DJing: Imagination vs. Reality
It wasn't Tiesto, Hardwell, Martin Garrix (really?) and other big name DJ's that got me interested in DJing.
Rather it was this deep house song by a (not yet) famous artist that got me intrigued. The song's called Mama Odi (Remix) by Kenny Hectyc. It's a type of music you would hear at a lounge. A quiet song with a catchy/ groovy rhythm and a bassline that make people move their bodies.
So 2 years ago in 2015 Summer, I decided to give DJing a shot and see what happens. I learned mainly through YouTube and have spent lots of hours trying to learn the basics of DJing. Beatmatching and Phrasing, as well as trying out different genres of music and see what mixes well. Just like when you learn a new instrument, it was a lot of fun.
6 months into bedroom DJing, I wanted to play in front of people. Not because I wanted to be popular, but I just wanted to play the songs I like to the audience. You know, when you see famous DJs playing at UMF and Tomorrowland, you could feel the crazy energy of the crowd. How amazing!
Luckily, through this group and people I've met here, I was able to land a gig here and there. It's been a unique experience for me and I'm grateful for it. A lot of bedroom DJs dream of playing in front of people. I'm very glad that I was able to have this experience and it is thrilling to do so.
But at the same time, I gained another perspective of looking at this. As I got to know more about how this (bar/club) ecosystem works I began to see the limits of a DJ (who doesn't produce).
So when you imagine a DJ, I'm pretty sure an image like this would come to your mind - thousands of energetic people, everybody's lit and things are just crazy. Well, you are not the only one. This is what I thought would happen as well. If I start DJing at a club, make crowds go crazy blah blah blah, one day I'd end up at a big stage like this... and oh also, I'd get crazy popular with girls as well. Ah, models and bottles. That's one hell of a life. Basically, all the things you see on YouTube (Martin Garrix's vlogs were quite impressive)
But what you see from Martin Garrix's vlog never happens to you if you are just a club DJ who doesn't produce. Put another way, if you are a famous producer, DJ has a very clear and obvious glass door. Put yet another way, there's NO chance that you'd get invited to a UMF or Tomorrowland. Ever.
Now I do acknowledge that I seem like the most pessimistic person in the world who doesn't believe in any possibility. But this is the ugly truth. So if you want to be a big name DJ someday, you inevitably have to start producing. Which is kinda weird because DJing seems to be the only instrument where you have to know how to "compose" songs if you want to "make it". One exception that comes to my mind is DJ Soda who's more well known for her signature dance moves while she's DJing as well as her body parts (boobs basically).
So here are some realities (which I didn't realize) as a regular club DJ.
1. There certain types of music you can play depending on set time.
You have to stick to certain type of music depending on what time you play: This isn't all that obvious if you don't DJ. But say if a club starts at 10 and ends at 3, there are certain genres or sub-genres you can play as a rational DJ. For example, when people come to a club at 10 right after it opens, they are going to be pretty sober and not warmed up yet. So you are supposed to play deep house/tech house genres as well as top 40 type songs to get people moving slowly. Your job is to let them start grooving, not to jump around or get too crazy. You wanna see people moving gently, but not this, because this will get a lot of people hurt.
But as it gets closer to the peak time (1-2), you start mixing more intense songs and basically lit up the club!
2. You eventually have to play the same tracks over and over
This thought hadn't occurred to be as I started, but I realized, if you DJ every week, you are bound to play same songs over and over. Fortunately, people tend to be drunk when they come to clubs so they don't remember what they hear for the most part, but for you, it becomes tricky as you don't really want to repeat the same routine over and over since it gets boring to you, but at the same time, you can only carry so many songs (especially so if you aren't carrying a laptop). Obviously, it is your job to "dig" (find) new tunes as a DJ in order to follow the trend, but I personally found that my favorites aren't the newest and latest tracks but the ones I play over and over.
3. Your brand or name value > mixing skills
When you DJ at a club, it is assumed you can beat match, play "right tunes at the right time", and not screw up. That is true and given. So what matters more to the club is your brand (which is related to how many people you can bring). At the end of the day, the one thing that club cares about is their bar & table sale. Clubs aren't there to make people happy and provide a space so that they can dance! NO. They want to make money off of you. They want you to get drunk so that you can buy more alcohol! The reason why clubs pay a huge amount of money to bring famous DJs is to bring more people which hopefully translates into higher bar sale. Sadly too, people (in general) also don't really care about your mixing skills. As long as music is constantly played and they hear songs they know time to time, they are happy. If you are a famous DJ, they'd be happier since there's nothing like your favorite DJ playing your favorite tune of him/her right? So you get the idea. It's more about your brand and that's why in order to succeed as a commercial DJ, you are almost "forced" to produce. And if you don't, you probably won't make it higher than a club DJ.
4. You can't get as drunk
Surprisingly, when you DJ, you are really working, so you can't get too drunk so that you screw things up. But I've seen one dude getting pretty drunk and doing cocaine while he's DJing. It was exactly the type of DJ I didn't want to be...
5. How crowded the dance floor is the key to a successful gig
When there's nobody on the stage, it doesn't matter what you play and how you play. People don't dance when there aren't other people around. Humans are social animals who feel awkward when there's nobody around.
However, when there's a lot of people it doesn't matter what you play, as long as it is not something that's totally off. People will in general be dancing if there are other people dancing.
In other words, if a really good DJ (in terms of skill) play at 10, it's likely that there'll be less people on the dance floor than a mediocre Dj playing at 1 when a club gets pretty packed.
As a DJ, it is your job to make people dancing. Or so I thought. There's no other better way to make people dance than bringing in more people. See that's why your brand matters. More people show up, people are more likely to dance and more likely to drink.
So what's the bottom line?
For me, it was a "harsh" realization that DJing isn't as sexy as I thought it to be anymore. But this also means that I've seen the bottom of this ecosystem so that I'm de-mystified now. There's nothing more disappointing than having a wild expectation of something only to see that it was a fantasy. I'm not saying I don't like DJing. It's just I realized I'd keep it purely as a hobby as I still find DJing in front of other people really enjoyable.
DJing at a club has also a revealing experience for me philosophically because I've been wondering if a hobby becomes work, would it still be enjoyable. My answer at this point is maybe not. If I had DJ'ed ever weekend, I wonder if I could have enjoyed all the time. And this makes me wonder what other famous DJ's think of their jobs. Of course they love interacting with the fans and crowds, but when that becomes your life, can you always enjoy and appreciate the moment? I find it hard to believe you can do it all the time.
So maybe the reality is, hobby is great as long as it remains as a hobby. I hadn't been able to understand what my Dad meant when he told me that, but it could be the case. It seems like whatever my dad tells me turns out to be true even though I argue back every time. Adults always know the answer!