Yeah, mixing is important. Sure, a great music collection helps. Yes, you have to produce music to get further than a certain level. And definitely, a level of technical knowledge will get you through many sticky situations. Truth is though, there are too many DJs who have this stuff for it to be a guarantee of success – and there always were!
I’ve booked and played alongside scores of successful DJs through the years, and I’ve noticed that there are certain qualities they share that, quite aside from their music, gear and skills, had helped to move them apart from the pack. I slowly noted these qualities, and followed them in my own DJing life too, and now I want to share them with you.
If you want to make a career in this difficult industry, giving yourself an honest score for each of the seven points that follow will help you, because it’ll show you where you need to work on your personal development to get closer to your dreams. Treat it as a checklist, or way of measuring progress – and why not come back in a year to see how you’ve moved on in these areas?
As you work through this list, score yourself out of 3 for each item.
3=Yes, I do all or most of this
2=I do some of this
1=I only do a bit of this
0=Truthfully? Nope, this isn’t me!
At the end, see how you did and share your score with us in the comments! We can all help each other get better, so why not share which of these qualities you think you need to improve on, too?
7 Hidden DJ Qualities
…and, “I love music, isn’t that enough?” – isn’t enough! What exactly is it you’re passionate about? What is it you’re trying to share in your DJing? My good friend (and great DJ) Dave Haslam once told me: “DJing is about the exchange of emotion between the DJ and his or her crowd…” and I think he’s right. What is it you’re trying to say through your music? Where is your passion?
This will almost always be passion for a scene, and in my experience, it’s normally (at least initially) the scene that got you into the whole thing in the first place (drum & bass, trance, EDM, dubstep, deep house, etc.) It’s the one you go all glassy eyed about when talking about what prompted you to get started in DJing. It’s the one that’s the soundtrack of your dreams of what it must be like to play the perfect DJ set, to the perfect crowd…
Basically, if you love a certain local scene more than anything and anyone else, you’ll get noticed in that scene, and you’ll get openings. So it’s important you locate where your passion is and start your journey there. (This is why giving mixtapes out alone won’t get you booked – where’s the passion there? DJs who truly love a scene will come up with something far more original that that, and go many, many extra miles, to their “in”…)
2. Self-awareness about what makes you unique
Specifically, this is about what it is you bring to the thing you’re passionate about, that makes you stand out. The important thing about this is that it will outlive the scene that initially inspired you, and set you up for a career. For instance, a friend of mine Danny Howells who broke through on the 90s progressive house scene, brought a softer, more “feminine” edge to that “sound”; it was an edge that made his style instantly recognisable. He did’t try and sound like everyone else, and it opened doors for him.
In my case, I started out DJing indie, then what is now called “old school” house, then progressive house, then minimal house, but one thing I was always known for bittersweet, heartfelt emotional vocals, often question/answer, boy/girl vocal tracks… and when I realised I needed that element in my sets no matter whether I was playing indie or trance, I gained some self-knowledge: “Here is something about my DJing that stands me out,.” It gave me longevity, a “command strand”… and it has packed my record box with tunes that have always crossed between the scenes I played in, to my advantage over other DJs.
It often helps to ask other people what they think makes you stand out, as the stuff the world sees may not be what we think we’re showing them, and it may be stuff we don’t even realise… but armed with this knowledge, you can start to turn your passion into something uniquely “you”.
When you are passionate and aware of your qualities, you naturally become more open to others, as you’re not closed, jealous or guarded… your confidence that comes from the other qualities guards you against those negative emotions. Also, you recognise other passionate people working on their own dreams and want to help them. what happens now is that you naturally build a network of like-minded people. And – as it’s possible to be passionate and self-aware in all walks of life, not just DJing – your network will be wide, not narrow. This is a good thing.
You’ll find a passionate accountant, someone who knows what makes him or her different and who is equally excited about your business; your DJ friends will only be those who “get it”, like you do; your girlfriend or boyfriend ditto, and so on. By surrounding yourself with people who share your personal qualities, you’ll have a true support network, which is an absolutely essential part of success.
Rome wasn’t built by one man, and the lovely thing is that you’ll want to help these people to succeed, because you respect and like them for sharing your values – and they likewise will reciprocate with you. Firm foundations for success…
This to me is the absolute opposite of arrogance, and comes from being grateful for finding something you’re passionate about, good at, and have a wonderful group of friends to share with. You realise you’re very lucky, and feel incredibly humbled by the people who make it all possible for you – and in the case of DJs, the people who allow you to be a DJ are primarily your audience!
Some DJs are perceived as highly arrogant, but in my experience it just comes through shyness or an inability to relate to their audience, or to accept that their audience can and hopefully does like and appreciate what they’re doing. Once you’re quietly confident that you’re doing something worthwhile, you become incredibly thankful for the support and kindness of the people who enjoy your work, and you want to be close to them, not removed from them.
DJs who meet their fans, talk to them, bother to gather their contact details then keep in touch with them, take time to engage with them authentically on social media, bother to set up websites and Mixcloud pages where they can share and discuss their work, and so on, gain a momentum that can lead to a huge fanbase… and all by being humble enough to realise that without their fans, they are nothing. Be humble and grateful enough to take care of your fans, and your career may very well take care of itself.
5. A “head for business”
When I was a music writer, I once saw a very noisy (when on stage) indie band sitting quietly backstage with an open briefcase and accounts book, systematically reconciling their takings from tonight’s gig.
I remember sitting after-hours in a club with a big-name DJ, having laid out for me the top 10 DJs… in every country in the world I cared to ask about! (The DJ I’m thinking of had seen an opening in Japan where other apparently much bigger DJs in his scene had made no inroads, and was trying to capitalise by becoming a breakthrough artist there himself.)
I’ve seen DJs make it big through organising podcasts, through promoting events (that’s me), through opening record labels, through organising into collectives… basically, through applying a business head to the creativity of DJing – they type of business head that is sorely needed for success.
Good businesses are also reliable, creative, offer great service, and are pleasant to work with; being these things in your DJing counts as having a “business head” too. Spotting marketing opportunities, only stopping when a result has been achieved rather than a certain amount of time has been spent, and “going the extra mile”, are also all attributes of successful businesses too, especially small ones that want to grow. As a DJ hungry for success, that’s you!
Some DJs come from “business families”, and some don’t (I didn’t). If this stuff isn’t in your blood, buy just one or two good business books and open your eyes to how it really is out there. Being entrepreneurial is an essential part of becoming a one-man (or one-woman) cottage industry, which – until you can afford a team – is what you are as a budding DJ.
6. A sense of realism
Delusion is not a good friend to have. A sense of realism will give you a self-deprecating sense of humour (always good to have in this game!), but it will also help you to work out what to do next, or at least, help you to work out what the outcome is likely to be if you don’t do something.
Want to be featured on big EDM festival stages? Dude, you need to produce music. Want to DJ in gay clubs, playing obscure Japanese minimal techno? You ain’t gonna find a scene in your small town of 30,000 people – so you’re going to need to move somewhere big. Want a regular, paying gig every week, DJing alongside your heroes? Maybe you’re going to have to learn to promote and “book yourself” to warm-up for those DJs you admire (again, that’s me).
Keeping a sense of realism therefore not only grounds you, but it shows you clearly what you have to do to get where you want to be. Solutions tend to present themselves only when you’re being dispassionately realistic about things.
However, you also need a dose of…
7. Pure, blind faith
Strange fact: Many of the people who take our DJ courses (like, loads of them!) have made a momentous life move to another country. Even if planned really well, that takes a leap of blind faith.
In my immediate circle of friends, I have a guy trying to sell elite concierge memberships for $25,000 a shot to very rich people. I also have a friend who’s slowly revolutionising the film industry with a camera trolley made from disabled people’s vehicles, who got the idea when suffering from a broken leg himself!
A bit closer to home, I can remember someone who, just before his first child was born, had no money coming in (having not been paid for six months from a failing job), and having his wife asking in a very distressed state about what the hell would happen if she lost her job too (very likely with her maternity leave coming up and the state of the economy was in at the time).
I have no doubt my “elite concierge membership” friend will succeed – he’s been working at it for four years and is “very close”, plus I know “blind faith” when I see it. Six years on, my pal with the film industry patent is starting to get repeat bookings and recommendations for his invention, and talking about his first holiday in over half a decade.
Oh, and the guy with no job and no money and an imminent young family? That was me in 2010, just as I was trying to make Digital DJ Tips work. By my boy’s first birthday, we’d gone from zero to having hundreds of paying students, and we’re on our way.
My point is that to succeed in something as frankly scary as DJing, the music industry, music production, or to be honest any new business, involves all of the above qualities – passion, self-knowledge, helpfulness, humbleness, business acumen, and a firm grounding in reality… but it also does need a dose of blind faith, because without the ability to believe, come-what-may, in your vision, you’ll never make that dream come true.
I think that’s why so many successful people have made the step away from where they were born, because doing so convinces them that anything’s possible, and from there, they dare to dream.
I guess another word for blind faith would be optimism… and yes, I believe that when combined with the rest of these qualities, it is absolutely possible to be optimistic and realistic, because your blind faith is in your own vision for the future, a future you’re constantly proving yourself that you’re capable of making happen…
How did you do?
Share your score with us in the comments, and don’t forget to share your areas of improvement too: Let’s all help each other get better!
0-8: OK, we know you love the music and mixing, but unless this is strictly a hobby you do to please yourself, you’ll need to try a bit harder to move forwards!
9-16: You’ve got a good balance going on here, just try to refine your work in a few of these areas for maximum progress
17-21: With enough time and a bit of luck, you’ve got the qualities it takes to make it big. Keep at it!
We just closed down our flagship training course, Digital DJ Masterclass, for another year. I am currently inside the course, helping hundreds of students through it. As a group, we’re immersing ourselves in DJ gear, music, mixing, performing, marketing and so on.
The stuff in this article is really just a condensed version of some of the “supporting” chat that’s going on in the forums, comments, webinars and closed groups of Digital DJ Masterclass among the students who joined us this time around. I wanted to write about these qualities here because they’re things that don’t often get talked about and that I believe can help any DJ who’s serious about making a part-time or even a full-time career out of this. I hope they’ve helped you too!
I’d love to hear your thoughts on what the “markers of success” are in DJing apart from the obvious music, mixing and technical skills – feel free to comment below…