It's amazing how much the lessons I learned in a club as a DJing helped when I got my "real" career outside DJing. In fact, I highly recommend DJing as a great training program for any type of creative career... and it’s a hell of a lot more fun than most internships.
Although I’m not driving a Bentley sipping champagne with supermodels, I’ve pretty much made my living as a creative professional for 20 years: as a designer, producer, animator, creative director, college instructor, and yes, a DJ. The companies I’ve worked with were also diverse: software corporations (Microsoft) and entertainment conglomerates (MTV Networks), plus small businesses and funky art projects. It’s amazing how many times at all these various places I’ve thought, “Yup, this is just like DJing at the club...”
Here’s my top five reasons why DJing is great training for the “soft skills” essential to your day job, especially if you work in a creative career as I do:
1. It builds your creative confidence
Being a creative professional means trusting your instincts and getting others to believe in them. Unlike professions with clear outcomes, creative work is subject to huge interpretations about what’s good or successful. True creativity requires a leap of faith into unknown and unproven territory. That’s pretty damn tough to do on your own. Even tougher is convincing a business-minded person to follow you – and pay for it.
But once you’ve rocked a crowd as a DJ... you have absolute proof that your creative instincts work. You don’t get a polite comment, or a head nod or a Facebook “Like” - you made somebody sweat! (and shake, move and shout, too). So when its time to do a photoshoot, write a story, or whatever else, you know for certain your creative instincts can work.
2. It’s the best creative feedback you’ll ever get
When I did a good mix in the club, people would cheer. If I screwed up, they’d boo. When you’re DJing, you know who likes your idea, who hates it, who doesn’t care – and the instant their attitudes shift. That’s incredible feedback you can learn from. Sociologists would kill for it. Marketers spend millions trying to guess what their audiences want. DJs have it right in front of their eyes. The feedback might be brutal at times, but it’s profoundly real and direct. And you’re unlikely to find it in many other professions.
I directed and animated spots that are still broadcast on nine million TV screens in the USA. I’ve never seen my audience react to them. I assume and hope people laugh and smile when they see them, but who knows? Compare that with a DJ who knows they’re rocking it because people are sweaty from dancing.
3. Handling bar managers and stupid requests is a lot like handling clients, co-workers and bosses
As a DJ you’ll inevitably get an incredibly stupid request or a difficult manager. It's tempting to tell them to f*** off, but you know that’ll cause more problems that it’ll solve. Even if you could get away with it, you’re ultimately there to create a good night for everybody. So you have to figure out a way to gracefully handle it. In other words, you learn to behave like a professional.
This is great experience for projects that inevitably involve reviews, approvals, and sign-offs - often from people who have little understanding of the creative process. If you can handle a drunk demanding their favourite song “right now”, you won’t get flustered when a client gets upset or people suggest changes to your plan.
I remember a design meeting where I almost choked on my coffee thinking “WTF!? That idea is horribly tacky. An awful cliche!” But all heads at the table turned to me, waiting for my response to the client. Without skipping a beat, I said: “That idea has been used so many times, I don’t think it’ll have the market impact you’re looking for.”
I couldn’t believe I had spoken with such tact! The guy’s idea was quickly killed without drama. Those golden words came out subconsciously - but the instincts behind them were honed on the dancefloor, fielding requests.
4. You learn to balance what the crowd wants to hear (their taste), with what the crowd needs to hear (your taste)
DJs face two extremes in requests: punters who want cheesy commerical hits or snobby music purists who want you to “keep it real”. This tug-of-war won’t go away when you leave the club to work in an office: Graphic designers love odd typefaces, but people are happy to read Arial. Web designers love new UI techniques, but most browsers are out of date. Filmmakers love character-driven dramas, but audiences want big explosions and special effects.
Professionals always have to take into account commercial concerns while inspiring people with their creative energy. That’s exactly what a club DJ does. Even if you’re lucky enough to DJ in underground scenes, no crowd will ever share your exact tastes in music. So learning how to sell your vision to people who don’t share your tastes is a powerful skill. Even Michaelangelo fought with the Pope when painting the Cistine Chapel.
When I first DJed in public, I quickly found out my taste had limits – the crowd did not share my enthusiasm for that cool remix. But I also learned that if I introduced my music to people in the proper way, they’d appreciate it and everybody would have a good time. I noticed the big club hits had things in common with my artsy tracks, and beatmixing brought the two together. In other words, I learned how to find creative common ground with my crowd. I never felt like I was selling out.
Years later when I would pitch my ideas in a conference room, I could naturally make connections to ideas people already liked. It definitely hurts more when somebody rejects your personal creative ideas, instead of sombody else’s remix. But my experience finding common ground on the dancefloor also made it much easier to collaborate in the office. My projects never deteriorated into a battle over the “perfect” idea, instead I naturally saw creative differences as a search to find a good groove with a new set of people or circumstances.
5. You see how non-creative tasks are essential to creative quality
It's easy as a creative person to pretend the uncreative parts of work don’t matter. But DJing helps you realize how "unrelated" details become essential to a good night. One a bad cable or improper configuration and there’s no music. If you don’t organise your music well, it’ll be hard for your sets to flow. Getting along with the doorman / bouncer will help when a drunk starts hassling you. And so on.
You see how your attitude can get in the way, too. You learn how to stay calm under pressure. You learn how to focus and tune out distractions both good and bad. You learn what to sacrifice (bad requests, your pet favourite songs) for a larger purpose. Over time I started to enjoy the chores of DJing – setting up cables was part of the thrill of a good night to come.
I can’t say I was ever “thrilled” to write emails or attend boring meetings, but I learned to embrace them as a critical part of getting creative work done.
A note of caution...
If you’ve read these tips carefully, you’ll see its a long way from hitting the sync button, striking the Jesus pose, and waiting for the money to roll in while the crowd roars. For all the mom and dads that might be reading this, I’m not saying a nightclub is good environment for your kid. But if you’re reasonably responsible, DJing is great training for a professional career. I’m sure the soft skills I’ve outlined would apply to other professions, too. But it’s definitely work.
Fortunately its fun work. DJing is an opportunity to watch your skills face pressures, setbacks, and hassles - yet still create a magic moment the crowd loves. That’s what any good professional challenge is about. Although it may not easily fit on a resume, DJing is great character-building experience you can take outside the nightclub, too. Have fun trying!
• Reason808 has DJed extensively in the USA and now lives in Hong Kong. His DJing has frequently been interrupted by an interesting career, but continues in China as DJ Homei. Check out his night job on his Mixcloud and his day job on his website.
How has DJing helped you to do better in your day job? Or has it not helped at all, simply getting you to work at 9am half dead? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.