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The Politics of Getting Paid to Play – Launching Your Own Night

So you learned how to DJ.  You’re devoted, you practice often and hell, you’ve got good taste.  You’ve got a set on soundcloud that has gotten some play and you’re beginning to be noticed by more of your friends.  Some have even asked you to play at their parties.  You’re all to happy to play at a friend’s after party for free because you’re eager to get your name out, but you’re beginning to itch for a little more recognition of your talent and frankly, it’s time to get paid.

Pay Your Dues

Just because you decided to DJ doesn’t mean you’ve earned the right to play out just yet.  The most important skill of the DJ is the art of mixing, so make sure you know what you’re doing before you become noticed.  You’d much rather be noticed as a DJ who silently springs upon the scene, ninja-style, than a self-promoting DJ who, while eager, is still technically fresh and not ready to play out just yet.

Bedroom-Dj-Session-1280x800Every city has a pecking order; a hierarchy of key players in the industry who have been at it for leagues longer than you.  It would be arrogant to think that you should start getting booked because you’ve decided that it’s time, but as your abilities start to get you noticed and people want to book you, you’ll be presented with a range of possibilities of how to join the network of billable talent in a scene.

Every musical ecosystem operates differently, so it’s important that you start paying attention to the venues that host the music you like and get to know the promoters who make those nights possible.  While everyone is eager to chomp at the bit to get booked to play out, one thing is for sure in the politics of getting paid to play music; if someone is making money off of the art of someone else, then the artist deserves a cut.  Unless there is an explicit agreement between the parties beforehand, this should serve as the golden rule among members of the nightlife circuit.  If, however, you’ve thrown a couple parties before with friends and you think you’re ready to pull off a successful night, then I suggest a more do it yourself approach to getting yourself booked.

Make your Own Opportunities

Lets assume from the outset that you’re starting something new for your scene.  The best thing you can do is to make your own opportunity rather than to force a minimal techno act (for example) within a Nu Disco scene.  It’s bad news for everyone so lets just assume you have to start from scratch and build from the ground up.

If you have a favorite bar or lounge you frequent that you think would be the perfect place to host your night, start becoming a regular.  Get to know the bartenders and figure out how the venue is run.  Whether the bar owner directly oversees the establishment’s bookings or if it’s the responsibility of the bar manager to do so, chances are the bartender has the scoop.  So by all means, order a beer, take a seat and consider it a business expense, because you need to know how your ideal venue runs it’s nights if you want a real shot at hosting a night there.

Position Yourself Well and Set Your Terms

To make things easy lets assume the owner of the bar oversees all their bookings.  You make your pitch for the night and he’s interested in what he hears but may need more than interest alone as a reason to give you a shot.  If you’ve thrown a couple parties in the past, make sure you put together a video or link to a collection of photos that document the kind of night you’d be able to put together, and above all else, make sure you’re able to answer the question “How many people can you bring?”, because you will be asked.

empty-dancefloorVenues only do as well as their bars do, which is why you need to be able to present a ballpark range for how many people you anticipate your night can lure out.  While you may feel the pressure to inflate your numbers a bit to secure the deal, make sure you stay realistic.  Remember, this is not a one off thing.  You’re developing a relationship with the establishment that will host your night- make sure you start off on the right foot and with your credibility intact!

A great way to help is to reach out to friends that DJ -whose taste you trust- and bring them on board.  By broadening your roster of talent, not only do you increase your promotional power but you’re also actively diversifying your target market, facilitating fan-base crossover.  Artists you book will take ownership of the night and help promote the event for you because, frankly, their paycheck depends on it. Simply put, this helps you to find more potential fans of your music and by extension, your night.  The bigger the crowd, the bigger the paycheck, so make sure you hone in on your leadership skills and build a team you trust to help you hustle.

On this note, make sure you’re clear about how much you are going to pay the talent you book, whether you can afford a flat fee or agree to split the pot of earnings between everyone involved, just be sure save yourself the headache (along with your reputation) but being honest and upfront.

When determining potential bookings you can afford -based off your anticipated earnings for the night- keep in mind that bars will typically let you keep whatever you charge guests for entry at the door.  It’s an incentive for you to stay on your game, as well as your chance to show that you can earn your keep.  If the bar does well, chances are you’ll be able to secure another night, in what could lead to a residency.  So when negotiating terms for your night, keeping all earnings from the door is typically a good place to start.

When speaking with your contact, make sure you also know what their setup is and the limitations of the venue.  Some establishments have CD-Js on hand, others not so much.  Make sure you know ahead of time whether or not they are able to accommodate you so you’re either able to bring your own gear or plan ahead to rent the necessary equipment. You don’t want to show up the day of your gig with a lonely turntable and an expectation to perform miracles. It’s happened before; make sure you protect yourself by setting common expectations between you and your venue.

broken-technics-620x417This leads to my next point, arguably, one of the most important factors for me when I go out- sound quality.  If the venue has great sound, then you’re one step ahead.  However, if electronic music isn’t exactly their forte then chances are the speakers they have available might not be appropriate.  If this is the case, speak with your contact and contemplate renting speakers that will work for the night.  There is nothing more tragic than a mind-blowing set, heard on sound system that just couldn’t handle it, so plan accordingly!

Once you’ve covered basics and have an agreement, follow-up with an email or Facebook message to confirm the date, time and terms of your deal. It’s good to have a common point of reference if anything unexpected should happen.

Establish a Reputation for Quality and Maximize Your Bargaining Power

Once you’ve got a date lined up, a bill of talent booked and have properly promoted, make sure you think about extra touches that might make all the difference for the way your guests experience the night.  The social contract between DJs, promoters and music fans is fairly straightforward.  If you’re charging standard entry at the door (this is location dependent, so do your homework), people won’t expect too much- mainly, good music and adequate sound.  If you’re going to charge more, make sure you add a little bang for their buck and really give them something to remember.

Nothing sets a vibe quite like visuals and an impressive sound system, so make sure you don’t cut corners and integrate those costs into your budget.  By going the extra mile, repeat customers will gladly pay a little more for quality because the experience is worth it to them.

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Assuming your first night is a success and you’re been invited to return a couple more times, you’ll find yourself in a better position to dictate more profitable terms.  If you consistently bring in a crowd that makes the bar happy, then asking for a percentage of the bar’s returns is a good place to start.

Now that you’ve got the basics on how to score your own night, make sure you don’t lose sight of what you’re doing.  By throwing a night you’re making an investment in something greater than yourself and becoming a part of something beautiful.   You’re building a community out of music and that’s a special thing.  Nothing kills this delicate balance faster than money, so make sure you don’t get greedy; take calculated risks and above all else, stay true to what drew you to music in the first place.  You’ll find that fans of your night will go out of their way to thank you for it.

By | 2016-12-02T14:48:09+00:00 May 13, 2013|Opinion|2 Comments
  • Excellent article Michael. So many of the basic questions I hear from young DJs getting started are covered in the piece.

  • emma

    great read! thanks michael!! brilliantly written! x