So You Wanna Be a DJ?

By: Marcelo Báez

I was watching TV at a friend’s apartment when Party Girl, an independent film from the mid-’90s starting Parker Posey, came on. There’s a scene in the film when Parker’s character, a young party promoter named Mary, tells her DJ to switch up the playlist after a guest complains over the lack of variety. After re-watching that scene—I first saw the film back in 1997—I thought to myself: a DJ whose only job is to play music? How quaint!

Party Girl does a great job at portraying the old-school process of throwing underground parties. Back then no single person was ever in charge of any event. Roles used to be defined and, as such, promoters booked venues and made fliers, hosts attracted and entertained guests, and DJs focused on playing the latest vinyl releases.

But times, customs and expectations have changed. We can debate the pros and cons of this change some other time, but if you want to be a working DJ in 2015, you’ll also have to pick up plenty of not-so-glamorous job titles: booking agent, sound engineer, graphic designer, photo editor, etc. Let’s face it: DJ gigs are not going to come your way simply because you own a laptop with a hard drive full of stolen music. (Maybe you’ll be asked to DJ at your cousin’s quinceañera, which may be all kinds of fun, but she’ll probably pay you with slices of pink cake instead of real money.)

An often-ignored detail about nightlife and parties in general is that crowds tend to associate DJs with the ambiance more than their playlists. Meaning that most people won’t think you’re a great DJ—even if you’re playing good music and mixing it correctly—unless dancing and fun is being had by everyone.

It’s twisted, I know, but that’s just the way the cookie crumbles, kid.

So having read what you just read, you still wanna be a DJ? Cool. Now ask yourself: why would anybody want to go to your party? What kind of music and scene are you offering that other local events don’t already have? In short: what’s your concept? You can certainly go up against the local indie rock party or salsa night (every midsized American city has them), but how will you rise above the noise? Will your playlist be different or will your venue be louder? Are drinks going to be stronger? Is the cover cheaper than your competition’s?

Once you work out an idea, you’ll need to find a venue. A trendy club or bar is not gonna let you take over their weekends because they’re probably packing out on their own, so try booking a weekday. Tuesdays and Thursdays have always been popular party nights, especially with college students and alternative crowds. If you really want a weekend, then scout for an unpopular hole-in-the-wall type of bar. Those are usually aching for business and will probably let you take over if you promise to draw new customers to their establishment.

Once you’ve booked a place, it’s time to spread the word. Create an invite/flier with all the important information—address, cross streets, cover, etc.—and make it pretty or, at the very least, interesting. Got terrible graphic design skills? Pay someone. You’ll obviously be spreading your party all over social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.), but because people won’t always believe your hype, you need to pitch your thing to websites and magazines. Ask about getting on the calendar of the local to-do newspaper or event guides (does Manero ring a bell?). Put the staff of those publications on your guest list and personally ask them to check out your event (lure them with the promise of free drinks). Strangers are more likely to show up to your event if they find out about it through a slightly more reputable source than your no-name Facebook page.

The day of reckoning is before you. Depending on what kind of deal you worked out with the bar or club owner (are you keeping the door cover, getting paid a percentage of the bar sales or a flat fee?), you may need to hire staff. (If the venue is not providing their own door person, pay a friend to help.) Also: who’s taking photos? People love to look at themselves in social settings, and it’s also a great way to keep promoting your event, so consider hiring a photographer to document your event (preferably a photography student who will do it for cheap).

During the event you need to be extremely mindful of the music. I don’t mean what you’re playing (though yes, also be mindful of that), but specifically decibel levels. Ear fatigue is very real and amateur DJs can unknowingly annoy bar patrons by pushing their levels way above where they should be. If people at the bar are screaming their names at each other, you’re way too loud. If no one is dancing it’s almost never because the music isn’t loud enough. Instead try switching up your playlist or dimming the lights (well-lit rooms stifle dance moves).

Lastly, one word of wisdom: know that your first event is probably going to suck. And so will your second and your third. But if you really like being a DJ, just keep doing it until you work out the kinks. If you’re not completely incompetent you’ll eventually find a group of people who will follow your ass to better venues while being genuinely interested in your music and mixing skills. Private bookings will follow and that’s where you’ll make decent money. Not, like, Calvin Harris money, but you’ll go home with a little more than slices of quinceañera cake.

Marcelo Baéz is a writer, DJ, and musician based in NYC. When he's not producing "Rico Suave" parties, he releases music under P3CULIAR.