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 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.


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 the music doesn’t mean everyone at the party will also like the 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.


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.

Get to Know Our Experts

John Michael Hydo

  • Title:
  • Company:
    Tomorrow’s Event Productions
  • Where:
    Los Angeles, CA
  • Experience:
    24 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I went to a junior college and then decided that I could make more money being a DJ than by sitting at a desk. I was young and looking for a way to earn a living. One Saturday night I went to a wedding and saw the DJ and thought, “I could do that.” I approached the DJ and got his business card. I called the company that he worked for and asked for a job.

    My first gig was at a biker bar in 1987 when people still spun records. Two years later, I was getting requests for gigs so often that I decided to take my career to the next level and thought of DJing as less of a hobby and more like a consistent way to make money. I bought out the company that had hired me and began my days as a DJ-preneur. I grew the business to have multiple DJ systems and started hiring other talent. When clients started asking me to do other services, like lighting, video, photography, and audio-visual – I said yes.

    One of my favorite added services is to mix music videos while DJing. Crowds go crazy for it and love the added visual effect. Because of all of the added services, my company started to grow at an amazing rate. I began traveling nationwide and then internationally to perform and produce events. I have worked with top fortune 500 companies, and one of the companies was in the top 3.

    When you perform for a living, it is very important that you take care of yourself. I work out before I come to work and make sure I have eaten something. You won’t be very friendly to your clients or co-workers on an empty stomach! Most days I write proposals, send contracts, check in on the venue I will be performing at next, confirm other vendors that I will be working with, create playlists and test equipment, all for events that are coming up. I also return a lot of emails and make phone calls. Laughter is a big part of the day…I play music, have fun, and laugh a lot. Nobody wants to hire a glum DJ.

    My job is so incredibly satisfying to me. On the social side of our business, I get to be part of our clients’ life celebrations. My work is extremely hard, and it takes lots of hours to creatively design, prep, and execute an event. Hard work is part of the job. It feels good to watch doors open to a ballroom and to see people immediately get a smile on their face, start to do a little dance, and pull out their smartphones to video the lighting, decor, and DJ laying down the soundtrack to the event that I spent so much time on. It’s hard to believe sometimes that I get paid to do this for a living. The only dislike, if there is one, is that it is a lot of weekend work. When you have a family, it takes a lot of organization to manage calendars and to make sure that you aren’t missing out on your own events while DJing someone else’s.


    Be serious about the business

    Yes, it is a fun business to get into, but you have to take the business side very seriously if you want to make a living at it. Join a professional organization like the American Disc Jockey Association, get insurance, create a professional contract, buy top of the line gear, get a business bank account, get your music organized, and be a great music programmer and music mixer. These are all the building blocks that will enable you to have a competitive advantage over the DJ company up the street. People want to hire a professional, so give them a professional experience.

    Learn the ropes

    There are so many avenues to explore now, like never before. There are great tutorials on YouTube, DJ classes in some neighborhood schools, DJ conventions to go to, professional organizations that have local chapters like the American Disc Jockey Association. Go to clubs; listen to the radio to get song ideas; the internet is a fantastic tool; go talk to other DJ’s, and practice, practice, practice. If you want to work on your interactive MC skills, take an acting class and a dance class. High paid DJ’s/MC’s know how to interact with the crowd and some teach interactive dances to the crowds.

    Have the basics down

    Can you set up your equipment in 1/2 an hour? Does your equipment work 100% of the time? Do you have your music organized in compelling playlists? Can you select and mix music that moves people? Do you have a professional contract and insurance? Do you have business cards? If you said yes to all of these questions, you can start DJing events. Once you have the basics down, you can start by approaching DJ companies and letting them know that you interested in doing whatever it takes to learn the business. You can start a Facebook page and start Tweeting to let people know about your new groovy business. You can also reach out to family members and friends that might be having a party, and offer your services. You need to get in front of people and “play that funky music” to hone your new DJ “techniques”. Soon, you will have the “skillz to pay the billz”.

    Oscar Gomez

  • Title:
    Disc Jockey
  • Company:
  • Where:
    Goodyear, AZ
  • Experience:
    25 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I started in 1985 as a hobby and I really loved music. Then I decided to start a DJ business and did it up until 1991. At this time, I took time off to start a family. I went from being a ‘regular’ DJ to competing in national DJ competitions, as well as state competitions. I held the Arizona State championship as #1 Battle DJ for 8 years.

    Depending on the size of the job, I get my trailer cleaned out, loaded, check equipment, ensure lights are charged, and equipment is clean. I download music, prepare video montage, and review the schedule for the event. Then I have a last call with customer to go over last minute details to ensure everything is ready. I do spend quite a bit of time online listening to music and reviewing online video tutorials to see what else I can learn. I love working with large crowds, helping people enjoy their night, or being able to make the event special for a couple. Most people think the DJ just plays music; however, he/she is responsible for ensuring your events for the night flow smoothly. What I dislike though are the late hours.

    I wish I had known how to run this as a professional business as opposed to a hobby from the beginning of my career. However, this allowed me to focus more, later on the professional side because I was a veteran DJ. There are a number of things to learn for the professional side: weddings, quincenera’s, birthdays, anniversary parties. They are all handled differently and each culture is different too.


    Learn the background

    If doing it professionally, get educated on the business side and all genres of music. Invest in your business; it is the only way it will go somewhere. There are many videos or tutorials available online for various softwares and products. Do your research! You can now take accredited classes that are offered for radio, club, or mobile DJing.

    Use social media wisely

    Network with local DJ’s, and ask to attend some of their events to gain a better understanding of the process. This will allow you to build relationships, as well as learn the business. In addition, you are in the public eye when DJing, so keep this in mind when using your Twitter, Facebook and/or Instagram accounts.

    P.I. Barrington

  • Title:
  • Company:
    Radio Publishing
  • Where:
    Los Angeles, CA
  • Experience:
    6 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I began in college radio in the late 70’s, as part of my major in communications. I originally chose journalism and ended up as editor of my college newspaper at Mt. San Antonio College. My goal was to work in the music industry, which I eventually did. Most of what I learned about the music industry I’d learned on my own through trades though; radio is such an integral part of that; you can’t separate them in any way.

    Most air talent generally have assigned 4-hour shifts on the air, and it isn’t just playing songs. You have a clock that you work by: top of the hour (say 1:00 p.m.) or bottom of the hour (1:30 p.m). Every hour you play or say the call letters of the station along with the main major cities the station broadcasts to; you play commercials at certain times during that hour, make announcements, announce songs, or you do the Emergency Broadcast System test. Off-air talent is usually assigned production work, which is creating/recording ads or public service announcements, or adding a tag to the end of a commercial (“See website for license fees and details…”). You’re assigned a number of hours in the production (recording/editing) room or computer room to do this work. It’s all very high tech now.

    Radio generally is performing live and that can be a tremendous amount of fun, but it can wear you out a little. The best part is that you get to play music that you love and hear new music constantly. When you work in radio as a pro, you follow the playlist they give you – you don’t play what you want or like, you play the station’s list of songs.

    I think the only part of radio that can be discouraging is that many times you have to follow the job–moving to other cities to find a new station. I think it’s a young person’s job–at least for new music stations. There are stations that are established in every city, big or small, and are generally an established format like music, news, or talk radio. If you want to stay put, you work toward getting a job at those stations.


    Radio is still a job

    You have to take it seriously and understand that it is work and that just because you like a certain type of music doesn’t mean you’re going to play only what you like. You will work at every different style of music station and news and talk radio. Your job is as an announcer/air talent, and then you may become part of the management: music director, news director, station manager, or program manager depending on the size and ownership of each station. Working in radio is a career if you’re serious enough about it.

    Start in college

    You learn how to modulate your voice, how to enunciate clearly, how to read copy aloud, and the technical side and production side. Even taking a college course in radio broadcasting part-time will teach you and give you experience. You’ll also get a major taste of how radio management works. You can act as the above mentioned directors at college stations as well. There are professional broadcasting schools, but mostly college classes cost less, though they might take more time.

    Start small if you can

    Nowadays, most mid to large stations are part of entertainment broadcasting corporations, such as Clear Channel/iHeartRadio networks. They’re national, and you’ll hear the “iHeartRadio” concerts and contests all over them. There are still some independent stations, and that includes public broadcasting stations. You don’t have to, but I suggest starting small if you can just to build an experienced resume and to show your experience at a pro station in different formats (news, talk, music). Smaller stations can be gold mines of experience and learning.

    Disc Jockey Infographic