5 Ways DJing Can Help You With Your Day Job

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DJing at night can actually make you more successful in your day job... here's how.

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.

Sasha

Sasha, back in the day. How may careers give you this kind of instant feedback?

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.

Persuasion

Learning to get audiences listening to and enjoying your taste in music can set you up for getting your way at work, too.

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.

Comments

  1. My first thought when reading this article was “wow Phil, I didn’t know you worked for Microsoft and MTV!” Then I realised it was a guest post – kudos to Reason808 for an excellent article.

    I also work in marketing, usually freelance, and one of the first things DJing taught me revolved around getting both my first gig and most of them since. You have to beat a lot of doors down and force yourself in front of the right people – I was paid for DJing long before I was paid for marketing and the experience helped me to know when to network, how to sell myself to prospects and how to identify timewasters before they had a chance to take up too much of my time.

    I’m in a position now where people usually come to me for both marketing and DJing, which is great, but I’ll never forget what I learned and eliminating time wasters will never be a skill I won’t need.

    I kind of hate to say this, as it makes me feel like a bit of a rip off merchant, but even nowadays if I’m DJing to an empty floor – the kind where you could play the best song ever but the fact that nobody is in the building means that it’s a waste of time – I’ll whack on a longish song, tab out and knock out a few paragraphs of copy for a client which certainly helps in the day job. After all, I have to be awake and at a laptop whereas at home I’d be asleep, so sometimes DJing is an extension of my normal working day.

  2. It’s nice to see that I’m not alone on this. But usually, when I Dj at work, it’s just to help me stay awake, or keep my mind clear when I need to concentrate. Who knew, right?

  3. # 6 You learn how to work while drunk…

  4. Well done reason808 !
    Plus, the electronic musicians and djs are the new “computer experts”

  5. In my last year of my college career I have been thinking about this too. Djing can definitely be incorporated into the workforce. All the struggles and triumphs bring a new perspective that can be applied to the working environment.

  6. King Of Snake says:

    Hi Reason808,
    I’m not working in a creative environment, i’m in manufacturing. In my job i use a lot of my dj experiences as well. Just as you mention, soft skills are necessary when working with people or djing for a crowd.
    I also sometimes just play some music that can set the mood for meetings.
    It’s cool to be a dj and a hard worker..
    Cheers

  7. Thanks for all the kind words, and I’m glad you liked the article. Its great to hear all the stories and how different people work DJing into their jobs – or in Nik’s case vice versa!

    I never thought of DJing helping a day job in manufacturing, or selecting music for meetings as a way to DJ at work. Funny, but at every studio I’ve worked at is pretty silent – people just play music in their headphones and meetings generally don’t have music.

    I could only write from my experience in the creative fields, so its great hearing from people who work outside them.

  8. “You learn to balance what the crowd wants to hear…”

    If you don’t do it for your own PERSONAL love for the music you enjoy, then why do it. Nevertheless, this is also why I don’t play out as much as I used to, as I got tired of playing that ‘game’. I got into electronic music because of the music (purist?) that I loved and I simply won’t trade that simply to satisfy the ignorant masses. Even a paycheck that allows me to travel around the world.

    • There’s the thing – “ignorant masses”. If you DJ purely for yourself, you’re right – do it behind closed doors. For many DJs, though, we don’t see people like that. For us, it’s about persuasion – the thrill of getting people onside by using all you’ve got to given them what they weren’t expecting, and make them love it.

    • AUDIOMIND brings up a good point. It’s a whole topic in and of itself, and it frequently comes up in the forums. I was writing the from my perspective as a creative professional versus an artist.

      Personally, I don’t see this issue as an either/or proposition. I think everybody is ignorant about something in some way. I love a good meal, but my normal diet would make a foodie sneer. My point was that simply finding a middle ground with a crowd’s tastes can be a useful skill, especially for creative professions.

      Even the artists I’ve worked with and met have always had an audience in mind. A musician at a party once told me: “You’re always kissing somebody’s ass, even if its somebody who’s paid $12 to see you perform on stage.” This guy went on to have an indie rock hit in the 90s.

      However, you could easily flip the question around:

      If you are truly creating something for personal, and purely artistic reasons, why share it with anybody at all?

  9. I work in a laboratory and I always play around with the centrifuges as if they were turntables :)

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