How To Succeed At DJing, Part 2: Play The Popularity Game

Read time: 6 mins
Last updated 4 April, 2018

Tiesto with groupies
Tiesto with groupies: DJing is as much about popularity as talent, so make a plan and decide how you’re going to win people over.

Before we can dive into the tips and techniques that could take you from bedroom DJ to superstar, the most important thing any DJ needs to realise and accept is that like it or not, this is one big popularity contest. Be under no illusion about it all: how many people you’re likely to bring through the door is just as important to promoters as your talent.

However, don’t despair – it doesn’t mean DJing is only about physical looks, funky helmets, and/or celebrity girlfriends. But if you want to play the game, you need to understand it. Let’s look a little deeper…

The mistake many new DJs make

So I imagine right now or sometime in your past you’re in your bedroom, crafting up what you see as the perfect demo. You make all your blends tight, levels and sound are golden, and it even shows off a few tricks you learned, pumping some tunes no one else ever plays but you think crowds will love. You give that demo to several promoters, thinking they’ll listen to it from start to finish, be marvelled by your performance, and call you instantly to get you booked at their events. However, it’s been two weeks and not a peep. You perhaps try to follow up, and find you’re hearing excuses or seeing avoidance. You even remember one night when you gave a demo CD to a promoter, but thought you might have seen it later in a nearby trash can.

Meanwhile, you see the usual bevy of flyers and emails for events with the usual names on them. The same headliners rolling through your town on a regular basis. The same locals playing all over the city you live in. You might even think these locals aren’t very good as DJs. Or you may know of a guy who downloads all his music illegally, uses pirated DJ software, but girls think he’s “cute”.

Frustrated, you can’t seem to figure out why all these other people get booked to play and you don’t. You think your music selection is more creative than the Beatport and Billboard Top 100 picks that the other guys religiously play. You remember how you learned to beatmatch manually while others just use sync (and even allow bad blends to happen). You worked so hard in your bedroom for a long time to be polished, but yet some kid with a blowout haircut and chiselled body picked up DJing a month ago and is now opening at the local weekly club night.

DJ AM and Pauly D
DJ AM and Pauly D: Promoters know that DJs with crowds are a surefire hit with their bank balances. What are you going to do to get people through the door when you play?

This is the inevitable lesson all DJs have to learn about this industry and life – it’s a big popularity contest. I know, because much of the story I just told was my own. I’d work hard on tight blends, good programming, interesting things to do with music, and even being well-rounded in my DJing; yet I’d see time after time the people who got booked to play were the popular people, even more than talented people. I’ll never forget even a hairdresser who got a residency because everyone in a clique of clubbers knew the guy and came out when he DJed, despite the fact that he couldn’t play.

We can call this unfair or write blog posts about how this popularity mentality has ruined DJing and the club scene, but this won’t change… ever. Back in the early 1990s when I started, the guys who got to be residents and play the best spots in an evening were the people who were known, and thus people came out to see them. Even in the underground world I’d see this clique of DJs who all worked at a popular local record store get bookings like crazy, because everyone in the scene knew and loved these guys seemingly regardless of they were good or not.

Why popularity counts

Popularity is what makes or breaks you in any of the five “buckets” of DJing I described in the last article. If you’re a DJ in the mainstream or underground clubs, raves, or even the bar scene, being popular in your area will take you places and get you booked. Even at the mobile end, being known will get you more jobs. You could be average at your work, but if people are sharing your name and contact information with others, then you can get more bookings than the guy who might have spent twice as much on his sound/lighting set-up and offered more than you did.

Two big examples I like to bring up on this subject are DJs AM and Pauly D. Love them or hate them, popularity is what made them successful in DJing. We can go on and on about how AM could scratch, trick, and all the things he did in his life, but it wasn’t until he was dating Nicole Richie that he became popular enough to be a superstar. His celebrity girlfriend made other celebrities come out to events, and thus many others came to DJ AM events looking for stars.

Pauly D is from the same ideology. We’ve seen YouTube videos of him trainwrecking on his Serato Scratch set-up and yet he’s getting residencies in big clubs in Las Vegas, all because of Jersey Shore. He brings loads of hot club women through the door, which is gold in the eyes of a promoter.

I can lump in Tïesto and Armin Van Buuren with their trance celebrity fame, David Guetta with his recent crossover into the mainstream, or even Daft Punk and Deadmau5 with their funky helmets. At this level, of course, the work to be popular involves huge marketing spends, but the concept is the same. The fact remains they are guaranteed numbers through the door for a promoter. The same logic is what drives promoters to book any one of those local DJs you might think are “popular”, but not very “talented”.

Why talent is still important

So does talent play a part any more? Yes, of course it does. So don’t hang up the headphones to hit the gym and then work on a funky helmet with lights – just bear in mind that talent isn’t always what drives a promoter to book you as a DJ. However, it will drive people to like you as a DJ, and thus drive a promoter books you because people like you. The easiest way to understand it is simply to remember this phrase:

Talent wins you fans, fans equal popularity, and popularity wins you bookings.

DJ Earworm on YouTube
DJ Earworm makes mashups for YouTube. He doesn’t make a penny from them, but he DJs worldwide because of them. Why? Look at the number of viewers bottom-right – that’s why. Popularity counts.

It’s that simple. As a DJ your goal is to win the hearts and minds of fans. So you might give out CDs to people you know at the club rather than just the promoter. You might go on YouTube and do tap dancing while you DJ. You might start a blog and write about funny stories that get hundreds of loyal readers. You might do charity work that has little to do with DJing but gets you into the papers. You might build up a SoundCloud or Facebook following. You might just be a social butterfly and know everyone in the scene. You might throw your own events and build a following that way. You get the idea.

So definitely work on your blends, music selection, tricks and so on. but also remember that your goal isn’t just to be talented, but to be known. People have to know you, like you, and be willing to come out for you (or recommend you to others). That’s what gets you booked. Maybe you’ll wear a clown costume and do controllerism. Some will think it’s silly, but others will know you for it, recognise you, and eventually remember your sets and love you for being different. It can happen.

Learn how to play the game

Like it or not, the promoters, managers, or clients guard the doors and hold the keys. You have to show them you will be worth their investment. You have to show them booking you will bring them people and/or keep people entertained for the whole evening. In most cases a promoter is not paying you for talent, but paying you to bring him a crowd.

If you talk to serious career DJs, you’ll see their mentality is more on how to bring numbers through the door, or how to improve their offering so they can charge an event planner or promoter $4,000 as opposed to $1,000. It’s all business, and popularity ties in deeply with that.

If you want to get anywhere outside of your four walls as a DJ, start planning how you’re going to increase your popularity. Because now, just like it always was, it remains supremely important.

• D-Jam is a Chicago nightclub and rave DJ by night, and a branding expert by day. Check out his website.

Check out the other parts in this series:


Are you struggling to get noticed in your town? Have you had similar experiences? Or have you found a way to stand out and get bookings? Maybe you disagree entirely wih this argument. Whatever, we’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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