How to be a Small Town DJ

Being a DJ or promoter in a small town presents its own set of challenges today.  The first and most obvious reason is that smaller towns have less places to play.  So, unless you can find a place that doesn’t already have a queue of people ready to mix records for free or cheap… it can seem like you’re out of luck.

Small towns have small communities, and they require support to keep from collapsing.  I come from a town which has a small (but dedicated) following for the scene I’m most involved in (dance/electronic music).  If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the best way to ensure that your local scene succeeds (and you have places to share your music) is to avoid drawing lines in the sand whenever possible.  In the business world, competition is a good thing… but when it comes to a local music scene, collaboration is a much better approach.

I became interested in DJing at a time when my “scene of interest” was pretty much dead as a doornail, at least on a local level.  Unlike many of my predecessors, I became interested in DJing because of my prior interest in production as opposed to the other way around.  When I became interested in the performance side of things, I started looking for places to play… and seemed to keep finding only remnants of a scene that once existed.  I missed my opportunity.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like my town was ever a mecca for nightlife.  But I had at least hoped to find something.

I tracked down the few events that I could find (MySpace was starting to become popular, and I used that in combination with some local message boards that were still hanging on).  I started meeting and talking to people, learning a part of my city’s history that I had never been previously aware of.  Once upon a time, the clubs were always packed and they didn’t all just play Top 40 radio music.  There were illegal raves, and it wasn’t a struggle to get people out to them.  There was apparently this inherent love for music and sense of community in the scene that I was not able to observe by the time I got to it.

Now, it’s probably fair to say that some of these stories were probably rosy retrospection.  (Things are never like “the good old days”.)  But the more old flyers, pictures, and stories I loaded into my brain, the more I realized that it wasn’t just that.  There was a scene once, and it disappeared.  This was due to a number of reasons, and you might get a different answer depending on who you ask.  But suffice it to say, a recurring theme seemed to be that a few main “legs” of the support structure moved away or lost interest, lines got drawn in the sand, and the scene was left for dead.  I wasn’t happy to have missed the boat, and I wanted to see if I could do anything about it.  There was a reasonably decent hip-hop and Top 40 scene at the time, but nothing centered around what I was interested in… which, at the time, was trance and house music.

Networking is just as important in a small scene as it is in a thriving one… possibly even more so.  I started trying to find other like-minded individuals to see if there was some way to get something going, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to do it.  Sure, MySpace was coming around, but the idea of social networking the way we think about it today was still a bit new and weird. In the meantime, I scraped together some (very ghetto) equipment and started playing house parties for my buddies to get used to the idea of mixing in front of people.

I had heard of a weekly electronic music event from a few years prior that was pretty successful at a small dive bar.  I went there a few times and started talking to the bartender, who also happened to be in charge of events and general management of the place.  As it turned out, she was a super nice person who was involved in all sorts of local art and music stuff.  She noticed that I was just as interested in helping to stimulate the local music scene as she was, and decided to let me start playing some Tuesday nights along with a friend of mine who was around during the scene collapse.  I gathered as many of my friends together as I could to support these nights, and usually managed to have 10 or 20 people there each time.  It wasn’t much, but it was something… and we were having a good time.

Eventually that bar closed down, but the bartender was very connected and got a job at a local night club which was pretty well established.  She started running events there, and started having me play various types of events in this better space.  I supported her nights as much as I could, and we ended up with a pretty good working relationship.  We both were being as professional as we could, but also very laid back.  Eventually, she was able to give me my own night… a Thursday-night monthly which I ran with varying levels of success for about a year.  Most nights were nothing spectacular, but it was something, and it brought a few people back out and got them interested.

Eventually, another local guy (who I ended up being very good friends with and collaborates with me often today) started running a weekly at another spot and he had a lot more success with getting people out on the regular.  I saw this and was pretty stoked, and decided to shut down my monthly which was struggling to bring people in.  After all, I didn’t get into this for the sake of event promotion… that came out of necessity.  That weekly is still running today, and I’m often asked to play there.  It’s always a great time!

Eventually, things like dubstep came along, and commercialized house music started hitting the radio here in the states.  These days, the scene has a bit more of a leg to stand on.  (This has its pros and cons, of course… for those of us more interested in the underground side of things, but that’s a topic for another day.)  I’m still very good friends with both of the people I mention in this article and we collaborate often on various kinds of events, from art shows to fashion shows to club nights and everything in-between. But the networking didn’t stop there.  I eventually got involved enough in the scene that most people know who I am, and I’ve worked with them in some way.

The best approach to being a DJ in a small town is to truly give back to your music community.  If you start running into closed doors every where you go, figure out how you can go about opening one instead of waiting for someone else to do it.  Start working with people and helping them out… because you want to.  It will only work if you’re both genuine in your desire to help each other.

“If you start running into closed doors every where you go, figure out how you can go about opening one.”

It’s also important to do everything you can to keep your scene united.  What it really comes down to is the fact that a small scene can simply not afford to be divided.  Once again, collaboration is better than competition.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t like a certain kind of music; I’m not interested in throwing or playing dubstep nights, but it sure did get a lot of people up out of the couch and bring them back to see what the fuss was about… and it brought a lot of new blood into the scene.  I’m not saying that you should play or throw events you aren’t interested in; I’m simply saying not to shun them.  And, as long as they work the same way you do, be willing to help them out (genuinely) whenever possible.  And when you’re booked by someone, do your best to spread the word about your event.  It’s only helping both of you out… and it’s incredibly easy to just click the “share” button every now and then, or leave a few flyers on a bulletin board somewhere.

There’s one final thought that I’ll leave you with.  Sometimes there is opportunity where you might not be looking.  Some of the most fun I have is playing gigs that I would have never thought about taking back when I started getting in to all of this in the mid 00’s.  I love playing small art shows, benefits, and the like.  Two of my favorite recurring gigs are at unlikely spots: a hair salon and a consignment shop.  Who would’ve thought?

Where are some strange, cool, or unlikely places that you’ve played gigs?  Let me know in the comments below!