Taking on the DJ Challenge
Of all the jobs in the music industry, a career as a DJ -- whether it involves spinning tracks at a dance club, concert, or rave, or on the air -- seems like it must be the easiest and most hassle-free. You just pick out some favorite jams, drag your laptop, drives, discs, or (if we're talking old-school) vinyl discs up to the platform, plug in, and play for an adoring public. But don't be deceived. Being a DJ requires a significant amount of skill and dedication, and succeeding as a DJ presumes that one has the right connections, makes the best of opportunities that come up, and can bring something special or unique enough to the sound system to stand out in a very competitive field.
Those who attain the highest echelon of the DJ profession are so adept and musically astute that they can move into the studio production of other artists, re-imagine and remix pre-existing compositions, and create their own original music -- adding the title of recording artist to their résumés. But before any of that can happen, a would-be DJ needs to put in a lot of time learning the essentials of the gig.
The title DJ is an abbreviation of “disc jockey” from back in the day when a charismatic and knowledgeable person spun records -- 45 rpm singles, 33 1/3 rpm albums, and 12-inch mixes -- on the turntables at radio stations and discos. They had to artfully segue from song to song, so it was important to know what would blend well for the smoothest and most engaging program. That held true at discos in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s and still does today.
At modern dance clubs, the DJ’s mandate is to get the crowd dancing and keep them there. To trigger the first wave of movement on the dance floor and to create the best possible atmosphere for the entire set that will be played, the DJ has to be aware of the style of music the audience expects or wants -- EDM, hip-hop, R&B, rock and roll, etc. Song choice is a key element in that regard; wide knowledge of the music scene, classic to current hits, and artists on the rise, is crucial. And to maintain a flow and a seductive rhythm, the DJ should understand technical matters about the sound systems being used, including a mastery of pitch control, and be familiar with a given track’s beats-per-minute (bpm) to assure a seamless match from that selection to the next.
It’s fair to say that the best DJs have remarkable instincts when it comes to their patrons, can “read” a room, and will change up the programming as necessary to assure a happy throng. The nuts and bolts of DJing aside, the great ones practice their sets for hours and make sure their medleys are magical. And they usually started small, playing house parties or neighborhood dives; sending out demo mix-tapes to booking agents, and opening for other, better-known DJs or even for bands to get comfortable in front of bigger and bigger crowds.
Is it easy to be a DJ? Most successful DJs will tell you it’s not, although the rewards are worth the effort.