At 18, I’d already been a DJ for two years, with a creaky old mobile DJ rig that my best friend and I got second-hand from the local paper, and a pile of 7″ singles bought while bunking off from school at lunchtime. My whole music career, though – as a bar DJ, then a club DJ, then a club promoter, then DJing internationally, then as a music journalist, then writing about digital DJing, and finally teaching DJing – was something I couldn’t in my wildest dreams have predicted back then.
It’s been a fantastic journey (so far). But looking back, I thought it would be fun to share some of the things I wish somebody had told me at 18. If you’re just starting out as a DJ, I hope these will help you, but if you’re someone who’s been doing it a long time like me, maybe you’d like to add your own at the end too.
1. Most music is rubbish
God, I’ve spent a lot of money on music over the years. From those early days sliding out of the school gates to spend pocket money in the local record store, to spending half a night’s takings on the “record shop mile” in Manchester, my home city, back in the 1990s, to filling my download cart with a few hours’-worth of music too many times than I’d care to admit.
But the truth is most of that music is rubbish. “Music by numbers”. It’s formulaic. It’s second-rate. It’s derivative. Sorry, but the law of numbers says most of that stuff ain’t worth your time. Learning to only pick out the real gems, the real groundbreaking tunes, the music you’ll still want to hear in 25 years, is a true skill. What’s more, it’s a fast-track to your own sound, your own musical identity.
“Don’t be scared to add tunes to your collection one or two, not 10 or 20 at a time!” would have been great advice for me at many points in my career, not just at 18. Because now, looking back 25 years, precious little of what I’ve bought has ever really been worth keeping for life.
2. Making music yourself is important
Before I was a DJ, I was in a band. I was the songwriter and one of the guitarists, and we recorded a demo and played a handful of gigs before disbanding when I went to college. And that was it – and I wish someone had told me to carry on with it.
Of course, nowadays “DJ/producer” is one of those things everyone aspires to be, but I kind of ditched the “producer” bit and ended up just DJing. (In my case, I finally become a “DJ/promoter”, which is how I leveraged myself international gigs). But if I’d have carried on making music… who knows?
Now more than ever, it’s important to dabble in music making if you can. Not only will the musical theory you gain enrich your DJing, but it may help you to get more DJing opportunities, too. And it’s fun!
3. You have to play what you love
I think it’s a young person’s thing, wanting to be “cool”. To play the “cool” music. To wear the right clothes, be seen with the right people. Hell, I remember trying not to smile as a teenager as I thought it made me look immature and “uncool”! Considering I was a bespectacled, spotty geek, that’s crazy in itself!
And while I did have a huge, all-encompassing love for music, and I certainly did play what I wanted a lot of the time, at the same time I was sometimes guilty of playing for other DJs, for whom I considered to be the people in the room I wanted to impress, rather than for myself and – just as importantly – for the crowd.
When I let my guard down and just went for it, playing what I felt was right and not what I double-guessed might impress the “cool” folk, I invariably played my best sets – the ones the “real” people – the ones dancing, the ones having fun – complimented me on. It took me probably five years as a pro DJ to “find my voice” this way – and I wish I’d had the confidence to do it earlier.
4. It is possible to make a career out of DJing
It is possible to make a career out of DJing… and I’m not just talking the few superstars at the top, either. I didn’t realise this at 18. When acid house hit in the late 80s, I was DJing already for fun, but I thought it’d only last six months max then burn out! I was always planning a “normal” career, too. It was only when my boss (a newspaper editor – I was a young reporter back them) called me into his office and said: “It’s either the DJing, or the journalism. Which is it to be?” that I had my hand forced – and threw the job in there and then.
I never looked back, and through playing in every dive that’d have me, then learning to promote events to make decent money (and DJ at them, of course), then through combining DJing with writing about it, and finally via teaching it, I’ve always found a way to continue DJing while making good money. It can be done, and I wish someone had told me that to stop me worrying so much about whether I was on a dead-end street.
5. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know
It’s a cliche, but the best technical DJ, the biggest music fan in the world, the person with the most encyclopaedic knowledge of music history, won’t get anywhere without knowing, liking and helping other people. You have to be friends with other DJs, your crowd, the local venue managers and owners, the radio station DJs in your town, the guys who give out the flyers, the bar staff, the doormen… it’s not cynical networking, but it’s a basic truth of human endeavour – those who know people, get things done (and those who don’t, get left behind). If you don’t take a genuine interest in being friends with and helping those around you, why the hell should they ever help you? Your genius will not get you far, trust me (see point 8).
When I learned to stop coming across so arrogant (I was actually just a highly nervous young man, who hated talking to people and wanted to be hidden in the corner behind the decks 24/7, but it came across as arrogance!) and forced myself to look people in the eye, smile and listen to what they had to say to see if I could help them get to where they wanted to go in some small way, I suddenly started seeing doors open that had been closed for years. I didn’t find this easy, though, and since then I’ve learned it’s what holds so many good people back in this game, too. But you have to crack this one!
6. The people who do well have a plan
I’ve met many of my heroes, from superstar DJs, down to guys who made a single tune that touched me before promptly disappearing from view! As a promoter, I booked and DJed with many of these people. And one thing that I realised after a while was that those DJs who were going places had a plan. They weren’t living for the next gig, or the next party, but instead, they had their career all mapped out. Many had business-type families with parents who had successful companies themselves, so they were naturally thinking “business” from the start. I didn’t – and I wish someone had shown me the importance of this, as it took me many years to work it out.
7. You need to ignore the people who don’t want you to succeed
I wish somebody had told me about these people, and that they’re often people you think are your friends. I have since learned they fall into two camps: Those who have big dreams and ideas but never put them into action (they don’t like you because you’re proving that the only thing stopping them is themselves), and people already doing what you want to do (this is a classic when it comes to DJing – people already doing it feel they’ve a God-given right to be there, and you have no right to be there at all!). If someone had told me to smile at these people’s opinions then get right on with it anyway, I’d have had far less self doubt, especially in the early years.
The possible third camp is your parents; mine were supportive, but it can be hard when they don’t want you to do this through genuine care and worry. Make money early however you can and show you’re serious about making a business of this is my best advice here.
8. Your time will come
Now, I worked this one out anyway, or at least, I had blind faith in it. But if you put your heart and soul into something, you obviously want to feel you’re getting somewhere, that you’re “getting good” at it. The danger is that you decide one day that you’re “good enough”, then start getting bitter that you’re not getting the gigs, the breaks, the payback. The truth is – and this is what I wish I’d been told – that you’re probably not good enough, yet. DJing is not mastered in weeks, or months, or even a year or two – it took me about eight years to get properly established, for instance. In the words of a hero of mine, Morrissey: “You just haven’t earned it yet, baby!”
Knowing you’ve still got work to do to become the “finished article” takes the bitterness out of seeing others succeed, and focuses you again on what matters; Upping your own game. As long as you’re enjoying the journey, and staying humble, and learning day by day, your next breakthrough will come. Things tend to happen when the time is right – until then, as they say here where I’m writing this in Spain, poco a poco (bit by bit).
9. Don’t be scared to ask for help
Looking back, I always liked to DJ with a partner – someone “at my level”. It meant we could work things out quicker, together. But the most important person you can find is a mentor – someone who’s where you want to be already. And I was always too scared to ask people who were doing what I was doing if they’d help me. Now, some people won’t (see point 7), but it turns out many are more than happy to share their knowledge and experience with you.
It was only when I became real friends with a big DJ who’d “been there, done that” that I learned some of the key lessons of DJing and started to make big leaps (and decent money). It might take you years to work some of this stuff out on your own, or you might never – don’t leave it to chance. Find someone to help!