Hey there, Symphonic Blog reader. I’m Sky–I’m a former DJ/producer, record label manager, and all-around live production dude. I run the lifestyle brand Pariah Reign, and will be doing guest articles here on Symphonic. These articles will chat about the music industry through the lens of electronic music. Enjoy.
This article is written for those who want to become a crucial element of their local music scene. If you want people to know who you are, and talk about you, this is how you go from 0 to 100. It may not be real quick, but it’ll happen. This article is written from the perspective of an electronic music producer/DJ, but the principles apply outside of electronic music, and even out of music in general, because these are interpersonal skills to make you more well-connected, knowledgeable, and influential.
1. Have talent (make yourself talented)
None of the following suggestions work if you are not talented. In fact, if you make bad music or suck at performing live, then becoming well-known will do the opposite of granting success. Instead, it will let more people know that you are untalented. You will be laughed at. People will talk behind your back. Your brand will degrade, and so will the brands of the people who book you. Not good.
No matter what, Good marketing does not fix bad talent. Period. You might counter this with, “Well, [XYZ DJ] definitely bought their way to the top”. But even pre-recorded mixes have smooth transitions and good flow. There is no excuse for you as a DJ to butcher your live performance. Yes, you’ll mess up a few times, but if you publicly train-wreck an entire set, you will suffer.
Now, if you aren’t the best at performing, I’ll let you in on the secret of getting good. The secret to getting good at anything is doing it. You don’t always want to do it, though. You might find yourself researching hacks and tips instead of sitting down in front of your gear and practicing. It is often easier to spend your time looking for shortcuts than having the discipline to get to work.
When I decided seriously improve my DJ skills locked myself in a room with a Traktor controller for 4 months. I’d get home from school, DJ for three hours, eat dinner, then produce until I passed out.
Because of this, I became really good. There was a point where DJing just clicked. I didn’t need pre-planned sets, or a lot of time to think about what I was going to do. I could suddenly mix any two songs, any tempos, keys, or genres, and make it work. I learned the fundamentals of DJing so much so, that when I got my hands on CDJs for the first time, I killed it. I played timecode vinyl a few times even.
Not surprisingly, I became one of the best DJs in my area. This 18 year-old kid was playing at a level that veterans twice his age were. Being really, really good became a huge asset for me because it birthed a virtuous cycle. I would gain support with local fans and reputation with promoters because I had great sets. Because of this, more promoters would book for more prestigious shows. These shows, in turn, boosted my reputation and support.
It is worth it to become good. Fake it until you make it does not apply to your fundamental craft. Sure, you can pretend to be confident when meeting promoters for the first time, but you can’t fake being a good DJ when the entire audience can hear that you’re a fraud.
2. Curb your expectations
You’ve got to clock the hours and pay your dues. Then eventually, people will come to you. You have to be patient and appreciative.
– Elisabeth Rohm
Recognize that your first gig will not be as glamorous as you would like it. Your first time playing out will most likely not be right before your favorite artist, at the biggest venue in town, in front of 2,000 people. Instead, your first gig will probably be a grimy hookah bar, or backwoods generator party strung together with someone’s home stereo system.
It’s okay to have humble beginnings. In fact, it’s almost better. Small, low-key environments allow you experiment and fail. It’s better to play a bad set in front of 15 people than 1,500 people. You can see what works and what doesn’t work, and what doesn’t work, in front of a small audience with minimal consequences.
Also, realize that you’ll be playing for free. A lot. As a starting DJ, you will often receive no compensation for your performance. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a couple drinks from the bar. Before you get up-in-arms about this, I want you to count how many friends you have that can also DJ. Maybe they’re not trying to make a name for themselves, but they play house parties and mix and their bedrooms.
I know so many DJ’s. Everyone DJ’s. From here, it is simple economics–supply and demand. As the number of DJ’s increase, the value of each DJ decreases. This is why you should a. focus on being more talented than 90% of your music scene and b. not expect to get paid. If you won’t play unless you’re paid, there’s 20 other DJs who will step into your spot. This a point where you have to suck it up, and pay your dues.
3. If you don’t have opportunities, make them
“Reject the tyranny of being picked. Pick yourself.”
– Seth Godin, Poke the Box
Many local artists wait around for a promoter to book them for a show. They feel that their career is a selection process, they will get noticed if they mind their business and focus on a few simple things. Perhaps I’m impatient, but I reject the notion of being picked. Don’t wait for someone established to pick you: go pick yourself.
Waiting for gatekeepers often will strip you of your confidence. If you don’t feel that you have the power to make something out of yourself, you will rely on others to do so. Even if you are creating small opportunities for yourself, it is important to learn that effort, not getting chosen, drives results. You’ll start to see that even those who did get picked by gatekeepers hustled and put themselves out there. It is not by chance that people get discovered. It’s by hard-work and determination.
When I first started DJing, I had a huge advantage. The girl I was dating had a connection with one of the largest music venues in town. At the time, my then-girlfriend’s mom was dating the owner of a 900-capacity room where the majority of local EDM DJs played. I pounced on this opportunity.
I understand not every DJ will have this luxury to their disposal. There are still things you can do on your own without the permission of important, hard-to-reach people.
Go out camping and party in the woods with a generator and small speaker setup. Find some other DJ friends and see if you can put together the cash to throw a show. Offer to do a local EDM night at a small bar or hookah lounge. Play in your bedroom and stream your sets on Mixify or Facebook Live to get feedback and garner support.
Go out there and get busy. You’ll build your name much faster if you are in motion than if you stand still.
4. Do your job and do it well
“The moment you take a sip of alcohol, you turn from an artist into a groupie.”
– Kennedy Jones
I love the electronic music industry, but it has its problems. There’s ego, substance abuse, and flakiness. It’s often and industry out for blood and glory. It is a breath of fresh air to be honest, sober, and not interested in drawing attention to yourself.
While you might not be as connected or talented as other people in your local scene, you can always be more professional. Be pleasant to work with, both with other artists, and with promoters. If you are easy to get along with, you will have an edge over most.
Here’s the progression from meeting a promoter to playing your first show for them.
How to meet a promoter for the first time
Time your commute to be 10 minutes early. Walk in the door 5 minutes before your meeting time. Give a firm handshake if offered, and look the promoter in the eyes. Have a well put-together appearance. Avoid name-dropping in order to impress and try not to swear.
Ask what you can to do help the promoter. Constructively offer any valid suggestions or ideas on what could improve the promoter’s game. If you have any marketing secrets or things you’ve seen work well, off-handedly suggest them without putting down the promoter’s current practices.
If you have a business card, give it to them. Show off your clean branding and seriousness about what you’re doing.
How to play for a promoter (and kick ass)
Be respectful in everything you do. Be courteous in the booth. Don’t barge in to set up in the middle of someone else’s set. If the last DJ goes over their time, don’t worry about it. Don’t ask if you could go over your time, or get flustered about how you can’t cut anything out of your set. If you are truly a good DJ, you can play an amazing set, no matter how long it is. Having 5 minutes less won’t hurt you as much as you think it will.
If you have a controller to set up, sneak behind the artist playing and ask if you can set up, then leave. If you’re playing on CDJ’s, don’t worry about the changeover at all. At the end of the other DJ’s set, walk up, plug in, press play.
Don’t redline the mixer. Don’t play too hard of a set for your timeslot. Place your drink on the floor. Don’t hype the mic too much. Play to the crowd.
At the end of your set, leave the booth as quickly and courteously as you entered. Don’t play over your timeslot. Don’t hang around to mic-hype the next guy. Get off the stage. Your moment is over.
Don’t make demands, or think you deserve a rider. Don’t barge into the green rooms of other artists, or steal from the veggie platter backstage. Respect the security staff, shake hands with everyone, and remember to call people by their names. If you can locate the promoter, thank them in-person for booking you.
Lastly, don’t get drunk at the venue. If you are serious about your career, you are at that venue for business. If you wouldn’t get hammered at your day job, don’t get sloshed at your gigs. You want to be as sharp as possible, and make a good impression on everyone you meet. The amount of substances you can consume will not impress the headliner or the promoter who booked you.
5. Make others look good
“Find canvases for other people to paint on. Be [a trailblazer]. Clear the path for the people above you and you will eventually create a path for yourself.”
– Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy
If you can directly contribute to someone’s career or ego, you have a place with them. The music industry is truly a place where everyone knows everyone. While there are a lot of players, there is also a small circle of really influential people. This is true for both local, regional, national, and even international networks. Everyone knows everyone who runs in their circle. To get a good reputation in the industry, start by impressing one person by helping them accomplish their goals.
Everyone has someone that they are trying to impress or develop a better working relationship with. The best way to do both of these is to be useful in a meaningful way.
If you can make yourself a secret weapon to one promoter, chances are they will offer you to another as a gift that they can leverage. Everyone wants to say, “I found this whiz kid, and I’ll introduce you two. You’re welcome.” You can leverage this by becoming that whiz kid.
I took this approach with my first real-promoter I got involved with. He had early success in 2010, and 2011. (In fact, my first rave was his 2011-2012 New Years party, at the venue that I threw my first show). By the time I was DJing, his business was down. The market had changed, and he was trying to adjust to match it.
If I could positively affect his business through promoting, I could gain a powerful ally. I was young and in-tune, and could offer input on how to throw parties in the current climate. Although his shows were smaller than before, he had connections that I could benefit from. I had something he needed, and he had something I needed. Win-win.
So, I hustled. He didn’t book me at first. I started to sell tickets for him. I ran the street team, attended every meeting in his cramped living room, and waited for my chance. I got booked a month later. 5 months after that, I was headlining his shows in front of 800 people.
In this time, I basically became his assistant. I would sit and listen to his ideas. I’d keep him on track, remind him what’s important, and suggest useful ideas. I lived up to my word, and exceeded every expectation he placed on me. It wasn’t long until he introduced me to another influential promoter, where my diversification of skills really took off. We still talk, bounce ideas off of each other, and hire one-another for certain things.
So what do you do? You hustle. You take the little responsibility you get, and exceed expectations. You then ask for more responsibility, and do the same. Within short order, you will be a vital part of that person’s operations.
It’s good to note that there will be people who will take advantage of you. There’s slimy people, looking to make a quick buck off of the young and naive. Suss people out, and learn to recognize a sketchy opportunity when you see one. I’ve definitely been here, more recently than I’d like to admit.
If it sounds too good to be true, it is. If it seems to much to ask of one person, it is. While you should promote shows you play for, you shouldn’t be expected to sell 75 tickets just to be considered to play. Choose the people who you support wisely.
Last thing, even if you aren’t getting directly paid for the hustle, there is enormous value in being invaluable to someone. You will be introduced to other people, or extended opportunities. As Circle Talent founder Kevin Gimble said, ” If you f–king kill it, your ass will have a seat.”
5. Say “hell yes” to everything
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
– Yogi Berra
When you’re just starting out, you can’t afford to say no. In fact, some of the best opportunities you receive as an artist will come from doing non-artist things for people in the industry. In my short 4 years in the music industry, I have:
- Headed up ticket promotion teams
- Managed a record label
- Stage-managed music festivals
- Set up shows
- Torn down shows
- Contributed to and edited (briefly) a major bass music blog
- Worked production at large venues and music festivals
- Started an EDM club at my university
- Organized shows under my name
- Organized shows under other people’s names
- Ran music workshops
- Acted as venue liaison to other promoters
- Gotten involved with local Top 40 radio stations
- Been contacted directly for press coverage of major music events
- Designed countless logos, flyers, and merch for artists and record labels
- Guest blogged for amazing companies like Symphonic Distribution (wink)
- And lastly, created a clothing brand for electronic music lovers just like me.
It’s a long rap-sheet, but an easy one to build. If you are professional and useful, you will get passed around opportunities to do all sorts of cool stuff.
In the beginning of your career, you don’t have the option to say “no”. Too many local artists refuse to leave their house because they think about over-saturating their brand. Instead of thinking you’ll wear your brand out, be everywhere so you can establish a brand first. Play every show that gets offered to you. Hit the streets. Hand out flyers and stickers. Promote your mixtape. Go out and meet the few hundred people who will start off your career. You need every chance to expose yourself, so go do it.
Also, don’t be afraid of the dirty work. Play for free. If you think of your career as a business, you’re gonna lose money the first few years. Plus, who are you to demand you get paid? There are people far busier, more important, and more talented than you who will do their job for free–if the opportunity is right. If you have 200 Facebook fans and no credit your name, every opportunity is right.
5. Don’t make enemies: be nice
“Law I: Don’t Outshine the Master”
– Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power
Don’t create enemies, for you will never know when you need someone’s graces.
I’ve made this mistake over and over again.
When you get more established in your scene, it’s easy to get an “us versus them” mentality. Two years ago, I ran with a certain promotion group in my city, that was the underdog to the major players. One of the major promoters, in particular, was a target of the company I was with.
A few months prior, I had received the opportunity from him to open for some the biggest acts of my life. Because the people I was around were set on destroying this other promoter’s business, I burned all my bridges with him. I talked badly about him with everyone who knew him. He quickly knew that I was not on his side anymore.
Fast-forward two years: the promotion group I was with is nowhere to be found. I’m still very close with the people who ran it, but they’re all doing other things. Who is still around? The promoter that I swore I would destroy. He has a virtual monopoly on the younger EDM demographic. There’s some clubs that do boutique techno and bass music, but the major all-ages shows and hot talent all go through him.
Now that I’m out of the promotion game, and in the clothing game, I deeply regret those remarks. If I had shut my mouth, he could be a powerful ally. However, I let the short-term hype of gunning after his business overtake the long-term relationship I could have developed.
As Gary Vaynercuk would put it, live life so everyone you meet would attend your funeral. Make a good impression on as many people as possible. Don’t talk ill.
6. Don’t get an ego
If you are a local artist with ego, you will be laughed at. If you think you are hot sh*t but have never played outside of your market, you’re delusional.
If people know you have an ego, they will turn against you. It’s better to suck and know it than to be good and flaunt it. Don’t turn off your fans, and instead, be human with them. Be real, keep yourself grounded.
People notice how you talk to them. They notice if you’re down-to-earth, or if you’re dismissive. It’s important to remind yourself at each level of success that you have a long way to go. You are never too good to stop and talk to someone about music. You are never too good to throw a fit about your timeslot, or opening for another local artist.
Don’t be that person who’s always looking over shoulders to find someone more important to talk with. Don’t spend 30 minutes trying to kiss up to the headliner when you wouldn’t spend 30 seconds thanking someone for coming to your show. It will pay off more for you to be less-career focused in social situations. You will find more benefit by talking to everyone, than by trying to “network”.