Being paid for your work makes sense, right? I mean, it's the system we all live in and under: your services are, usually, rewarded financially. That makes sense to us. And probably you too. Volunteering might be good for the soul but in the current economic climate it's an odd kind of luxury many of us simply can't afford.
So — and not to make a huge ideological leap here — why should DJing be any different? Why should younger, less experienced DJs go totally unpaid for their work? Put simply, they shouldn't. The thing is, all of us know that money isn't an easy thing to talk about, and asking for money can be an incredibly painful, awkward experience. With that in mind, we reached out to a few established DJs to see if they had any solid advice for our readers. We learned a lot, and hopefully you will too.
Matt Thomas runs the Trax Couture label and is founder and resident of the House of Trax parties, which are some of London's most forward thinking and exciting nights. He's a versatile DJ and you're as likely to hear him play ballroom as you are Bmore.
I got paid from the beginning but just not all the time, it also depends on the type of gig. But you generally have to do your fair share of proving yourself. Anyone and everyone is DJ now so you have to earn your stripes so to speak, and prove why you're better than the next man, which encourages healthy competition.
While it should be taken on a case by case basis, the longer you put off asking people to pay you, the longer you'll have to wait for it. I think you need to be confident in your own worth and not be afraid to turn down gigs, too. Aside from that, though, you can't be acting all Billy big bollocks and being a total egomaniac just because you've had a few successful nights.
I've got an agent now which means I've got a minimum fee and that takes the pressure off a bit. However there are ways and means to make shows work that are worth playing even if the money's not quite right. Before I had an agent though, i just had been building a figure in my mind based on previous offers/fees and trying to work that fee upwards based on how much my profile had grown on a six monthly basis.
You know, I've never been cheated out of any cash, touch wood. BUT there has been an occasion where the gig was dead and it was an awkward scenario collecting my fee at the end of the night. Kind of felt sorry for the promoter but that's the responsibility of being a promoter, you have to cover your costs regardless of attendance & sales. If it goes wrong, it's not your fault [most of the time].
Generally speaking, I try not to play for free these days. But if a tasty alternative deal or sick party gets proposed and I'm available and it's worth playing then it's a possibility. Can't say they come round often though.
You'll probably know Marcel Vogel as the bloke behind the label with quite possibly the greatest name ever: Lumberjacks From Hell. Specializing in house-inflected disco rerubs, the imprint's a firm favorite of ours here at THUMP and Vogel is a top notch DJ in his own right too.
First of all, DJing out is practice. It's exposure for you and you are exposed to a crowd. You can't learn DJing at home in your bedroom. You learn your music and your technique but reading a crowd and vibing with them is something you learn on the dancefloor and in the booth. Real DJ's play to satisfy their hearts, to feel at unity with the dancefloor, to get a buzz.
Life circumstances just make it so that we need to get paid. If it's for friends or a small intimate crowd and I can afford to play for free, I don't mind. I don't DJ for the money, I do it because I genuinely enjoy banging the box. But, I am not a sucker. Don't let yourself being exploited. You are becoming a commodity that's generating income for a lot of people. And the higher your value the more money you should get as a result of that.
Generally make sure to deal with proper people. Honest, straight up people won't cheat you out of 50 quid. If somebody fucks me over, I just won't work with them anymore. It's easy like that. Especially when you start gigging, some places are just painful to play, shit soundsystems, no people, hidden behind a bar or wherever, shit monitors. basically these gigs should be the highest paid to compensate for that. I've played bar gigs in Berlin for 30 euro before. Did I feel ripped off? Possibly, probably, but when you are in your early 20's with a mean vinyl habit, it means you can buy three more records and a can of ravioli, right? It's important to build your crowd and build your name and if you are bringing in 50 people paying 5-10 bucks each you are already worth real money.
Don't get blinded by money; get blinded by passion.
David Lewis is one of Manchester's finest exports. He's the mastermind of the infamous Murkage crew and recently hooked up with Mike Skinner to form the Tonga collective — if you've seen people waltzing about with green balloons on Friday nights recently, it's a safe bet that they've been Tonga'd.
I started off playing in house parties, and I didn't really take it too seriously so I wasn't really bothered about getting paid. i think the first time I technically got money for DJing was when I started putting on the first Murkage Club parties and booked myself.
There's no hard and fast rule when it comes to getting paid in the early days. I would say weigh it up on a show by show basis. You've got to think about what opportunities each booking presents versus the effort involved and service provided. it also depends on the scene you're in, pay attention to the unwritten rules but don't be afraid to bend them a bit if you think it makes sense for you in the long term.
If I'm honest, I'm not really happy to play for free so much these days. But again it all depends. If Kanye asked me to DJ his birthday party I might cut him a bit of a discount…
Grovestreet was the youngest DJ we reached out too. He's a talented producer, DJ and appreciator of back of the bus Nokia screamers.
My official gig was at House Of Trax and I was 17 at the time so nobody wanted to risk it before then, really. I had played b2bs in warmups for free just for fun before with close friends and stuff, usually having to sneak in the club when door staff weren't paying attention. So I was fairly lucky that I never had to do the 'support dj' grind in my home city, just went straight to London and kicked it off there. Still haven't been properly booked in Oxford yet though.
In terms of expecting instant payment, I think it could be comparative to the amount of people you can bring, your social media game, how long you've been DJing, whether your sound is niche and getting popular or if it's an already established sound. I don't think you should be playing strangers' parties for free, as then you get thrown into the category of 'free djs you can get for warmup sets'. If people are going to take you seriously, especially as a young person — as lots of people assume that because you haven't been in the game since forever then you're gonna do anything you can to get on a bill — then you should definitely at least ask for something. It also helps to get an older mate to act as a 'booking agent' for you, who can negotiate fees and basically do the dirty work of asking for money, as I know for many new and young DJs you feel like a liability to be asking for a fee, but then again, you are the one performing your art for them
I do kind of have a set fee, I suppose. I have a fee for in the UK, a fee for abroad, a fee for close mates and everything in between. I don't really have an arbitrary fee, and sometimes it isn't fair to ask for full fee for a party which may have like half the budget or something. I just save all my best tunes for the ones that pay the most! But yeah, I got my starting fee from how much one promoter abroad offered me, so I figured that was my value and I should stick to that.
Some promoters probably think I'm quite rude because I usually go to collect my fee right after I've finished and I'm pretty urgent about it, guess that's because I've read so many stories about people forgetting to pick up their fee and thinking they'd get paid the next day when in fact they never do.
I play a lot of parties for mates on tight budgets and just get the basics covered like travel, food and a few beers for the night. Gives me an excuse to get out the house and meet up with a few mates as well. I don't play strangers' parties for free anymore though.
AN ANONYMOUS DJ
This DJ didn't want to give his name away but was happy to provide some solid, solid advice. All we'll say is, he's a pretty big deal…and you should probably listen to him.
As a DJ, getting paid came instantly because people knew me as a vocalist and a member of my old group before that. As long as they know you have a pull — that a certain amount of people are willing to pay to see you even if you're just starting as a DJ — you will get booked even if you don't know what you're doing. It's a fucked up system and it sucks but I took advantage of it and still managed to learn how to DJ properly in the meantime, because I honestly wanted to be good and deserve that money. I was getting paid more than people who had been DJing for years though. But then again I sorta had paid my dues and built my profile as a rapper for about nine years before that through hard work (with my fair share of shitty unpaid gigs for a couple years at the beginning obviously).
There's no hard and fast rules about getting paid immediately but for a relatively unknown DJ if it's a residency job, like if you're playing in a bar every week, even every two weeks, for more than an hour, I would consider it a job that requires payment whether people come to see you or not. As soon as you get a certain following and that you can prove that people are coming to a certain venue to see you (and not someone else) play you should definitely ask for at little a bit of money.
Sadly there's been a few times when I've been conned out of cash, back when I used to work without an agent. Now it doesn't happen because there's contracts and people are paid to not let it happen. Sometimes clubs take a long ass time to pay you but they usually end up paying if they want to work with you or someone from the same booking agency again. Then again even when you have an agent it can happen with promoters who don't care about consequences and just disappear or stuff like that. There's nothing you can do about it.
In the rare instances where it's a very close friend's party or a very grassroots community thing and I just want to help or give back a favor someone gave me yes I'm happy to play for free. But it has to be a dope party where I know i'll have fun playing. Sometimes I'd rather play for free and have mad fun and help friends with their project and make new fans, than get paid to play a shitty party far away in front of no one or a handful of people who don't understand what I do and be depressed about it.