The acronym 'DJ' is the common shortening of the term 'disc jockey.' A DJ is somebody who plays pre-recorded music before a live audience. A professional DJ is somebody who gets paid to play pre-recorded music before a live audience. Just to be clear, a producer is the one who creates and records the music that a DJ plays before a live audience. Often times, DJ's are also producers. The most famous DJ's such as Tiesto and Avicii produce their own music and own the intellectual rights to their music which allows them to sell it. Tiesto even owns his own record label! But not all of the music that Tiesto DJ's (Note: 'DJ' can be used as a verb) is his own. Tiesto has a radio channel on Sirius XM, for example, and the majority of the music that he plays is "borrowed" form other DJ's.
Types of DJ's
There are many types of DJ's. Radio DJ's are DJ's who have their own radio shows. Traditionally, radio DJ's chose the songs that were played on their radio shows, but as technology has advanced, more and more radio stations rely on software and set playlists to automate which songs are played and when.
Some DJ's are club DJ's. These DJ's play live sets at nightclubs or bars. Each venue has its own vibe. Underground clubs, for example, are normally grungy and like dubstep. Some clubs are more refined and like deep house music that isn't overwhelming. It all depends on your audience. If you're DJ'ing ladies night and most of the women in the audience are 40 years old, you'll probably want to play a lighter set that isn't too progressive.
Club DJ's often seek out residencies with a particular club. Especially if you're just starting out, a residency is a great watermark to strive for because it'll provide you with stable gigs and experience with which will come a following. Even incredibly successful DJ's seek out residencies at clubs. A few years back, Guy Gerber was the resident DJ for Pacha Ibiza. David Guetta is currently the resident at XS in Vegas. The more established your brand is, the more you'll get paid to be a resident DJ especially if you sign a contract.
Another type of DJ is a guest performer DJ. This is similar to a club/bar DJ except that you're not tied down to one particular venue so you can go on tour or play any festival that you'd like.
Many professional DJ's who can't get regular club gigs support themselves by performing at weddings or barmitzvahs or other special events. These DJ's are sometimes referred to as mobile DJ's. This type of DJ might not be as glamorous as others, but this type of DJ is always in demand. Think of mobile DJ'ing as your fallback. Most DJ's don't aspire to perform at weddings and barmitzvahs, but DJ'ing is a competitive industry, so you have to do what you can to make ends meat. Also as technology improves, more people automate the music playlist at these types of events, especially if they're trying to save money, but there will always be a market for live DJ'ing at special events.
"Special Events" also includes things like sporting events. Every major sports team has a DJ controlling the music that's played in the stadium. It's hard to automate this job because often the music played at a sports event directly correlates to what just happened in the game. In baseball, for example, if a pitcher is taken out the game, "Hit The Road Jack" is sometimes played on the loud speakers. That DJ choice is situational and must be initiated by a human being.
How To Become a DJ
The first step to becoming a professional DJ is downloading some free software with which you can experiment. When you're just starting out you'll probably just want to stick with your laptop and free software. Obviously, as you become more advanced, you'll want to purchase hardware (such as turntables) and more advanced computer software that will allow you to expand your capabilities and develop your brand. Especially if you're totally new to the technical aspects of live performing, take small steps at first. Virtual DJ Home and Mixxx are two fully functional and free DJ software programs that will allow you to get your feet wet.
I'm not going to go over all the technical aspects of DJ'ing since there are so many different options and combinations available in terms of hardware and software. And as technology improves, the technical aspect of DJ'ing continually evolves. PassionateDJ.com and HowToBecomeaDJ.biz are two good online resources that go over different pieces of equipment and software options. DJForums.com and Reddit are two good places to ask questions and get knowledgeable answers. "How To DJ Right: The Art and Science of Playing Records" is a good print resource.
At the end of the day, you'll learn the most through repetition and practice so get your hands dirty! Make some mixes; play around. If you outgrow the free software, Traktor 2 Pro is a more powerful platform that only costs $100. You can try a free demo of the software before you purchase it. You can also buy some cheap hardware—the least expensive mixers on Amazon cost around $100.
Keep in mind that the first few mixes you make will need work. Seek feedback on DJ Forums in return for giving feedback on another person's work. Make a MixCloud or SoundCloud page and get feedback that way. Lose your ego; don't be too proud to digest criticism. Honest feedback is invaluable.
Don't get too discouraged when you're just starting out. Remember, all you can do is get a little better every day. You don't need extensive music training to succeed as a DJ. Yes, formal music training helps, but it's not required. If you feel as though your musical know how is lacking, then read a book on music theory. Find books and people that can teach you. People will be willing to teach to you if you provide them with some value in return. Help an established DJ promote his or her music in your local area, and maybe that DJ will listen to one of your mixes and give you feedback. Maybe that DJ will even hire you as an opening act.
If you have no experience and you're applying for a gig at a club, they'll likely ask for a sample which is why it's important to have one or two good clips on MixCloud or your own website that you can use to promote yourself.
Study DJ's that you like. Study their music and their lives as well. Read about the paths they took towards becoming a DJ. How'd they get their big break? Maybe also research their musical backgrounds and/or how they attained their musical chops.
You eventually want to build a brand for yourself. DJ'ing is a service industry. How does the service that you provide differ from every other DJ in a distinct, positive and sustainable way? The sharper your brand, the more you'll be able to charge and the more successful you'll be.
Book a Gig
Once you're confident in your DJ'ing abilities, book any gig you can so that you'll have a credential to put on your resume. Go to a local bar, give the owner a business card with your website URL on it and offer to DJ his bar for a very good price, or for free even. Be careful though—you don't want DJ'ing for free to become the expected norm amongst local bar owners. But for the first few gigs, you may have to DJ for free, especially if you're totally green and not completely confident in your performing abilities. Remember, before you go on stage ("hit the decks" as they say in the industry) have faith. Do your homework and have faith in the work that you've done.
Also scan your local job listings for DJ gigs as well as list yourself as a DJ on directory sites such as Thumbtack.com and GigSalad.com.
The DJ/night life scene is a lot about who you know. Cultivate relationships. Find ways to add value to the brand of established DJ's or night life venues and they'll naturally want to return the favor. An example I gave above is serving as a promoter for a DJ in return for feedback. Don't suck up to a DJ and be super desperate, but be creative. You can start a DJ blog and post about a particular place or DJ and then let that place or DJ know. If you find ways to promote the right people and venues, your efforts will be noticed eventually.
Once you've booked your first gig, keep the good times rolling! The more gigs you play, the more money you'll be making (since you'll charge per gig) but more importantly you'll be gaining experience. With experience and repetition you'll improve perhaps exponentially. As you improve, your brand will become sharper. As your brand sharpens, you'll build a larger fan base. Sometimes a brand overrides the music itself.
Deadmau5, for example, is a marketing genius. He probably doesn't like being labeled a "marketing genius," but the experience at one of his live shows transcends the music. The visuals and the pacing of his set—the subtlety, the touch—makes it unlike any other live performance on earth. Yes, his music is amazing—the most unique in the industry—but even if his music sucked, he would still have some type of following.
One aspect of DJ'ing that can only come with experience is the ability to read the energy in the crowd. To have people like your performances, you have to give them what they want. They're trying to have a good time; it's your job to entertain them. Sometimes you'll have to adjust mid set because something you thought would work isn't working at all. Audiences can be unpredictable. Even the most seasoned DJ's are sometimes caught off guard by a crowd's reaction or the lack of energy in a crowd. The best DJ's in the world are ones who make adjustments either mid set or before their next set so that what went wrong doesn't ever happen again. The best DJ's in the world learn from their mistakes once and then adjust. Remember, the learning process never ends.
Salary and Lifestyle
There's a large range of salaries and lifestyles when it come to DJ'ing. Radio DJ's make on average $20 per hour and are normally employed full time with a particular station. If you're "the morning person" then you'll maybe have to work from 5 AM to 11 AM every morning, perhaps on the weekends as well. In addition to "On-Air" time, you'll have to plan beforehand. For example, if you're interviewing a guest on the show, you'll have to write out questions and prepare.
If you're a nightlife DJ, you'll be working at night, often late into the night. Your set might start at 9 PM and end at midnight at which point the main performer comes on and it might be rude to leave before the main performer's set is over. Club DJ's often get paid a set rate per gig. The more established you are, the more you'll get paid. If you're playing a gig for a legitimate club as the opening act, $500 per gig is more than fair. Thursday night through Saturday night are the big nights for nightlife, so if you play an opening gig on each of those three nights, you'll pull in $1500. The rest of the week, you'll be free to take on any other types of gigs or work a part (maybe even full time) job or develop your own music with the hopes of selling it. DJ'ing can be a great part time job on the weekends for people who are seeking some extra income and like to DJ but aren't ready or willing to completely devote their lives to DJ'ing.
The earning potential for a famous DJ is limitless. A few years ago, Tiesto made 22 million dollars in one year! That's around $70,000 per night. The David Guetta's and Tiesto's of the world can make upwards of $100,000 per performance. DJ'ing is incredibly competitive, however, and even if you make it big, it will take years of hard work to do so. And although these big time DJ's are very wealthy, their lives can be hectic. Let's say you perform 100 nights per year. That means for one third of year, you're in a different city performing live until 4 AM. Factor in travel—you'll be traveling all over the world—and you'll have little time for family or really anything else besides DJ'ing. To be at the top of any game, you have to pay the price. You have to put in the time and effort necessary to be the best and other parts of your life will suffer. The great thing about DJ'ing is that it can be a part time hobby that earns you extra cash on the weekends, or it can be your passion, something you eat sleep and breathe, which is what you'll need to do if you want to hit it big.