While dance music certainly has taken on a whole new life these last few years with the explosion of EDM and its attendant festival culture, DJing as we know it (the style of mixing two beat-oriented records together for a seamless dancing experience) goes back at least to the ’70s. Over the past few decades, DJing has firmly established itself as both a creative cultural force and a viable career path—not some fly-by-night whim to be scoffed at. In that spirit, we decided to take a look at the life cycle of a professional DJ, from year zero to well past year 20, to get a look at what can change throughout the decades and how to keep that career sustainable.
We’re proud that some DJ TechTools readers are just starting out as DJs. At this stage, you’re probably not quite looking at DJing as a career yet, but things can progress pretty quickly if you play your cards right. Montreal’s Adventure Club have only been at it for a few years, but it didn’t take long for members Christian Srigley and Leighton James to start attracting attention.
A chance remix of Flight Facilities’ “Crave You” kickstarted their success, and before long, learning to DJ was a necessary step for the duo to bring their music worldwide. “We in no way consider ourselves pros,” says James, “so we try and constantly learn and adapt. Between learning new production techniques, learning new mix vibes, to keeping up with current music and artists and trends, it’s definitely a full-time job. … When we first got into [DJing], we would watch tons of videos and interviews. We’re still learning and continue to learn.”
While Adventure Club have definitely seen their fair share of big breaks, including signing to Spinnin and playing Ultra and Coachella, no one should expect to be raking it in off the bat. The duo’s first gig was played “for drink tickets and the opportunity to sleep on the promoter’s couch,” says James. Even Laidback Luke, who’s gone on to become one of the world’s most sought-after DJs, played his first gigs for free. But it was that connection to his local community that sparked his success. “It was very important when I started,” says Luke, of his small beginnings in the Netherlands.
“I found out networking was a big key to any success.”—Laidback Luke
There are a lot of sacrifices and decisions to be made in those early years, and one of the biggest ones can come in the form of having to quit your job, and tackle music full time. Gareth Emery had been pursuing his DJ career for a couple of years when, in 2003, he was at a crossroads. “Music was starting to take off, the gigs were piling up, and I was offered an Australia tour, but I’d already taken my yearly holiday allowance at work,” he remembers.
“The only way I could have done the tour was to leave work, so I thought, ‘Fuck it—you have to make the jump at some point.’” - Gareth Emery
If you’ve reached year five, then you’re likely in it for the long haul. “Giving up is not in my dictionary,” says Sandro Silva, whose career has taken off the last few years after signing with the Armada and Revealed labels.
“In the start of 2006, I nearly packed it all in,” says Gareth Emery. “In three months, I only had one gig. Not through choice, or studio commitments; that was just all my agent could get me. It was fucking depressing.”
Emery blames his own lack of producing good new music on the slump, and after a few years in, seriously considered throwing in the towel.
“I started thinking about jobs, getting my resume up to scratch, and started preparing to leave the music industry,” he says. “Until one day my dad gave some me pretty harsh words and told me, ‘Quit if you want, but you haven’t given it your best shot.
“You’re lazy. You get up at midday and spend all night posting on messages boards rather than actually working, so it’s not surprising you aren’t succeeding. I hated him for it at the time, but he was absolutely right.” - Gareth Emery
Emery set about giving it his all for the next six months, starting a podcast (which he’s still doing today, after 300 episodes), and producing more regularly. “And by the end of 2006, the gigs were slowly starting to pick up,” he remembers, “and I felt I was getting somewhere again. So I stuck it out, and I guess the rest is history.”
Of course, perseverance alone does not a DJ make. “Staying current amidst the exponential amount of acts that seem to be coming our of the woodwork every day,” is one of the hardest parts of the job, says Adventure Club’s James. “When we started, there was maybe an eighth of the electronic producers in the scene. There’s so much talent that comes out.”
So make sure you’re keeping things fresh any way that you can. While Sandro Silva’s early goals revolved around getting his songs to DJs (“Getting actual response from them was big for me back then,” he says), it was around year five that he really began to build on his career, signing his first big record deals and settling on a management company.
The same happened with BBC DJ Danny Howard, who started DJing about six years ago, and has been doing so on a full-time pro basis for the last 4. He signed with Paul Oakenfold’s management team, and Oakie himself has provided plenty of career guidance. “To have him available on the end of the phone 24/7 is invaluable!” says Howard.
It’s not easy to have a sustainable career on DJing alone, so learning production and releasing tracks is more and more important these days.
“I’m a producer at heart,” says Laidback Luke. “I started producing before I got into DJing. I still thoroughly love the art of producing. Before my generation, you could actually only be a DJ and be successful. People like me would combine the two and you’d be able to make a name for yourself quicker on a global scale.”
Between years five and ten, the road can definitely take its toll, so staying healthy should be a part of your regular work habits, too. “It sounds geeky but to conquer the relentless schedule of a DJ these days, you have to be on your game. Eating junk food and drinking alcohol all the time will not help that,” says Howard.
After the first decade of killer work, and a fair bit of success, things are only going to build; without a doubt, the first decade marks a period of even more growth and change. There may also be a shift in terms of what you want with your career.
- More production and less touring?
- A stylistic about-face?
“One of the bigger [changes] was when I needed to step away from making techno,”
says Laidback Luke, who turned his style around about 10 years after he started. “Back in 1999, I was known as a techno DJ and was putting out techno tracks on bigger techno labels. But in 1999, I hit a wall,” says Luke. “Coming from a musical family and background, I play a bit of guitar and piano, and I had been writing song lyrics since I was a kid; techno made me musically numb. I found myself at a crossroads, and felt I had to choose between stopping to produce, or continue producing but this time, allow all of my musicality to join in… I chose to make Daft Punk-inspired electro-pop on chunky beats. Which later developed to electro, Dutch, big room, and then EDM. I was never in this for the easy money. I’m still not. I like tracks to sing along to and to jump to; it’s still just about that for me!”
By year 10, there’s an even greater chance that a career DJ has to relocate somewhere, either for newer, bigger projects, or to fuel the creative fire, and that means more sacrifice. Veteran DJ Charles Feelgood moved from Baltimore to Los Angeles, “because of the weather, and I had a lot of friends here and I was doing a lot of work with the Moonshine Label. It was a good move, and I’m probably here to stay.”
Emery, too, moved from the UK to LA. “Both Manchester and LA have been amazing creative cities to be in,” he says. But it’s also at this stage where a certain work-life balance has to take hold for both career and personal success. “This job is incredibly demanding on your personal life,” says Emery. “You really do lose contact with a lot of friends and family. You miss weddings, birthdays, christenings, and it’s a shame, but living this sort of like takes sacrifices.”
“This job is incredibly demanding on your personal life.” - Gareth Emery
Of course, there are more milestones to be had. For Feelgood, it was playing even bigger venues and festivals, like Lollapalooza. For Emery, it was writing “‘Concrete Angel,” his biggest hit to date, and “finally feeling like I was ‘cracking’ the US by playing Ultra, EDC, etc.”
Fifteen years in the music business gives anyone “lifer” status, whether you stick with it after that point or not.
But more often than not, this stage represents growth in other areas outside of the typical realm of DJing and producing tracks. “I’ll always be writing and producing music, even if I’m not touring,” says Emery. “And when I quit touring, it would be interesting to explore some other angles which I haven’t done so far. I’d love to get involved in writing music for films, and maybe do some production for other people, and really take advantage of my classical music background.”
Without a doubt, the goals that DJs have early in their careers will not be the same 15 years later. Emery gives himself another six or seven years of DJing and touring. “Not longer than that,” he says.
“I don’t want to be in my mid-40s jumping up and down on stage to a crowd of 19-year-olds.”
“Touring is also extremely tough, and at some point, it would be nice to be normal, get eight hours sleep a night, and wake up at sunrise,” he says with a laugh. And of course, upward success at this stage of the career means a significant bump in pay from the early days.
How much does Gareth Emery make? “Enough. Too much, sometimes,” he admits. “And if you looked at what I get paid for some gigs these days, it certainly seems like an awful lot. But I don’t get to keep that much of it.” He says that about 60% of his earnings go to agents, managers, travel costs, labels costs, and other expenses to keep the show going. “Oh, and of the 40% that’s left, half of it goes in taxes (which I absolutely approve of, by the way),” he adds. “Don’t get me wrong: I make a lot of money, and I’m extremely fortunate to be in this position, but..
“In any business, you need to spend a lot to make a lot, and dance music really is no exception…Every artist I know at the top of their game has a large team or support network and management structure behind them.” - Gareth Emery
Not a lot of DJs make it to this point, but those over the 15-year hump usually keep at it in some capacity. And with 20 years in the grueling music industry comes lots of big life changes.
” I could never be happy in a 9-to-5 job,” says Laidback Luke, who is nearing his 20-year mark as a DJ. “I could never give up on music. I really feel this is my calling and passion… My new wife, Gina Turner, is a DJ too. So she doesn’t mind me doing this music stuff! We just got a baby girl, so I’m still very much a family man.”
“It’s an ongoing battle, but family and everyday life have a way of taking over the negativity and family comes first,” says Charles Feelgood, who’s been at it a whopping 26 years. “I coach little league (baseball) and it’s become a new passion for me these last four years.” He’s definitely dialed back his DJing in later years, and while he says he’s lucky to still be playing a few times a month, some things feel like they did in the beginning. “I still work for drink tickets,” he says with a laugh.
So what sort of advice do these elder statesmen have for younger jocks just coming up, wanting to last two decades in the game? “Focus on the big things, and the rest will follow,” says Emery,
“I spent a lot of time in my early years in the music industry dicking about with my website and stuff like that, because I felt it was important, whereas I would have been better served by just focusing on making music, and soon I could have afforded someone else to handle the website for me. It took me about 10 years to work that one out.”