If you are trying to break into the club scene as an up-and-coming DJ, you’ll find that many venues will expect that you handle quite a bit of the promotion. Whether or not you think this is fair, or right, or even what you want to do at all, is pretty much irrelevant: It’s how it is.
So in this long-read article, I’ll give you lots of ideas to make any type of residency work for you, helping you up the gig ladder to where the bigger fees and more consistent bookings live.
Let’s start with an email I recently received from an agency looking to book DJs for a swanky local bar. Part of it read: “Also, we are paying the DJ not for the music but to turn a crowd. Is that something you feel comfortable with?”
Yep. This booking agency didn’t actually even care about my music – pretty black and white!
Now, this may be a rather extreme example, but it’s not unusual. The truth is that many venue owners today skip hiring live musicians, skip hiring a nightclub promoter, and instead spend what small budget they do have on hiring a DJ – a DJ who is expected to also be the promoter.
Here’s another example:
When I was offered my first “club gig” (I use the term club loosely as the lounge had a max capacity of less than 100 people) the pay offered was 10% of the bar sales, plus eight free drink tickets. No hourly wage… just a percent of the bar. And I even had to create a “business proposal” in order to apply for the role – a monthly Tuesday spot! It was basically “pay to play”, yet DJs were standing in line for the available slots.
So I went for it.
The idea I proposed was a “diva” night where we play only female singers and all the DJs are female (basically, myself plus one of my female DJ friends). This club expected me to create a flyer to promote the event, book a guest DJ (and split my pot of gold with that DJ), create a Facebook Event, and plug the event on my social media.
Why DJ for next to nothing?
In over six months I didn’t once earn enough to cover my babysitting expenses. But I still played the gig (and I still play there to this day). Why? Well, obviously, I didn’t do all of that because of the “mad cheddar”. I kept DJing there because:
- Arranging guest DJs has been a great networking opportunity – Booking other DJs technically makes me a promoter, which has a degree of power to it. I’ve reached out to female DJs I didn’t personally know but had seen on Instagram, booked them, and then got to know them pretty well while DJing the night together. This has led to other gigs, opportunities and new friendships
- I leveraged the drink tickets – The venue let me drink soda without having to turn in my drink tickets. So other than a few drink tickets I give out to the guest DJs, a lot of them got stockpiled in my wallet. One day I finally figured out how to turn them to my advantage: I got on the mic and told the handful of people dancing that if they left me a Google review, I’d give them each two free drinks. Voila! Win-win!
- It’s free “CDJ practice” – I own turntables and a controller but not CDJs, so playing at that venue is an opportunity to improve my CDJ experience and knowledge. In less than a year, I’ve learned to troubleshoot a wide variety of CDJ problems and picked up some tricks that have made me a better all-round DJ (looping control CDs, anyone?)
- It’s elevated my mobile DJ brand – How many wedding DJs have nightclub residencies? Not many! So I’ve made it prominent on all my marketing materials that I play at a nightclub. The single biggest potential client “attention grabber” has been adding my upcoming performances to my email signature block. I’ve been blown away by how many leads are interested in seeing me perform live at a real event (not in an office setting) before booking. And the bonus there is I make 10% off their drink sales and am bringing in new people to the bar – woot woot!
- It’s fun! – Sometimes, the gigs that earn you the money are the ones that are hardest – and conversely, gigs like these are the ones where you can “cut loose”. No “must play” list from a bride. No event planner looking over my shoulder all night. No timeline to follow. No gear to lug around. Most gigs pay with money: This type of gig pays with musical freedom
So obviously, for me, playing a “loss leader” type of gig in a venue I like has turned into something that, despite the low pay, makes sense. Overall, and alongside my better paid gigs including my mobile work, it contributes to me growing my “name” as a DJ where I live.
Now, if you have read this far and thought, “I get it, I can see how this is working for Staci – I want some of that!”, then good for you – because as I said at the start, for “unknown” DJs, expecting to waltz into a venue and get paid well to just turn up and spin tunes is simply not how it works.
So – are you’re ready to hustle for next to nothing, knowing that in the end, opportunities will come from it? Yes? Then read on, because I’ll share with you lots more info on how to successfully land and hold on to club residencies.
Pitching your “club night”
What exactly is a “business proposal” for a DJ’s night at a club? In my case, they tend to be pretty casual (delivered via Facebook Messenger and text message). The important thing is not the formatting or packaging but the concept presented. Nights involving a certain demographic of DJs (eg “all female DJ line-up”) have actually been less successful for me, notwithstanding the above. Nights focusing on a certain vibe or music genre have been easier sells and piqued more interest.
For instance, I live in San Diego where we enjoy a sunny climate year-round and our proximity to Mexico makes Latin music very prevalent. Taking that into consideration, “Poolside Vibes” on Sunday afternoons or “Hip-Hop vs. Reggaeton” on Friday nights are solid DJ night themes here. Less successful nights (well, the ones I’ve heard bartenders complain about) tend to be super-focused on non-mainstream types of music (eg five hours of trance or dubstep).
The other crucial elements of your proposal are: who will be DJing, the night’s name, and your branding concept. Since the club is going to be reposting your flyer and listing your event on their activities calendar, they will be particularly mindful of cliche flyers and lacklustre names.
Ensuring this is not just a one-DJ show can also be important to clubs that have dealt with a lot of no-call, no-show flakes. When you can present your night as a “crew”, it seems to make the club feel like they don’t need to worry that they’ll be left without entertainment some night. At the very least have a co-resident you can alternate weeks with, or invite in guest DJs to join you.
Naming your club night
This is always a particularly challenging task. My friend Jenny and I were once approached to put together a female DJ night at a downtown hotspot we both very much wanted to play at. Neither of us wanted our gender to be the focus of the night though, but that is what the club asked for. We easily went through 50 names before we finally landed on three finalists (we let the club pick their favourite of the three).
We went through relevant song lyrics (“Miss Independent”), rhymes (“Chicks Who Mix”), trends (“Boss Babes”), and the obvious (“San Diego Female DJ Showcase”). I also had the idea to search in some online crossword puzzle dictionaries for words containing “she”, “her” and “fem”. Ultimately the three names we proposed were “Just a Girl”, “Fempire”, and “SHEnanigans”. The club chose SHEnanigans.
Pro tip: Check online before proposing your name to make sure no one else is already using it. An 80s night I once DJed was called “The Rewind”. After posting just once about it on Instagram, I was contacted by a peeved local DJ crew who, I was informed, had been hosting an event called “The Rewind” for over five years. All my hard work on the flyer was wasted because it all had to be thrown out.
Promoting your club night
Just like breaking into the mobile DJ industry, everyone pays their dues at the bottom first – plain and simple. So what can you do to get that gold star from the club you’re spinning at so you can advance up the ranks? Show your dedication and loyalty to the club, your ability to work hard for what you want, and your drive to get to the top by promoting the hell out of your night, that’s what!
Here are some nightclub promotion ideas:
1. Create a flyer
This is pretty standard. Even if the club doesn’t ask you to make a flyer, you’ll still want to post something to show your passion and enthusiasm for playing there and to let interested parties know where you’ll be spinning. What you post doesn’t have to be a flyer: it could be a picture of you playing there in the past with your upcoming set time written on it.
2. Create a Facebook Event
Fast, free, and easy. Create the event, being sure to link to the club’s Facebook Page as the host or venue, and invite your friends.
3. Use MeetUp (or similar)
MeetUp.com is a website where people can connect with activities happening in their area, from beach hikes to single parent support groups to nightclub parties. Smart club promoters connect with “nightlife” and “dancing” groups on MeetUp, invite them into their clubs, and offer them VIP treatment, discounts, or free transport.
4. Reach out to your target audience
If you are hosting a college night, get in those public Facebook Groups for area college students and post your flyer. If your residency is at a sports bar, reach out to local fan groups or create your own. Trying to draw an LGBTQ crowd? Pass out flyers near gay bars.
The power of drinks promotions
If you are playing somewhere that doesn’t use drink specials to boost bar sales, you should definitely discuss this with the manager. This is a trick I learned from one of my early mentors, DJ Dave Byrd, resident at the Brandin’ Iron Saloon in San Bernardino, California.
The B.I. is legendary – it is the largest country nightclub out west (everyone from Johnny Cash to Taylor Swift has performed there). Dave has been the head DJ there for over 20 years – he knows how to sell a drink and understands the role that the music, entertainment, and hosting can play in boosting bar sales
One of Dave’s nightly rituals at the B.I. includes “blow job shots” served on the dancefloor. For this, the bartenders will bring a stool out on the dancefloor with the necessary alcohol. A gentleman volunteer sits on the stool, and the shot is poured between his legs. The lady who purchased the shot then bends down and grabs the shot glass with her lips (hands-free) and tilts her head back to swallow it.
They only offer the “blow job shots” for a few minutes…so there is pressure to buy NOW. It’s entertaining for the patrons to watch, obviously memorable for the shot buyers, and creates a natural opportunity for “dancefloor rotation” (ensuring all patrons get a chance at both dancing and drinking – as discussed in futher detail in the Digital DJ Tips book, Rock The Dancefloor!). But, most importantly, it’s an easy way for the club to make US$100 in just a few minutes. (By the way, they also have “muff diver shots” for the guys.)
The B.I. also offers nightly drink specials, which are clearly advertised on their website and announced throughout the night by DJ Dave. Dave also orders something from the kitchen each night around 10pm and will casually mention between calling line dances how delicious the buffalo wings are as he eats them – he promotes the menu as well as the drinks.
On Saturday nights, it wasn’t uncommon to see promotional models on duty (ie attractive women hired from a modelling agency to dress sexy and sling the drink of the night table-to-table). They would do laps around the bar with, for example, a tray of jello shots and a credit card reader. It allowed patrons to skip the line and order something fun and memorable.
In a nutshell, the most important thing DJ Dave taught me was that my main job DJing at the B.I. was boosting sales, not trick mixing or crazy cuts.
5. Bring a friend to “work the sidewalk”
Get your mind out of the gutter, guys! Clubs that are located in an area with decent pedestrian traffic should have someone actively promoting to the sidewalk crowd. I had a co-residency at a pub downtown and when I was spinning, my co-resident would stand at the entrance and ask people if they wanted our free drink tickets or to see an awesome live DJ set. When she was spinning, I did it.
At a Sunday night event I host where I also have a male co-resident, he always brings a friend of his to work the sidewalk. This guy is amazing! He collects email addresses from people as they leave if they are interested in getting notifications of our upcoming events. He asks people walking by if they want to try the award-winning lavender margaritas. He hands out printed flyers. Not everyone has a friend like this, but, if you do, take advantage of that gift…
6. Share the responsibilities with a co-resident
Promotions can be a lot of work. Even though you’ll have to share your earnings with a partner, you’ll also get to share the work and reach out to two audiences on social media instead of just one.
7. Put up a sign with your branding next to the DJ booth
We all see people Instagramming out on our dancefloors. They will frequently tag the location. It’s not a stretch to assume that, if they knew how to tag the DJ, they’d also do that. You can buy a professional-grade, affordable banner and stand from a local print shop.
8. Use a gobo or projector to throw your branding up on a wall
If you are a mobile DJ who already owns a gobo projector (or you just happen to have a regular projector), it’s completely free to throw your logo, social media handle, or next event date up on the wall. Why not?
Borrowing tricks from professional promoters
Completely by chance, I live about three blocks away from San Diego’s largest university, San Diego State (34,000 students). When I moved into my current building, it just happened to coincide with the first week of classes at SDSU. My building essentially had a street fair set up at the entrance of vendors wanting to market to the incoming college students – like the local pizza parlour and nightclubs.
It was very eye-opening! Students were offered a free ticket to Parq Nightclub for that Friday’s show. A local entertainment group had put together an “SDSU Weekend” in Las Vegas that included the bus transportation to and from SDSU, tickets to two pricey clubs on the strip, and hotel accommodation.
My building also has a public Facebook Group, and I notice night club promoters (who definitely don’t live here) post things in the group like “Free limo bus to Omnia tonight… includes one free drink and VIP guest list.”
Moving into this building opened my eyes in so many ways. Well-established clubs on the strip in Vegas are working so hard to bring people in that they are willing to bus guests in from a city six hours away! But also, the top clubs just around the corner from here – with lines around the block day in and day out – haven’t said, “We’ve made it. Let’s just open our doors, serve drinks, and play music.” No, they are still grinding!
The message to newbie club DJs is to get creative and think outside the box. Don’t think “How can I get my friends to stop by on Thursday at 10:00pm?” Instead think “How can I get a 21st birthday hosted here?” or “What barriers are there for people to come in and drink? A long line? Admission price? No designated driver?”
Break down the barriers! It’s what the pros do…
9. Hire a pro photographer to take pictures of you and your night
We are living in the Instagram era. Me telling you that you need some pro-quality photos in order to promote your night should not be a surprise.
10. Bring in like-minded groups to host their events during yours
Why not invite a local networking group to network where you’ll be DJing? Things like speed dating need to be hosted somewhere – why not reserve them the few tables they need for their speed dating activity for free (knowing everyone who shows up is going to buy at least one drink to survive a night of interviewing random strangers for the role of soulmate)? They shouldn’t have to pay a restaurant for the use of their banquet room!
Some friends of mine host a monthly night called “EVRY WMN” at a nearby bar. For them, it’s their DJ residency, but they promote it as a female networking mixer – the fact that they are behind the decks and the bar is open is not the main focus.
11. Build a crew of regulars by looking after your patrons
It’s easier to turn an existing customer into a repeat customer than it is to get a new customer. This means you want to build up a crew of regulars who love your music and have fun while you’re running the show. You need to play as many requests as you can (depending on the night and your style of course), be punctual and prepared, and connect with the audience.
DJ Dave (see “The power of drinks promotion” above) would always invite girls to come dance on the counter in the back of his booth. It bugs me to no end to have patrons up in the booth, but he knew it made the guests feel special and gave them a connection with him. The amount of hugs and greetings this guy gets from his regulars as they come in is almost distracting – the crowd loves him! He always has time to listen to drunken sob stories, remembers names, and announces his eighth birthday of the night with genuine enthusiasm.
(On the other hand, I’ve seen other residents at smaller clubs acting like they are some Ibiza superstar laughing at guests who want their friend’s bachelorette party announced and telling guests straight to their faces “I don’t play requests… what do you think this is? A wedding?” Don’t be that guy!)
12. Self-promote on the mic
I know you became a club DJ because you don’t want to talk on the mic, right? Unfortunately, all DJs should be able to hype a crowd and use the mic to plug their current and upcoming events. Let people know how to tag you. Announce the name of your night. Introduce yourself and your crew. Mention the next date for your night.
13. Spotting the gigs other DJs don’t spot
One final tip for those of you just getting started with weekday residencies – check the calendar for the year and make a note of any holidays that fall on your date (or the day after – making your Tuesday essentially become a Friday). Contact whoever booked you now and let them know you’ll plan something spectacular for that night (bring in a high-profile guest DJ, an electronic drummer to accompany you, etc).
If you say nothing and just assume you’ll play that night as normal, be prepared to find out the week before that they’ve scheduled some headliner to take your place. If you let the powers that be know now that you can handle a “bigger” night and present another business plan to handle that holiday crowd, they might just use your plan instead of coming up with something on their own (without you).
Watch out for deadbeat clubs…
I once was hired to do a weekly 80s party at a popular dive bar in the suburbs. When I played the first night, the bartenders texted the owner and complained that I was playing older music. The owner hadn’t even bothered to tell his own staff about the new event… more or less his regular patrons. I spent the whole night denying requests for current music – super fun!
At the end of the night, I announced last call and slowly faded out the final “wind down” song (purposefully slow and quiet, in order to help security get the remaining 50+ patrons who were still there out). The bartenders “retaliated” by blasting the house music crazy loud and continuing to sell alcohol, making me look like an idiot.
My fee (which was not based on bar sales) took 30 minutes for the bartenders to find as well. Needless to say, I don’t bother with that place any more. Check the club you are spinning at does the following types of things; if it doesn’t, it is a warning sign that you should move on to a location that will put in at least as much effort as you are to promote your mutual goals:
- They have an event calendar on their website so would-be clubbers can see who is playing and what is going on each night
- They have posters up in the restrooms and around the bar showing upcoming events
- They provide you with professional videos showing off their sexy drink menu/parties/VIP rooms (or something similar) you can share on your social media
- They repost all of your posts that promote your night there. Unless you’re spinning at a high-profile club with a super curated Instagram, this should be a given
- They take an active interest in anything you are trying to pull together to help you both make more money. For instance, if you ask the bar to provide you with a drink special you can announce during your set (so you can sell more drinks) they should!
- They have a realistic timeline for when you should be spinning. If you’re playing on a Monday night, you want to get your night rolling around 5pm (not a lot of people are going home, eating dinner, getting dressed up, and going back out again on a Monday). Likewise, if you landed a Sunday spot somewhere, the best time slot for that day is often 3-6pm. Some clubs just automatically start their DJs at 9pm every night no matter what – but 9pm on a Sunday or Monday is likely to just be you and some crickets
- They care about the friendliness of their security staff – because a burly, unfriendly, uninviting security guard on the door is likely to be actively discouraging people from coming in. Talk to the venue about it if you find yourself facing this situation
- They also work with a professional promotions team or marketing firm and are not expecting you to carry 100% of that burden. The lounge I spin at where I only make 10% of the bar sales does almost all of the above and, additionally, has a Facebook group dedicated to promotions where all of their DJs are members. We can discuss ideas, promote each other’s nights, and give kudos to each other for cool promotional ideas (some of the above tips were straight up jacked from other crews I work with at this place). The fact that this lounge works harder than anywhere else I’ve ever played at to help me promote my night has definitely been a factor in me continuing to work there
Would you “buy” a residency?
Every so often you’ll see a post in a DJ Facebook Group saying something like, “Book a VIP lounge with bottle service at our club this Friday, and we’ll let you spin here”. Arguments ensue about how wrong this is. We are “artists”, everyone fumes.
Yet a friend of mine spent US$500 to bring in his buddies and drink at Omnia San Diego, one of the DJ Times Top 100 Nightclubs in the world. Outcome? He got a residency there.
Would you pay US$500 upfront to get into a top club? After all the money I’ve lost spinning at this lounge offering me 10% of the bar sales, the price tag doesn’t actually seem that unreasonable. So… would you?
Remember the email I got from that booking agency who didn’t care about my music, just my ability to bring people in?
It was for an upscale Mexican restaurant looking for a Taco Tuesday DJ. I lived in Mexico for seven years and know Mexican music inside out. At the time this guy contacted me, I had just finished DJing three days of 100% Latin music at the Unidos US conference, which he seemed impressed by. But he hired a friend of mine instead who has no background in Latin music because she said she could bring people in. I was honest and said I couldn’t.
Sometimes, it all falls right, and you get offered an amazing gig by a great club run by awesome people for top money. Yeah, right. Sometimes? Hardly ever. Other times, all you can find are scraps nobody else will touch, and you’ll be expected to beg for these. But usually, the opportunities on offer are somewhere between the two.
The DJs who succeed in this unregulated world are the ones who have a bigger plan of their own that goes beyond individual, flaky residencies that may or may not make monetary sense, and instead who know that playing regularly, giving value, slowly building a name, taking the punches and getting up again, and thriving on the rollercoaster irregularity of the night-time economy is just par for the course.
One thing denied to DJs at the start of their careers is consistency – of gigs, of income, of quality. The only way you can even out the highs and the lows is by being nimble, inventive, enthusiastic, but also realistic – giving things a go, but being ready to say “no” and move on when things aren’t working for you.
Hopefully this article has given you lots of ideas about how you can do exactly this – but please do share your stories and thoughts below too.
So – over to you. What are your thoughts? How are you promoting your club nights? Is it ever right to pay to play? How much promotion should DJs be expected to do? Let us know below