Throwing Your Own Event
When I was sixteen, my school organised an entrepreneurial class where we all had to come up with a business idea. People made necklaces, printed T-shirts and mowed lawns, but my friend and I decided a better idea would be to start a lunchtime sweet shop in our school. Unsurprisingly, we did better than the rest – so well, in fact, that we ended up being told to shut down by the headmaster, only to cut him a deal on the profits so we could carry on…
And carry on we did, taking our handsome profits down to the local record shop every day and building a great collection of 7-inch and 12-inch singles, and eventually buying a battered old mobile DJ rig, complete with flashing rope lights. We were now, we decided, DJs, and would throw a party to celebrate.
The end of our school term was approaching. We’d become quite the celebrities at school through our popular sweet shop, which also gave us a handy place to sell tickets from, so we hired the local sports club’s hall for the last Friday of term and had some tickets and photocopied posters made. On the night, we set our gear up (in the hatch between the club’s kitchen and the main room), put a couple of girls from my class on the door to collect the money, and we were all set – our first ever event.
That was a long time ago, and honestly all I remember is the moment I filled the dancefloor playing my favourite tune at the time (New order’s ‘Perfect Kiss’), and a fight in the toilets involving the next school along and a couple of broken toilet seats. Oh, and the profits. Yup, these things did well. Our little business was booming. And the best bit? We were playing our own music, all night long. We actually ended up throwing many such parties (including some for other schools, and eventually a big one for all the local schools in a real club).
Throwing your own events, I realised early on, is a great way to make more money and get more gigs than other DJs.
Fast forward to the world of today. Rather than being, in the words of Paul van Dyk, ‘the geek in the corner playing records while everyone else has fun’, we DJs are everywhere, meaning much more competition. Instead of needing access to a photocopier for posters and being able to afford the local printer for tickets, we’ve got the internet and social media and phone apps for free publicity, sales and ticketing – but everyone else has access to these resources too. Yet really, promoting hasn’t changed much from what I just described, and the reasons it’s worth doing haven’t changed a bit: you get to throw a great party, you manufacture yourself a DJ slot at the same time, and you may make a bit of cash from it.
How to promote
Teaching you how to promote could fill a book by itself, so in this chapter I’m going to go through some important tips that I wish I’d been told rather than having to work them out for myself over the decades of promoting hundreds of parties, good, bad, full and empty.
1. Start small
It is better to play to twenty people in a venue that holds forty than to forty in a venue that holds 200. Really, you can’t start too small. Keep everything – venue cost and size, promotional budget, number of guest DJs – small. If you fail (and you will, frequently), you’ll ‘fail small’ too – meaning you’ll find it easier to get up and do it all again. Probably the biggest mistake new promoters make is to think throwing money at an event to make a bang is the way to get success. It doesn’t work that way – people go to what they know, so you need to spread the word about what you do by impressing half a dozen people at your first event, then a dozen, then twenty, and so on, building your credentials and audience slowly over time.
2. Pick a good night
Friday and Saturday are always good, but obviously harder to secure, unless you come up with a novel venue that doesn’t usually do this kind of thing, which has risks of its own. One-offs around public holidays are good, because if everyone’s off work on a holiday Monday, you can throw a Sunday night party and expect more success than any usual Sunday night. We were always fans of throwing parties on Maundy Thursday, the evening before Good Friday, because we figured we’d tempt people out a day earlier than normal and get their energy and money before anyone else.
3. Do it yourself
I was once handed a plum Saturday night weekly slot to promote, and promptly booked all the resident DJs from all the clubs in the area to be my guest DJs. I figured it’d make for a busy-looking flyer and get me involved with the local scene a bit more. Instead, it gave me a logistical headache, a load of mercenary jocks who didn’t care about the success of my night, and an unfocused event that ultimately struggled.
‘You’re good enough to do this yourself,’ my DJ mentor told me – and sure enough, a re-jigged event, with my DJing partner and me playing the music and one or two carefully selected guest DJs, solved the issues. It was really just a confidence thing.
Trust yourself to be able to DJ your own event – after all, that’s why you’re doing it, right?
4. Expect half the people to turn up who say they will
And frankly, that number is being generous. There’s a phenomenon in the UK called ‘Shy Tory Factor’ which attempts to explain why so many people say they’ll not vote for the right-wing Conservative (Tory) Party in elections, yet when it comes down to it, they do, throwing all the opinion polls out. There should be one called ‘Shy Clubber Factor’ too. It’s a fact of promoting that just because someone says they’ll come to your event (on Facebook, face-to-face, because they took a pile of free tickets), it really doesn’t mean much at all. When the moment comes, many of them simply won’t. I refer you back to point 1 – insure yourself thoroughly against this.
5. Build your night on a brand, not a music style
Come up with a name, a theme, a feel for your night, and do some basic branding, but don’t try and brand your night around the music you’re playing. If you base your night around the current trendy music genre, as soon as that genre is out of fashion (or you decide it isn’t working for you and need to pivot), you’re stuck. But a brand – well, that can evolve and move with the times. Plus, you may personally be obsessed with the twists and turns of every sub-genre of dance music out there, but your audience really isn’t. Coming up with a club night brand rather than throwing a deep house night or whatever insures you against accidentally alienating a large proportion of your potential audience who either don’t care or may even be put off by your chosen style.
6. Negotiate the right deal with the venue owner
Venue owners and managers will usually try and charge you for the venue, because if nobody turns up, they still make something. As a new promoter, you can’t really argue against this, and it’s a clever promoter indeed who manages to talk a venue manager into giving up a cut of the bar takings (I’ve never managed it in twenty-five years of promoting), so really the game here is to get that hire fee as low as possible. Point out that you’re doing all the legwork, logistics and actual promotion, and these things cost time and money, then negotiate low to get the best outcome.
7. Use every trick you can to oversubscribe your event
It’s an established fact of marketing that people only buy from those they know and trust, and bluntly, in promotion that means they either need to be your best friends (and even that often doesn’t work – see point three) or you need to hit them hard and often with your message. That doesn’t mean spamming their Facebook multiple times daily, though – that method fails because it is only one channel. Instead, you need to recognise that nowadays everybody is online all the time and everyone is offline all the time – so you need to use your own website, get other influential websites talking about the event (interviewing you, running competitions for tickets and so on), work social media, print posters and flyers (yes, still important), get on the local radio spreading your message, and tell everyone you meet. The best way to get guaranteed income is to sell advance tickets, so definitely push this option hard.
8. Collect email addresses on the night
The best promotional tool, even in this social media age, is still an email sent to someone who knows who you are and is happy to receive it. And one of the easiest things to talk yourself out of doing at your events is collecting email addresses from the small percentage of people who heard about your party and actually came. Make no mistake: these people are your solid gold super-fans, and even if they don’t appear to be particularly enjoying themselves on the night, they are still far more likely to come again than anyone else. You simply have to stay in touch. Have a clipboard, iPad, whatever, promote some incentive for signing up (free tickets, free DJ mixes), and make damned sure you email them and let them know of your next party, without fail.
While promoting is undeniably a great way to give you a stream of gigs playing the music you love and meet your DJing heroes (because if you end up with a successful night, you’ll have the funds to book them to play alongside you), it’s a high-risk game that demands all your attention. If you just want to earn some extra cash from your DJing, there’s another route, and it’s one that 100 DJs follow for every single one who successfully promotes events. It is, of course, being a mobile DJ.
That’s what the next chapter in this section is about.