Can DJs Still Succeed Under Their Own Merit?

As far as gaining international recognition, being a good DJ just doesn’t seem to cut it anymore.

Yeah, this isn’t a new concept… it’s been this way for a while now.  Once upon a time, it was something special to be able to make long blending transitions, beatmatch quickly, and make a set that flows.  But, obviously, technology has continued to close that skill gap.  It’s true now more than ever: if you want to make it big, you need to make a hit record (or two)… unless you’re a killer competing turntablist/exhibitionist.

But what if you’re not interested in producing, or you’ve decided that cranking out hit records just isn’t in the cards for you?  Is it still possible to be a successful DJ?

Well, there are a number of ways to define “successful” in this topic.  Let me suggest some other ways that DJs can possibly be considered successful outside of being internationally famous.

1. The DJ who is making money

If you’re making money off your gigs, you must already be reaching some level of success.  And just because you love what you do, it doesn’t mean that you should shun the idea of making money off of it.

Probably the best way to earn money off of DJ gigs is to be a mobile DJ who plays weddings, corporate events, and the like.  There are people who make decent money doing this, and they have a great time doing it.  This isn’t necessarily my bag, but many people love it.  And the one thing that will set you apart as a wedding/mobile DJ?  Professionalism.  This is a job.  You should be courteous, confident, willing to adapt, and dripping with expertise.

It’s not the only way, though.  If you put in your time, do enough networking and support enough nights… you might eventually wind up with a paying residency somewhere.  This is tough to do in today’s day in age (competent DJs are easy to come by), but it’s not out of the question.

2. The DJ with a small following

Just because you aren’t known across the world and you’re able to go into a Starbucks without being inundated with fans, doesn’t mean that you can’t have a following!  It feels good to have even only 5 or 10 people who truly appreciate what it is you do, and will listen to anything you put out because they trust you and your musical judgment.

Even if you don’t have a million likes on your Facebook fan page, it still feels pretty cool to have one or two hundred.  And once you start learning how to take the right gigs, you’ll start finding more and more people who appreciate you for what you actually do (and not what you feel like you have to do in order to succeed).

Whether it’s building an online presence and getting a couple of downloads (feedback is always enjoyable), or playing locally, you can feel pretty fulfilled by playing to your mini fan club.  I admit, it’s a pretty cool feeling to see some of the same faces coming out to see me play, and having some of the same promoters book me again because they appreciate what I do.

3. The DJ who loves it

This is my favorite way to measure success.  If you love what you’re doing, who can fault you?

I know plenty of “bedroom DJs” who have never played out, and never intend to.  They just love mixing.  They love putting together sets that they would want to hear (and recording them so they can listen to them later).  This is the modern evolution of the old radio mixtapes we used to make as kids.

Whether you play in front of thousands, or to your bedroom wall… if you love what you’re doing, you’re a successful DJ.

4. The DJ who gives back

Today’s DJ wears many hats, but they don’t have to be related to production.  If you care about your target community, you’ll want to give back to them in some way.  Here are some ways I’ve tried to do that:

  • Throwing my own small events
  • Promoting other people’s events that I believe in or want to support
  • Offered to help work other people’s big nights
  • Listen to recorded sets of DJs I like (locally or within the online communities I’m involved in) and give honest, useful feedback.  Just a single line saying whether I liked it or disliked it isn’t enough… really help them out!
  • Offering to play events with a good cause, such as ones related to Autism Awareness (a topic close to home for me), sexual health, or community growth.

How do you like to give back to your local community through your musical talents (DJing or otherwise?)

5. The DJ who is awesome

This one pretty much explains itself.  There’s still no substitute for being incredibly good at what you do.  It’s just that what defines you and sets you apart as an “amazing” DJ has changed over the years… especially since it’s not all about technical skills anymore (once again, turntablists/exhibitionist DJs exempt).

Of course, how we define “success” is largely a personal thing.  But there are some ways which you can help yourself along the path to more gigs, more fulfilling gigs, and more of an online fan base.  Keep an eye out for future blog posts around this subject.

How we measure success is largely how we define personal happiness.  While it may be true that you need to do something truly spectacular or different in order to stand out these days (and even then, as a DJ, it’s probably still not enough), it doesn’t mean that DJing can’t be a fulfilling pursuit for those who love it.

Do you know of any modern “digital era” DJs who have become internationally successful based on their mixing rather than their productions?  Do you think that it’s still possible to become internationally famous without being (or hiring) an awesome producer?  Let me know in the comments below!