Music, Gear & Promotion – How To Be A DJ
If you want to be a DJ, keep on reading. Wherever you are in your DJ career, we have a lot of good advice to guide you through and help you to make the right choices when it comes to DJ hardware and DJ courses. If you want to learn how to be a DJ, first of all, you have to pick your DJ gear and become good at using it.
So how do we start? There are three basic things every DJ needs to get going:
- His music collection, genre, sets, taste
- The right DJ gear and the knowledge of how to use it
- Promotion, marketing, and branding to get gigs
If you are starting off your DJ career, you have to concentrate on steps 1 and 2 first.
1. Your Music Is Who You Are
If you are reading this, chances are you are already very passionate about your music and know very well what you like and what you don't like. I think that's very important to know. There is no way to be a good DJ without a very strong relationship to music. But then, there are famous DJs out there maybe playing something very different and you might be asking yourself, should I play what is popular or should I play what I like? On many gigs you will have to face the question of whether you want to do your thing or play something that makes your crowd happy. Ideally, you will make your crowd happy with what you love. That's what I call "DJ heaven". But many times you will have to compromise.
Ideally, you will make your crowd happy with what you love
My basic rule is, don't try to be someone else. Stick to what you stand for, what you love, even if no one seems to care. It takes courage to be yourself. If you think about it, if people love what you play and it's not you, it will feel wrong. How to be a DJ is how to find your way. Better to be patient and eventually find the crowd, the club or the record label that appreciates who you really are than be loved for the wrong reasons.
We will cover music sourcing in our Traktor DJ Course. Nowadays, it's not very hard to find your music on the Internet, but it takes time to develop a strong musical personality – and that's your most valuable asset.
2. Your Gear Is How You Express Yourself
Now that you know what you want to say, learning how to DJ also means finding the right skills and tools to express yourself. And you need to be really good at using them – otherwise it will all come out wrong.
Choosing your gear is important. At the end of the day, you have to buy it and practice at home for quite some time to develop your skills. The question is, what DJ equipment to buy? It's not cheap, so we want to make a good decision.
Here are the three choices you have:
Turntables – the old-school way
I remember buying my Technics 1210s back in the nineties. Boy, was I proud. And broke! But in those days, it was the only way to be a DJ: buy those 1210s, learn how to beat-match, mix, buy your records and all that.
Nowadays, turntables have this huge sentimental aura, and you will hear more than once that spinning vinyl is the only real way to do it. And yes, it is a great experience to work in the purely mechanical, old-school way. It’s very honest and direct. There’s no computer involved, no MP3s. But then, time moves on.
Today, no club will have turntables (with very few exceptions), and buying vinyl is a challenge compared to buying MP3s. But it can be done and it can be great fun, especially when you are into old-school stuff, or maybe have your record collection already. On top of that, vinyl is having a revival in many cities. Record stores are opening again. How I miss them! They have always been the best hangout for DJs. They’re a place to check out the latest releases, have a chat with the owner who will tell you what's hot right now, and even meet some music geeks and DJs.
Turntables will be your first choice if you are into turntableism, scratching, hip hop and all that stuff. For that purpose, controllers will be completely useless.
But if you want to play regular club gigs or events, you MUST be familiar with at least one of the other options: CDJs and controllers.
CDJs - the standard in Clubs around the world
In 1982 music became digital. The first commercially available CD player was released. Pioneer established the club standard for DJs with their CDJ series: CD players with a turntable-like interface, allowing you to scratch and pitch-bend. Over time, CDJs became more and more sophisticated, offering further control features like hot cues, USB port, linking, better displays and even automated beat-matching. This is how to DJ the most convenient way. You can travel the world with nothing more than a pen drive and headphones in your bag, because you can rely on clubs having CDJs in place. But in order to get familiar with them, you will have to buy a pair and a mixer in order to practice at home. If you go for the latest model, it will cost you around $4,000 just for the 2 CDJs. But of course you can have it cheaper if you go for older or second-hand models.
Talking about models: as of November 2014, Pioneer also offers a CD-player-less CDJ: the XDJ-1000. It looks like a CDJ, but the only music source is USB. The screen is bigger and touch-sensitive (includes a QWERTY keyboard) and the selling price is substantially lower. Have a look:
Compared to the laptop/controller solution, Here are the CDJ pros and cons:
- Installed in every club / industry standard
- Travel light: you can put all music on a pen drive
- Great sound
- If there is a problem with the hardware, it's not your problem
- Very robust and reliable
- Compared to a Laptop, the display is still very tiny.
- Less control over your mix than with a good DJ controller
- Much more expensive than most controllers
- You need two of them, plus a mixer
- Changing Track Key - essential for mixing in key - not available
Just like CDJs were a logical consequence of audio CDs and digital music, DJ controllers were the logical consequence of laptops becoming available to everyone. How to be a DJ always reflects technological development.
DJ controllers are setups consisting of a laptop running a DJ software (Serato and Traktor Pro being the most popular and professional ones) and a controller – a piece of hardware that allows you to beat match, mix, add effects and also works as a four-channel sound card (you need four audio channels in order to mix: two for the music signal and two for your headphones). Buying a controller / software package is much cheaper than a CDJ setup (provided you already have a laptop) and gives you much more control over your sets and mixes. The downside: You have to carry your gear to every gig. And if something goes wrong – your laptop crashes or your controller gives up – it's all on you. It’s happened to me before. Trust me, you don't want to be in that situation.
So to wrap it up: pros and cons for DJ controllers:
DJ Controllers Pros:
- Great overview of your music collection through laptop display
- Maximum control over your mix and sets
- You can record your set directly into your laptop
- Buying your gear is cheaper
- You can profit from the latest software updates and customize your setup
DJ Controllers Cons:
- You have to carry laptop and controller to every gig
- If anything goes wrong with your hardware or software, all eyes are on you
- As a laptop DJ, you are always on the geek side and look less "cool" than the CDJ guy. Just in case looks matter to you.
If you ask for my opinion how to DJ, the laptop / controller setup is the natural consequence of technological development and reflects the software-based approach, which makes more sense in today’s world as opposed to the hardware-driven concept reflected by CDJs. It is much simpler to update software than hardware. So despite the cons, I still prefer my controller (Traktor Pro) setup. But you can't ignore the CDJs for now and need to know how to work with them in case your laptop doesn't boot.
One important piece of hardware is still missing, though – your headphones. Check out the best DJ headphones here.
3. Promotion, Marketing, Branding
This topic alone could easily take a whole book to cover and I will keep adding content on this. For now, I just want to give you a breakdown of the essentials to enable you to investigate further on your own and stay on track.
Having everything of the above in place – your music, sets and hardware – is a good and necessary start, but if you leave it at that, you'll be just another bedroom DJ. If you want to learn how to DJ in clubs, bars or events on a professional level, promotion, marketing and branding are a major ingredient for that. Don't fall into what I call the 'artist trap' – cultivating the mindset that says, “It’s good enough to be creative and play great music. Taking care of the business side of it is somewhat unworthy.” Learning how to be a DJ implies treating DJing as a business: delivering value that people are willing to pay for, as well as reaching out to those people.
1. Find out who you are
Make sure you have a clear understanding of what you stand for as a DJ. What makes you unique? What is it that nobody else can deliver? An exercise I find very useful is to take a sheet of paper and write down all the qualities you associate with yourself. Colors, brands, genres, movie stars – whatever it is that is relevant to you, put it on a list. That's your identity-chart. From there, find a description, maybe a tag-line and a DJ name that describes you best. And whenever you talk about yourself, make sure you relate to that list. This way you create your own profile, identity, and brand.
2. Talk about it
Needless to say, it’s recommended to have a website and social media sites in place. Build your authority by posting what is relevant to you, what's happening in your music niche and in your DJ life. Be authentic and add value to other people. Make the point that you are here to provide a unique experience and enhance everybody's life.
Here is what I consider a good basic starter kit for a DJ:
- FaceBook fan page
- SoundCloud page (mostly for originals / remixes; great for making contacts)
- MixCloud page (best for mixes)
On top of that, you may consider having a Beatport DJ profile, ResidentAdvisor profile, BandCamp page and a Twitter account. The list could go on and on – you won't have the time to cover each and every social network out there, but the four basic ones mentioned earlier should do the job to show that you have your sh** together and are not hiding under a rock.
Reach out to colleagues and authorities in your music niche. Find ways to cooperate with other DJs and producers, artists, club owners and event organizers. Build a team around your brand. It's not about what you know, it's about who you know. And even more important, who knows you. Make it a habit to reach out to three to five people every day who have the potential to make a difference in your career. How to be a DJ includes being a good communicator.
As you may have noticed, almost all the big DJ names out there are not exactly known for their DJ skills. They are big because they managed to get a label deal and hit the charts with their releases. Don't push yourself if you're not ready, but for most DJs it will be a natural need to produce their own tracks and remixes anyway because it’s the best way to add your very personal flavor to your set. If you haven't started investigating the great realm of production yet, Ableton Live would be a good starting point.