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What Is A DJ? The Truth About What DJs Do


6 min read

Jan 7

What is a DJ?

DJs are musicians who manipulate recorded music in a live setting. DJing started in the 1940s, and has evolved into an art form where skilled individuals blend and breathe new life into music.

Black and white image of a DJ expertly manipulating a vinyl record on a turntable, highlighting the classic art of turntablism.

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What Does DJ Stand For?

DJ stands for 'disc jockey,' a term that is a nod to the days when vinyl records were the greatest thing since sliced bread. DJs today use digital audio files instead of discs, but they still maintain the title and play the same role in live music events.

What Does a DJ Do?

During a live performance, DJs create an audible journey for every listener. They meticulously select songs and use effects to make every set unique. Beat matching, looping, and harmonic mixing are just a few of the skills a DJ has. They can use other people's music, or make their own to map out the soundscape for a live gig.

Beyond the gigs, DJs pour their heart into building a brand. They produce music or mashups on Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) and build an audience through content creation. Many DJs use social media and livestream platforms to connect with fans. Once they cultivate a community, some DJs design and sell merchandise or create an online course. Essentially, DJs extend their creativity far beyond the stage.

Can DJing Become a Career?

Definitely! DJing is more than a hobby; it’s a viable career path in the entertainment industry.

Take Steve Aoki, Excision, and Eric Pryds, for instance. These icons don't just play music, they have built an empire around the party. After working for years to craft unforgettable experiences for fans around the world, they are rewarded well.

What is the Role of a DJ?

A DJ mixes songs to create an ambiance or mood for the crowd to enjoy. They use gear to blend music, and keep the energy high with crowd work. Depending on the event, there are 5 different types of DJs:

The Club DJ

These are the DJs you see opening for major headliners or playing consistent gigs at clubs and bars. Oftentimes they hold a residency - which is a steady booking at the same venue. Club DJs also need to be comfortable with Pioneer CDJs, as they are often the club standard mixer. This includes tools like the DDJ-400, DDJ-FLX4, and the classic CDJ-3000.

The Music Producer DJ

Producer DJs stand out in the industry by writing and playing their own tracks. Including custom remixes, mashups, bootlegs, and unreleased music. When a producer releases a song, it's often downloaded and played out by DJs within their genre. Spreading their name around the community faster than any recording could.

Club promoters and event organizers always look for talent releasing quality original music. Local promoters usually prefer these proactive artists over DJs who do not make their own music as well.

How are producers making their music? Three things: a laptop, a digital audio workstation (DAW), and a burning passion for their genre.

Screenshot of Ableton Live 10 Standard interface showcasing a clean project
Screenshot of the Ableton Interface

The Mobile DJ

The chameleon of the DJ world, mobile DJs bring the party to you. Whether it's a wedding, corporate event, or private party, they are the stars in the background. They often work with DJ associations or entertainment groups to craft memories one event at a time.

These disc jockeys curate a playlist of crowd-pleasers and billboard top 100 tracks. At certain events they will receive a list of tracks to play or avoid, and take requests from guests. Plus, they are normally the ones to set up and break down music equipment.

The Turntablist / Vinyl DJ

A turntablist sticks to the classic vinyl DJing style to create their unique sound. An art form that gained momentum in the 1970s alongside the rise of hip-hop. They practice complex techniques like beat juggling and scratching songs or samples. Building new basslines, percussion loops, and sounds in front of a live audience.

One of the latest innovations in DJing is air scratching technology. Devices that use motion sensors to emulate the action of scratching vinyl. As shown by DJ Craze below, it allows the user to DJ in 3D space!

The Bedroom DJ

Lastly, the bedroom DJ or hobbyist - where many of us start our DJ journey. Whether in it for fun or taking it seriously, this stage is all about experimenting with music. These DJs play around with mixer effects, learn the basics of beat matching, and have just discovered the camelot key wheel. Booking gigs is not a top priority, but a distant idea.

If you're a bedroom DJ, share your mixes online. This is the perfect way to practice, get honest feedback from strangers, and grow your network. You’ll be surprised by what can happen.

How Much Do DJs Get Paid on Average?

This can vary widely based on experience, venue, gig type, and popularity. But to give an example, here’s a quick rundown:

  1. Beginner DJs & Bedroom DJs: Typically play for free or earn $50-$100 per gig.

  2. Club DJs (Resident DJs): Can expect to make between $100 to $500 per night.

  3. Mobile DJs: With the ability to cater to a wide range of events, these DJs often earn between $400 and $1500+ per event.

  4. Famous DJs & Celebrity DJs: Top names like David Guetta, Martin Garrix, and Armin van Buuren, can earn upwards of $100,000 per gig. This is largely due to their massive following, tracks, and skill.

Fun fact: DJ Diesel (aka Shaquille O’Neal) plays his dubstep sets for free. He’s unleashed his alias at popular festivals like Lost Lands, EDC Las Vegas, and Forbidden Kingdom.

Is It Hard to Be a DJ?

Being a DJ is as hard as you make it. Learning how to DJ is pretty straightforward but takes time. However, a quality DJ knows how to energize a crowd, has good timing, and creates memorable moments for the audience.

Beginner DJs often take on many roles themselves. Such as finding gigs, promoting their shows, managing social media, and even doing their own finances. They need to be ready for late nights, unpredictable crowds, and lots of travel. Plus, networking is key too; making connections with people who can book them for gigs.

So yes, while DJing is fun and can be very rewarding, it's also requires real dedication.

What Equipment Does a DJ Need?

Every DJ’s toolkit is different, tailored to their style and the type of gigs they play. However, there are some essentials that all DJs need to get the party started.

Core DJ Equipment:

  1. DJ Controller / Mixer: The heart of a DJ setup. Whether it's a CDJ or Traktor S2, this item is essential.

  2. Headphones + Quarter Inch Adapter: Headphones help with beat matching, while the adapter will help you plug into any mixer.

  3. USB Flash Drive: DJs should bring music everywhere they go. A FAT32 formatted drive is recommended as they work with nearly all DJ controllers.

  4. Laptop & DJ Software: Programs like Serato, Traktor, or Rekordbox are what allow you to format each setlist. Yet, some setups do not require either to perform live.

  5. A Music Library: This is a DJ’s arsenal. The music in a DJ library (and how they use it) is what defines them as an artist.

Optional DJ Equipment:

  1. Speakers: Whether practicing at home or throwing parties, a good set of speakers can be better than headphones.

  2. Microphone: For hyping up the crowd, recording social media content, or adding a personal touch to DJ mix recordings.

  3. Audio Interface: For more advanced setups, or including a microphone, an audio interface makes cable management easier.

Close-up of a DJ's hands adjusting a Pioneer CDJ controller during a live mix, illuminated by vibrant purple lights


What Does "DJ Set" Mean?

A “DJ Set” is the term that refers to a performance where a DJ mixes music together in a live or recorded setting. This involves more than just playing one song after the other. A good DJ manipulates audio with a variety of tactics like beat matching, effects, and scratching.

What Does a DJ Do on Stage?

On top of transitioning between songs, DJs also read the crowd, engage with the audience, and help build an immersive live experience. Through using the microphone, visuals, and other production value elements, they work to keep the crowd entertained.

Can DJs Use Other People's Music?

Yes, DJs often use other people’s music in their sets. What makes each different is how they mix, transition, and add their unique touch to a performance. Of course, respecting copyright laws is important when creating content online. But in a live setting, there are less rules.

Common DJ Problems

DJs often encounter ear fatigue from prolonged exposure to loud music and events. As well as technical issues with their equipment and handling bad song requests. They work hard to network within the industry, make money, and release new tunes. Yet, these challenges are part of every DJ's journey.

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