Getting Involved In Your Local Scene
For every DJ playing in public and getting paid for it, there are scores of DJs wishing they had that person’s job. ever seen a DJ in a venue and thought, ‘I could do better than that’? You probably could – but invariably what that DJ is doing better than you is the stuff you’ll read about in this chapter. You could call it networking. I prefer to call it getting involved in your local scene. And make no mistake, this is important. Never was the cliché ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ more true than in the world of DJs.
It has always amazed me how many people expect to get DJ bookings yet never do any of the things we are about to look at. Instead, they think that if they put a DJ mix online or burn a few CDs and shove them in the hands of venue managers, the work will start coming in – as soon as people hear their mixes, they’ll think, ‘Wow, this is the DJ we’ve been looking for all this time!’
But it doesn’t work like that. Nobody who can give you a gig has the time to listen to your DJ mixes to start with. even if they do, they never base booking decisions on them. It would be like a jobseeker randomly giving out CVs and expecting offers of employment to come flooding back without bothering to find out if there were vacancies in the first place. Imagine a job market where vacancies are never advertised, and when one does come up, the employer invariably already knows the person they’ll end up giving the job to. That’s the opaque world of local DJ bookings. That’s the world we’ve got to help you break into.
Doing your basic research
So let’s see where you’re at right now. How much do you know about the DJ scene in your local area? Have you visited all the venues that have DJs? Do you know what companies are behind the various pubs, bars, lounges and clubs? Do you know who actually books their entertainment? If you look at an event advertised in your town, can you guess who the promoter is? Is it a local person, or an out-of-town company? What about the DJs themselves: do you know which DJs are getting the work? If you’re planning on playing mobile gigs, have you made a list of all the mobile DJ companies and worked out who the successful ones are?
Great DJs make it their business to know their local scene and everyone in it, both to become clear about what opportunities are there and to get to know the people who pull the strings. You can start this online (definitely following and getting involved with the social media activities of everyone and anyone in your town who’s involved in your local scene), but ultimately, you’re going to have to complete the job out and about.
Study your local what’s on websites (and listings magazines, if they still exist), subscribe to promoters’ newsletters, and keep a diary of what’s going on in your town, then strategically get yourself out there. Yes, it might cost you a bit, but if you commit to getting your butt out of the door once or twice a week, you’ll find ways of making it happen. Your aim is to go to every single venue in the city you want to play in that has, or you think might have, DJs, on all kinds of nights, quiet and busy. Throw in your attendance at charity events, local festivals, street parties and so on, and you’ll be halfway there.
Getting to know people
If you’re planning on being a mobile DJ, frankly you don’t need to become a wall-fly of your local DJ scene as I’ve just discussed, although venue knowledge will still be useful, as will getting to know venue managers and other local mobile DJs. When it comes to expanding your presence, you can attend formal networking events (breakfast meetings and the like) and literally work the room, gathering and giving out business cards and practising your pitch.
But otherwise, if you’re a DJ trying to break into what can appear to be a closed local scene in pubs, lounges, bars and clubs, getting out there is essential. Truth is, though, it’s only half of the game. The other half is that you need to get to know people. Call it networking, being sociable, putting your face about, whatever – the sometimes uncomfortable fact is that you need to talk to people. Being there isn’t enough.
So before I give you some suggestions, let’s again see where you are now. Do any of the people we spoke about earlier, the movers and shakers in your local scene, know you? Are you on speaking terms with at least some venue owners, managers or senior bar staff? How many people who DJ in your local scene know who you are and what you do? Are there DJs in your circle of friends who will introduce you to people? How many local players have you managed to get connected to online, via forums, social media, and so on? Can you arrange to be in the same place as them, buy them a drink and have a chat?
Good networkers know they have something of value to give, but understand that they need to see everything from the perspective of the other person, humbly looking for ways to get involved and help out. You’re never expecting anything in return, but you trust that if you give – and give for the right reasons – that is exactly what you’ll get. Luckily, you’re already on the right path. You have something of value to offer (you’ve played at least a gig or two, have a nice online profile, and are working social media and starting to gather email addresses of your fans), so now you need some tactics for spreading the love in your local scene to get something in return when you’ve earned that right.
If you make it your job to call into the cool local beach bar that has DJs every evening when the place is quiet, and sit at the bar itself, you’ll soon be friends with the bar staff, or even maybe the manager. If you haul yourself off the sofa on a wet Tuesday to go to an event you know is likely to be close to empty but is something you’d possibly enjoy, your attendance will be noticed, plus the chances are that anyone else there will be equally committed to the local scene and may well be worth knowing. If you arrive unfashionably early at a big all-day music festival in your town, again you may meet a few equally eager fans and even brush shoulders with some of the artists (with events that have large billings, often some of the performers will head out into the public areas to soak up the atmosphere early on).
There are other things you can do that are a bit more planned to give you the chance to meet people who may be able to help you in your DJing career. For instance, you could:
- Volunteer for local charity events. If there are any charity events involving DJs, music, or your local clubs or venues, volunteer to help set them up and promote them. You could give our flyers, put up posters, distribute tickets to local shops, offer to run the VIP list on the night. Often these are organised by non-scene people (local councils, the charities themselves), but they can be a good ‘in’ as they will put you in contact directly with the DJs, venue managers and so on you ultimately want to befriend. Just help out for the right reasons: get genuine satisfaction from helping and trust that good things will come back to you, because they will.
- Offer to review events for your local listings website or magazine. This can get you into gigs for free and give you an excuse to talk to DJs and other players, all of whom will hopefully appreciate your incisive words when they are published. If you’re not confident about asking for work from other outlets, just blog about nights out on your own site. Be sure to tag the artists you write about to increase the chance that they’ll see your work. Follow up on any reactions. Introduce yourself in person next time you see them…
- Help out with club nights you admire. When newer promoters are setting up events, they are unlikely to turn down sincere offers of help. If somebody decides they want to start booking out-of-town DJs to promote a certain musical style or scene in your town that hasn’t been done before, for instance, they’ll often be committing a lot of their own money and time trying to make it work. If you can genuinely get involved and help out of respect and love of the music, you’ll be received with open arms. Again, online promotion, flyering, offering to drive guest DJs to and from the airport…these things are not only invaluable, but of great use to you in getting involved and known among people who could eventually help you get DJ work.
- Get a job in the scene. Back before digital music, the local record shops were tried and tested places to get to know everyone, but with their demise, you’ll have to think more creatively. Bar staff are always needed in venues, or if you have any knowledge of lighting or sound engineering you could get yourself a job doing either thing in your local club (you then often stand next to the DJ in the booth all night). Or maybe there are promotion companies or DJ agencies in your city that have openings. You can do some of these jobs part-time if you work a day job.
Finding a mentor
A mentor is like a super contact, a holy grail person who can seriously speed up your progress as a DJ. In the mobile DJ scene, it’s pretty easy to find a mentor because there are few mobile DJs who would say no to someone helping them to pack the gear, set it all up, and then break down at the end of the night – it’s hard work. land the job of being a mobile DJ’s helper (and be honest about your intentions), and far from seeing you as competition, your mentor may well groom you either to take his or her place for the odd gig or to help out with double bookings and so on.
Mentors often find you rather than you finding them. They’ll be someone who sees something in you that they remember from their own past; someone who wants to nurture you, but realises your ultimate potential to take their place – and they’ll be cool with that. These kinds of people are going to become life-long friends, and you’ll be forever indebted to yours if you find a good one.
I was lucky enough to have Dave Haslam, a key DJ at the famous Haçienda club in Manchester, as a mentor. He asked me to play a guest spot or two at a club night he ran, and our relationship grew from there – my DJ partner and I eventually ended up taking over his Saturday night slot. As much to give us the best chance of succeeding in our new role as anything else, Dave mentored us in promoting, marketing, building a fan base, offering something different, and dealing with the industry. even now, decades later, I still count Dave as instrumental in getting me to where I am today.
There’s no point trying to pay someone to mentor you, or forcing the role on anyone, even if you already know them. It’ll happen naturally if there’s a chemistry between the two of you, and the other person wants to help. It’s certainly true, though, that the more you get out there and get to know people, the more likely such a person is to appear in your life. When you realise somebody is mentoring you, don’t take advantage of it or take too much of their time. Use them wisely and fairly and be grateful, because their freely given help will be something you’ll find irreplaceable.
So with your eye on the types of gigs that are realistic to go for, a decent online profile, some local networking done, and hopefully a contact or two to guide and mentor you, you’re close to getting the regular DJing work you’re dreaming of. In the next chapter, I’ll show you how to close the deal.