, did the lights for them, helped them hand out flyers etc…anything to get into the DJ booth, so they could observe what was going on in a real club run by a professional DJ.  Carl Cox started off doing mobile disco parties and school dances – where he learned how to DJ properly by playing songs that people wanted, and he often hated.  He became comfortable with the idea of programming and reading the crowd, and creating the right vibe, all skills that were invaluable as he transitioned to more underground music.

Now I am not suggesting that in order to become a good House or Breaks DJ, you need to perform with your Uncle CJ the DJ at his next Bar Mitzvah.  But I am saying that because digital tools and modern gear make mixing easier, it gives a false sense of security to young DJs who think that because their software blends perfectly, they are ready to go out and DJ for real. Old school gear was a lot more difficult to deal with, and it took years actually understand how to properly mix, blend, and EQ.  It was frustrating, but in retrospect, those years spent learning the technical aspects of the job, were also years spent listening to music, finding out what makes people move etc.  These days anyone with the Beatport or Resonantvibes.com Top 50 and a laptop thinks they are a DJ. And from a technical stand point, they probably can sound ok with those digital tools.  But the biggest part of being a good DJ is experience, and knowing what to play and when to play it.  All things that cant be automated or learned over night.

So, what the heck does this have to do with your initial question, “Art or Business”?  Hang in there, as here is the part where I tie it all together.

Off the top of your head, tell me how many things are cheaper in 2011 than they were in 1990?  You might come up with some cheap, mass produced items like “socks from Walmart”, or “things from the Wendy’s dollar menu”, but generally speaking – prices increase over time.  It is simple economics.   OK, well explain this one to me then.  How come the average club DJ in your city or town actually GETS PAID LESS in 2011, than a DJ in the same club 11 years ago?

Supply and demand is the simple answer, but just like those 800# calls that are answered in India, or your clothing that is now made in China, it is the glut of cheap, inferior labor that is the real problem.  People are so desperate to call themselves a “DJ”, that they are willing to play for short money, or in many cases FOR FREE.  Take this and add it to the fact that most club owners have no idea what the value of having a talented person running their entertainment means to the success of their venue, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Good Club DJs used to make $250 or $300 a night – 10 or 15 year ago…now, you are lucky to make $150 or $200, because every kid with a lap top and Itunes thinks he is a DJ.

Wow.  You sound bitter man!

You know, I used to be – but now I actually want to try and uplift the entire industry, by teaching inexperienced DJs how to do things better, easier, but more importantly the right way.  I have been a featured speaker at WMC, ADE, the DJ Times Expo, and am speaking this year at the Forecastle Festival in Louisville.  I established the first DJ school in New England, have been an educator and writer for numerous industry trade publications over the past 15 years, and still teach a free monthly DJ class for middle school and high school kids at a local inner city community center. At some point in the future, I will be passing off my headphones to the next generation – but I hope to impart some wisdom along the way.

The bottom line is that DJing like anything in life takes time and patience.  I know you want to get out there and play music.  I know you want to throw events and rock crowds, even though you don’t know the first thing about promoting or reading the vibe in a room.  I understand you “love the music” so much that you would consider doing it for free.  But in the long run, you are not only hurting yourself – your are hurting your industry and your chances for future success.

That’s why the whole I do it for the love of the music and the love of the underground argument is pure BS. Do you really think allowing yourself to be treated like crap makes you more “real”?  Do you seriously think that in a room where the owner, manager, bartenders, bar backs, dishwashers, door men etc – are all getting paid, that the DJ should be playing for free?

It isn’t a love of anything or a desire to keep it underground, it is a lack of confidence in your skills and a lack of respect for the art of DJing and those that have worked hard to lay the groundwork before you.  The real underground warriors are the DJs that actually work, and have been working every weekend for years, lugging their gear and music from gig to gig.  So when someone says I am not “keeping it real” because I refuse to play for less than I made 20 years ago, I don’t call it being money hungry.  I call having some self respect.

I have been spinning records for nearly 30 years.  I have lugged my gear and music to more than 75 cities in 9 different countries over the years – often breaking even at the end of those trips.  I have lost girlfriends, gotten into fist fights with club owners, crashed cars on icy roads, and chased promoters around the parking lot to get $20 dollars for gas money.  And those experiences are not unique to me, they are the same stories you will hear from every DJ that has been around the block.

I submit, if that aint doing it “for the love of the music”, I don’t know what is.

2 Responses to “Do you DJ for Love or Money”

  1. For all my DJ buds out there…this is a must read from a true old-school master that inspired me from the beginning…<3 <3

  2. Thanks Katie. Hope you are well.

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