How to Become a Disc Jockey

By TACP Staff on June 29, 2019

Do you love music and love sharing it with others, but want to be paid for spinning the tunes? If so, a career as a DJ might be a great option. But being a successful DJ involves more than randomly creating playlists. DJs must carefully blend recordings heard on the radio, on internet stations, at dance clubs and bars; as well as any local flavor that might be popular with event attendees for the purpose of mastering comprehensive musical changes.

1. Getting Started as a DJ

A DJ, short for ‘Disc Jockey,’ is typically a musician who works with pre-recorded music in a live environment in order to provide some form of musical entertainment to guests. DJs are as much hospitality employees as they are musical artists, and as a result, must be well-versed in both fields. A DJ will be a person toting a laptop filled with music and software, and a mixing table to modify the sound live. Although this is not a complete job description and a DJ actually does much more, this is usually what people think of when they think of a career as a DJ.

What makes becoming a professional DJ so exciting is that the field has near limitless potential. Professional DJs will typically operate on a freelance or contract basis, controlling their own hours and creating their own earning potential. DJ’s will commonly register themselves as corporations or SCORPs, for tax benefits while working. This gives the DJ the chance to relieve their tax burden while also reducing their liability — as they don’t have a corporation backing them up.

When there is a public event with music, there is usually a DJ in attendance, working the sound. From weddings and birthdays, to live sporting events and radio, DJ’s are there to make music and entertain the crowd. While it is true that you do not need a formal education to become a DJ, there are many educational paths that will help lead you to realize your career goals. In fact, the DJ field aligns so well with the art world, that many art schools are beginning to offer classes in the field.

2. Advance Your Skills

Understanding the Job, the Gear, and Music Theory

While it is true that you can become a disc jockey with nothing more than an iPod, (although that would be pushing the definition of DJ), you need so much more to truly succeed. A professional DJ will have in their possession a bundle of gear that they use on a nightly basis. This gear includes turntables, headphones, an audio mixer, and professional mixing software such as Traktor or Serato. DJ’s should also know that there are two different styles of performers: those who rely on physical turntables and those who operate solely in the digital realm. A quality DJ will be experienced in both areas.

Outside of completely mastering hardware and software used in this career field, a DJ must also have a full understanding of music and music theory. DJs work from a single station, manipulating live music, but they still need to be able to put out tunes that appeal to their audience. Understanding music theory is integral in becoming a successful DJ. Universities like Full Sail and Columbia College of the Arts offer programs in Music Production and Sound Fundamentals that can prove to be extremely enlightening for an aspiring DJ. If you are committed to the world of sound, music, and pursuing a career as a DJ, you can even pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Audio or Sound Engineering.

A four-year degree in audio engineering will give you a full understanding of sound and how to manipulate it.  Coursework within a studio or audio engineering program may include analog technology, mastering and mixing audio, surround sound, mixing consoles, studio maintenance, and music theory.

There are also a number of skills and insights into this field you must have in order to ensure your guests don’t leave early or unhappy.

  • Just because you like music doesn’t mean everyone at the party will also like music. Prior to mixing 200 tunes, meet with your client to ascertain what kind of music he or she wants.
  • Learn different styles of music; become well-rounded
  • Whether you use CD’s, vinyl, or MP3’s, have an index and backup music on-hand in case the party begins to fizzle.
  • Master how to use a Mixing Desk, and what is a gain, an equalizer, a PFL button, what is balance, a crossfader, AUX sends, etc.
  • Know how to play vinyl, MP3’s, CDs, etc., and how to operate a computer; using Winamp or Linux.
  • Understand digital distortion
  • Understand syncing, nudging, crossfading, and sound effects, as well as reverbs, grind effects, loop effects, flangers, bouncer effects, delay effect, and vocoders
  • Understand how to use midi controllers

DJ’s must also be able to fix their equipment if it malfunctions during a performance. They should also have good communication, be personable, be flexible, and have excellent listening skills.

A career as a DJ does not require a degree or, really any sort of formal education. Much like many other careers in the art world, a career as a DJ has no straight and narrow path. This is also why there is such a disparity in income for professional DJs.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average disc jockey earns an annual wage of $26,850. However, if you were to compare the average earnings of a disc jockey with that of a high-end DJ — a Deadmau5 or DJ Tiesto for instance, well, your numbers would be skewed. For example, the famous DJ Skrillex is worth over $15 million dollars. Much like any other field in the arts, the popular and renowned DJ’s are bringing in millions of dollars per year.

Depending on the track that you choose to pursue, you may need to live in a certain geographic area in order to find steady work as a DJ. DJs are commonly hired for weddings, business parties, live events, work on the radio, and even as performers. Cities like Miami or Los Angele; places with a vibrant night life and an active arts sector, are great for aspiring DJs. Again, work as a DJ isn’t guaranteed, and most individuals will spend a great deal of time marketing themselves and looking for work. But, no matter where you are, still in school or on your own actively seeking the next party or wedding, you should also eagerly search out businesses, internships at radio stations, and apprenticeships to further your career.

3. Build Your Brand & Experience

Establishing Yourself and Exploring the Industry

Becoming a professional DJ is incredibly difficult because there is no clear path to success. Because the majority of DJs are self-employed, it is up to them to find work. As a result, a DJ must be hard working and willing to suffer through potential gaps in jobs.

The majority of DJ work, at the beginning of your career, will likely be through networking and word of mouth. While working an event, always be sure to have business cards on hand. You never know when a guest will decide they need you for a future event. Knowing how to work with people and cater to their needs is also a huge part of becoming successful in this career field. You need both the right temperament and the right personality to find success. While you don’t have to suck up to everyone you meet, it is important to know how to make potential clients feel valued and assured that they will be getting a quality experience. The more outgoing and fun loving you are, the more successful you are likely to be.

DJ’s should pursue other opportunities to gain experience and exposure, as well as make contacts within the industry.  This might include working at a college radio station, participating in public speaking opportunities to overcome stage fright, taking advantage of internships while in school, and taking computer science and multimedia classes.

At some point, you will have to consider branding yourself in order to take that next step. This means that you should have a stage name, a web presence, and a box of business cards always on hand. You need to be as much a performer as a marketer, ready to pitch yourself at a moment’s notice. This can come in particularly handy when festivals or other big events come to town and you want to get on the bill. While DJs don’t operate within Unions or other associations, you can still find tightly knit groups on the internet in places like SoundCloud or Facebook.

Helpful Organizations & Resources for DJs

Additional Guides