Articles - 30th August 2019

What it’s really like being a DJ and Music Producer

Words by Will Hart
Illustration by Jon McCormack

Dance music has been propelled back into the forefront of mainstream popular culture, resulting mostly from the ‘deep-house’, drum & bass and grime influenced tracks entering the charts in the last 5-10 years. 

There are far more electronic musicians and DJs than there have ever been, and it can seem a completely inaccessible, and pretentious world to young musicians. It’s my hope to dissuade you of this, and other horror stories you may have heard, and help you take the first few steps into the booth. 

Of late, people tend to assume success in DJing comes only with being great with social media. As a result, it can seem a hugely daunting task for the, often introverted, people who feel a want to explore the worlds of electronic music production and performance, to find an ‘in’. Fortunately, this perception is not only a result of the worst side of influencer culture but also wildly inaccurate. 

At its core, making and playing music is still one of the most simple, analogue and human experiences possible, and ultimately the followers/likes on any online representation of the music is irrelevant when at a show. The route to getting booked when starting out is still 90% human interaction and musical knowledge, and 10% social media. 

A lot of people view electronic musicians as a sort of faux-musician, this is also ill-informed. In fact, I and most of my contemporaries possess formal music qualifications and a tonne of experience with more traditional music backgrounds. 

While it is true that there is something jarring about the stereotypical resident House/Techno DJ image; often male, alcoholic, womanising etc. This is something that is finally starting to be eradicated from dance music, in my experience, with more and more talented female performers and ‘music dorks’ being elevated to festival headline status, thankfully leaving more and more of these older models out-to-dry. 


Starting Out 

As with any freelance type work, managing expectations when starting out is pretty crucial, as building interest in such an oversaturated market is inevitably going to take some coordinated effort, and most importantly, time. This is a huge opportunity, however, for the novice producer & DJ, as the quickest and most rewarding way to make in-roads into DJing is to have produced some quality material yourself. 

Residencies, DJ collectives and radio stations, contrary to perception, operate very much as meritocracies, instead of just networking, and the best way to make inroads is to market yourself as somebody who has ‘paid their dues’. Ultimately, the only way to achieve this without social media fakery and frankly, lame moves, is to actually go out and do it. 

Traditionally, the ‘trenches’ of the electronic music world were resident slots at local club nights, and while this is still a great way to get some practice on industry-standard equipment, and something I gained a lot from in doing as a teenager for years, I’d urge any young musician considering electronic music to take the more production-based route. 

It’s super important to limit the release or exposure of your early work, as it usually takes a while to find your ‘sound’ and to learn enough about the technical side of production to ensure your music sounds right in the club. This gives you time to learn and improve behind the scenes while building some early interest/mystique around your project. 


Dealing with Promoters 

With some tunes in hand, and some practice in the basics of mixing, it’s definitely a 

good time to attempt to play out and begin to make a network. Funnily, the most valuable experiences you make during these early times will be the friendships, as often like-minded individuals will go on to do great things in music. 

An example of this is the head resident of the club night I began DJing for when I 

was 16. Another young guy from my relatively provincial area now owns and runs one of the UK’s biggest festivals. Making this network of people to share ideas and influences with is such a creative boost, and will expose you to so much music that you will love, and otherwise, would have totally missed. 

While these relationships can be ultimately rewarding, in the early days you will almost definitely experience the standard tensions expected in a freelance environment, particularly relating to pay. Contrary to what nightclub owners/managers will attempt to convince you, it’s important to remember that the creative industry is subject to the same standards as anything else, and any time or material you provide definitely warrants financial compensation. 

When dealing with promoters during this early period, try to keep in mind the amounts of money on the door, and urge them to provide a budget for DJs, if this isn’t done already. Unfortunately, until you’re in the position to have an agent deal with those affairs on your behalf, it’s an unavoidable problem in the underground. 

Don’t be afraid of playing to an empty venue at this point. It’s likely that more experienced residents will be given the busy set times, and this gives you a great opportunity to practice on a loud system and find your identity as a performer, with a bit less of the performance anxiety. Moreover, you’ll most likely spend most of this time getting to know the other performers, and probably end up swapping tunes with them for years down the line. 



While it definitely takes people years of hard work to wrangle a solid foothold in this industry, my pretty short journey with electronic music has given me countless memories and travel experiences, that I would never have imagined. If you’re an acoustic or more ‘traditionally orientated’ musician, with any sort of nagging curiosity about electronic music – get stuck in. If I hadn’t downloaded Ableton on a whim years ago, with the aim of just playing around, I most likely would still be bored with indie and jazz, or may have dropped music altogether – something that doesn’t bear thinking about!

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