Landing Regular Slots
You probably won’t believe me, but if you’ve done everything I’ve told you so far in this section, a regular DJ slot is not going to be hard to find and may even come to you without you doing anything. You have the right mentality towards the types of DJ gig you’re prepared to take, you have a good online profile and are starting to build your own fan base, and not only do you have a knowledge of your local scene, but you’re friends with some of the venue managers, local faces and other DJs. everyone knows you’re a DJ, so if there’s a DJ needed, you’ve now manoeuvred yourself into a position where you may well be asked to do it.
You just need to know how to close the deal, or what to do and say when the deal comes knocking – and that’s what this chapter is about.
Spotting the gigs
While sometimes the work may come to you (family member wants you to play their birthday party because ‘you’re a DJ’, college tutor asks you to do the end-of-year party because you know where to hire equipment, another local DJ is off on holiday and asks if you’ll fill in a bar slot for him while he’s away), most of the time at first it’ll be you doing the asking, especially if it’s a regular slot you’re looking for.
You may hit gold and through your contacts find out that a prime Saturday night club residency has become available and nobody else is in the frame, but in reality the chances are slim that this will happen. Stories abound about DJs not showing up to play a big club slot, and the desperate club owner scrambling around to find a replacement, only for an untried local DJ to step up and save the day, thereby winning the slot for ever more. But while this does indeed happen, you can’t build your search for gigs on the assumption that it’ll happen to you.
In fact, good DJ gigs are often the ones nobody else has thought of. Spotting opportunities will teach you to be entrepreneurial in your DJing, which is precisely the way to think in order to land more and better work consistently. Here are the two main types of gigs you could be approaching managers, promoters, and venue owners to get yourself playing at:
Places that don’t usually have DJs
Modern DJing gear has made gigs like this much easier as you don’t need a full DJ booth to play any more – just room for a DJ controller somewhere in a corner. Think beach bars, cocktail bars, trendy restaurants, art installations, pop-up exhibitions, cool clothes shops, in-between bands in a live music venue, skate parks, ice rinks, sports bars…
The idea is to find a venue or business where you can imagine yourself playing a certain type of music and adding to the overall vibe, and convince whoever has to be convinced that it’s a good idea. This kind of gig is good because you can own it, you’ll take the credit if it works (and trust me, nobody remembers gigs that don’t work, so your reputation won’t be tarnished for trying), and it will teach you to have a vision for how DJing could improve a space and know exactly what type of DJing to do to make that happen.
Places that have DJs, but not at the time you’re proposing
Local bar has DJs on a Friday and Saturday, but not for the rest of the week? Tell them that Thursdays are the new Fridays and you’ve got a great idea for filling that night. (Hint: make sure you have got a good idea.) live in a seasonal town that fills with tourists for the summer months? Suggest a ‘Twelve Summer Sundays’ season where you play the Sunday afternoon sundowner slot for people pouring into a local music bar from the beach. New live music venue opened across the street from an existing pub? Suggest you turn up early at the pub and play for an hour or so before the venue opens to draw in a pre-gig crowd (you could hook up with the promoter of the gig to offer cheaper tickets or guaranteed entry to anyone who buys a drink in the bar you’re playing at first). New type of music breaking through that wouldn’t suit a weekend slot just yet, but you know it is gathering a following in your town or city? Take the worst night in a good venue and champion that sound – if the stars move in your favour and you pull a crowd, it won’t be long before you’re elevated to a better night.
Start thinking along these lines and asking around. Even though I made my DJing name playing main room club music, I used these tactics myself to get there. I have conceived and played disco Fridays, chill-out Sundays, techno after-parties, indie sets at live music venues – it’s all about spotting the gap, working out the kind of music that may work, and asking.
How to ask for work
Finding the right person to ask is the first trick, but hopefully, if you’re involved in your local scene and you’ve done your research, that will be obvious to you by this point. Picking the right time to ask is the next one. While sometimes it works to make an appointment, often it’s a conversation you can simply have at the venue, which means catching the manager there when he or she is relatively relaxed. Weekdays after opening but before the first rush of customers is a good bet for cafes, bars and so on.
Keep your conversation casual and show that you’ve done your research. There’s no point pitching for a Wednesday night if Wednesday night is local band night (unless you’re pitching to play between the bands, of course), and there’s no point asking for a Monday slot, thinking you’ll be more likely to land the worst night of the week, if Monday is the night the venue is shut. If you’ve done your background checks and think your idea is a good one (and maybe even discussed it with some of the bar staff or other DJs who work there), there’s no reason why your pitch shouldn’t fall favourably, as ultimately you have the interests of the venue at heart. Just remember to state clearly who you are, why it is you want to talk to the manager/owner, give them a short bit of your background, outline the problem (‘Tuesday nights seem very quiet’) and your solution (‘I have an idea for a DJ night that should pull a new crowd’), explain your motivation for doing this (‘I love the venue and feel we could build something good here’), and crucially, don’t forget to get agreement on a clear next step (‘Shall I call you tomorrow to get your decision? Is twelve oK? let me check your number…’).
While it’s important to be sure of yourself, be aware that promising the world recklessly is silly; far better to outline your idea, set some boundaries (‘let’s try it for four weeks and reassess when we see whether there’s a market for it’), then follow through consistently and professionally.
The absolute wrong way to ask for work is to go in like some mad musical genius, mixtape in hand, pitching the revolutionary sub-genre you’ll be playing, convinced that your amazing sets are going to change everything. As we learned earlier, venue managers want reliable, professional people who’ll do the job with the minimum of fuss. Sure, they appreciate a bit of flair and good ideas, and of course they’ll care about the music on one level, but if you want a gig working with them, you need to make it easy for them to work with you. This means being polite, business-like and showing an intimate understanding of the world of the person who has the power to say yes to you.
One of the most common questions DJs ask about money is how much to charge, but it’s impossible to tell you that DJs get paid this, or DJs get paid that. It depends on the venue, the number of people through the door, whether there’s a cover charge, the local DJ competition, whether the gig was your idea or you were asked, and of course where you are in the world. What is always true, though, is that if you bring value, you’ll get paid more.
What I mean is not that you’re doing the job well enough (hopefully if you’ve learned from half of what’s in this book, you’ll be doing the job better than most DJs in your town or city), but that you’ve done the work on building your profile, started to gather a fan base for yourself, researched where you’re asking for the gig, and ultimately pitched a good idea to the person who matters. Get all these things right, and whether it’s a free meal and some drinks in the local beach bar in return for a few hours of tunes on a Sunday afternoon, a little extra part-time income from your local club for an occasional warm-up slot, or a full-time job in a local resort, as soon as the person with the purse strings realises that your intentions are all about mutual benefit, you’ll be in a good position to ask for what’s reasonable.
Now, I wish I could tell you that the world of DJing is ruled by legally binding contracts, invoices, and smooth, hassle- free payments, but it’s not. While DJs/producers who tour the world and are represented by agents tend to get paid this way, and people who work as mobile DJs, for entertainment companies, as full-time DJs in resorts or on cruise ships and so on have proper contracts or work as formal contractors, a lot of the more casual end of DJ work is paid for, well, casually.
The two issues here are legality and making sure you get paid.
Generally, you are required to declare any income at all from your DJing to the authorities, which means issuing an invoice for that payment, according to the laws of your jurisdiction. If you don’t, you risk being caught, and – lacking any formal paperwork to start the conversation with – having a tax inspector decide how much they think you may have earned using any evidence they can find (internet searches, your name on flyers, evidence from your own website or social media, and so on). I once knew a DJ who was flying to a gig in another country and was stopped at the airport because the authorities thought he was trying to flee after years of not paying any tax at all on his DJ earnings. You don’t want that to be you. Ask other DJs in your town what they do in order to get your local flavour on all of this, but a good rule of thumb is that as soon as your DJing rises above the odd one- off for fun, get an accountant’s advice and go legit.
Just as stories of DJs not being completely honest about how much they’ve earned are rife, so are stories of DJs not being paid. Of course, there’s no excuse for people not paying a DJ what they’ve promised to pay, but the nature of nightlife attracts characters who sometimes appear to have few scruples. If an event promoter hasn’t made their money back on the night, they’re going to look for corners to cut – and unfortunately, the roster of DJs they flippantly promised the earth to can be a tempting target.
While it’s not always possible to take a deposit upon being booked, or to get payment before you start (both are good ideas if you can), finding the person who is going to be paying you immediately after you finish is paramount. If you wait until the end of the night, any one of a number of things could have happened, none of which work in your favour: the manager may have gone home, the promoter may have paid everyone else and got no money left, the person who booked you may be too drunk (or worse) to care any more about doing the right thing…
Why you should always ask for something
In any activity which is glamorous, even though, on the face of it, it appears to be a job, there will be people willing to do it for free or for a cut price. DJing is no different. If you’re honest, because you love the music so much, you probably feel the same, at least sometimes.
But while it’s tempting to offer to play for free to get your hours on the clock, or to avoid the legalities or the hassle of getting paid we’ve just talked about, it does more harm than good. It undermines all the time, effort and money you’ve put into the craft, and it undermines all the other DJs who are insisting on charging for their services. Do charge, even if it’s only a token amount. What it does for your sense of worth as a DJ, and the difference in how the person paying you will regard you compared to someone they didn’t have to pay for, is profound.
Let me give you an example. Javier was a Spanish ex- national basketball player who owned a beachside bar in a Mediterranean town I once lived in. Due to its position, this bar got the best sunsets on the whole strip, yet his background music was poor. I convinced him to let me DJ on Sunday evenings for a token fee to see what we could build up. We added an outside mojito bar and got a nice little scene going, and I was making a small wage from it. Soon enough, other local DJs came out of the woodwork. One day, quite apologetically, Javier told me he was now booking other DJs. These guys had seen me playing Sundays, wanted to play his other weekend nights, and had offered to do it for free, assuming that’s what I’d done too. They did a good enough job, so he was happy.
‘Just so you know, though, you’re the only DJ I’ll ever pay!’ he told me. Yet all I’d done was spot a need, offer to do a good job filling it, and put a price on it from the off. Always try to do the same.
There are exceptions, but not many. Private family events of course may well be done for love. Or, if you’re suggesting a brand new idea to a venue manager who is prepared to give you a go to see if it works, you may offer to do the first night for free – but even in this case, it’s still better to charge something for that first night. More importantly, the key thing here is to agree on the fee from the second week onwards, right there and then, so you know that when you’re asked back, the payment conversation has already been had. And sometimes, DJs agree to play charity events for expenses, but I can think of no other situations when DJing for free is a good idea.
So-called ‘pay to play’ events, or events where you have to get rid of a certain number of tickets to get paid, are not a good thing. While it is absolutely your job to be worth employing, you are not the event’s promoter, and there is a line to be drawn. likewise, if a promoter promises you the earth, but says you’ll be paid ‘if we’re busy enough’, the chances are high that you won’t be the one going home with any money that night. Use your instinct and avoid gigs where you think you’ll end up playing for free.
Of course, you may actually want to be the promoter. Done right, promoting events pays much more than any individual DJ gets. And it’s one way of guaranteeing yourself a DJ set, come what may. It was, indeed, the route I took that launched my professional DJing career. In the next chapter, I’ll show you how it’s done.