Whether it's your first gig ever, a first booking in a new town, your first event for a while, or just a first play in a new venue that you've decided is for you: Getting that "first gig" is an art form in itself. And for today's digital DJ, it definitely doesn't involve sending out mix CDs or getting yourself an agent!
We're not talking about playing in a big club with established DJ bookings and thousands through the doors; we're talking about the kind of venue where you turn up, controller over shoulder, plug in and provide a DJ set - no fuss. The kind of place that functions fine without a DJ too. Places like your favourite music bar, beach bar, lounge bar, student venue or live music haunt. So here's how to land that elusive first gig and start DJing out regularly:
1. Get to know the venue and the staff
Might sound obvious, but if you don't go somewhere a lot first, how do you know if it's right for your music? Go there on a mission, though - not just to drink!
Ask yourself: When do they have DJs on? Do they employ DJs like me? (Your level of experience, your type of music, your age, your look, even.) Tip the bar staff well when you drink there. Talk to them. Find out what the place has planned, and how well their nights are going. Find out the name of the owner.
Next, and all in good time, "bump into" the owner. Tell him what you think about his other DJs. Not as in: "He's rubbish, I could do better," but: "Hey, great DJ tonight. You must be pleased!" He may just tell you something back, something that might be useful. ("Yeah, it's been OK, but he's always late," or: "His music is a bit hard for this place, the students don't really get it," or: "I only book her because she's my wife's niece!")
This will help you to hone your pitch to him for later on, and put your face in his mind. Don't ask for the gig yet! You're on a research mission at the moment. So the more you can find out, the better.
2. Throw a party there if you can
If it's the kind of place that you can hire out, this can be a great way to prove your worth with no risk to the bar owner. Find a reason: your birthday, your friend's birthday, a leaving party, an end-of-term party, a Christmas party for your company... anything at all.
Club together and pay the rental fee (or tell him you'll guarantee X people if you can have the back room, terrace or whatever for free) - then do it. Of course, you will DJ. He gets to see your crowd, and hear your music. You're now in a much stronger position to get a regular gig. It will make you think like a promoter, too. This is definitely a good thing. Venue owners prefer promoters to DJs.
3. Sell them a brand, not just a DJ
Having a great DJ name is not enough. The more you've thought about what you want to do, the more likely you are to sell it to someone else. So instead of saying "Erm, can I DJ here? I'm DJ Whatever", you can say "I'm DJ Whatever from…". For instance, I used to have an event I put on in my town called "Sunset Rocks". It was a party that started in daylight and ended when the night was well and truly on us (I live by the sea and the sunsets are great round here). That was my brand. The name tells you more about the night than my DJ name would, and showed I'd thought about it.
I hosted "Sunset Rocks" events in different venues and if I want to, I can probably carry on playing them in other places in the future. And of course, should I play guest slots for other people, they can put "Phil Morse (Sunset Rocks)" on their publicity. Do the same and you will be a brand, not just another DJ. You'll be thinking like a promoter again. This is good.
4. Get publicity in place before you approach the manager formally
I've already mentioned a Facebook Page - that's a no-brainer. Get everyone you know to Like it. Next, bribe a designer friend (everyone's got a designer friend) to design you a simple poster with some kind of logo; your name; your Facebook page address; and a gap for you to attach the date, time and place of your gig to it. (That way you can get a job lot printed off at the local print shop and just add the dates and times in the future.)
You can show your poster to the bar or club owner when you ask for the gig, and also show him the gap where you are going to put his venue details. Again, it will show effort and willing on your part. It also insinuates you've done this on other places. (If he asks and you haven't, say something like: "I've been doing exclusive invite-only parties till now...")
Get your designer friend to design a simple business card with your cell number, email, Facebook page, name and branding on it too, and get some printed at the same time as your posters. You'll need those later...
5. Ask for the booking
With a DJ mix posted online on somewhere like Soundcloud (just to say you've got one; 9 time out of 10 the venue owner won't even listen to it, and they will also lie and tell you they have - trust me), posters in your hand, a busy Facebook page, and the knowledge you need about the venue, you now just need to identify your night and ask for the gig.
You'll have already sounded out the bar staff and hopefully know that you've got a reasonsable chance, but be prepared to be flexible: Be ready to change your tack and offer your services for a different night of the week, or around sports events, or between live acts if they have them, and so on.
(Public holidays are always good as they're not regular nights for the normal DJs and the venue owner may not be organised enough to have planned anything...)
The trick here is to get your foot in the door. Two things can happen: You get a gig, or you get knocked back. If you get knocked back, you politely leave your business card and return to stage 1. Keep going to the place; keep enjoying their nights; keep showing your face.
It often takes time, but if you've done the above well, your chances of success are high, and will get higher as you "rinse and repeat".
6. Talk money
So you've been offered a slot. It's OK to say you'll do it for free the first night to show what you can do; indeed, it's advisable sometimes.
Just make it clear that you'll expect payment if you're asked back again. You're a professional and deserve payment, even if it's only bar staff wages to start with.
Try and tie the manager to a "the busier it gets, the more money I get"-type deal. It's not so hard to do: use a line like: "I'd love to do it for free this week to show you my crowd and my music, let's talk more afterward," and then afterwards you'll say: "Great! It takes a few weeks to build my type of night, and I'll happily play for [name your lowest figure] while we're doing that; let's talk again in 6 weeks about raising payment to nearer my normal fee when we've established the night."
You'll have noticed you're talking like a professional here. You're not saying "my music is the best!" or "I'll blow you away!" (the manager or owner doesn't care; he cares about an easy life and a profit). You're saying: "There's not much risk in it for you, and I've done this before."
Even if you haven't done it before - ever - you must put across this level of confidence. Coming across as not knowing what you're doing (even if you don't) will always work against you. There's a bit of bluff here, but really you're doing him a favour (as you're a great DJ), so don't feel bad about it.
7. Prepare for the gig
Put your posters up in the venue (on the back of every toilet cubicle door is a belter - it's a captive audience - and by the bar, in the entrance hall and so on). Do this a couple of weeks before so the regular crowd get to see your brand, maybe hear your mix online via visiting your Facebook page, and so on.
Depending on what's at stake and how aggressively you want to market yourself, put posters up elsewhere too. I don't really do this when I'm playing a bar that has its own crowd anyway, but it's up to you. I prefer to build the crowd "organically", and let's face it, your poster - while it may be nice - won't mean much to the general public. I'd say use a Facebook Event and Twitter, word of mouth and so on to get your crowd down instead.
Check out the technical set-up with the bar owner - make sure you can plug your digital DJ kit in OK and ensure there is a table for you and so on, especially if it's somewhere that doesn't normally have a DJ (such is the joy of digital DJ controllers - pop them in your backpack and as long as the venue can plug you in, you can play just about anywhere).
For the first night, you really want to pull in favours with your friends to get a crowd down. Get everyone you know down there. Don't take "no" for an answer. If they won't come for the whole night, get them to commit to an hour! And make sure they bring their friends, too.
Then it's a case of getting your tunes together, practising your set, and getting down there - nice and early, ready to play. But "How to Play Your First Gig" is the subject of the next post in this series, same time next week, so I hope to see you then!
• Want to get the DJing skills down so you can play your very first party? Grab our How To Digital DJ Fast training now and get started!
Are you a new DJ trying to get your first gig? Have you tried the above and succeeded? Or failed? Share your experiences with us below.