How to Become a DJ: What Very Successful DJs Have in Common

Britain’s late prime minister Benjamin Disraeli said “Beware of endeavoring to become a great man in a hurry. One such attempt in ten thousand may succeed. These are fearful odds.”

Close your eyes and imagine this, you are playing the hottest tunes in a stadium with a sea of raving fans. For a quick second you remember, “It wasn’t long ago when I was in my bedroom, practicing technique, downloading bootleg edits and experiencing approach anxiety before talking to club promoters”.

That’s what most us DJs (and aspiring DJs) have in common, the dream. It is the essence of becoming more of what we are. Very few know how to make this dream into reality, unfortunately only 1 in a 1000 may succeed.

Whenever a DJ has huge success, the press and the public start asking: “How did they do it??!?” Unfortunately, this speculation is often unkind and unfair. The default assumption is that a DJ must be cheating somehow or using some trick to grow fans or get high profile gigs.

This skepticism is actually justified because many DJs do use tricks or shortcuts to succeed. It’s not long before they start crashing down.

Everyone wants to play in the best club in town and travel the world gigging. But most are not willing to pay the price. Occasionally, they may be willing to pay part of the price, but they are not willing to pay the whole price. They always hold back. They always have some excuse or rationalization for not going out networking (marketing) or perfecting their technique (product development) or going out trying to land gigs (sales).

How can you tell when you have paid the full price of success? It’s simple: Look around you.

So what does it mean to pay the full price? What skills does it take to become a DJ, a truly successful DJ? After several years of talking, studying and modeling successful DJs like Kaskade, BT, Dennis Ferrer and Wolfgang Gartner, I noticed a common pattern. They all have an outrageous amount of fuel to keep them going and a high level of certainty – they know they are going to make it.

I concluded this: if you have a strong enough “why” (fuel), backed by “certainty” (optimism), and infused with a high dose of “persistence”, you are in the top 20%. In that spirit, I want to share some of my thoughts about how to become a DJ, how DJs succeed, and why their success is based on hard work, persistence and some luck.

1. Long term focus: Know your ultimate goal

Knowing your utmost goal will help you achieve long term focus. What I mean is, every action you take must get you one step closer to that goal. You must go all in. It’s that target you always wanted to nail. For example, if your ultimate goal is to land a residency in the best club in your city and open for bigger acts, your thoughts and actions should be leading towards that gig. You might not know how you will get there, but you must believe that at some point you will.

Since you know what it is you want, you wouldn’t be focusing on landing wedding or small back-bar gigs. They might be fun and offer some cash, but you might want to focus on playing at similar but smaller clubs which have the same vibe as your “goal club”. Also, you don’t want play at a competitor’s venue. Club owners and promoters have advanced social skills. They watch and know everything.

The quality of questions you ask yourself, determines the course of your actions. For the above example, ask yourself these questions:

  • Who is the current resident DJ at the club?

  • What music does she/he play and what kind of gear do they use?

  • How long has she/he been DJing?

  • What skills do they have that I don’t? Beat juggling, music production, shameless-self promotion, fun and outgoing?

  • How many ways can I get introduced to the club promoter or owner?

  • What price am I willing to pay to land that gig?

Laser like focus and “going all in” determines the quality of your choices.

2. Hard Work: Pay the Price

After visualizing your utmost goal, it’s time to put in the work. Hard work is nothing but developing the necessary habits to achieve your goal. It means you have to be good at lots of small things.

“Greatness is a lot of small things, done well”

But doing many things, although hard, can actually be an advantage for you. It means that there are not that many other people trying to do what you do or capable of doing what you do. For example, popular clubs like booking DJs who are producers that are backed by record labels. Putting in the work to start producing and getting your tracks to a reputable record label might be the next logical step. At the same time you should be focusing on getting gigs and increasing your skills.

In the early days of my career, I had several promoters say they were interested in booking me if I could figure out a way to bring 50 people to the club. I’m not joking. Majority of promoters prefer pure volume over DJ skills and music selection. Plus I thought that was the promoter’s job, not mine. How can an upcoming DJ bring 50 people? That means you have to promote to over 500 people and wish for 10% of them to show up. I knew the only way to get quality bookings was to become a quality DJ, producer, marketer and have incredible people skills. I set out to become excellent in all these categories.

In 4 years, I have learned to produce, got signed to a decent label, remixed a few popular artists and increased my social skills (online and offline). I still have ways to go, but so far it was all hard work in small things that helped me get better in time. These small things developed into habits. Slowly the quality gigs started to come and it increased my momentum to work even harder.

3. Persistence: Stick through it

Persistence is probably the most important attribute in all successful DJs. It’s the person who never gives up – who never accepts “no” for an answer. It’s the heart to keep going after you been turned down by every gig, every promoter and every record label. It’s paying the price in action! The world is filled with doubters who say that things can’t be done and then pronounce after the fact that they “knew it all along.” Look at Wolfgang Gartner, he has been sending demos to record labels for seven years before getting his first record deal. If you’re already a full time DJ you know all this. But others have that extra quality that makes them never give up. And I see this extra dose of tenacity in only about 1 out of 10 DJs that I meet. And if you’re not naturally one of these people you probably know it, too. You see that peer who always pushes things further than you normally would. When are you going to get further out of your comfort zone and be more persistent? It is really what separates the wheat from the chaff.

One major setback for me was when I landed a weekly residency at a new club in Washington DC, primarily playing Deep House. I endlessly handed out flyers, hired an awesome street team and had most of my friends and their mothers in the guest list. But no one would show up and three months later I lost the residency because my dance floor was empty. The club decided they wanted bottle service clientele and needed Top 40/mash-up music. I felt like a complete failure and thought no one would ever book me again.

4 years ago I noticed that I lost my focus and got caught up with the local gigging scene, which wasn’t my ultimate goal. I decided there and then that I’m responsible for my own success, so I re-strategized and got back on track by endlessly improving my skills in DJing, production and marketing. Two years later I was playing at the Winter Music Conference in Miami next to successful DJs and producers.

“To become something you are not, is to do things you haven’t done before”

You can’t consider the first major setback a complete career disaster, this is when you demonstrate what you are really made of. Your true character strength is in the determination to keep going. To remain optimistic, look for the good in every setback (there’s always a hidden message telling you to improve one of your skills), it’s a gift!

Persistence will pay off.

4. Some Luck: Unexpected fruits of your labor

A big part of anyone’s success has also been luck. People don’t like to admit it but skill is 60% luck. If you keep doing the hard work continuously and persistently, I promise you will get a break. When that break comes, people will label you lucky and forget the past 5 to 6 years of hard work that got you there.

In many cases, getting very lucky has to do with timing. Calvin Harris got his big break when his managers kept sending his demo CDs to EMI. In his own words “Had those three people not sent the track at the same time, I’d probably still be Nobby No-Mates, pissing around in my bedroom.”

But Success Is Fragile…

It’s easy to get excited and arrogant when things are going well but it is important to  remember that success is very fragile. There is always someone practicing for numerous hours trying to beat you to the top 20% and you are likely to fail if you get complacent or stop evolving.

That’s why you should continuously focus, work hard, be persistent and keep on pushing what you do to the next level. Since you are already reading this, it means you have done amazing work in the past and looking for more. And to thrive in the future, you need to stay humble, enjoy the journey, and continually evolve and improve.

Learn How to Create an Energetic House Track with Logic Pro. Check out my course at 50% off (FREE Preview!)

About the Author:

Mohamed Kamal is an ex SiriusXM DJ/Producer-turned-entrepreneur from Washington DC. He is the founder and CEO of Gigturn, a platform that connects DJs with fans and gigs.

You can hear his musical work on itunes, Beatport and Soundcloud