I don’t know if it is because of where and when I grew up (the eighties, the United Kingdom), but it was almost universally assumed back then that the best DJs were “educators”, and only “entertainers” in the sense of their ability to break new and old music you had never heard before in such a way that it would become popular.
Does being that type of DJ sound good to you? In the Digital DJ Tips DJ Quadrant (see The 4 Types Of DJ: Which Are You?) wouldn’t you rather be in the top half, the kind of DJ who’s doing it for the music, rather than in the bottom half, doing it for commercial reasons?
Not only do I think that many DJs reading this would indeed rather be that type of DJ, I also believe that if you’re ambitious and want to become a success, you possibly don’t have any other choice. And strangely, I think one way to achieve this nowadays is to work at more exclusive venues.
The big swing to commercial sounds
First, let’s look at how things have changed. From punks, mods and skinheads to soul boys and girls, b-boys and acid ravers, the last quarter of the 20th century was in many places all about tribes and creative underground music scenes. There was no way a self-respecting acid raver, b-boy or b-girl was going to be dancing to chart fodder, no matter how popular such tunes were with the masses. Of course pop acts still existed – but there were always hordes of the fanatical young who demanded something different.
Things have changed a lot in the past 15 years. Increasingly, the youth are no longer tribal and connoisseurial about music, being happier watching X-Factor or partying to commercial artists like David Guetta or Lady Gaga than being part of – and creating – an alternative culture.
So where does that leave DJs who want to play from passion, who want to educate people with new music and sounds rather than drinking from the commercial cup? Well, actually, in a rather good position. Think about it: DJing is a market increasingly saturated, with competition driving down fees and reducing job opportunities; you hear DJs moaning about this all the time. The reason? Everyone’s basically doing the same thing!
If you yearn to be an educator, a DJ doing something new or different, then far from being a hindrance, this is potentially the perfect market for you. But it’s a harder road, and you need to understand the way things are out there to be smart enough know what to do next.
The underground has gone members-only!
In a world where Akon and David Guetta can be heard in every club from Mumbai to Manchester, the torch of musical adventure seems to have been taken from the poor working-class communities (where hip hop, house, disco, soul and funk originated), by of all people the upper-middle class and rich. It’s a weird situation for sure, but one you can play to your advantage. Here’s how:
Every big city today has exclusive members’ clubs full of the young, mega rich, and famous intellegentsia, who want to hear something new. In such cities you’ll also find trendy inner city bars, full of well-paid, middle-aged, middle-class professionals – people who grew up in a musical culture much less commercial than today’s, and again who are crying out for DJs who dare to be different.
As a career DJ playing “your” music as opposed to chart fodder, you’re far more likely to get a booking in places like this than you are at club packed to the rafters with today’s 18 to 25-year-old clubbers. Nowadays, I believe it’s the former kinds of venues where where you can learn your trade and build a meaningful musical future for yourself.
Do your homework
You need to search for gigs in a city with a wealthy and fashionable elite, picking your venues wisely and being unashamedly eclectic in your musical tastes. Do your research online, and be prepared to move to where your target audience reside. It will be much more difficult for you to become a successful DJ/artist if you live in a small town, as those trendy city-slickers will not be frequenting your village local any time soon!
It will also be much harder for you if you choose a city that already has an established underground music scene. There is no point in trying to be the new Norman Jay in London, because London has the real Norman Jay. Look for a city where there is a hunger for new and exciting music, but with no big-name legends residing there (as these people are already cornering your target market).
Notice I said your music should be “unashamedly eclectic”. It will be harder for you to break through if you only play one micro-genre of house. You might think that you only like electro house or minimal tech, but believe me if you are a true music lover you will find room in your heart for much more. Start by researching the roots of your favourite sound and the inspirations of your favourite DJs to expand your musical horizons, and work on creating a sound that is clearly “you”.
One other thing that I have learned is that paying your dues is important. Once you’ve got your sound and you’ve landed a few gigs that actually mean something to you, you need to work, work, work on it. You’re probably not yet the finished article. Allow yourself time to grow as a DJ and as an artist. Stay ambitious but respect the learning process.
Stick with it
I believe that things go in cycles, and as much as our culture is now dominated by one homogeneous form of commercial music, tomorrow it may be different. I predict it won’t be long before the big crowds become more open-minded and creative again. And where do you think the “finished article” DJs will come from to fill the new demand for underground sounds?
Certainly not from the reams of DJs who’ve been playing the same stuff every kid has on their iPod all the way through. No, it’s the experienced DJ/artists/educators – those who thought in the longer term, positioned themselves where they were likely to get noticed, and quietly became the finished product – it will be these DJs who will be ready to take the torch. Why not let that be you?
Are you happily playing the music you love in smaller, more exclusive venues? Do you think this is a realistic route to success? What would your advice be to DJs starting out today? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments.