New to DJing? Starting to take your hobby seriously? Looking for a complete guide to getting better? You’ve found it. Read on for all you need to understand and know to succeed in the new world of DJing, how it’s done today – and believe me when I say things have changed a LOT in just a few short years…
So here’s the back-story. As I write this, I’ve just returned from my annual visit to the NAMM Show in California, the world’s biggest music show, where gear manufacturers, software makers, promoters, venue owners, journalists, and of course DJs and producers, hang out for a week together, to try out new kit, throw and attend parties, network and produce content.
I’ve been going to NAMM since 2011, and through speaking to all of the amazing people in the industry I get to meet at events such as this, plus taking into account my own observations both as a DJ and head of Digital DJ Tips (the world’s biggest DJ school), I’ve observed a profound shift in DJing – how it’s done, what it even is… and so how it should be learned.
What’s happened represents such a shift, that I believe it is accurate to state that the “old ways” are now irrelevant. Therefore understanding the changes, and more importantly where you fit in with them as a beginner DJ, is clearly essential if you are serious about having DJing as a hobby or even a career today.
So in this long-read article, I’m going to share with you exactly what’s changed, and what it means for you as a DJ starting out today. I’ll then give you a framework to help you succeed as a DJ, whatever your level, whatever gear you use, whatever music you play, and whatever type of parties you want to rock!
So what’s happened?
So what is it? What has changed in DJing that means the old way is dead, and that a new way has taken its place? It can be broken down into these three big changes:
1. Being a DJ is now easy
In the “old days”, you needed two expensive Technics (it was always Technics) turntables or pro club CDJs, a decent mixer, an amplifier and separate speakers, decent headphones… and a LOT of practice. Time and money, and plenty of both. It often took years to save for the gear, and many months at the very least to learn even the basics of beatmixing.
That was all just to get to the starting line!
Way back in the 1990s, my first “proper” Technics decks came after I’d spent 18 months applying for a loan from The Prince’s Trust, an organisation in the UK that helps people get started in business. Where else was a 22-year-old kid with no job going to get £1500 ($2000)? Not the kind of thing anyone does on a whim! Wanting to be a DJ seriously was a full-time commitment (more on this point later).
Digital has changed all of that, of course. But even at the start of the “digital DJing revolution”, it was still truly fiddly and awkward to get started, and only really for the geeks: The gear was poor, there were all kinds of limitations to the software, audio set-up was tricky, and systems were unreliable (Final Scratch, anyone?).
I remember back in 2004, I was loaned an early Hercules DJ controller with some basic DJ software. I actually managed to DJ with it in a club, as part of a piece I was writing on the “future of DJing” for iDJ magazine in the UK. But it took weeks of work to even make any of it function correctly, including buying and configuring a pro audio interface – and even then I ended up controlling the DJ software from a Midi keyboard, so unreliable was the controller.
Nowadays, how it’s all changed!
Here’s why it’s cheap and easy today
If you have a smartphone, you can download any number of apps that can have you DJing in minutes for free. If you have $80, you can buy a Numark DJ2GO2 Touch, which coupled with your laptop and the supplied software, gives you a real DJ system that literally has all you need to play real gigs.
(And before you say “but that’s not pro gear”, at NAMM I was speaking to a DJ with a Sirius XM show broadcasting to millions across the US, who told me he happily prepares and records sets on the DJ2GO2 while travelling – sets that get broadcast every week on his show.)
It’s not only the gear. It’s also become much easier to get great results. Apart from the technical set-up being plug-and-play nowadays, awesome new functions mean anyone can play acceptable DJ sets almost instantly.
Music choices can be suggested to you, the software can help you get beatmixing spot-on, and you can even sync the musical key so tracks sound awesome together, no musical theory needed (a set of ears is still necessary, though.)
Once undreamed-of effects can help you to make your mixes exciting; instant track searching makes finding the song you want easy; visual cues on jogwheels and screens help you to mix well; and digital signal processors stop you sounding bad even if you “go into the red”.
All of this helps new DJs get early results, meaning they don’t need to spend months practising behind closed doors before telling anyone else they’re a DJ, or playing their first parties.
Older DJs may not like it, but the truth is that many older DJs – once they had mastered the basics – didn’t ever really progress creatively past that stage. You had to put all that work in just to find out if you had any aptitude for DJing, and many, it turned out, didn’t!
Nowadays, the software can assist you with the basics, and you’re free to let your creativity run riot – and today many new DJs do just that, discovering quickly that they have a real feel for the creative side of DJing.
In itself, the fact that modern systems make the basics of DJing easy for anyone to pick up is a sea change for the hobby. But there’s more – much more. And the next big thing that has utterly transformed the world of DJing is the revolution that has occurred in the world of music.
2. Access to music is now universal and cheap
When I was learning the art of DJing in the early 1990s, I would usually have enough money for three or four records a week. I’d get the bus into town with my £20, and hang around the record stores at delivery time (the music came from the distributors by van). I knew which day to go, which was always a weekday – so immediately you can see that anyone with a “real” job would immediately miss out on being there at the right time. DJing was a demanding mistress back then…
Yet I wouldn’t be the only one. All the other serious DJs in Manchester, England, where I was from, would know full well that there would be anything between one and 20 of each record on the vans for each shop – and so it was invariably a battle for the scarce vinyl. There was a pecking order. And as a new DJ, you were right at the bottom of it…
Music would get put aside for the people working in the store, their friends, and the important local DJs, and only then would the rest go on the shelves. Cue the rush from all the other DJs to grab the new music, head to the listening booths, decide on the spot what the hard-earned cash would be spent on, and make the week’s purchases.
DJs lived or died by the quality of their music. People would travel hundreds of miles to hear a DJ, because they knew he or she would play a record they loved and nobody else seemed to have. You could wait months to get your hands on a tune you’d heard once, yet couldn’t get out of your head.
Even working out the names of tracks was often an endeavour, never mind managing to locate and buy them. We had record-buying missions by car to cities hours away, just to track down music that hadn’t reached our town.
The way music is discovered and bought today is utterly unrecognisable
Things have changed so fundamentally that it’s hard to get anyone brought up in today’s world to believe any of this really happened. Nowadays, Shazam will tell you the title of anything, normally with a buy button right there. Or you can simply “like” tracks, which adds them to a streaming playlist that you can play directly from your DJ software.
Top DJs are actually paid by music providers to curate lists, so you can buy or stream from them to ensure you’re getting expert-chosen tracks for your sets, and you can head to specialist stores like Beatport to trawl through what other DJs are buying and playing to get ideas – again buying and downloading instantly.
Amazing music pools like DJcity or BPM Supreme will give you unlimited DJ-ready edits of the latest music for a small monthly subscription. SoundCloud producers will often more than happily give you their music in return for honest feedback. Bandcamp lets you buy directly from the makers of the songs you love.
We’ve gone from scarcity to utter abundance, and are now at a point where anybody who wants instant access to the music they love, whether to listen to or DJ with, can get it instantly and cheaply – a far cry from how the previous generation of DJs and music lovers had to do it. When it comes to music, digital has been nothing less than a complete revolution.
This ease of access to the world’s music, plus the way modern systems make learning to DJ something you can do on a whim, are together responsible for DJing going truly mainstream in recent years.
But there’s a third piece of the jigsaw. This explosion in interest in DJing, and its becoming part of our culture so quickly, has led to a huge rise in opportunities for DJs to do their stuff in public…
3. There are more gigs out there than ever before
When I started DJing in clubs, to hear the music I loved had basically until that point involved going to illegal raves in fields. Every town had a club, maybe two, but they played music our generation didn’t care for, to put it mildly. They were actually dangerous places for people like us to go to.
Slowly house music moved from the illegal raves to the club dancefloors, but even then, opportunities for DJs were severely limited, and you could count on one hand the working DJs you knew, or knew of. After all, not many people had the gear, had put the time in to learn the skills, and had the money and influence to get the music – and of those, only one or two got any real work.
It actually all balanced out – there were few DJs, but even fewer opportunities, and so the venue owners were able to choose from a small number of available DJs who they would work with. They chose carefully, and changed things up slowly.
The very idea of taking up DJing as a hobby and playing a few gigs here and there for fun would have been crazy – only the truly committed could do any of what I’ve described in this article so far, and even fewer got near to getting gigs in real venues.
DJing went from the underground to the mainstream almost overnight
Now, of course, DJs are everywhere!
Firstly, the opportunities are just so much more numerous and varied. Yes, the clubs are still there (and lots of them), but there are myriad bars, lounges, cafes, restaurants, clothes stores, shopping malls, and every other type of retail outlet you can think of using DJs.
Even TV shows have their own DJs. Ditto sports teams and events: No marathon course is complete without a DJ at the start/finish, and often several more dotted around to give the runners an extra boost at key points. Cruise lines have resident DJs, as do ski resorts and leisure centres.
And, of course, it’s totally normal nowadays for us to DJ at each others’ parties, informal or otherwise, or to pull out our controllers to spin after the pub, at barbecues, at pool parties, at neighbourhood events, or just in our living rooms – you know, the spinning sessions that turn into impromptu parties (aren’t they the best?).
Yes, DJs and DJing are everywhere.
One important thing to understand here is that the people who can give DJs these gigs (venue owners and managers, mainly) are not applying anywhere near the same amount of care or consideration when choosing DJs for these gigs as they did a decade or two earlier.
Back in the day, you had to make it a mission to get a gig somewhere – you’d identify where, and spend months working to get noticed, persuade them to give you a go, try not to mess up that first night, and work hard to hang on to your hard-earned residency.
DJs are less valued, but gigs are more frequent…
Nowadays, the DJs playing in any given venue often change like the weather. Hassled and inexperienced venue managers chop and change DJs, and they certainly don’t take the time to listen to mixtapes; it’s assumed that everyone who asks for a gig knows what they’re doing, and the venue managers usually they wouldn’t know what they were listening for anyway!
We’ve gone from just a few opportunities for DJs, with thoughtful, experienced gatekeepers controlling those gigs, to a happy-go-lucky roundabout of venue managers and DJs agreeing informally and frequently to work together – a world where the chopping, changing and varying who’s playing where, when, and for whom, changing almost nightly.
The bottom line, though is that there are hugely more gigs, and therefore hugely more DJs playing them, than ever before, due to the cultural shift towards DJs and the number of venues that new gear lets DJs play at compared to the “old days”.
Now, if we take all of this together – great and easy to use gear, cheap and available music, and a glut of opportunities – we can see clearly that over the past few years, DJing has indeed changed forever. As I said at the start, it unrecognisable from the DJ world of even 10 or 15 years ago, and certainly from the world when I started in the 1990s.
What does this mean for you?
These are big changes, right? So you won’t be surprised to hear that no matter where you are on your DJing journey, what I just described has huge implications for you as someone wanting to succeed as a DJ today.
You may be a new DJ, trying this for the first time. You may be someone who’s always loved DJing, but never got around to giving it a go until now. You may be a musician or producer, wanting to DJ as well as compose or play.
But whoever you are, one thing that’s true is that you’re probably already having a go – you’re not waiting for anyone to give you permission to try DJing out. Let’s face it, who is? People of all sorts with any interest at all in music are dabbling in it nowadays – and that’s awesome!
It’s also not at all surprising, because nowadays – as we’ve discovered – it is just so easy for you to grab any kind of DJ gear to get started on (I bet you have a DJ app on your phone right now, right?), and it’s also child’s play to get plentiful music to DJ with (you may even be streaming it into your DJ app via Spotify, Tidal or similar).
And let’s be honest, it’s certainly not hard to string a DJ set together – who hasn’t taken over the speakers at a party and provided the soundtrack? In this “playlist generation”, playing a DJ set in public from the playlists you follow or compile for your own use is a natural extension of just listening to those tunes on your own.
Yes, there’s a party out there for YOU to play at, now…
And when it’s time to take it a step further, the truth is that whatever level you’re at – more today than ever before – there’s a gig for you! The huge demand for DJs out there means plenty of room for amateurs and hobbyists to land gigs, as well as full-time professionals.
There’s actually never been a better time to be a DJ. Love music? Got a passion for the world of DJing? Know that you’ve got something to give? Then there is definitely a place for you in today’s DJing world.
No, you don’t have to practise for months or years. New DJs can, and do, get gigs right away nowadays. DJs are finding the gear, grabbing the music, and doing the basics, in public, and all over the world.
Look at it this way. You don’t need someone to show you how to take photos and post to Instagram, right? Yet just a few years ago, to be a “published photographer” took years of work. Because of cameras in phones, and social media platforms, photography has gone from being an elite profession to something we just all do.
DJing has undergone exactly the same change.
But just like there’s a world of difference between posting randomly to your Instagram and running a successful, popular Instagram channel with quality photography that people love (and we can all tell the difference between the two, right?), there is likewise a world of difference between amateur DJs who aren’t working on their craft, and those who are approaching it more professionally.
So for the rest of this article, I’ll outline the new rules of being a DJ today. Work on these five things, and whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever gear you have, music you play or kind of parties you want to spin at, you’ll make fast progress.
Here’s What You Must Do (5 Key Steps)
So the question is, how can new DJs using laptops, controllers, even tablets, improve their skills to become the “pros” of the new world of DJing? How can they learn the tricks, hacks and secrets of DJing that’ll make them stand out from the crowd, in a world where everyone’s doing it?
Based on our real-world teaching at Digital DJ Tips (we’ve taught 23,000 students since 2010), here are the five key rules for succeeding in today’s new world of DJing. Treat them as a framework, a way of making sure you’re doing the right things to advance your hobby and get better, faster, to where you dream of going.
1. Get used to doing this in public
Informal gigs in public are the new bedroom practice sessions. Today’s DJs, at all levels including complete beginners, are playing in front of people, not toiling away in the bedroom for months or years.
It never used to be like that. Learning to DJ used to mean painstakingly learning the skills, patiently collecting the music, and – having spent a lot of time and money on those two things – finally hustling for gigs, pile of mixtapes in hand. Rinse and repeat.
In my case, once I’d made the decision to go for it, it took me over a year of daily practice until I bagged my first gig, five years of hard work to get to the point where I was earning a meagre living from my DJing, and another five until I counted myself as a success – over a decade learning the ropes and working up the ladder.
But now, whatever your aspirations, your initial goal must be playing in public immediately. That means that right from the start, right from NOW, you need to develop the playlists, understand what you’ll do if the music stops and everyone’s looking at you to get it going again, have strategies for dealing with the general public and other DJs, and know how to conquer nerves and feel confident in public situations – even if that’s just a party at a friends house with you on the decks.
You need the knowledge so you can feel comfortable, confident and in control at every type of gig. You’re going to be playing those gigs anyway – so the sooner you develop these skills, the better.
2. Make an effort to learn some of the timeless DJing skills
Nowadays, many DJs in the kinds of venues we’re talking about are really “selectors” – putting together soundtracks from playlists for informal events. In these situations, basic crossfader mixing is often all they do, and that’s fine. But it’s important if you want to develop as a DJ that you nail some of the essential skills of DJing that’ll help you to move away from this style of DJing to something more accomplished and impressive.
If you learn how to mix properly, and to transition smoothly between all types of music, you’ll be setting yourself up for much more success.
DJs who can mix have more fun (nothing beats the goosebumps you get when you get a mix perfect, especially in front of a crowd…), get people dancing more often, and get noticed and remembered. In this new world where everyone’s a DJ, getting these things right is more important than it’s ever been.
No, you don’t need to learn to DJ on turntables, or even beatmix manually every time (that’s like saying to be a good photographer, you need to know how to use film and develop in a darkroom) – but likewise, understand the basics of song structure, timing, how beatmixing works and so on, and your results will catapult immediately into a different world. Once you open that door, your DJing will change forever, and for the better.
3. Practise tactically and in a gig-centric way
Gone are the days where you’d spend six months learning to beatmix on vinyl behind closed doors, before even thinking about telling anyone you’d quite like to be a DJ! Back then, you could approach your DJ practice session with no real aim, just a commitment to keep trying for that 1% improvement every week or so.
Today, your DJ practice sessions are aiming for a completely different outcome, and so you need to approach them differently to the way practice was approached by previous generations of DJs. Plus of course, none of us have any time, right? So your practices sessions should be tactical, and gig-centric.
- Tactical means that you’re going to be practising the exact things that will make the most difference to your DJ sets – things that didn’t work for you at your last gig, things that you’ve seen other DJs do that you’d like to try yourself, things that are easy (thanks to the awesome functions and features of modern gear), but that you obviously don’t want to be trying in front of a crowd until you’ve at least worked out the basics behind closed doors. Fast, focused, and with a definite, achievable end in sight
- Gig centric means that everything you do in a practice session should be aimed at helping you make the best job of your next gig – period. Nothing else matters. The playlists you curate to DJ from, the music you buy or add to your streaming lists, the “plan B” tunes you choose in case your first choice of music isn’t quite right for the event on the night, your choice of “special” songs (set openers, set closers), the types of transitions you practise – all should be based as closely as possible on what you think you’ll be doing at that next event
Once the event is done, you wipe the slate clean and your next practice sessions are based around the needs of the next event.
Less time practising, more time playing
This type of tactical, gig-centric practising means that you can literally get to the point where you’re spending an hour or two preparing for each gig, even as a beginner. A far cry from the months of aimless, amorphous “deck time” DJs used to put in in previous generations, and far more attuned to the modern world where frankly most of your learning is done in public – which is perfectly normal and perfectly fine, even expected, from DJs nowadays.
Prepare in private, but learn as you perform – in public.
4. Get on top of gathering the music you’ll need
Frankly, you’re lucky that you don’t have to make weekly dates with myriad record stores just to have a chance of listening to (never mind buying) your meagre three or four new tunes each week. Nowadays you have practically all of the world’s music to select from for your gigs, meaning even as a brand-new DJ you can have all the music you need to play your first gig in weeks or even days.
Modern services give you the chance to capture, identify, shortlist, sort, select and evaluate tunes for your DJing, whether you buy them or stream them. But learning how to make the most of that opportunity is of great importance. And there is without doubt skill involved in developing a music system that works for you.
In today’s musical environment, you need to learn to “ride the abundance” rather than fight for your share in a world of scarcity, and so it’s important to make all the services available work for you.
That means knowing how to “hack” Shazam and SoundCloud (for music discovery), how to best use iTunes, Amazon, Beatport and so on (for music purchasing), and understanding the opportunities afforded to you by Spotify, Tidal, Beatport Link, SoundCloud and the rest (for music streaming into your DJ software). It also means making the most of specialist DJ download pools (think DJcity, BPM Supreme and so on).
Once you understand how DJs use and integrate these types of platforms, you can spend just a small amount of time each week building your music library, safe in the knowledge that you’re not missing anything important, and that your collection is fit for purpose for the types of gigs you play or want to play.
5. Hack the gear you’ve got to get it gig ready
Nobody cares what gear you’re using to DJ on. Whatever gear you’ve got, or can get, and whatever system you’re using, is definitely going to be good enough. And yes, that goes for the lowliest DJ controllers, or even DJing directly from a laptop or tablet.
There are things you will want or might need: A backup music source in case you have problems, definitely. A microphone maybe. Technical items like good headphones for pre-cueing, booth monitors, the right cables, bags, cases, stands and so on are also worth considering as you gain competence.
But the fact is that once you add just a few well-chosen accessories, and a bit of expertise, you can make any DJ gear work for playing out on – and we’re talking simple, easy-to-achieve changes here, not years saving for pro kit or anything like that.
Nowadays, gear is not going to stand in the way of you landing DJ gigs – you just need to understand how to adapt what you have for public use.
Now, there’s a chance all of this may have made you feel just a little uncomfortable, especially if you’re not getting out there to DJ enough yet (or at all).
After all, one of the truths about learning to DJ in years gone by was that it was going to take you a long time to get good enough to get any gigs – you needed to save for the pro gear, you needed to slowly build a music collection, you had to learn the difficult skill of beatmixing if nothing else.
Yes, learning was hard and slow, but the upside was that all that hustling for gigs and having to do it in the real world was something that could be pushed way into the future, and so safely to the back of your mind.
Not so any more! Nowadays,
- Nobody cares what gear you turn up to DJ on or with
- Nobody will question that you are able to “do it” (it is just assumed)
- If you say you’re a DJ, you are a DJ (you don’t have to “wait for permission” to do this)
Because nowadays there are no excuses, many DJs when they realise they do feel a bit uncomfortable. That’s OK! Hopefully, you’ve seen a path forward from reading this article, and have lots of ideas about how to take your next step in DJing.
If you are DJing in public already, hopefully this article has helped you to realise that your next job is to “fill in the gaps” in your knowledge. To challenge your skills. And to learn about the fundamental techniques of DJing – techniques that today’s amazing DJ systems have made optional for you up until this point. (Want an example of what can happen when you do? Check out this amazing love letter to DJing from one of our community members.)
No, you really don’t need to “backwards engineer” and learn to use CDJs and vinyl – that stuff is fun, but optional.
But what you should do is learn the skills that mean if called on, you could master DJing on any gear quickly – not least because surprisingly few DJs playing real gigs, in front of real people, ever bother to learn them. It’s such an awesome way to stand out.
It’s one thing to be DJing, not sure you’re doing it “right”, and so lacking the confidence to hustle for better gigs, worried that you’re maybe already out of your depth a bit! But it’s quite another to be learning on the job, confident you’re on the right track, improving at every gig, and seeing opportunities open up in front of you as you get work on the important things.
Again, hopefully you’ve seen clear areas to be working on in this article, and now have lots of new ideas about what you’ll do next in to progress your DJing.
• If you’d like extra help implementing the five steps above in your own DJing, you may want to take a look at our DJing Made Easy course, which is based on this thinking.
What do you think about the points raised in this article? What are your views on the changes in DJing, and the opportunities available to DJs today compared to a generation ago? What do you feel the most important things to learn are? Let us know in the comments!