DJing Is Hard

DJing is hard

Sometimes, even in the coolest of venues, it can all fall apart for the DJ. As I saw happen to one DJ recently... Pic: SoBoUK

Ever felt utterly dejected with your DJing? Had a Friday 13th moment? Failed to learn an important skill despite trying and trying? Messed up in front of an audience and felt so small you wanted to give up and never try again? The purpose of today's post is simply to reassure you that you're not alone. We've all been there, and I was reminded of the fact only recently by something I saw when I was at an industry event.

It was at a VIP-type party held by a big DJ gear manufacturer. Sadly, I witnessed a successful DJ and producer really go off the rails. He ended up only playing 20 minutes of his set before finally begging with the promoter to be taken off the decks. His problem? He genuinely didn't feel his style fitted well after the previous DJ, and so couldn't raise his game to follow him.

And if someone with decades of experience behind them can mess up like this, it just shows that none of us is immune.

Why it has to be this way

But the thing is, anything worth doing has to be hard, has to have the risk of you making a royal mess of it, built right in there. One of the reasons DJing is so much fun is that when it goes well, it feels unlike anything else in the world - but the necessary flip side is that there's always the possibility of things going wrong. After all, as DJs we're the centre of attention - some people love this fact, some still enjoy DJing despite it, and for others it's nothing more than an unwelcome part of the job.

But the thing is, our mood and the crowd can seriously affect how we feel about being stood up there. The DJ I saw mess up the other night was playing to a trendy crowd of drinkers, not to a dancefloor, and clearly felt uncomfortable being the centre of attention in that environment, especially being made to follow a DJ whose style was very different - yet in a club he may have been fine.

Also, there's basic performance nerves to conquer. If you're nervous anyway and the DJ before you really rocks it (as in this case), it can be difficult to play next. The DJ I saw fail was a "selector" style of DJ, playing great music with few frills, but he followed a cuepoint-juggling four-deck wizard, and he couldn't cope with the level of expectations, despite all his experience.

And despite digital gear making some of the manual skills easy, the real skills of DJing - being sure of your music, programming it properly, successfully reading the crowd - haven't changed one iota in decades. And they're not always easy to do a good job of. It's something we repeat again and again both here and in How To Digital DJ Fast. Ah yes, reading the crowd. DJing is meant to all be about a two-way interaction between crowd and DJ, a shared experience where hopefully we go somewhere together that none of us could quite have mapped out before we began. But what if you can't feel it? Do you fake it? Do you push on until you can feel it? Do you change the way you're playing? Or do you throw in the towel, like this guy did?

One trouble is that because we love it so much, because we're all so passionate about our music, so in love with the idea of making meaningful things happen through playing tunes in front of a crowd, so convinced that for us, communication is best done through tunes, not words - because of all of this, well, if it all falls apart, it falls apart hard.

And sadly, often it's the people who have the most to give who feel it hardest when it's not going well for them.

You're not alone...

There's no big message to this post. The guy having a bad night was a professional with nothing to prove, and he's probably never done that before and never will again (we normally cope with these things, feeling uncomfortable on the inside but ploughing on through; but on a night where there were lots of DJs lined up, he just felt that he couldn't contribute. The sad thing was he was playing great music. And the guy who was rushed on after him played trash...)

But the point is this: If you ever feel like you're having the worst set of your life, or that you're a fake, or that your music isn't good enough, or that your skills aren't up to the job, or that you just want to be anywhere else in the world than stood there DJing, right here, right now, please take comfort: You're not alone. Every DJ has been there at some point. It'll get better.

DJing is hard. That's one reason why we all love it so much.

Have you ever felt out of your depth? Have you had to ask someone else to take over for you? Wished you weren't DJing at a place you felt you should have really been enjoying yourself? Felt like a fake, or that you weren't good enough? Or, have you ever witnessed a DJ "lose it" behind the decks? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

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  1. DJ Max Gabriel says:


    Thanks once again. You provide invaluable advice. I'm pretty new at Djaying but became pretty successful in a short amount of time in my area. I swear every week, I imagine that this is the night that everyone realizes that I am a fake and don't deserve my spot. My skills are underdeveloped and I just don't have the experience. Good to know that I'm not alone there.

    Thanks again,

    Max Gabriel

    • @ Max , Dude your not alone..Just by you stepping in front of a crowd wether its a house party,club, or bar that right there makes you genuine!It takes alot for a starting Dj to do that.Experience you will gain by continuing to do gigs & doing your homework before each gig! Keep doing what you are doing and you will be alright!

      • Dj TRIPTONE says:

        I have always felt that even when I am playing a pathetic set, or am not in the zone, the best pArt is when the crowd comes and tells me that I rock!!! Well sometime they do and sometime they dont
        That gives me a boost. basically A drinking crowd does wanna chill and talk and socialize.. So play accordingly..

  2. Foldabledisco says:

    Well, I'm playing at a festival is tonight, I hope everything is going to be oké. And non of the mentioned scenario's are going to happen.
    Everybody has a tough day once in a while, you're feeling not well, can't find the right songs, can't connect with your audience or there is no audience at all.
    It's a bummer, but play one freakin' super good set and you forget that it even happened.
    A dj friend of mine said, when you mess up, always keep smiling and don't start staring at your laptop or cd case. Look around and get out of that downwards spiral of fear or anger.

    • love that. own my mistakes. skateboarders are always bailing. just a matter of changing the culture.

      I'd just add, the most graceful way to navigate a night where Im in a funk but it seems like Im also my harshest critic, is when someone comes up to say something nice, just be sure to say "thank you". easy!

  3. I've had gigs go poorly too. I did a house party recently, I thought I was prepared but wasn't. I just didn't have the right tunes.

    Because it was a house party I got constant requests - which I hate. I never had what was requested and so ended up buying some music on iTunes there and then!

    The other killer was that everyone in the party has different tastes, so when I played a track that one person requested somebody else would complain.

    It has bugged me ever since.

    • Foldabledisco says:

      Those things are frustrating. Some people are notorious requesters, they keep on buggin' you with requests.
      I'll have to say, one of the downsides of going digital: Because you work with a laptop some people think your collection is infinite.
      If you don't have the song then they answer "but you've got internet, you can download it or can you play it from youtube?"
      When I answer that I don't just download but buy my music, they look at you if you're a mental case. "Buying music? Nobody pays for music anymore!"

      Thank god for the big can headphones! They can create functional communication problems "What? sorry man I can't hear you, give me some timeto finsh my mix" And they are gone.

  4. DJ Doc Kristy says:

    wow this article sure is very encouraging Phil.

    I had this out of town gig last month.
    I was new to the place and had no idea of the "music taste" of the people in there.

    I'm a Hip Hop DJ , but because of my fear that the set I prepared wasn't good enough; I tried doing a party music set.
    At the beginning it all went good, the dance floor is already crowded until after 2 hours of playing I felt bored and tried going back to my original style of DJing. And when I saw that the dance floor is starting to get empty... I asked then organizer to send in the next DJ.

    man that was a nightmare

  5. Great article again.
    In 18 years I've had nights where I lifted the wrong needle while 800 people were pogo dancing to The Prodigy, and others where my mixing sounded more like a pair of trainers in a tumble dryer. Yet more nights when 4 people showed up to the club, and even more when a reasonably full club isn't the slightest bit interested in anything I was doing. Big ego DJ wannabees have plagued many a DJ booth, all of whom were adamant they're much better than me and then you have the requester types, not the average sort that I love but the annoying kind who advertise how crap they think you are at great volume simply because you aren't playing their precise record at that precise moment. And then you have the idiots who usually own the venue and treat you like dirt.
    All of this is a tough learning curve and knocks your confidence, but you have to learn from it and in the end you will develops a thicker skin and the all important laconic reply. I ended up on a 2 year break for combinations of the above reasons, it can feel like your world is ending to some degree especially when you have invested so much time and effort into this thing you love doing.
    Don't get disheartened, it happens to everyone.

  6. I feel you on this article. I was asked to play a house party a while back with an 80's theme, so I dusted off all my old 80's mp3's. Halfway through the night, the party organizers just wanted to hear Girl Talk and Miley Cyrus.

    Really? There's a reason that stuff isn't in my mp3 library.

  7. Booga Noodles says:

    This is a great story but it doesnt ad up and heres why. This dj with years of experience, playing great music, and knows how to use the equipment decides at that moment that he cant compete with the previous dj? I have a theory as to why he felt this way (and its a longshot). Maybe he felt the added pressure because he had alcohol and or drugs in his system. This is just a theory and im not trying to make the dj in question out to be a bad person, but just maybe this was the problem. Ive played professional poker for years and one thing i never did was drink while i played. Ive seen people drink at the table and before long their emotions get the best of them. The alcohol makes them feel that the money they are losing (and in some cases it wasnt alot) is of epic proportions. So maybe this was the dj's problem.........its just a theory.

    • I'm not sure your theory is accurante. I've seen an internationally renowned Dj in the most recognized high-end club in my city clear the dancefloor in less than 20min. It went so poorly that the managment pulled him early and retunred the house Dj. So bad was his night that his PR guys tried to say he missed his flight haha.

      Point is, it can happen to even the best of us.

      p.s. In my experience, alcohol doesn't make you want to play less. It might make you not play well, but unless you are so drunk that you feel sick/unable to stand, it definitely doesn't make you want to pack up early haha

  8. I went to play an internet TV station a few weeks ago, and when it was my turn to go on, I set up only to discover that BOTH of the audio outs on my controller had failed. I had no other cables to run audio from my laptop (nor did anyone else) and after 5 minutes of messing around on camera I had to ask the next guy to come on. I felt like such a tool.

    I have a gig tonight though and I'm opening in a small, intimate room, playing D'n'B. I've played at the venue before and am hopeful that things will go my way tonight! Fingers crossed!

  9. Simon Everard says:

    Around 2 weeks ago now I did my first DJ set at a house party. I was really looking forward to it but really nervous at the same time. When I started there was a good two hours where my mixing was bad. I was dropping tunes at the wrong point, selecting songs that didn't flow together particularly well and the audience wasn't getting into it. I was disheartened but continued on. I started to find my flow and was using the right tracks to build up the crowd. Within a short time everyone was up dancing and skanking and having really good time. I knew from then that even tough I start off badly I can save it. I feel this is a lesson that all DJs can learn from.

  10. I can't front, I felt like this time and time again....hey I haven't had a paying in about 2 years but I keep at it. Sometimes its even hard just to put in some practice or make some mixes for posting online. but I keep at it...

  11. Boy, have I seen this film in my life (and not only DJing LOL)!

    I play since ´86 so I´ve been there more than I can count. And all I can say is: My highs were incredibly high, and my lows awfuly low! But those are both ends of the "bell curve", and I´m sure it´s the same for everyone. Both instances are rare and both contain valuable lessons. And more, both contribute for humbleness and self-criticism that make us grow as DJs.

    My last gig (this past friday) was not as bad as this poor star DJ of your story Phil, but I´m still feeling it. Actually I kinda saved the party and made everyone dance and go crazy and delivered a packed dancefloor to the next DJ but all the time I felt like I sucked BIG TIME. I had to put a show face and fake it while playing. And I felt like SH*T afterwards.

    Everything was fine and I got lots of praises and even a few bookings at the end. But I was so unpleased with my own performance that I left for my room in disgust and called it a night. I have no idea what went on, but it´s all in my mind I´m sure. I guess some nights just aren´t meant to be, it´s a cycle and it´s an inner thing more than anything else.

    As I did a 100 times before, I just move on because my love for the music and DJing is much bigger and I had to overcome much, much higher obstacles to be where I am so life goes one, next time it will be better for sure!

    Excellent post.

  12. Ok, this is the situation.....i was envited to play to a pool/ beach party, for this friend millionaire who knows a lot about electronic music....(like 100/ 150 plp in his beautiful beach house party)......4 Djs were going to play......the night before i was all night preparing, pulling new tracks, getting all the good beachie feeling kind of the day came and i was there, partying and having a good time.......about 4 PM the owner (who i know very well) came up to me and asked me to come in......(the guy before was playing some kind of techno or techouse) i came in with something more deep, more beachie, more bouncey head, just to start......after 30 minutes or so, the owner came to me and asked to stop, i was in shock (as i think were more plp dancing to my set then the guy b4), so i stop & that was killing me, i was all afternoon in a bad mood......when the night fall about 8/9 PM, he (the owner of the house) came back to me and begged me to play again, saying that a lot of plp was asking.....i was in heaven again, so i played a cool set, with some trancey feeling, but very happy and beachie....i was there for a few hours......plp dancing, having the time....and u can imagine me.....i was in extasy, coulnt believe my you could be having a blast and things can go very bad or the other way around....ohhh and after the party i ask my friend why he pulled me off, and he said he was enjoying the techno and when i came in i killed his vibe.....but i was playing what i thought was more apropriate to the kind of the end i was the "big name" of the party......

  13. I believe that different music styles work for different spaces. I truly think a small but crowded setting is better for some funky soulful crazy stuff than say, minimal techno or deep house. Techno sound is meditative and needs the right setting, lights etc as it works much better experienced that way. However in a bar setting old soul, disco, rock, anything with breakbeats, rocks the house far better. So when playing at an unknown venue (and crowd, too!) you should definitely be prepared to be able to change your set. Pre-programmed sets are never as good as on-the-go selections and crazy switches anyway! :)

  14. This is why it is SOOO important to know how to play different genre's and read a crowd. I used to feel less than years ago when I would take over for a hip-hop DJ that was scratchin' and cuttin' and then I'd come on with 4 on the floor and just stand there. Years of experience has taught me how to cope and rise to the challenge and win the crowd over. Usually involves being innovative with what I got. Don't get me wrong I also have my "just off" days. Just don't feel the fit. It happens.
    Any DJ that says they never experienced what the subject DJ experienced is not DJing enough.

  15. I've had horrible nights where my Mac crashed repeatedly. My set list is always backed up on the iPad so I played from there while rebooting. However I stayed calm and cool during the entire ordeal. And I have to say, the reason I was able to maintain and continue was from seeing DJ Fail videos on YouTube and watching Guetta, Tiesto and other world class players crash and burn. Seriously, if you ever need to feel better about your bad nights, watch those clips.

  16. ... moral of the story... don't be a prisoner of your (one) style. And make sure you have a fw drive or bag full of other stuff. These are the moments you can experiment. Try out stuff you wouldn't normally. 😉

  17. Constant crashes used to plague me until I got another laptop. Also, one night, I had to follow two women who mostly played house music. I attempted following with house music too. And felt I sucked at it. Yet, the two women seemed to enjoy what I played. What saved me was some pretentious guy asking me to play a song for his girlfriend, an old Latin Freestyle song. Normally, when folks ask for music out of the genre I'm playing, I get annoyed. Yet, this saved me.

  18. I am going to a friends party and DJing there for the first time so I hope it all goes well tonight...

  19. All of us have been thru it one time or another. I really like all your comments. They helped me and i been DJing now over 22 years. You all help me in New York here to be able to keep rocking the parties. So my fellow DJ-brotherin KEEP ON ROCKIN!! And as Phil was saying, we learn from our mistakes and keep going. Thanks to you all for support. :)

  20. DJ Majestic says:

    This summed up the entire post:

    And despite digital gear making some of the manual skills easy, the real skills of DJing – being sure of your music, programming it properly, successfully reading the crowd – haven’t changed one iota in decades.

    The go spin your heart out.

  21. Hardest thing i did...playing for 12 year old kids. Is it less important? No, they had expectations for their party that i couldnt meet. I went into it with: well its just kids. Went out with a more humble: I still learn and dont know all yet.

    Why a kidsparty? Well my son held it and he really wanted to have a live dj since that is what i do. And since i knew many of the kids i felt like, it will be fun, they are just kids no problem. What i failed to do? I didnt ask my kid what they want to listen too. I went for the "they like top 40" music. As i learnt, this wasnt the case. What they wanted was more R&B/HipHop style, Rock and older classics. Just the type of music i really didnt have with me. So there i was, playing music that didnt lift the mood. My kid was not dissapointed he was so proud that i just stood there. But if it was a real klient i bet i wouldnt get a new job after that. So my lesson is, never assume you know what to play on a new place/party/crowd.

  22. man, it doesn't matter who went on before you, have fun and play what you love. no one can take your own voice from you and two people don't read the same sentence out loud. we are musicians with our own stories to tell, so tell it, right?

  23. Last night was the first time I've walked into a gig and straight out again. Got a last minute text asking me to do a charity boxing match. Don't like turning down gigs, so went along and immediately knew I was in a room full of several hundred people that I was completely musically unconnected with. I'd have been ripped to shreds so walked straight out. Reading this post does help, as it felt a little crushing and unprofessional, but no good could have come of staying. I guess it's ok to pick and choose.

  24. WOW great piece that I needed to read. I have a tryout 2mor night at a place and even though I have played there twice in 2 weeks I had equipment failure last week with no back up but recovered and they still liked it. Now with the tryout 2mor i am confident from reading this

  25. a) it s important for yourself to try - if you think you re going under - try to kick them again and again ...

    its up to your creativity - show them new styles, your little tricks, surprise them with some good old cheesy funny stuff ...

    a "big one" said once "it s all about the passion!" - so show your Passion or at least promote your faves ...

    someone will follow or you ll never see these persons again ...

    b) don t play "against the other" - beeing a selector, i push into some kind of cool sounds and ask my dj-fellow "Godfather Mr Mixer" to join and crush into my sound - I will as another sound Idea and he will give it a flow - that can b real partnership of two different-typed djs ... try, like I did ... I learned from it and enjoyed the session with "the big one", who asked me a few times "where do you get this crazy sounds from" ...

  26. awesome post! Had a wedding shower last night and definitly wasn't feeling it. LOL i thought i had a great selection of music, and getting people on the floor @ first was difficult. Learning how to read the crowd is something I really need to fine tune. But hey i'm starting out, going to learn from my mistakes and keep chugging along. But again good post.

  27. "Djing isn't hard" Those words have been ringing in my head for a long time. Ever, since I read them, in one of the many "how to" e-books, manuals, dvds, etc. When, I decided to start a mobil dj business, after a sudden unexpected career change over a year ago. I appreciate all the comments, from various stages of experience. This is such a great forum. So much better than the other 2 DJ forums I've been on now for awhile. I could write a tome here, and I've only done 3 events, one being my first wedding last Saturday. I'm still recovering. I'll spare you all the details. But, yes DJing is hard. Maybe like many things, the concepts seem simple, but putting them into practise, is a whole other thing.

  28. I started getting out to gigs in the past 3 months and so far I have had 2 small time house party's and then my biggest gig, and first paid gig came up, and it was worse than a Friday the 13th night.. Everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong in the space of an hour...

    This last weekend, I had another big gig come up, that a friend put in a good word for me with the manager to come and play.. and I was so worried that the bad luck was gona strike again.. "Once Bitten, Twice shy" kind of thing...

    I get there, and the DJ before me, is ripping it up... not in terms of getting the party bumping but his skills were something to marvel at... He really had complete control of what he was doing, playing awesome songs that I wanted to personally hear, but the crowd was kinda on the fence. So I got even more nervous, that I have to follow this guy after my disaster of my last gig.. I was already feeling like a failure...

    So I took a gamble and started off with tunes that I knew were well funky, without being to demanding on the crowd, but I also knew that they were tunes that no one in the club would have heard before. You see, I am a South African playing in South Korea, and I still have no reference with which to judge the crowd and their vibe, being that I am a foreigner.

    Anyway, started my set, dance floor was empty.. but I could immediately see that everyone's heads were bopping and feet were tapping.. and slowly the people started to migrate to the dance floor, and within 30 minutes had the dance floor was packed.. I then changed it up to proper party tunes, and things were happening. I apparently even stole the patrons from the bar next door, and the next thing the dance floor was rocking and I was quite literally on top of the world.. never been so pumped...

    What made me feel even better, was that the manager got my details to get me to play again, and even the manager next door asked for me to play at his place. The manager was even not allowing me to pay for my drinks after my set, and put them on the house. The cherry on the top, and not that I wish this on any DJ but the DJ after me was also very skilled and emptied the dance floor, as he changed to very hardcore electro (which I loved) and completely lost the crowd.

    My point being after this long ass story, was that even though things can go bad, one day they will go really well and then it makes all the bad times, so worth the experienced gained... SO I say, keep on spinning, no matter how bleak it gets...

  29. I've been Dj'ing for 15+ years, and I wish I could have read this article back when I started as I'm completely self taught. Cheers to Phil for writing it! At this point, I've played parties all over the world, and I've definitely crashed and burned (picture Amtrak having an impromptu meeting with United Airlines) some nights, and I've seen world class Dj's do the same. Everyone has nights where they are just off no matter how much they practice. I've also had nights where I could have just stopped the DnB track I was playing and dropped the theme to Sesame Street and people would have gone nuts, so it goes both ways.

    Diversity makes the world go round, and the same goes for Dj'ing. Try playing different styles so you get comfortable with more than just your niche. There will come a night you won't be able to play that. Always have a backup in case of failure. Burn some CD's in case your lappy crashes, or wax if they only have turntables.

    Remember, if you love music you're not faking it, you just have a bit less experience than others. The music is your voice, just think of playing out as public speaking. Sometimes people might not want to listen to what you want to talk about, if that happens, just read the crowd and change the genre of the conversation. Also, don't get too trashed and slur your words. 😉

    Soundcloud is a great tool for feedback, have people listen to your stuff and find out what works and what doesn't. The Groups are your friend!

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