7 Things I Wish I'd Known About DJing At 18


DJing success is about believing in yourself, working hard (like putting posters up promoting your events), being incredibly choosy with your music, not worrying what anyone else thinks about you... and asking for help! These and more lessons in today's article, all taken from my own DJing experience.

Unbelievably (to me, anyway), I've been DJing since 1986 - 31 years! I've promoted clubs, played Ibiza, spun on the radio, at festivals, met my heroes - lived the life I dreamed of. Of course, nowadays at Digital DJ Tips I also have the privilege of personally training hundreds of DJs each year. But looking back, there are things I really wish I'd known when I started out. Here they are...

7 Things I Wish I'd Known

1. That I was good enough


I wish someone had somehow given me more confidence to believe in my own abilities as a DJ at 18... it took me years to work that out.

I have always suffered from unstoppable feelings of insecurity; what they call "imposter syndrome". Never mind that I have music in my DNA, that club culture gave me a reason to live, and that I kind of "got" DJing instantly: I felt that if anyone - anyone at all - had come up to me in those early years and said "you're not a DJ, what do you think you're doing?", I'd just have crumpled and walked away.

Even when I had established an award-winning club night, played Ibiza, could count several household name DJs as my friends, and had paid for my house in cash from my career - I still felt I was only pretending at this. But I wasn't. I was good enough. Trouble is, nobody was ever going to tell me that. Nobody will tell you that. You have to find the strength to believe in yourself. It took me a long, long time.

2. That successful DJs have a plan


A plan doesn't only mean business cards, contracts, and an accountant, it just as much means a longer-term plan for what you want to achieve out of this, and by when. Pic: graphic Junction

I met (through booking them to DJ at my events) dozens of DJs, A-list and B-list. They all had great music collections, they were (nearly) always polite and pleasant people, they were pretty much all professional in all they did. But over the ten years I was DJing with these people, I noticed something interesting.

Those who succeeded in this business had a plan. They knew where they were going, and had a roadmap to get there. From knowing how popular they were in Japan, to having a numbers forecast for music sales or downloads - the most successful DJs ran their DJing lives like mini-businesses. Often, this was the only thing that separated them from equally good but less well organised DJs.

• For more about how to make an effective DJ plan, see 4 Steps To Achieving Your DJing Dream

3. That less is more when it comes to music


I admit It, I have literally dumped thousands of records... I wish I'd never have bought or kept hold of most of them in the first place!

I bought or got sent from the labels tens of thousands of records over the years. I'd say 90% of them were utterly throwaway. Indeed, I ended up literally throwing most of them away - I couldn't even give them away. Nobody wanted them. Landfill. (It's one of the reasons I got into digital DJing - at least there's no waste with binning digital files!)

I learned that for every innovator, there are a hundred imitators. I came to realise that over the decades, it's the job of good DJs to hone in on, champion and treasure the few tracks that really matter - while ruthlessly culling the rest from their collections. I have got better at learning to separate the great from the merely good or average right away. This is a lifetime's skill - but if somebody had just told me to be more discerning, it'd have saved cluttering my studio and my head with mediocre music for so many years.

4. That you have to separate your career from your partying


Fatboy Slim is one example of a successful DJ who struggled to separate the partying from the playing for quite a while... I did too for the first few years of my DJ career.

I got into DJing at school, running a mobile DJ company - but I realised it was my life's calling when I first went clubbing in the UK around the start of the 1990s. That was a hardcore party scene, and I was both DJing and partying hard for several years. But it's not sustainable, and in fact, the partying harms the DJing.

I saw too many DJs end up blowing big opportunities (one friend-of-a-friend was too drunk to turn up for an audition to become a resident at the Hacienda, in Manchester, at the time the most famous club in the world, and blew it), or worse, ending up with mental health issues or just burnout through not separating the two. Just like most successful DJs have a plan, most also separate the partying from the playing. You won't last long if you don't (or can't).

5. Actually doing stuff is what makes you cool


No, putting up posters is not glamorous (I remember a girl I really fancied bumping into me covered in dirt, tying posters to a lamp-post one time!), but it does get you closer to your dreams - which is cool!

Alongside the crippling insecurity I felt, I also always felt like an outside - a suburban kid who would never really be one of the "cool crowd". I was jealous of the people who nowadays would be called "hipsters", who wore all the right labels, got the right girls, were always on the VIP list, who name-dropped people I hadn't even heard of. It took years to dawn on me that a lot of these people didn't actually ever do much interesting at all. They were not creative, not adding to the world - they were, frankly, pretty boring!

Meanwhile, I was DJing every night I could. Spending my days scouring for music. Personally signing and putting into envelopes letters and flyers about my club nights to post to fans. Making mixtapes. Making contacts. Booking DJs. Putting up posters. Doing shit. I wasn't cool. I had shit clothes. I had no money. But I was creating. I was doing. And you know what? That makes you worth something. Even better, you grow into yourself as you get you closer to your dreams. Which is actually pretty cool - right?

6. It's OK to fail


Failure is a necessary part of doing stuff, so there's no shame in trying your hardest, then trying some more, again and again...

Another truth: If you do what I just said, some of the stuff you do isn't going to work. I promoted plenty of club nights that folded after a couple of weeks, with only a handful of people turning up. I DJed plenty of sets (often ones I thought I'd done OK on) when people I trust told me I wasn't so good that night. I tried and tried again to reach and partner with DJs who ignored me. And I felt - and felt hard - each and every one of those failures.

But that's pointless.

Now, I'm not advocating "failing fast", Silicon Valley style (blow someone else's money, "pivot", get out of there, repeat). You need to expect to succeed and be bloody sure you do everything you can to ensure you do. But failure is inevitable when you're doing, so accepting that it happens and not letting it undermine your self worth is important - and something I only truly realised relatively recently.

7. Get help!


My biggest mistake (all the more so because I didn't realise at all it was even an issue) was not asking for help more. Who knows how quicker I'd have got to the end results if I had? Pic: Rainier Navidad

I started DJing in 1986, as a mobile DJ. Started a band in '86 too. Started DJing club music in '91. None of these things got me anywhere much. I think they were all good experiences, but I was just feeling my way, learning my own lessons. Slowly.

Then, in 1995, I fell in with somebody who actually knew exactly what I wanted to know, because he was doing it. He was a successful and well regarded DJ and promoter who'd "made it" himself. And he was prepared to mentor me! Just a few choice lessons was all it took. Result? Over the next five years, everything changed - I did all the things I mentioned at the start of this article, and really, my DJing life began properly.

So two questions; What if I'd met him in 1986, not 10 years later? And - what if I'd never met him at all? I shudder to think how much better - or worse! - my life could then have been. The moral is - if you want to get somewhere, find someone who's been there and get them to teach you, ASAP! Why take the long road, or risk never getting to where you want to be?


If your aim is to learn to DJ to the level of the pros, to be able to play the kinds of DJ sets you hear in the clubs, you may be interested to know that we have a number of DJ training courses, all based around my five-step formula for DJing success, feel free to have a browse and click on the chat button if you have any questions.

What did you wish you knew about DJing at 18? Or do you feel everything's gone as you wanted and you had it nailed from the start? Do share your thoughts in the comments...

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  1. Chad Lehew says:

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