The Keys to Nightclub Work

© Al Powers, PowersImagery.com

By Stu Chisholm, “The Complete Disc Jockey”

A question arose in my never-ending source of inspiration, the online DJ forums, about how a DJ might break into the nightclub scene. These days I’ve given up nightclub work, more or less, but get yanked back in from time to time when a club calls because a DJ abruptly left, was fired or called in sick. The question brought back memories of how I got my start and remain somewhat well-known even today.

Through the mists of time…

When my mobile DJ career began taking off, I actually had two jobs. I was doing my weddings on the weekends, and I’d lucked into a stint at a local AM radio station doing pretty much anything and everything except spinning tunes (long story). I started thinking about how I could fill up more of my free time with paid work. When a local skating rink published an ad for a DJ on Sunday mornings, I jumped at the chance. These were sessions for toddlers, which was a sharp contrast to programming the Music Of Your Life format at my radio gig! (Think super old oldies that your great grandparents might have enjoyed.) Having these three jobs still left a whole lot of weekday nights free. What else could I do?

Thumbing through the paper, I spotted an ad: “Nightclub DJ needed, immediate start. Must be able to beat mix and have great vocal skills. Apply in-person.” I drove to the club immediately. Of course, I’d only been spinning weddings for about six years at that point, and although I had a basic grasp of the concept, I had never beat mixed in my life! In the spirit of “never say ‘no’” that pervades the acting and entertainment industries, I said I could anyway. After acing the application and hitting it off with the head DJ, who had been tasked with the hiring responsibilities, I had the feeling that everything was going along with dreamlike perfection until he said, “Okay, now head on up to the DJ booth and audition.” Gulp! “Sure,” I said, as he pointed the way.

What happened next was pure dumb luck: all of the records were marked. (Yes, records. CDs wouldn’t take over for another three or four years yet.) I reached in the bins and put together some sets based on the BPM listed on the jacket. Slip-cueing on the Technics SL-1200s made me look and sound far more skilled than I actually was. The head guy was impressed. “I’ve heard enough. Can you start Monday”?

This, then, was my very first nightclub job, all from a newspaper ad, a bluff and pushing myself to my limits. This job would be where I developed my mixing chops, all in front of a live audience. This, then, brings me to my first bit of advice for club work: keep your eyes open for ads, both in-print and online, and while I would never suggest fibbing to anyone about your skills, never say “no” to a potential employer unless you’re completely unable to deliver.

Payin’ dues = upward mobility

Most nightclub DJs begin in small bars and clubs. Don’t overlook these venues! Just as “there are no small parts, only small actors,” there are no small venues, only small DJs! Small venues are the springboard to bigger things. Once you get involved with your local scene, many things can happen. First and foremost, you’ll make friends with the customers. This creates a following, and soon you’ll have people who come to see you, specifically. If you move to another venue, these are the people who will follow you from place to place. A savvy club DJ doesn’t isolate him/herself from the crowd, but actively engages them, not only when taking requests and making chit-chat at the door of the booth, but also on the mic as things play out over the course of an evening. Discreetly place a clipboard or tablet where customers can jot down their e-mail addresses, Twitter handles and so on. Hand out cards inviting them to friend you on Facebook. Let them see themselves on your Instagram page. A handful of followers will follow you no matter what, but even more will show up if you lead them!

While you stay on the lookout for bigger and better club jobs, sometimes those clubs are also on the lookout for you. One of my better jobs came by way of a club manager who came to my bar actively looking for a new DJ. She and her assistant had been bar hopping the entire night and, by the time they walked into my club, were tired and a bit disappointed. Of course, I knew none of this. I was busy having a great time mixing my sets and interacting with patrons. They were impressed, and before they left, came up to the booth with a card and a request to call the next morning. That turned into a 4-year stint at a brand new club, which then led to an even longer 12-year gig at a bigger, more prestigious, well-established venue. Once the snowball is rolling, it’s hard to stop it.

Mundane or memorable?

Breaking in, then, isn’t rocket science. Like any other job, you check the job listings, keep your “ear to the ground” and, once you’ve created some buzz, work your way on up. But aside from schmoozing with the clientele and turning them into fans, how do those bigger gigs happen? The answer is easy: just stand out.

I once got a job four days after being fired. In most other professions, being canned might be a black mark on one’s work history, but not so in entertainment. In fact, it’s more the rule than the exception. Thinking about how unexpected my firing was, I decided to spin that to my advantage! First, I created a “wish list” of all the best clubs in the area. Then I created an artful flier that stated in big, bold letters, “Now available! Detroit’s legendary DJ Stu,” which I then scattershot to everyone on the list. It just so happened that one of them was looking. Why did it work? Because nobody sends snail mail anymore! I stood out.

Every bar on every corner has a DJ, and most of ‘em are spinning the same music that you hear on the radio or internet. Music isn’t going to make you stand out. Neither is beat mixing; no matter how great your skills are, there will always be someone who can mix circles around you somewhere. This isn’t to say that you skimp on these skills – just the opposite! Be as innovative and outrageous as you can! Leave no resource untapped. Download the remixes and mashups. Get Ableton or something similar and create your own. Keypads, beat boxes and any other performance enhancing tools you can bring to your show are all fair game. Just don’t depend on the music alone.

Next, there’s your delivery; how you speak, your style and sense of humor, your pacing and confidence – your personality — which makes you unlike anyone else, which we’ve discussed here before. I’ll also part company with 99% of all the other advice givers when I tell you to not be afraid of a gimmick.

That word is usually used by people who wish they’d thought of your idea first! Mark Ferrell moved to the head of the wedding DJ pack with his “Love Story” gimmick, Kurtis Blow created rap as we know it by talking instead of singing, and Grand Wizard Theodore, doing what our broadcast instructors told us to never do with our faders up, started back-cueing records, inventing “scratching”, all gimmicks that caught fire and still popular. In fact, if you see someone insisting on hard-and-fast rules, there’s a good chance that breaking them in just the right way can make a splash! All of these elements, when added up, can make an “good” DJ a standout.

Lastly, when I get stuck, I always ask myself, “If I wandered in for a drink or a dance, what would I want to see/hear”? It’s funny how many different answers will spring to your mind when you’re in different moods. And whatever your answer, rest assured that there will always be that handful of clientele who will be in the same mood that you are.