Learn how to become a successful DJ and make a career from DJing.

April 4, 2018
Written by
Buster Bennett
Learn how to become a successful DJ and make a career from DJing.

How to become a successful DJ

As the UK’s highest rated DJ academy, based on real reviews from our students, we are often asked what it takes to become a successful DJ. It’s a hard question to answer because there are so many different ways to do it, and everyone's experience is unique. However, there are some things which every DJ should think about and we’ve listed them here in a bitesize blog to help you on your way. Follow this bullet point guide to help you decide what route to take to reach your DJ dreams.

What is a DJ, and what types of DJ are there?

There are lots of different types of DJ out there. Try and find the right type for you and your area. If you live in a big city like London there are loads of options but if you live out in the countryside your options might be limited!

Club & Bar DJs - $

Club and Bar DJs are those who play mainly in local bars and clubs, and most likely hold resident slots where they play once a week. These types of gigs require the DJ to play music in line with the club or bar patrons requests, quite often commercial music.

Mobile DJs - $$

Mobile DJs are those who not only DJ but also provide equipment, decks and lights etc. Wedding and party DJs are good examples of these. Sometimes these gigs pay well because they require the DJ to work for the whole evening including the time it takes to set up and take down the equipment. Wedding DJs often charge high fees to cover use of the equipment on top of the gig itself.

DJ Producers (Artists) - $ > $$$$$$

A DJ Producer is a DJ who creates their own music and plays mainly their own tracks and remixes of their tracks at their gigs. They work on promoting themselves as a headliner and play their own style of music at their gigs. This is the most popular choice because everyone likes to show off their own style but it’s also the most competitive part of the industry. DJs who don’t yet produce also enter this category but will struggle to get attention when in competition with DJs who produce as well as DJ.

Technical / Specialist DJs - $$$

Some DJs become well known as a result of a notable skill, like being an expert turntablist. Turntablism involves using the decks like an instrument and can involve scratching, cutting and beat juggling. There are also many artists who create live shows, like Saytek who has a one-man-band set up including lots of drum machines and synths. Taking things to the next level always helps get you noticed.

Radio DJs - $ > $$$$

Radio DJs don’t always mix but focus more on the song selection and curate playlists for a radio station. It often involves interviewing guests on the show, on air banter and general mic skills.

What format should I use?

Vinyl

Vinyl records are known to be excellent sound quality when used in conjunction with a good sound system. You will get a rich warm sound, which is going to be more defined than digital versions. Of course it has its own issues which can affect the quality, like scratches on the record, but a lot of listeners appreciate those qualities too. The problem with vinyl is that you can’t easily get hold of every record you want, it’s more expensive per record and harder to transport and look after. You really need to love the feel of vinyl to take this option. Most DJs nowadays opt for digital formats.

DVS

Digital Vinyl Systems (DVS) are often a go-between. With these systems you can easily switch between analogue records and digital DJing using either CDJs or Turntables with a laptop. It’s also a great option for those who want to scratch on actual turntables but use digital files stored on their laptop. It’s a very theatrical set up but a fair few things can go wrong. The problem is there are many components, wires and programs needed to make it work and if just one fails, the whole system won’t work as it should. It’s recommended for more advanced DJs,  those who are good with setting up hardware and software and dealing with technical issues under pressure.

CD

CD is now heavily outdated but most CDJs including the latest Pioneer CDJ 2000 Nexus MK2’s take CD still. Lots of older DJs sometimes have large collections of music on CD and it’s all high quality so some people still use CD but new DJs are encouraged to go for the more convenient USB or laptop option. Sooner or later they will stop producing decks with a CD port so it’s wise to leave this format behind.

USB

The most reliable, cheap and easy way to DJ nowadays is to create your playlist on your computer using Rekordbox and then export the tracks to a USB stick. You can then just plug the stick into the decks at the gig and play with minimal fuss and minimal risk of something going wrong. We normally recommend this method for new DJs. The only downside to this system is if the club doesn’t have industry standard decks, in which case you may prefer to take a laptop and controller with you or use something like vinyl instead.

Laptop

Laptop DJing has many advantages, sometimes it's nice to have a big screen with all the visuals helping you mix but it can also be a liability. What if someone poured a drink on your laptop? Would you be able to afford another one? We normally recommend people use USB for this reason. However if you’re the kind of DJ who wants to use a large library you may consider this option instead of using USB sticks, or perhaps use an external hard drive instead. Some DJs will also need to use a laptop and possibly their own controller if the club doesn’t have any USB decks available.

What software should I use?

There are lots of different DJ programs available for you to use with a laptop, either to prepare the music to save onto USB or link the laptop to a controller or decks. At London Sound Academy we predominantly teach on the industry standard set up, which includeds Rekordbox, Mixed In Key, Pioneer CDJs and Technic turntables. We also teach on Serato, Traktor and Ableton when requested. There are others too like VirtualDJ which is widely used by bedroom DJs.

Rekordbox (Free Version)

During your lessons at LSA you will use the free version of Rekordbox which allows you to manage your music collection, create playlists, fix beat-grids and prepare your songs for club use. This is the minimum requirement for a DJ who wants to play from a USB stick on the industry standard CDJs.

Rekordbox (Paid Version)

This version is only needed if you want to use Rekordbox on your laptop, instead of using USB sticks with your songs on. We recommend for most DJs in London to use the free version of Rekordbox and the USB sticks, it’s less risky because it’s a danger to take your laptop to a gig and most bars and clubs in London have the industry standard decks. However, if you don’t live in London you might not be so spoilt! You may have to use the full version of Rekordbox on your laptop with a controller at your gigs. The paid version basically gives you all the same features of the free version but also with the ability to mix the songs directly on your laptop and record a set.

Traktor

Much like the paid version of Rekordbox Traktor works with a controller or the decks directly and means you would need to take your laptop to every gig. Traktor is made by Native Instruments, a very forward-thinking company always coming up with new innovations. Pioneer are often copying their features and remain a step ahead when it comes to new technology like being a able to mix stems. It’s also a great program for beginners with a very logical layout. Just be warned you need a fast laptop to run Traktor well without any glitches.

Serato

Much like Traktor and the paid version of Rekordbox this program allows you to DJ with your laptop and a controller or direct with the decks. This means you would need to take your laptop to each gig and potentially a soundcard to connect it to the decks. Serato was really well received in the urban music scene and is used by a the majority of hip-hop DJs. However the market has matured and Serato is used by many different artists but is dropping in popularity.

Ableton

You can use Ableton Live, which is mainly a music production program to make live DJ sets. This is mainly used by advanced performers who want to integrate their own loops and samples into a live set, commonly using other bits of hardware like the Push controller. We recommend this option to those artists who want to create a live performance element to their sets, normally these people are more advanced DJs or have some form of music training.

VirtualDJ

Virtual DJ is the bedroom DJ or entry-level DJ software program, it’s cheap, easy to use and has most of the functions a more expensive program may offer. A lot of wedding DJs and party DJs use this platform. If you want to become a club DJ it’s not recommended as it’s often looked on as a beginner level program. Fine for mobile DJs, not good for club DJs.

What kind of equipment do I need?

You don’t need any of your own equipment to get started. If you’re taking lessons at LSA, you can simply learn in the class and book practice time in the studio. But, practice makes perfect and if you can buy some of your own decks you will notice an improvement. We recommend you get something similar to the industry standard Pioneer CDJ setup, something that uses USB or a controller which plugs into a laptop. You can get Pioneer equipment from £200-£6000, so there is something for every budget. Don’t forget LSA students get a discount too when they buy through us direct. if you're interested in buying something just drop us an email and we’ll happily suggest something appropriate for your budget.

Are there any requirements to becoming a successful DJ?

Unlike other careers you don’t need a qualification to get going. But, of course you need to know how to DJ and have a passion for the music you select! The best way to learn is join a course at an academy like LSA where your tuition will be thorough and structured. Some DJs choose to learn at home, this is the long way and not recommended if you value your time and reputation.

In our experience the most important requirement is the will and determination to push yourself beyond your comfort zone, and to get to the top of your game and be the best you can be. A strong musical education is also a prerequisite, not in terms of music theory (though it helps) but in terms of knowing your style of music and other styles that may influence it. Being a DJ is like curating an exhibition in a museum, you need to have enough musical knowledge to be able to contextualise your choices within your set, to create meaning behind your story.

Learn The Basics

If you’re in London the easiest way to get going is to book onto one of our DJ courses. They are all taught 1-2-1 so we can tailor make the lessons to suit your style of music. You can choose where to take the lessons and what time of day too, it’s very flexible. To book online click here If you’re not able to come to our studios here’s some basic steps to get you going.

Step 1. Download the music you need and prepare your set. This step really depends on what program you decide to use but they are all very similar. We’ve written this for the industry standard program Rekordbox, which works with the Pioneer CDJs and USB memory sticks. When downloading your music It’s best to get high quality formats like WAV or AIFF, although they can be expensive. MP3’s are good too, just not as high quality. We always say when you’re a beginner not to worry too much, but when you have a gig lined up make sure you have the higher quality files to get the best out of the sound system. Avoid using any kind of illegal rips or downloads, if you download from YouTube illegally it will be only 128kbps, which is nothing compared to AIFF which is 1411kbps! You get what you pay for and ultimately you should support other artists in the industry too. Beatport.com is a great place to shop for music but another favourite of LSA is Bandcamp.com which allows musicians to sell their own music direct to the customer without getting fleeced! If you want to support fellow artists use Bandcamp.

Step 2. Now you have your music you should run it through Mixed In Key, or some other program which will give you a key for each song. Every song will be produced in a certain musical key, this program will allow you to match those keys to create harmonised mixes. If you don’t mix harmonically your set will end up sounding out of key, like bad karaoke! No one likes bad Karaoke right!? Once you download the program follow the tutorial which is nice and easy to follow.

Step 3. Time to learn all the functions of your decks. Seriously, just read the manual. It won’t all sink in but you’ll get to grips over time. It’s important to know all the buttons in case you hit one by mistake and it stops the music playing etc. If you’re not sure of a function, just take a pic and ask us, we often respond to messages direct on Facebook. www.facebook.com/londonsoundacademy

Step 4. Learn how to count beats, bars and phrases. There are some basic units of measurement in your songs. The most simple is the regular beat, that ticks along in time with the TEMPO of the music, or the BPM (Beats Per Minute). It’s what you would tap your foot to in a club. Then every four beats forms a BAR. Producers then group the bars together to form bigger sections of music which we call PHRASES. Music with slower tempos like hip-hop and RnB have four bars in each phrase, while faster tempo music like House and Garage has eight bars per phrase, really fast music like Drum & Bass has 16 bars in a phrase. If you’re not sure just count the number or bars in your song until you hear a change in the music. The music should change every four, eight or sixteen bars depending on the style of music. Most music will be every eight bars. This is important because everything you do in mixing fits around this regular phrasing structure. You should always hit play on the phrase for example and a lot of the more advanced EQ’ing and FX happen in time with the buildups in the phrase. At this stage as a beginner you should be able to count the eight bars, then hit play on the phrase. Basically, hit play when the music changes, not a beat before or a beat late, but exactly on the beat where the music changes.

Step 5. Learn how to beatmatch. It’s difficult to write down how to do this, it’s better taught in-person of course which is why at LSA we prefer to teach on a 1-2-1 basis, but we appreciate not everyone can attend classes in London. The easiest way to start on your own is to first match the tempo on both screens/tracks, so they are the same, for example 125BPM and 125BPM. Once both decks are the same tempo make sure you play them aloud at the same time, simultaneously hit both play buttons making sure they are both cued up on the first beat, ideally a kick drum. If you pressed play at the same time on both decks accurately they should be pretty much beatmatched. This is what you’re after. Now using one of the jog wheels push the track out of time, it should sound pretty awful now, like a galloping sound with way too much going on. Your job is now to push the wheel back, until the beats come back into alignment and sound beat-matched. Repeat this exercise many times. The best type of push to use is a quarter of the wheel, don’t be too gentle or nothing will happen. Now you’re used to using the wheel aloud you can try it on the headphones. Have one of the tracks playing aloud and then CUE the next track on the headphones (basically just get ready to hit play) Count your phrase, hit play on the phrase and listen to both tracks on the headphones. Are they beat-matched? Not sure? You should use the wheel and your headphone to check either way, move it around and see if you can getting a tighter beatmatch. Most people who are beginners press play a bit early, so normally you would need to push the wheel anti-clockwise to compensate for that human error. Advanced DJs tend to hit the play button late and normally have to push the wheel clockwise to finish off the beatmatch. If you’re pushing the wheel and it’s getting worse simply go the other way. Get it beatmatched on the headphone and then you can start fading in the new song. You can either use the channel faders for this or the crossfader.

Step 6. EQ your mix. You can get a pretty smooth result just fading the volume using the channel faders or crossfader but to get a more nuanced mix with more depth you need to start using the EQ’s and even the filters. The EQ’s are the three knobs on the channel, HI, MID & LOW. Also sometimes known as Treble, Mid and Bass. The simplest way to mix using the EQ’s for dance music is to beatmatch your new track on the headphones, then before bringing up the fader you reduce the EQ levels, take them mostly down, then bring in the fader. It won’t be vry noticeable so you’ll get a smooth entry. Now you want to reveal the track layer-by-layer. Start by bringing up the HI EQ to its normal position (the center position) as you do so you may balance it with that of the older track, do the same for the mid too and then slowly swap the bass. As you bring up the new LOW EQ you should bring down the old one, this way it will balance those low-end frequencies so your mix doesn’t sound too loud or too muddy. Some DJs who play shorter songs, like hip-hop songs might opt for just using the bass EQ to save time.

Step 7. Record Your Sets. You should record and listen back to your sets often, this will help you identify areas to improve on. Feel free to send us a link so we can listen!

Learn your trade

You need to invest a lot of time in learning your trade. Not just in terms of DJ skills, you also need to have knowledge of all areas of DJing. DJs often are involved in the following activities:

DJing - The artform of DJing, curating DJ sets and performing. This goes without saying in a ‘How to be a DJ’ blog! To become a master of your trade, push yourself and practice regularly. You also need to gain experience at real gigs and probably you’ll want to learn how to produce.

Marketing - This is the mechanics of utilising promotion platforms like social media to promote yourself and garner more attention of your work. This can include: writing press releases, creating a story behind your work and a captivating biography. utilising platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to build a fan base, and managing music profiles like Soundcloud, Mixcloud and YouTube.

Networking - Become a networker. You’ll need to be seen and heard where it matters the most. Do some research and find out what industry events are near you and make sure you have some business cards to hand out. Practice your pitch to promoters or agencies and keep practicing how to communicate with people and build your own confidence. This can be hard if you’re a slightly introverted artist but if you keep practicing you’ll master the technique soon enough.

Graphics, Photography & Videography - DJs often need to have a keen eye for quality graphic design or have their own creative ideas when it comes to how their image in conveyed graphically. The artwork or images you use are often seen before your music is heard. Make sure it conveys your story and make sure that it’s high quality to respect your own passion in music. This can include artwork to mixtapes, music releases, gig flyers, press photos, live photography at gigs or even videography. Try and make your online graphical identity streamlined so there is a coherent message.  

Professionalism - You need to know how to conduct yourself in a professional manner. You should understand industry standards, not just in the music you’re using but also all the legal things you should know, like what insurance you may be required to have. If you’re a mobile DJ you will also need to have a PRS license to play music in unlicensed venues and good public liability insurance. All DJs also need to know a little about how to invoice and account for all their payments as a self employed artist. If you’re a producer you will need to know all about copyright and licensing too. Always conduct yourself in a professional manner and uphold a high standard so that people know how serious you are.

Create a five year plan

Like any business pursuit you should start by trying to create a solid plan of action. We suggest a five year plan because it’s rare that anyone will become an overnight success story. Set realistic goals, like taking a year to learn how to DJ and get your first gigs. Perhaps a further year to learn the basics of music production and get some bigger gigs, and then a third year to release your first record etc. You can also set goals like how many followers you want or how many business cards you want to hand out in a set time period. Making sure you’re pushing to reach your goals all the time will help you progress, it’s a good idea to create a calendar for your DJ career too and make sure you fill it with lots of tasks on a daily basis, just like a pro would.

Get DJ Gigs

At some point you need to step out of the bedroom and into the club. Learning to DJ in a room on your own is a totally different experience to playing at gig. You need to learn how to truly perform your set and convey your energy to a crowd of people. Luckily at LSA we organise DJ gigs for every single graduate. Our graduates can play all over London in super clubs like Ministry of Sound, Egg LDN and Brixton Academy to name a few. We also have lots of smaller gigs in bars like Horse & Groom, Zigfrid, Golden Bee and many more to cut your teeth as a DJ. Once a year we organise our annual tour of Ibiza, with an average of 50 LSA DJs coming to DJ all over the island!

If you’re not an LSA student and you want to get your first gigs, just start small and see if you can get a warm up gig at a small bar or club. You’ll need to accept some rejections but don’t let that put you off, you’ll soon learn how to up your hustle! Once you start gigging you’ll find it easier to get more gigs. Make sure you really capitalise on each opportunity, take your business cards along, network and make sure you keep a record of the flyers. You can also use it as a great opportunity to take some photos or video of your gig to use as content on your social media profiles and in your press pack.

If you are struggling to get your own gig we recommend you start you own event. Start small and don’t blow a huge wad of money on it! Most first events fail to meet your expectations. To avoid disappointment and a big bill at the end of the night you should play it safe and do something with a low budget. Learn how to throw a good party by trial and error and grow your events audience organically over time.

What if I don’t succeed?

I guess this depends on what you deem as a success. I think success as a DJ is being the best DJ you can be. It’s really impossible to compare one artist against another in any creative pursuit, so don’t try and use other people's journeys as a benchmark to measure the success of your own. Have fun, enjoy the ride and put all your passion for music into your sets. If you’re in it just to become famous you’re doing it wrong!

If you would like anymore advice on how to become a DJ just contact us to find out more about our specialist DJ courses and DJ gig offerings. If you would like to ask our founder Buster Bennett directly you can message him on Facebook

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