Careers as a DJ

Last updated: 25 Jan 2023, 13:36

Here’s what you need to know to kick-start a career as a DJ, whether it be on the radio, in a nightclub or for weddings and parties.

Headphones resting on a DJ mixer under blue ambient lighting.

‘The DJ plays my song and I feel alright’ claims Miley Cyrus in her catchy 2009 hit ‘Party in the USA’. This is actually a pretty good summary of what a career as a DJ may involve, as DJs are responsible for mixing tracks of music and sounds to create an atmosphere that their audience will enjoy.

What types of DJ are there?

Radio DJ

Mixing music is just one element of working as a radio DJ. You’ll be responsible for choosing songs, but you’ll also work with the production team to think about how the music will fit in with other parts of the programme such as snippets of conversation, adverts and the news.

Radio DJs will often host interviews and conversations, as well as activities involving audience participation and competitions – so confidence and personality is key. You’ll probably start out by working on a part-time basis, with full-time work becoming available as you progress.

Club DJ

Nightclub DJs mix songs and often control lighting to create atmosphere in a nightclub and keep the dancefloor full throughout the night. When choosing music, they will consider the theme of the club night, the audience and the club policy, and will sometimes take requests. Club DJs work part-time shifts, so you may need to take on another job during the day.

Mobile DJ

Mobile DJs provide entertainment at events such as weddings and parties. As a mobile DJ, you’ll most likely work on a freelance basis and will need to provide your own equipment. You will also need public liability insurance.

Adam Dewar used to work as a DJ at Oxford’s Purple Turtle nightclub and now takes on freelance work as a mobile DJ. He reflects on the differences between these roles: ‘In clubs, the dancefloor is full from first to last and people are there to have a good time. At mobile events, such as weddings, people will also want to chat to each other, you have every age range and you’re responsible for starting the party’.

What is working as a DJ like?

For Adam, the highlights of working as a DJ include: ‘A successful night, which for me is having a full dancefloor for the majority of it. I do enjoy the work too.’

On the other hand, hours are likely to be irregular and pay can be on the low side. Adam comments: ‘You’ve got to want to do the work as you have to be prepared to do unsociable hours, such as weekend work and evenings. You also have to be quite thick-skinned as music is so subjective and everyone has different tastes so you can never please everyone with what you’re playing’.

What experience would be helpful?

Gaining practical experience is key for any type of DJ career and there are plenty of opportunities to get involved in both outside of and at university. You’ll probably have to start out by taking on volunteer work while you begin to build your reputation.

To get experience in radio, you could volunteer at a local or student radio station. Adam also recommends taking part in hospital or community radio: ‘Most big names, particularly popular radio DJs, began by doing hospital radio. You get to learn the ropes in a non-threatening environment and it’s a good grounding for those starting out as you can make mistakes and learn how to mix songs.’ Starting out by working at smaller or local radio stations is a good first step if you’re looking to get involved with well-known radio stations.

Useful experience for club DJing includes volunteering at local or university club nights to start to get some exposure and to create your own sets. Similarly, if you’re looking to work freelance as a mobile DJ, you could take on work as a roadie to build contacts in the area or you could volunteer at parties, charity shows or weddings.

What skills do I need to become a DJ?

As a DJ, you’ll need a number of skills to be able to put on a good show for your audience. These can include:

  • A good level of computer literacy and familiarity with mixing software.
  • Personality and communication skills. At clubs or parties, you’ll provide an occasional line of conversation to engage your audience, while radio DJs will often lead and take part in discussions.
  • An extensive knowledge of music. Adam advises: ‘Build up your music knowledge as much as possible – from songs from the 60s right up to the present day. You need to know the songs well, as well as the right time to bring a song in and the best part of the song to bring in’.
  • Networking – both in person and online. Adam has seen the value of networking in his career: ‘I don’t really advertise. For me, it’s all word of mouth because I’ve been doing it for so long and have quite a few friends in the area.’ You can also post mixes to music streaming sites such as SoundCloud, advertise your work through social media or send out copies of your work to pubs and clubs to start to build your reputation.

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