Why is it that some DJs seem to make mixes that are eagerly awaited by their fans, that forge them opportunities in their careers that they wouldn’t otherwise have had – or indeed, that ultimately they become known for just as much as their live gigs? And why is it, conversely, that 90% of mixtapes fall on deaf ears – no likes, no plays… no point?
I remember buying what is widely regarded as the first commercial mixtape, back in 1994 (Sasha & Digweed’s Renaissance: The Mix Collection). I have booked DJs for my own club nights for over 15 years on the back of quality mixtapes (and rejected many, many more). I made scores of mixtapes and CDs myself over the years I was DJing full time professionally.
Alongside our chief tutor Steve Canueto (who mixed hundreds of CD compilations for Ministry of Sound for over 10 years), we reckon we’ve spotted some common traits that all DJs who’ve really “got” mixtapes know. And we want to share them with you today.
1. Great ingredients make a great recipe
As any decent cook will tell you, you can’t make great food from poor ingredients. And you can’t make a good DJ mix from the same old tunes everyone else has. Going the extra mile to get great material and then compiling it with creativity is key. You don’t need all the best new tunes: you need the best blend of tunes for what you’re trying to say. And you need to get versions that work in the mix you’re planning, too.
The Sasha and Digweed compilation is full of their own re-edits of the tunes of the day, and it transforms the mix into something much bigger than the sum of its parts. Learn to re-edit and reimagine. You’ve got Remix Decks and Serato Flip and free DAWs to chop and change your music, before you even get near to mixing it together: Use them!
2. Brand your mixes superlatively
I was sometimes guilty of not doing this, but it’s so important. You need to have a very strong visual brand for your mix series (because it has to be a series…), and an equally good sonic brand. That means good artwork (varying the colours on a set logo is a good move), great samples / idents that identify the mix as “yours” (just listen to how The Essential Selection is branded with on-the-beat idents, or how Gorgon City subtly but effectively brand their mixes, such as the SoundCloud example by them under point 3).
3. Get the quality absolutely spot on
Look, the truth is you can get away with murder, sound quality wise, in a live venue. It’s noisy anyway, the sound system is not under your control, people are not always listening intently to everything you do… but on a mixtape, you are opening yourself to total scrutiny. The quality of those ingredients has to be technically spot on (no dodgy YouTube rips), but also your mixing and programming needs to be absolutely on point: you’re committing something to record for life here. It’s your calling card; don’t make it shoddy. (The Gorgon City mix below is an example of getting everything “just right”.)
4. Know exactly how to get it out there
“He’s a great DJ,” people used to say about countless DJs I knew back when I used to book DJs for a living, “but he doesn’t get any work. It’s such a shame!” No it’s not, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding about how the music world works, that’s what it is.
I’m sorry, but finishing your mixtape is not enough; if you’re not serious about getting your work out there, why bother? You need to be business-minded here (after all, you’ve got the product right after an awful lot of effort, so it’s crazy not to be!), and you need a plan. You need to think about getting your mixes played locally (feed them to cool bars to use when they don’t have DJs on), on the radio (try web stations), on social media (work on your following!) and you should even consider things like podcasting.
Armin van Buuren has done a podcast weekly for many years, since before most people knew what a podcast was. Do you think one of the world’s top DJs still has to do that? No, of course not: he does it because he knows they power of building an audience for his mixes and music. Oh and the fact that he’s done that for so long leads me on to the final point:
5. You have to find a way to deliver the goods consistently!
All the above takes hard, hard, work, it’s true. But consistency is your friend. Consistency stands you out from the crowd. Consistency proves you’re the real deal. Consistency shows you’ve got a plan, that you’re in this for the long haul, that you can deliver, that you’re reliable, that you’re thoroughly capable.
It opens doors if only because you’re the only one left in the race to open them! You simply have to learn to be consistent, and that means figuring out how to do points one to four above regularly / and how to have fun doing it! Because if you’re not having fun, believe me, you won’t last the distance. And winners always last the distance.
If all of this sounds like hard work, remember that baby steps always turn into big steps. Give yourself achievable, small steps and commit to something you think you can maintain in the long run. (A mixtape a week? One a month? One a season? be honest – and stick to it.) You can always get better once you’re in the game, but you’ve got to get in the game. And while mixtapes have long since lost their ability to get you work on their own (you need to be doing all kinds of other things nowadays too… but that’s for another day!), if you follow the steps above and your mixtapes will become a vital part of your overall DJing attack plan. Best of luck!
Got any mixtape tips you’d like to share with us? What mixtapes changed your life? Are they even that important any more? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.