How To Get Gigs In a Small Market

Most new djs see big cities like Chicago, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas as the meca’s for DJs and dance music. Some even think you need to move to a major city to begin a successful DJ career. While some large markets serve as the tastemakers for the rest of the country, there are hundreds of smaller markets full of venues that are packed with patrons seeking quality music. Cities like Orlando, Buffalo, Scottsdale, or Milwaukee are not completely void of a DJ scene – and in fact: can often be a great place to have a dj career.

To be realistic, DJ TechTools talked with these successful small market DJs:

Erich “DJ E-Rich” Meier

  • City: Milwaukee, WI
  • Years experience: 13
  • Plays at: Rogues Gallery, The Garage, McGillycuddy’s, Jackalope Lounj

Chris “Why B” Gerard

  • Cities: Madison, WI – Milwaukee, WI
  • Years experience: 17
  • Plays at: Bad Genie, Rogues Gallery, Dick’s, Oak

Andy “DJ Quadi” Ziemann

  • Cities: La Crosse, WI – Milwaukee, WI
  • Plays at: Buckhead, The Pub Club, Mos Irish Pub

Big Market’s may have a lot of clubs, bar’s and restaurants but due to their population density, often have many more dj’s. This means that in some cities you are actually competing with more people for the same gigs, which drives down prices and availability. Our own Ean Golden got lucky by landing in San Francisco, a small city but with large opportunities.

I was lucky to get a lot of local gigs in San Francisco in the late 90’s and early 2000’s that paid really well. While I was making $500-800 a gig 3 nights a week, many of my New York friends had to scrape by with a few $100 gigs per week.  This was simply because there were so many people that wanted to play, and not enough bars to go around. I would recommend most people start off in a smaller market to break out if possible.

Develop Your Skills And Your Collection

Being a skilled DJ does not happen overnight, so take the time to develop your skills between gigs or before getting that first gig. “Skills and music collection were paramount,” said DJ E-Rich. Learning to mix properly is a skill that takes time but will really pay off in the long run. Practicing a lot before you get the first shows is a lot better than cramming at the last minute.

A diverse collection is also important for two reasons. First, you will be prepared for any type of situation during a gig (Learn how to become a multi genre DJ). The format in a small market can change quickly and being able to adapt can take you a long way. “In a smaller market like La Crosse, every night could bring a different crowd, so you needed to be well-rounded and have a collection and understanding of just about every genre,” said DJ Quadi.

Record Mixes

It’s the classic dilemma: venues want DJs with experience, but you can’t get experience if you don’t get gigs. A way to combat that is to make your own experience by recording and releasing mixes. You can start a monthly podcast mixing your favorite tracks from the month. You could also record mixes that would work well in venues you are trying to play at. Pass those mixes on to the management so they can hear exactly what you can do. Recording mixes is the best way to get practice and get your name out there at the same time.

Mixes also serve the critical role of giving you an opportunity to self critique. Ean Golden suggests:

” When I was preparing for some of my bigger performance video’s like the Depeche Mode remix, I recorded the routines a lot in audio and video for reviewing purposes. Listening back helped me hear mistakes and breaks in the flow that were not obvious while playing.

Further Reading: Recording DJ Mixes: How To Do It Right and Why It Matters

Make Your Own Venue

If you are just starting out, it can be tough getting a reputation as a DJ. Offer to DJ whenever you and your friends get together. You could even go so far as to throw your own parties. Not only will this give you valuable practice time but it builds an organic following and fan base. DJing for your friends is the perfect low stress environment to test out new songs and blend without a lot of pressure.  Throwing a house party yourself also builds the critical skills of promotion, which can be highly valued in a small town.

DJ Quadi started off setting up a DJ booth in his basement when they had parties. “I was continuing my education on track selection and perhaps more importantly, building my name and reputation as a guy who could throw a hell of a party,”

Pitch Your Ideas

Small market bars may not have ever considered having a DJ but could have a lot of opportunity. If that’s the case, pitch some kind of themed night that you think would work well for that venue and their clientele. “As somebody who was interested in the ‘golden era’ hip-hop that was around at the time I realized I had to find bars that were open to letting me throw my own small parties, so that’s what I did,” said Why B.  “In hindsight it was the perfect way to work with other DJs as well as see the business from various angles including sound system setup, promotion, and dealing with venues.”

Every Market Is Unique

It is important to remember every market is unique. Learning what works and what doesn’t will make you a much more effective DJ. Just because they are playing deep house in LA does not mean that’s the party to throw in your market.

“Styles vary across the country and the crowds react differently as well. I remember playing my first gig in Chicago. I was doing a set at this trendy bar in Wicker Park and the guy who went on before me rocked a purely nu disco set – definitely not my wheelhouse,” said Meier.  “So I hopped on and played my “safe” set that I knew worked really well in Milwaukee. It took awhile for the crowd to warm up to me, but once they did, it ended up going well. Certain songs just have more traction in certain areas.”

Small Market Charm

Zafran – Tapas Bar and DJ Lounge

Starting out in a small market might have you finding yourself playing in small unassuming spots. Don’t get discouraged – use it to your advantage. “To me it’s more personal. You generally play smaller venues for smaller crowds,” Why B explains. Smaller places can make it easier to really make connections with the individuals in the crowd. “You get to know the people on the dancefloor on a personal level partially because you’re all part of a smaller, more cohesive scene,” said Why B.

“I think small market DJs are forced to fill a jack of all trades roll,” said Gerard. Small market venues don’t always have the DJ in mind the way major clubs might. Be prepared to set up in awkward spots or fix sound systems. The best way to ensure a smooth night is to talk with management about the equipment before your gig and show up early for a detailed sound check.

Network And Support Other DJs

Just like any profession, a strong network can take you places. One of the advantages of a small market is that it can be easy to quickly network with a lot of important people (like club managers and promoters). Use that to your advantage. Support the places you would like to play at – become a part of their success. Also support those that support your nights. People are more comfortable doing business with people they know.

“My biggest obstacle was the same one that the majority of DJs have – making connections.  Fortunately, I spent a lot of time checking out different spots and DJs” said Meier.

To remain relevant in a particular industry you need to be a part of that industry. There is no substitute for personal interactions. “I went out a lot and shook a lot of hands. I use Facebook and Instagram now but I still maintain that the best networking gets done face to face,” said Why B.

Keep in mind that your fellow DJ’s can often be the best people to network with as gig trades, and recommendations frequently set up gigs. Many new artists see others as competition but in reality, having a strong DJ friend network can get you through tough times.

Remember, It Is A Business

At the end of the day, the venue you are playing at is a business. Most small market DJs are hired to entertain and keep people drinking. Talk with the management and get an understanding of what they are going for and adapt to that. By paying attention and working with the owners, smart DJ’s demonstrate that they “get it”.

You are also a business, so it is important to make decisions with yourself in mind. Meier warns to not take every gig thrown your way, “Take the ones that make sense. If you’re primarily an EDM cat, don’t take the gig at the country bar or other gigs outside your normal genre just to make some easy cash.” Genre ping-ponging is good for picking up all available gigs but it won’t do much for building a reputation or expertise.

Above all else, always be professional. It may seem casual playing at small venues in a small market but professionalism is always appreciated and will lead to bigger opportunities. “Show up early, be prepared for almost anything (have extra cables), get to know the staff, etc. It’s a great job to have, but it’s still a job. Approach it as such and you’re already ahead of the curve,” said Meier.

What advice do you have for getting gigs in a small or saturated market?

Let us know in the comments below!


dj networkingDj Tipsgetting bookedgetting gigshow to get gigsstarting a club night
Comments (22)
Add Comment
  • Tim Horka

    very nice article – very inspiring. Especially for young, upcoming DJs there are some good tips – in addition to those I personally really recommend Wether you are a new or already well-known DJ, this site is a must for every DJ. It’s a bookingplatform that automates many proccesses and makes everything sooo much easier. Further, you can export your gigs to your facebook tab or your website and sync them with your private calender such as iCal. Have a look – its pretty easy.

  • Max Bunt

    if your sound is not that great and you need to switch music ……i mean spotify does a good enough job playing playlist i wont do that.

  • Durham

    I wonder. Did the author mean to use an image of a pre-sequenced Ableton mix in the section about recording mixes? That only needs to be rendered, there is no recording being illustrated there. It does look pretty techie, but it really doesn’t support the point. Sorry to troll, but kids throw these articles at me all the time, and they are often poorly conceived & executed. Don’t just assume the image is what is supposed to be, understand it and respect it if you are going to try your hand at journalism.

    P.S.: If you are still performing live with Live, break down and buy a 4-channel controller. It will take you past the next level (which is where 2-channel DJs live). Ableton was how I used to DJ (after Acid Pro ceased to be updated by Sony), but that was when computers couldn’t necessarily process 4 tracks on the fly with any decent latency. Now they can, and you will gain back the spontaneity that is lost (ironically) with Live.

  • Rex Murphy

    One of the ways I get more better paying wedding gigs is to meet with the bride/groom or planner and let them do some customization of the song or playlist, then offer to do the gig for the same or like 5% less than the local rate. That personal touch seems to matter in these situations. Chad Alexander Productions

  • ???????DJ??????? - sgdntwk

    […] ????????????????DJ?????????????????????????DJ?????DJ?????????????DJ??????????????????DJ TechTools????How To Get Gigs In a Small Market??????????????????? […]

  • Richard Schmidt

    It’s who you know.

    Get out there and get talking. You’ll eventually find a place that is for you.

  • CUSP

    I couldn’t do the underground gigs I do without my friends, not just the DJs, but the people who bring sound systems, lighting, video, those let me use their space, and all the people who go out and invite their friends. As a DJ you’re like the Fighter Pilot or the Actor, you get to do all the dangerous / cool stuff, but you reap the credit for everything your team does and it takes a special person to sink their back-breaking efforts into helping someone else succeed. I just have to say without the support of my team, I wouldn’t even be doing underground shows, Thanks to the little guys!

  • here_comes_the_sheik

    “Many new artists see others as competition but in reality, having a strong DJ friend network can get you through tough times.”
    Can’t stress that enough. Stop seeing other DJs as your enemys. Be it “bigger” DJs or newbies. Be friendly, show manners, support were possible (setup, invite to events), don’t bitch around about playtimes… just try to be someone everybody loves to have around their event. That can work wonders.

    • Mike Power

      Agreed 110% man collaboration is the key to going places 😉

  • Marco Hooghuis

    In what way are any of the names mentioned a small city? There’s over 100.000 people in each at least!

  • calgarc

    Mixes specially podcasts do a ton more… it keeps you somewhat organized, you are always looking for new music, and you get to choose tracks you truly love 🙂

  • Michael Cohen

    We want to bring a tool to make it easier for upcoming DJ’s in small markets (and big ones too of course) get work! Check us out drop me a line if interested

    • CUSP

      I’m not sure what this is or what it does. Could you explain this in more detail?

      • Richard Schmidt

        I’d like to see a DJTT article on all these “DJ gig finders” that keep showing up in my feeds.

        Legit or scam? Journalism!

  • Tommy Boy

    Build a fan base. Collect emails and facebook accounts of people that like your style. Bringing 5-10 people consistently to your events is a lot harder than it looks until a bar or club or promoter gives you a shot at residency where you dont have to worry about numbers. You could be DJ QBert himself scratching up a storm being as technincal as fuck mixing your ass off but if the club is empty you bet your ass those club or promoter will boot your ass in a minute. Loyalty in the nightlife biz is rough.

  • Scribbl3

    I DJ in a pretty small market. I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I’ve had in a bigger city.

    One of the things I’ve seen work well is throwing your own parties. It costs money (venue, security, production, etc), but it’s worth it to build a reputation and a following. And if you do it right, you’ll be making money from it as well.

  • Lu Ynoji

    The market is in the niche so totally agree

  • Victo

    Nice Article.
    I can add that after some years of mixing and Gigs, the most things I like are :
    – Playing in a small Bar
    – Playing a Live Set

    I don’t like the “Club” ambiance anymore, because most of the time, people are too drunk to appreciate your work 🙂

    • Neon

      I have to disagree with that. It really depends on the club, city, and the crowd. If you’re bringing the right music to a drunk crowd, they will appreciate it.

    • CUSP

      I second that, but I also like impromptu gigs like roof/warehouse/house parties too. I like to play music that people actually react to, not just shake their ass while they’re drunk, waiting for someone to drunk stagger them to a cab and then to their apartment for sloppy drunk-sex. These people are often grabby, and insistant you play what they want RIGHT NOW.

      On the other hand, I love playing music for the people who mouth the words while acting out the parts, timing their body movements to key parts of songs (such as the drop… whenever that happens), because they are truly “feeling it.” These people are in the groove… which (to quote Hurts) “feels better than love.”