So, You Want To Be a DJ?

By Dave Austin, “Music Professor”

I spoke before a group of high school students recently and I was amused by some of the questions that were asked.

In short, they thought being a DJ consists of nothing more than “scratching” and playing the latest hip-hop tunes.

Their eyes glazed over and their faces showed disappointment when I spoke about the actual business of being a disc jockey. Obviously, it had never crossed their minds that many DJs operate a real business enterprise. Because of their youth and lack of experience, these teens didn’t have a glimmer of the reality of being a DJ.

The Requirements to Be a DJ

First, you must love music – all kinds of music. In past articles, I’ve talked about some of the various genres of music – classical, classic rock or oldies, jazz, soul, reggae, etc. You can’t be a musical snob and be a successful DJ. Your audience will demand that you play the kinds of music they want to hear, and if you don’t, you’ll probably end up entertaining no one other than yourself.

You’ll also need a basic understanding of music (bars and beats), but in its simplest form, you must be able to count to four, 1…2…3…4, so you’ll know the tempo of a song or when to start or mix your next track.

You’ll need to know how to “work” a crowd. This is somewhat of an instinctive thing, but you can also learn by watching more experienced DJs in action.

Pay close attention to the way their musical selections surge and fall back, carrying the audience along with them. Note how their tracks are appropriate to the age of their audience, how they integrate different genres of music. Technical ability is well and good, but so far, no equipment has been made that can read the dance floor and select the next killer track.

Your combined “feel” for the dance floor and your knowledge of the right song to play next is up to you and you alone.

A Common Mistake

Many beginning DJs play music they like or that their friends like. Understand this: clients hire you to play music for everyone, from grandma down to cute little granddaughter and everyone in between. Not a single person at the event cares what you like. They want to hear the music they know and enjoy, and you are expected to play it. In short, play for the majority – not yourself or your friends.

You Have to Impress

When people see you at an event and are impressed, they’re likely to call you for their future DJ events. You’ll also need promotion by means of business cards, post cards or brochures, a website and face-to-face contacts. Some DJs also find advertising to be effective.

Be Realistic

If you have a day job, hang on to it. According to some estimates, up to 98% of all DJs are so-called “freelance” DJs, with gigs on an intermittent or irregular basis.

For young DJs still living in their parents’ home, this is no big deal, but for the guy or gal with apartment rent, a car note, phone bill and other obligations, it’s a very big deal. And, if you have a family, it’s of even greater concern. Where does one get the money to pay the bills?

My Best Advice

If you’re fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time and land a regular paying gig, it can drop out from under you in the blink of an eye.

My best advice: get a good education and a good job. No matter what life hands you, you’ll always have that to fall back on, and when you become the superstar DJ you’ve dreamed of being, you can walk away from the 9 to 5 with a big smile on your face.

How long will it take? It all depends on how much time and effort you’re willing to put into it. You, like many, may want to start small and grow you business, working toward the day when you’ll be able to make the jump into you own full-time operation.

Being a DJ is Fun

And it is absolutely one of the most rewarding careers I can imagine. But, it can also be a rewarding hobby or part-time avocation.

In either case, do it well and to the best of your ability, educate yourself in your craft, there a number of books by successful DJs (including our Chief Scribe, Stacy Zemon). You can also subscribe to trade publications and attend industry trade shows.

Oh, just one more thing – don’t let your ego get out of control. You may be the maestro of the mix, but if potential clients perceive you as rude, arrogant or having a know-it-all attitude, you’ll get nowhere fast.

Be courteous and respectful toward your clients. This, coupled with talent and skill will take you a long way down the road to DJ success.


  • Dave Austin began his career at age 13 at a small, hometown radio station. He went on to graduate from the University of Southern Mississippi with a Bachelor’s degree in broadcasting. Since that time, Dave has been a mobile and radio DJ, radio station Program Director, and a TV news reporter and anchorman. He has also done voiceover work for documentaries and commercials. In 1986 Dave’s longtime passion for music prompted him to start “Southern Celebrations DJs,” a multi-system mobile entertainment company serving clients in Tennessee, Northern Georgia and Northern Alabama. You can email him c/o

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