OPINION: DJing for free hurts us all

Just like any creative vocation, DJs are in a constant battle to justify to people from every corner, that they should be paid for their work. From promoters thinking they can string along any number of young kids who just want time in the booth, to other DJs happy to show up and play a few tracks for free, it’s undeniable that competition has made it easy to find someone who’ll do it for, at most, a few pints.

The fallacy we come across over and over is “you’re already doing something you enjoy, isn’t money just a bonus?”, and it gets into the collective heads of the industry. It needs to stop. If you’re DJing for someone making money from your performance, you should get paid.

Full stop.

Do you think all those top DJ/producers make their money from selling music? Not a chance. There’s no money in producing (that’s a entirely separate discussion). They make a living from playing their own and other artists’ music to crowds of people (and possibly running record labels).

Why you should be paid

The first and most important reason is that you’re taking time out to perform a task for someone else. At its most basic, work is about being recompensed for your time. And that’s not even taking account of all the other factors: All the time and money spent digging for your carefully crafted music collection; all the time and money spent on equipment; all the time spent practicing, learning, organising. These all have value. To you, and to your client (the club/bar, promoter, happy couple, hairdressers, department store, etc.).

There’s also the fact that payment changes the expectations of the relationship. It adds professionalism. It adds value. And it creates a better contract between you and the client. Once money is involved, you’ll push yourself harder to impress, and to improve.

Imposter syndrome

The first hurdle any aspiring DJ has is the concept that not only what they do has value, but that they deserve the value they’re given. To some degree or another, everyone has that feeling that they somehow got to where they are through fluke, and that they don’t really belong and will get found out. This is called imposter syndrome.

And it can be a constant battle to overcome. But we’re also constantly having to battle with the Dunning-Kruger effect: usually people who seem to be doing well despite their seemingly remedial ability, who fail upwards without realising their skill level, usually through sheer shameless force of will, and bullshittery.

But getting past this is a long game. Bullshitters will be found out, and they’ll slowly erode their own reputations. If you’re serious about your craft, you’ll be happy to play this out. Over time, your professionalism and reputation will carry more weight, and even the duckers and divers will appreciate your input.

djing for exposure is wrong

Why working for free hurts everyone

Offering valuable services for free lowers the bar for expectation, regardless of the quality offered.

There are plenty of examples of this in other industries. My wife runs a business making handmade baby clothes. They take time, skill, and materials. As such, they’re well made, unique, and the very definition of premium. But the industry is riddled with competition that treats it as a hobby, undercutting prices by a huge margin because they “can just do this in my spare time”. Shoppers see this price disparity and inevitably go with the cheaper option, thus normalising prices at an unsustainable level.

Another great example of this is the photography industry, where even with a value that can immediately be seen via the images themselves, there is a continual battle to justify price. Even after it gets broken down in both practical and abstract ways.

That’s not to say that everyone should be charging the same, or that every DJ has the same value. A wedding DJ should probably charge more than a resident down at the local bar, even if due to the fact they need and use more equipment and have a more varied music library. If you’re becoming better known in your area, your value inevitably goes up. But nobody should be out of pocket after spinning tunes somewhere that has gained something from your performance, be it money from a crowd of drinkers, or a promoter selling out a venue full of ravers.

If everyone respects the industry we’re in, then everyone wins.

The other side of the coin

On the flip side, you’ve got promoters that are taking advantage of the seemingly saturated market, using all sorts of tricks to pull in unsuspecting DJs and their friends. There are all sorts of dirty tricks promoters will play to ensnare eager and naive wannabe DJs:

  • I’ve seen this chestnut come uptime and again, expecting DJs to buy a certain number of tickets up front for the honour of playing a set. I’ve even seen this palmed off for a set before the night has even opened its doors!
  • Another is running a DJ competition with the “prize” as a chance to play the night. This can be even further diluted by the idea of throwing all the finalists into a huge back to back set on the night.
  • I’d go even further and lump in any DJ competition that doesn’t offer fair payment for the work as part of the prize.

There could be an argument that you can’t really blame them for trying, but it’d be the wrong argument. We should always strive to be ethical in this scene. Clubs, raves, electronic music… it all has roots in the philosophy of togetherness, fun, and appreciating art. Screwing someone over is decidedly not that.

The exceptions that make the rule

There is a strong argument for using select gigs as an opportunity to network and build relationships. This is the same as any business. Not everything has to be paid, but it has led you forwards in your career.

If’ you’re running your own night, then it’s your own time and talent you’re using. Just like running any other business, it’s up to you to pull a profit. The catch is that you’re then on the other end of the issue, and you need to ensure others are paid their dues. “Never forget where you came from”, as they say.

Even doing a favour for a friend can be fair, as long as ground rules are set, and expectations are managed. I once DJed the wedding of my wife’s close friends, for free. But it was ensured I wasn’t out of pocket. They hired the PA, provided the extra music to bolster my playlist, and provided me with plenty of booze. The night ended with everyone in a circle dancing to Bohemian Rhapsody, to give you an idea of how it went.

So what can we do?

The most important (and hardest) thing is to be consistent. Both with your own standards, and amongst other DJs. Work to promote fair pay, even when you’re drowning in chancers.

One paid gig is worth many more unpaid ones. Not only do you get the money, but you also have said gig added to your CV, which works much more in your favour than “I played ten house parties, and got to turn on the CDJs and play three tracks that one time before the doors opened at the Ritz”.

Create your own opportunities by running your own night and you’ll always have work, and it’ll open you up your local scene much faster than trying to get your foot in the door as a DJ. No, you won’t get paid, as such, for spinning tunes, but it’s then up to you to make the night successful and pull a profit as a promoter. And as someone who runs a night for this exact reason (amongst others), I can tell you it’s hard work, stressful, and hella fun when it pulls off.

Since we’re out in fantasy land, unionising the DJ industry is an option. Other arts sectors already have this, including musicians, with the Screen Actors Guild being a highly successful example. In fact, the Guild is so influential, you basically can’t get work in Hollywood unless you’re a member, including credited cameos.

Finally, we can all up our game, be professional, and stick together. Phil Morse from Digital DJ Tips (no relation) wrote a sort-of self-help book on getting properly started in the industry (yes Phil, I really read it), which is a great basis to get your foot in the door, or improve your discipline and motivation. The bottom line is that with hard work and professionalism, we can beat the grifters of the DJ world.

I have no doubt some of this will be dismissed as idealistic, but that’s how movements start… with an ideal. And I really think it’s achievable. We just need to keep talking about it.

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