“How can I DJ the music I love?“, wonders Digital DJ Tips reader Steven. Here’s his story: “I ‘DJed’ the youth dances at my church back when I was, like, 14. I was a ‘program DJ‘ – I would set up a playlist on my iTunes from the new indie dance-rock stuff I owned. I would press play, and hop off the stage and dance with people, running back up to see if I needed to change the list or add a slow song. My tracks were not radio hits, but just the stuff I was listening to. It turns out, learning some years after the fact, that the girls idolised me. They all wished that they could hang out and meet me! And as far as I was concerned, the dances were a success.”
“To contrast, I recently DJed a church young adults dance (I’m now 23). Even with a new foundation in house, electronic and nu-disco, I found myself playing the radio hits that I felt were danceable / catchy. People would come up and request genres that I wasn’t a fan of, and complain about song choice, and as a whole, it was an all-round negative experience. Ha, looking back, I was so bummed while DJing that I was slouched down in a chair picking the next songs, just hoping that no one would come up and talk to me. I left the dance with little-to-no socialising afterwards.
“So here I am, a senior in college, having seen my music taste move from indie-rock to the electronic dance scene, loving John Talabot, Knightlife, The Twelves, and other iconic acts like Caribou. I’m at this weird point. My love for music screams from inside, seeking to get out. I was hoping for advice as to how I can DJ the music I love. It seems like there are always two opposing sides to choosing playlists: playing popular music people like, and playing the music I love. Are both viable options in a public dance setting? Or is choosing my music something that I should do in my bedroom, making personal mixes or throwing house parties? Or should my style of songs be built up in playlists and spread around, and then later play those songs at dances?”
Digital DJ Tips says:
Your story will resonate with a large part of this website’s audience. That’s why this is an “over to you”: I’d like our readers to give you their advice, too.
First thing is, you’ve got no issues from the music / DJing side of things: You’re clearly cut out to be a DJ. Your 14-year-old DJ experience proves that. Enthusiasm and authenticity are two of the most important things any DJ needs, and you obviously have those. (And by the way, playlisting from an iPod, as you did back then? No need for the quotes around “DJing”. That definitely is DJing.)
Now you’re 23, you know exactly the music that speaks to you. You still have a burning desire to get that message across, to move people with the melodies and rhythms you love. That’s what all good DJs have. The question is, how strong is that desire? How much are you prepared to do to get the chance to play the gigs you dream of? How much are you prepared to grow as a DJ to get the music out of your heart and rocking full dancefloors?
How to play the music you love
There are really two things to look at here. Firstly, DJing is a two-way thing. It’s not only about you. It’s about the interaction between you and your crowd. You can only go as far as they’ll let you go.
Luckily, you can influence this in lots of ways, and here are just three:
1. By being a good DJ. Good DJs who programme and mix well can get away with more than clumsy ones who can’t read the floor, or make smooth transitions. Good news is that this all comes with practice, in public – lots of it. Take all the gigs you can
2. By expanding your tastes. Get remixes, re-edits, and other versions of songs that are more likely to move your crowd but that you also love (just listen to more, cast your net wider, trust your instinct, and you’ll find them)
3. By showing your enthusiasm. Get across how much you love your music, just like you did hitting the floor between “shuffles” when you were iPod DJing as a teenager. Crowds pick up on this stuff, it’s infectious. Even if you feel nervous and unconfident, learn to not let it show – this is a big and under-recognised part of DJing
Secondly, it’s about finding situations where you’re most likely to encounter people who are at least half likely to be into what you’re into. Now, nobody is an island, and if you like stuff, you can rest assured others around you do too.
Just because there’s no night playing the music you love, doesn’t mean there can’t be. It’s bloody hard work: That’s why I asked how much you really want it. But it’s got to be done if you want to get that music you love heard. So leave no task undone to find that crowd! Put your own night on, get to know promoters who put nights on like you want to play at, and yes, do web radio, local radio, Mixcloud mixes – just get your music out there.
Are you prepared to move city, to somewhere where there’s an audience for your kind of thing? Are you prepared to play to a small, cold, empty bar back room for six months? To work so hard to try and build a crowd in-between gigs that you scarcely do anything else? Because in the end your nascent little event (or some mutation of it) will start to gain traction. The only thing that can stop that happening is you giving up. Or you could make music to get gigs (you’ll probably have to at some point). Are you prepared to get FL Studio or similar and start making the beats you love for yourself? That way you stand a chance of getting noticed and being asked to DJ in front of crowds that are into the music you love…
Enjoy the journey
The only thing I’d add is that you must find a way of enjoying the journey. Trust that what you want will come, but enjoy the here and now. If there’s nobody in the venue, play for the bar staff. If the YouTube of your first ever self-production gets single-digit hits, brush yourself off and do it again and again.
Behind every success is a string of failures (nobody gets it right overnight), so you have to enjoy the road, having faith that in the end, you’ll get where you want to go. When you do, you’ll have stayed true to that musical soul, the soul you so clearly have, and it will feel wonderful. Good luck.
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So, over to you: Have you been in this situation? Can you sympathise with Steven? What would you do in his position? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.