7 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Started DJing

Joey Santos | Read time: 4 mins
beginner career djing retirement
Last updated 27 March, 2018


EDM superstar Avicii just announced his retirement, but can you really leave DJing behind? Here are seven things I wish I knew when I started, because now that I’m taking a small break from main stage DJing I really wish someone had told them to me sooner.

I DJed a festival this past weekend and announced that I’m taking time off indefinitely from performing main stages. I want to focus on producing and teaching DJs how to produce (new production course in the works, hint hint!) and that takes an enormous amount of time unlike any other music or instructional undertaking. It’s like spilling a bit of blood here and there to make it happen until you realise you’ve filled up enough blood bags for a transfusion.

I was thinking of what I’d tell my 16-year-old self when I started DJing. It’s not the end of my DJing (I’ll still play a gig or two once in a while), but I’m making it less of a priority for the foreseeable future, and so here are seven things I’d tell myself if I could walk into a Delorean and travel back to 1999.

7 Things I Wish I’d Known

Back to the Future
If you could go back in time, what would you tell yourself when you first started DJing? Here’s what 2016 Joey would tell 1999 Joey…

1. DJing comes in seasons

Sometimes you’ll want to DJ more often than others, and that’s normal. Like life, DJing has its own seasons that come and go. If you aren’t doing this full time, family, your career, and other stuff will take precedence and that’s OK.

If DJing is your job, you’ll find yourself questioning some days about whether or not it’s still fun for you, and whether or not you’d want to continue doing this for a living. Realise that it could only be a phase that will pass, instead of a warning that it’s time to quit. Ride it out for a while and see if you get out of that funk, and then reevaluate.

2. You never really “quit” being a DJ

You may not spend a lot of time behind the decks anymore, but you still find yourself counting beats, thinking of great mix combinations (“That intro would go so well with this other song’s drop…”), and, let’s be honest, judging other DJs a tiny little bit whenever you’re out (OK fine, maybe A LOT. But you shouldn’t really, because you aren’t the one spinning…)

3. There is just no one way to DJ

This is becoming more and more of a truth. When I started in the late 90s, turntables were still the norm, but CDJs had started taking over because an entire binder of CDs was just a lot more inexpensive and practical compared to a crate of vinyl (CD burners and the digital music revolution made sure of that, eventually).

Today, USB sticks and CDJs are dominant, but outside of the “cool” and “pro” factor of using them, controllers like the Denon MCX8000 have become even more capable than even the latest CDJ-2000NXS2s. It’s not just a matter of taste in gear (fine, and club policies regarding controllers), but one thing hasn’t changed, and that one thing is…

4. It’s all about the music

I’ve gone through so many iterations of DJ set-ups: I started with a Numark CDN-22 dual deck CD player, which was the cheapest CD decks you could get in the The Philippines back in 1999. I switched to some battered old Technics, CDJ100Ss, then a Behringer BCD2000 with a PC set-up, then a Denon MC6000, a Traktor S4, Livid CNTRL_R, then a Pioneer DDJ-SB, DDJ-SR, DDJ-SX

I could go on and on about this, but while having shiny new kit every year was a wonderful thing (it still is), and the more powerful they get (Remix Decks, Stems, video mixing) I find that 95% of my DJing is still based on playing the right song at the right time, sometimes even without beatmatching them for a greater sense of urgency.

5. Crowd reading is the DJ’s bread and butter

Whether you’re an analogue purist or a digital frontiersman, this is your go-to skill. Leave the completely pre-made sets at home, and give yourself room for chance, error, and even a touch of chaos. I promise you there’s nothing more boring for an artist such as yourself and your audience than a set that’s 100% pre-recorded and pre-planned.

The beauty of DJing compared to, say, a band’s live performance, is that you’re completely in control of the moment shared between you and the crowd based on your song selection – you can switch it up anytime based on your read of the crowd because DJing gives you the flexibility to do so, as opposed to a more rigid setlist of a touring band.

A crowd loves danger – give it to them.

6. Treat every DJ set like it could possibly be your last

I gave much thought about my retirement from festivals, but I never really did anything about it until I got up onstage and decided that it was time to focus on other things. Some aren’t so lucky – I’ve had dear friends who didn’t make it home after a DJ set because they got into car crashes and other tragedies.

Sometimes when we’ve got a lot going on in our lives, or if we’ve got a full DJ calendar, we tend to take gigs for granted. Leave it all out on the dancefloor every single time you play as if you had every intention to go out with a bang.

7. DJing is an ongoing story that you’re writing

On taking time off to refocus, I never meant it in a way that I won’t perform for a massive crowd ever again, I just need to direct all my creative energies to this new endeavour because DJing is an art (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise). And because it’s an art form, DJing is one of those curiosities that just sticks – like playing the guitar, or painting, or writing fiction, its just one of those things that bends with who you become as you continue to evolve as an artist and an individual in different stages of your life.


Future DJ
I promised myself I’d still be DJing well into old age. It probably won’t occupy my every waking moment like it does today, but I’m willing to bet I can still get a crowd going at 75 (if I live that long!)

I stopped DJing for a few years in the naughties because I was in a demanding corporate environment for four years, after which I quit said corporate environment and started DJing again, and save for a few changes in DJ technology (Traktor and Serato come to mind), it didn’t feel like I was away much.

If you feel like taking a break from spinning to focus on something else in your life, I want to assure you that you will come back to DJing if you have it in your heart, and I wish you the best of luck in your time away from it and not to worry about losing it – we always return to the things that we love.

What would you tell your younger DJ self if you could go back in time? What advice would you give with regard to DJing as a career? Do you have any insights on DJing that you’d like to share with us? Share them below.

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