The Life Cycle of a Career DJ: From 1 to 25 years

While dance music certainly has taken on a whole new life these last few years with the explosion of EDM and its attendant festival culture, DJing as we know it (the style of mixing two beat-oriented records together for a seamless dancing experience) goes back at least to the ’70s. Over the past few decades, DJing has firmly established itself as both a creative cultural force and a viable career path—not some fly-by-night whim to be scoffed at. In that spirit, we decided to take a look at the life cycle of a professional DJ, from year zero to well past year 20, to get a look at what can change throughout the decades and how to keep that career sustainable. YEARZERO

We’re proud that some DJ TechTools readers are  just starting out as DJs. At this stage, you’re probably not quite looking at DJing as a career yet, but things can progress pretty quickly if you play your cards right. Montreal’s Adventure Club have only been at it for a few years, but it didn’t take long for members Christian Srigley and Leighton James to start attracting attention.

A chance remix of Flight Facilities’ “Crave You” kickstarted their success, and before long, learning to DJ was a necessary step for the duo to bring their music worldwide. “We in no way consider ourselves pros,” says James, “so we try and constantly learn and adapt. Between learning new production techniques, learning new mix vibes, to keeping up with current music and artists and trends, it’s definitely a full-time job. … When we first got into [DJing], we would watch tons of videos and interviews. We’re still learning and continue to learn.”

While Adventure Club have definitely seen their fair share of big breaks, including signing to Spinnin and playing Ultra and Coachella, no one should expect to be raking it in off the bat. The duo’s first gig was played “for drink tickets and the opportunity to sleep on the promoter’s couch,” says James. Even Laidback Luke, who’s gone on to become one of the world’s most sought-after DJs, played his first gigs for free. But it was that connection to his local community that sparked his success. “It was very important when I started,” says Luke, of his small beginnings in the Netherlands.

“I found out networking was a big key to any success.”—Laidback Luke

There are a lot of sacrifices and decisions to be made in those early years, and one of the biggest ones can come in the form of having to quit your job, and tackle music full time. Gareth Emery had been pursuing his DJ career for a couple of years when, in 2003, he was at a crossroads. “Music was starting to take off, the gigs were piling up, and I was offered an Australia tour, but I’d already taken my yearly holiday allowance at work,” he remembers.

“The only way I could have done the tour was to leave work, so I thought, ‘Fuck it—you have to make the jump at some point.'”  – Gareth Emery

YEAR5

If you’ve reached year five, then you’re likely in it for the long haul. “Giving up is not in my dictionary,” says Sandro Silva, whose career has taken off the last few years after signing with the Armada and Revealed labels.

“In the start of 2006, I nearly packed it all in,” says Gareth Emery. “In three months, I only had one gig. Not through choice, or studio commitments; that was just all my agent could get me. It was fucking depressing.”

Emery blames his own lack of producing good new music on the slump, and after a few years in, seriously considered throwing in the towel.

“I started thinking about jobs, getting my resume up to scratch, and started preparing to leave the music industry,” he says. “Until one day my dad gave some me pretty harsh words and told me, ‘Quit if you want, but you haven’t given it your best shot.

“You’re lazy. You get up at midday and spend all night posting on messages boards rather than actually working, so it’s not surprising you aren’t succeeding. I hated him for it at the time, but he was absolutely right.” – Gareth Emery

Emery set about giving it his all for the next six months, starting a podcast (which he’s still doing today, after 300 episodes), and producing more regularly. “And by the end of 2006, the gigs were slowly starting to pick up,” he remembers, “and I felt I was getting somewhere again. So I stuck it out, and I guess the rest is history.”

Of course, perseverance alone does not a DJ make. “Staying current amidst the exponential amount of acts that seem to be coming our of the woodwork every day,” is one of the hardest parts of the job, says Adventure Club’s James. “When we started, there was maybe an eighth of the electronic producers in the scene. There’s so much talent that comes out.”

So make sure you’re keeping things fresh any way that you can. While Sandro Silva’s early goals revolved around getting his songs to DJs (“Getting actual response from them was big for me back then,” he says), it was around year five that he really began to build on his career, signing his first big record deals and settling on a management company.

howard

The same happened with BBC DJ Danny Howard, who started DJing about six years ago, and has been doing so on a full-time pro basis for the last 4. He signed with Paul Oakenfold’s management team, and Oakie himself has provided plenty of career guidance. “To have him available on the end of the phone 24/7 is invaluable!” says Howard.

It’s not easy to have a sustainable career on DJing alone, so learning production and releasing tracks is more and more important these days.

“I’m a producer at heart,” says Laidback Luke. “I started producing before I got into DJing. I still thoroughly love the art of producing. Before my generation, you could actually only be a DJ and be successful. People like me would combine the two and you’d be able to make a name for yourself quicker on a global scale.”

Between years five and ten, the road can definitely take its toll, so staying healthy should be a part of your regular work habits, too. “It sounds geeky but to conquer the relentless schedule of a DJ these days, you have to be on your game. Eating junk food and drinking alcohol all the time will not help that,” says Howard.

YEAR10

After the first decade of killer work, and a fair bit of success, things are only going to build; without a doubt, the first decade marks a period of even more growth and change. There may also be a shift in terms of what you want with your career.

  • More production and less touring?
  • A stylistic about-face?

“One of the bigger [changes] was when I needed to step away from making techno,”

says Laidback Luke, who turned his style around about 10 years after he started. “Back in 1999, I was known as a techno DJ and was putting out techno tracks on bigger techno labels. But in 1999, I hit a wall,” says Luke. “Coming from a musical family and background, I play a bit of guitar and piano, and I had been writing song lyrics since I was a kid; techno made me musically numb. I found myself at a crossroads, and felt I had to choose between stopping to produce, or continue producing but this time, allow all of my musicality to join in… I chose to make Daft Punk-inspired electro-pop on chunky beats. Which later developed to electro, Dutch, big room, and then EDM. I was never in this for the easy money. I’m still not. I like tracks to sing along to and to jump to; it’s still just about that for me!”

By year 10, there’s an even greater chance that a career DJ has to relocate somewhere, either for newer, bigger projects, or to fuel the creative fire, and that means more sacrifice. Veteran DJ Charles Feelgood moved from Baltimore to Los Angeles, “because of the weather, and I had a lot of friends here and I was doing a lot of work with the Moonshine Label. It was a good move, and I’m probably here to stay.”

Emery, too, moved from the UK to LA. “Both Manchester and LA have been amazing creative cities to be in,” he says. But it’s also at this stage where a certain work-life balance has to take hold for both career and personal success. “This job is incredibly demanding on your personal life,” says Emery. “You really do lose contact with a lot of friends and family. You miss weddings, birthdays, christenings, and it’s a shame, but living this sort of like takes sacrifices.”

“This job is incredibly demanding on your personal life.” – Gareth Emery

Of course, there are more milestones to be had. For Feelgood, it was playing even bigger venues and festivals, like Lollapalooza. For Emery, it was writing “‘Concrete Angel,” his biggest hit to date, and “finally feeling like I was ‘cracking’ the US by playing Ultra, EDC, etc.”

YEAR15

Fifteen years in the music business gives anyone “lifer” status, whether you stick with it after that point or not.

But more often than not, this stage represents growth in other areas outside of the typical realm of DJing and producing tracks. “I’ll always be writing and producing music, even if I’m not touring,” says Emery. “And when I quit touring, it would be interesting to explore some other angles which I haven’t done so far. I’d love to get involved in writing music for films, and maybe do some production for other people, and really take advantage of my classical music background.”

Without a doubt, the goals that DJs have early in their careers will not be the same 15 years later. Emery gives himself another six or seven years of DJing and touring. “Not longer than that,” he says.

“I don’t want to be in my mid-40s jumping up and down on stage to a crowd of 19-year-olds.”

“Touring is also extremely tough, and at some point, it would be nice to be normal, get eight hours sleep a night, and wake up at sunrise,” he says with a laugh. And of course, upward success at this stage of the career means a significant bump in pay from the early days.

How much does Gareth Emery make? “Enough. Too much, sometimes,” he admits. “And if you looked at what I get paid for some gigs these days, it certainly seems like an awful lot. But I don’t get to keep that much of it.” He says that about 60% of his earnings go to agents, managers, travel costs, labels costs, and other expenses to keep the show going. “Oh, and of the 40% that’s left, half of it goes in taxes (which I absolutely approve of, by the way),” he adds. “Don’t get me wrong: I make a lot of money, and I’m extremely fortunate to be in this position, but..

“In any business, you need to spend a lot to make a lot, and dance music really is no exception…Every artist I know at the top of their game has a large team or support network and management structure behind them.” – Gareth Emery

YEAR20

Not a lot of DJs make it to this point, but those over the 15-year hump usually keep at it in some capacity. And with 20 years in the grueling music industry comes lots of big life changes.

” I could never be happy in a 9-to-5 job,” says Laidback Luke, who is nearing his 20-year mark as a DJ. “I could never give up on music. I really feel this is my calling and passion… My new wife, Gina Turner, is a DJ too. So she doesn’t mind me doing this music stuff! We just got a baby girl, so I’m still very much a family man.”

“It’s an ongoing battle, but family and everyday life have a way of taking over the negativity and family comes first,” says Charles Feelgood, who’s been at it a whopping 26 years. “I coach little league (baseball) and it’s become a new passion for me these last four years.” He’s definitely dialed back his DJing in later years, and while he says he’s lucky to still be playing a few times a month, some things feel like they did in the beginning. “I still work for drink tickets,” he says with a laugh.

So what sort of advice do these elder statesmen have for younger jocks just coming up, wanting to last two decades in the game? “Focus on the big things, and the rest will follow,” says Emery,

“I spent a lot of time in my early years in the music industry dicking about with my website and stuff like that, because I felt it was important, whereas I would have been better served by just focusing on making music, and soon I could have afforded someone else to handle the website for me. It took me about 10 years to work that one out.”

What lessons have you learned over the years of DJing? Let us know in the comments below.
  • Chris

    Djing fore 33 years, just hit 41…. Still banging out 3 nights a week at clubs, weddings, events and so much more…. No sign of stopping…

  • Karina

    Been on the grind for two years now and I’m in what I call my ‘DJ rut’. Might be too early for me to have one but I think I need to get off my lazy ass and get shit going!

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  • Sai Hardway

    how to become superstar d j

  • vimo

    Wow what a great article. Djing for 18 years now and being a career for the last 15 years. I have to say im having the best time now it just gets better as the years go by. 1 thing this article made me realise i need to get into producing. I just never got into it. Emery and laid back luke are such legends great to hear things frm there view

  • Jstylesounds

    Great article. I’ve been DeeJaying since 1981. I started out playing NYC Club and garage but have had to change my style over the years in order to stay viable and make money. As deejays we have to constantly stay up on our game. To be able to play music from the 60’s all the way up to the present can be a game changer for some gigs. It’s all about diversity in the mobile deejay business. The club scene is different in that you pretty much have a crowd that comes to hear a certain type of music, which is good as well because you can still break new records in this type of venue.

    It used to be that the what we played in the clubs determined what was played on the air, but all in all I still love it and will keep DJing until I can’t no more!!!

  • Grow Up

    OK – don’t get me wrong, this was a great article. However, the comments section is really starting to piss me off. Now, as a youngster – and I’m posting this under a psuedonym since I don’t want to offend anyone – I messed with the tables. Then, I got into radio, and worked my ass off and was given a radio show in New York – the number one media market. I busted my ass, and taught myself how to DJ prior to that. Strictly vinyl and CDJs – none of this laptop business all these tweens are into now – beatmatching by ear and making transitions on the fly. That being said, I ran a weekly radio show, and had some very prominent guests on – I mean Ultra Records and Nervous Records prominent – and kept plugging away. Loving to party, I picked up gigs, had my radio show on lock-down, and did some consulting work. After 6 years of ripping the airwaves, it was time to move on, and I didn’t put out my first track until the radio show was winding down. A ton of remixes – sure – but nothing that was my own. Then, since i had the benefit of playing FM radio – had a great following. My podcast is still consistently in the top 10 weekly, but I figured it was time to start monetizing this thing. However, DJ’ing doesn’t pay the bills like everyone makes it out to. I had student loans, car payments, and the cost of living to contend with. So i ventured into the corporate world, and made a living. Now I still DJ and Produce, but the gist of my post is this – Have a backup plan. All these kids, or even dudes in their 20’s (grow up) are all gung ho about DJing. I don’t know if you realize this, but producing is WORK. It’s hours and hours on 1 track that may or may not reap rewards. DJing, same deal. But in order to get booked as a DJ for a good rate, you need to produce. It’s a catch 22. What I’m saying is have your fun, make your music, but don’t expect to be famous. Work your ass off, but have a contingency plan. I know alot of people who “just wanted to DJ” and now they deliver pizza, they don’t have any gigs because they fucked every promoter over or got fucked over, and they don’t know how to turn their computer on much less make beats. Unless you get lucky – you’re just another clown with a laptop trying to be the next hack with an EDM release.

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  • wingmakers vs mind controllers

    (grabbing out of matrix)
    oh my fucking shit, what is this

    =Duck universe=

  • YV_Miami

    Good article.

  • I think an overlooked element is how many people subsume all their personal relationships to developing some sort of brand and the self-commodification that you didn’t see as often back in the day. I’m thinking of people with whom you can’t have a conversation without being invited to some event, or people who feel like their friendships, romantic relationships, and entire personality has to fit some sort of image (whether the always-down-for-a-good-time party-rocker or the whole “mysteriouscrazycool” viber) that they are cultivating. I honestly feel embarrassed and a little sad for those who get sucked into this mode of living.

  • TheQuakerOatsGuy

    Great article, but is there any chance you could do it for the hip-hop DJ, or does that not really exist anymore? I’m not being sarcastic, here. I feel like the DJ who ONLY does hip-hop will have a tenth of the chance out there vs the DJ who does hip-hop and EDM. You have big DJ’s or producers from hip-hop starting to get into EDM or house recently so if DJ’s who were doing only hip-hop made it big, I’d be really interested in hearing about their hustle. Thanks for the work.

  • JSBritz

    “…Every artist I know at the top of their game has a large team or support network and management structure behind them.” – emery
    no wonder that these “big” djs get burndowns. this statement is a passport to slavery…
    it is total opposite from what I expect of a dj career. to me, djing is freedom. it’s the kind of job that allows you to combine studio time with a touring schedule or a couple residencies.

    from those who dream to play at every big festival possible, they will have to become touring machines…. and not everyone can do that.

  • x

    it’s time to sell the dj equipment and get a career i can retire with lol

    • Why retire? Big Daddy has been doing it a LONG time and he’s 62…

      • Voice of Reason

        And he probably doesn’t have major medical.

  • Mert Ba?can

    Im 16 year old dj I always delayed producing cos sitting on computers making me sick but now Im feelin like I do not have any obsession to play as a dj anymore cos I feed myself enough but i cant stop my musical hunger so Im gonna focus on makin music.
    Im not looking for big crowds fame or money Im just missin my days that I dreamt a lot and hardly found cds and vinlys n moments when I reached them cos I was feeling so good.
    Im gonna start remaking my old tunes.

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  • Steve

    there were rumors that sandro silva had a ghost producer in the track Epic. and the track did really well in the edm charts.
    it looks like some people do anything to extend their careers….
    and there’s an old video where laidback luke says he finishes in 3 hours! lol. but has least he has some skills behind the decks.
    …it takes more than just talent or skills to build and manage successful or long careers. imo more about ambition and drive….

    • Stephen Nawlins

      All big names have ghost Producers or working in a Team.
      How can you Play between 100-150 Gigs / year worldwide (Today in NYC, tommorrow in Vegas and the next day in Paris) and produce an Album in Studio???
      Bands for example produce an Album over months in Studio and then tour with the Album and then make a tour pause to work on the next Album.
      It’s simply impossible to Produce and Tour at same time without having a Team covering your back.
      Mostly names Like Avicci or Guetta are only working on some Samples or part of the Songs while on tour on their Notebooks, they then send this part to the producing “Ghost” Team…the Team makes different Versions of the song and at the end of producing the DJ is joining in Studio to select the released Version and maybe even for Mastering.
      It’s the only way to tour & produe in the same timelapse.

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  • I’m beginning to see that in this industry it seems to be better to focus on building something of your own. Producing remixes, doing podcasts, blogging, supporting the local scene, etc…as opposed to running around flinging demos. It just seems that way…to build any kind of a following to the point that promoters will call you for opening sets or what not…and you grow bigger from there.

    I personally realized long ago that I didn’t want to make a full-time effort into DJing. I’m much happier now as a hobbyist where I don’t have to worry about pleasing anyone. I find I enjoy DJing so much more. No pressure to “make it happen” or make something of it all.

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  • Pacman

    20 Years here too. I’m at the point where I would rather just produce shit and let all the other djs play it.

    • Knights of the round table

      well, there is where its all wrong, djs MIX and ADD stuff, they dont produce, producers do that!

      The whole scene is fucked up, and its gonna end bad if this continues.

      Ive quit the clubscene after 25 strong and wearing years, theres no real money, the hours are way long, the punters get fewer for every year the passes, the music thats beeing played sounds the same, and thats boring.

      I dont know about you guys, but a decent club dj gets around 50-100$ from say 9 PM to 5 AM

      If i do private gig, i get 500$ – 1000$, from say 9PM to 1 AM ,sure i do have to lug around and set up gear, but the satisfaction is 100%

      You come to a place where you are wanted, you have your hands free to do whatever you want as long as you do it right, you get food and drink and appreciation for the effort, not to exclude the money which are really great.

      • the MasonJarr

        I’ve been DJing for 35 years now. I started in the beginning, and seen so much change in the music and the styles, but I still love it and will continue playing for as long as I can still keep up with the trends. I love my old school, but do it all to stay in the game. At 62, doing hip hop, soft rock, country, zydeco (Louisiana), blues as well as old school. Performing weekends at the club at $150 a night from 9pm until 2am. Private gigs from $500 to $900 for 4 hours with light show included. I still can’t think of anyting else I want to do. There’s No School Like The Old School!

  • Snowbro

    In the documentary TSOB (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SaBDLS6sYPs) the history of Belgian dance music is disscussed. Back in the “very” old days, instead of bands, Decap mechanical organs (http://decap.be/) were used to get the crowd dancing. The music was on a paper strip with holes. Each track was a cardboard stack of about 10″ high. The people who changed those Cardboards were the first dj’s (or Cj’s ?) so dj’ing has been around much longer than the disco 70’ies. Check out the TSOB movie, it’s great !

  • Adam

    Very inspiring stuff! Just started out a year ago and am glad to get this perspective on all of it.

  • calgarc

    Amazing artcle

  • Avidosh

    an eye opener,gotta think about this tonight when I sleep and figure out what I am doing in life.

  • Mauri Moore

    32 years as dj and i’m still alive – I’m playing every night from may to october and weekends the rest of the year . I take 2/3 hours a day for buy/select new sounds 😉 (Beatport , Zipdj , Mymp3pool , Clubkillers and more )

    • Knights of the round table

      Guess there not many djs where you live then, cause here there are 13, no 15 on a dozen, everyones a dj, and many compete underbiddning eachother.

      • I’m been DJ’ing more or less for the last 28+ years. Never really took any time off just moved from 1200’s, bypassed CD players and went directly to files before most people did.

        Recently returned to doing mobile gigs and will be back in the club really soon to play what USED to make going to club FUN.

  • chris

    more than 20 years. started in our club at the chill-out terrace. – than, going to hell. –
    for me, music is an mystical experience, and with some muses around for being happy and search for an nice time, without an big mistake in brain, is going to be perfect.

    (btw, after 4’o clock in the morning, most of the peoples are in a chilly mood, and the flow will floods the dancefloor)

  • Sam Marsh

    Wow, very cool article!