Welcome to 2013. Today, computer devices are cooler the fewer things they can do, men are the better female supermodels and Paris Hilton is a DJ. Right. How about you? You can be a DJ, too. It’s your entry ticket into a world of lushness, luxury and unrestrained hedonism. Even without getting a boob job. (Well, you can still have one if you like.) So how do you do all of this? Just let me explain, and follow this little guide through to the bone.
First, you need to become a producer. Nowadays, being a producer (or a celebrity) is the pre-evolutionary step to becoming a DJ. But DJs are the true protagonists. Making your own music is the key step to getting there, unless you are a celebrity already. If you weren’t born with an indecent amount of money in your funds, the latter involves too many humiliating procedures that might fall back on you eventually, including a high risk of an unfashionable death at a young age or the late acquisition of a personality disorder. Actually, It doesn’t really have to be your OWN music. Just making music will do. My main argument is that today, if you make reasonable enough music for a certain period of time, you can be sure to get noticed. Gone are the times of hungry musicians waiting desperately to be discovered (unless they’re art students). You’ll have to take a few extra steps along the way of course, but I’ll get to that later. Right now, we need to figure out what it takes to be a producer.
To become a producer you will need two things: knowledge and gear. Both in reasonable amounts. Most people would even say you can do without the knowledge. Even though there have been quite a few examples where this has proven to be true, I claim it is safer and overall faster if you actually manage to acquire some knowledge about music theory first. It will save you some possible unpleasant moments in your future where you either need to learn things real fast or be one hell of an actor hiding the fact that you know dick about music. On the other hand, it will push down the pedal immensely for you if you get to excel with your half-baked skills when nobody expects it. So what I’m saying is learn a few things about notes, chords and arrangement. It’s basically all available on Wikipedia. Then, grab a cheap keyboard with headphones, listen to your favourite pop songs and go figure out the bass lines and chord structure. Learning by doing is the method of your choice. It will start as a real pain, but after a while you will get the hang of it. This way, you don’t only learn about the mechanisms of harmonies and song structure, you also get some basic practice at playing the keys. Once you’ve got the chords figured out, write them down and play them solo on your keyboard. Use the left hand for the bass notes and the right hand for the chords. As you get better, break up the chords so you have your right hand pinky finger free to add the melody note on top. Once you get this, you are there. This is the equivalent of rock stars knowing how to play A, D and E on their guitars. It has launched and maintained many careers. Congrats.
The second thing you need is the gear. While the theory part will take you a few weeks or months to learn depending on your efforts and autodidactic skills, this will cost you a few thousands of your budget. Sorry pal, I never said it would be cheap or come easy but stay with me, your investment and effort will be justified. The key elements of your shopping list: a standard upper middle-class grade computer, a semi-professional sound card, somewhat decent monitor speakers including a subwoofer, a MIDI keyboard, DAW software and a few synth, FX and dynamic processing plugins to go with it. A remote control for mixing and plugins would be great but not required. I won’t go into detail about every element of your setup. I trust you are smart enough to figure that out yourself by asking around or looking it up on the net. My most important point is that you need every single part of this list. A few additional words: You can skimp on the computer, keyboard and even speakers. For the latter though, you need to make absolutely sure you buy a subwoofer to go with your setup. Don’t think you (or your neighbours) can do without one. You need to be able to hear what’s happening down there in your audio basement. You will soon understand why and thank me for bringing this in early enough. The one thing that must be classy is your sound card. You need decent converters and i/o levels. Unlike your computer, which is pretty much outdated the day it arrives at your door, you will be able to keep this device for a long time. Regarding the DAW software, you only have two reasonable choices: Cubase or Logic. (Right, the choice is pretty clear if you bought yourself a PC instead of a Mac.) Don’t go for Ableton. Ableton is for live. It even says it in the name.
Last but not least, read Bob Katz on mastering. Do it.
Once you have completed all these simple and easy to follow through steps, thanking me all along the way for sharing my valuable wisdom with you, you’re good to go to do your music. Hopefully, you will be able to pick a genre you like and that is still somehow connected to electronic music, clubbing and dance. Remember, this is all for you to become a modern day philosopher, the crown of musical evolution – a Discjockey. So yes, punk rock, heavy metal, folk, deep house and world music are out.
If you have read the KLF manual (If you haven’t, do it now. It’s free on the Internet) you will find that a lot of what comes into play now seems familiar, except for the part where you rent a studio and organise distribution. The studio work you will have to do yourself and you won’t need distribution – using social media channels is enough for your goal. Fortunately, you know your way around in a computer based project studio by now. Listen to successful tunes that are out there on top of the genre charts and mark the ones you like. If none of them makes you wanna go blow dry your hair, put on your leather jacket and hit the next area with a dance floor in it, you are in the wrong genre. Go back and pick a different one. Once you have a handful of tunes that kick your ass to the moon and back, you want to make sure to check they collect plays out there like an announcement for free beer with a dubstep bass to it. Now it is your mission to break down their essence. This is a producer’s most valuable skill – to understand what makes a tune big. Take a few days for this with different tracks and listen sober and drunk. Eventually, you will catch on emotionally. Yes, this is something to be felt in order to fully comprehend.
If you think now is the time to sit yourself down and dress up what you just caught onto in your own production – think again. Bad you. You are lacking a key ingredient. The good you! You can’t just copy and paste what’s already out there. Well you can, as many do, but it will put you behind those guys on the food chain. Think big. You want to be able to pass them eventually and the only way to do this is by not only getting up to speed but also having the thrust of a rocket behind you. Find the main ingredient of what defines you, the one that makes you shiver with glee, the dream you have always dreamt since childhood, the movie you have always wanted to star in. Again, strip it down to its core and make it into sound. You are the one to translate. Now you can get busy. At this point, once you have it all in your head, it doesn’t matter what means you use to get there. You can rip half an existing song or an acapella and reuse it or parts of it, as long as it does what is described above. Spend days (and nights) of working in the studio, but be sure to give your ears a break every two hours for at least five minutes. (Do it without becoming a smoker. Drink coffee or tea instead.) If you ever find yourself randomly trying out samples or skipping through sound banks, quit immediately. Only get back into the studio if you feel your head is going to explode if you don’t do this now. You must be a lusting predator for your vision – not the occasional hunter. Once you feel you are on to something, put it aside and let it sit for a week while you start something new. Don’t bother working with vocalists as that will only slow you down – just sample what is already out there but don’t go overboard. Try to dig into genres that are a bit different from yours so not everybody notices right away.
The biggest problem once you start getting results is dealing with the euphoria and immediate urge to share, and wanting to receive the praise you are hungry for. Don’t share. I repeat – do not! It will only dilute your process. You don’t want to climb up the ladder step by step, you want to land on the roof with a helicopter. Let your stuff sit in your drawer and ripen under lock and key. Re-approach it if you still think it has the means to be big after two or three weeks. Compare it to what’s already out there by giving it a competitive listen back and forth. If it doesn’t sound big enough, keep at it. Again, most importantly – keep it all to yourself. Let the goosebumps on your arms be your only judge at this stage. Don’t loose faith. Take breaks instead. This is the hardest part that might, but hopefully will not, require you to use something that will boost your ego towards the level of a conservative politician.
At last, you will have a few tunes that can do the trick.
Now it is time to move into the social media stage. Use whatever is biggest at your time to connect to people about music and promote yourself. I’m sure you know what it is. Create a page for your project, but don’t post any of your music yet. Instead, list a top location (e.g. Los Angeles), management and booking agency. (It’s okay to make those up.) “Like” a few things from today and the past that seem suitable, but not too many. Add one or two that make no sense at all. Most importantly, find a profile picture that is not you but looks right. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s posh, retro, exaggerated, outrageuous, pretty or ugly or both, or all of the above, as long as it matches your vision from earlier somehow and gets people to look at it. Now, it’s time to connect to a few DJs who regularly post their mixes online and call them “chart mix” or something of the likes. Find the ones from your genre with the most plays or downloads (not followers but make sure they have enough) and send them your first track. Online DJ mixes are rated by the number of new tracks in them. New as in the small elitist group of people who have it. The smaller, the better. The more a DJ has of these, the cooler he or she is, so they are always looking. They will check out your page and see you’re a new kid on the block but since you are wearing the right sneakers they will give you a listen. Of course, your tunes have to make them move but you’re sure to find out very soon. If they like it, they will make friends with you and/or put your stuff in their mixes. If they don’t, you will have to go back to the drawing board and refine your sound. It hurts, but at this point that is not a showstopper to do over a few times. Once you are sure that a couple of the most popular DJs have your newest production in their mixes, go ahead and post it right away yourself. You don’t have any followers yet but that will change quickly once the mixes gain attention. Don’t forget to link to your profile thanking the DJs for the feature. Repeat the whole procedure with your next productions but always take care that you get the appropriate feedback from the opinion leaders first. Be enthusiastic about everything in communication. Learn to be a sycophant. At this stage you still need that. Later on, you can turn the tables.
Once your stuff starts picking up momentum, you will hear a lot of noise on your social media. Always be polite, but only talk to the people you really want to connect with. Ignore all other personal messages that contain the words “check out my stuff too” as they will only steal your time. Don’t make the common mistake to approach any big label out of the blue. They will not listen to your stuff, they will not reply to you and even if they do, they will not sign you. They have their crew and they are not looking to hire. But there are always a few smaller hip labels around that are actually interested in the next thing out there somewhere. Best to see if they approach you. Otherwise, if you don’t have a contact person, talk to one of the DJs. It might be a win-win if they pass it on to somebody in the label department. Pretty soon you will have contact to a few hot ones that you can sign your tracks with. You should have at least one in there that does vinyls for credibility. Only sign one track with each label and make sure to ask about the release date. Add 2-3 months to what they say and if it turns out to be longer than 8-9 months, decline the offer. It’s just too long and you might miss the window, and your sound (or THE sound) will be too different by then. Make sure that whatever you sign with them only includes that single release and no future options or exclusivity to other activities. If they request your publishing rights, they are serious enough about it for you to ask for an advance payment.
Also, sooner or later you will be contacted for remixing requests. This is where your musical knowledge, that you painfully acquired earlier, comes in handy as you will be able to not only rearrange parts, but also musically understand and reconstruct. There are actually quite a few people out there who understand and play music, and they will require that from you to be fully respected. (Don’t worry, unless you are in Russia the standards are low enough to compete.) Accept only the jobs for the biggest names and don’t bother about pay unless they offer. Exposure is your currency. Take 4-6 weeks to deliver but never keep a label hanging on. By now you are involved deeply enough in the scene to know what’s going on, so you can get fresh music to arrange it into a DJ mix using your DAW skills. Don’t bother actual mixing yet, but you will have to learn that later on. Post a few mixes for download to showcase you. Once you have your releases and remixes topping the charts, it will only be a matter of time until you will be contacted and asked for DJ gigs. Get yourself a proper agency. Some labels will have one associated with them and be happy to sign you up, but keep an eye out that they aren’t selling you cheaper than their other folks. Don’t accept an agency cut higher than 20%. The worst that can happen to you is an agency that is doing nothing but leeching on your gig money while you pull in your own gigs. So be careful enough to have a good base of trust beforehand.
As a DJ, your most important skill is to know what works and when – to understand what makes a night big. By now you should have developed a decent enough ear for a single track from working as a producer. But a DJ does it more impulsively and sees the bigger picture involving the crowd. A DJ can orchestrate the tension and always has the people longing (begging!) for more. A true game of tease and denial. A bad DJ just gives and then gives more. Naturally, a club environment is different from a studio, so you will have to go clubbing a few times to experience some hot shots first hand. If that includes some travelling for you because you don’t live in the capital of your country, you will have to add that to your budget. Your tools will be two Pioneer CDJs and a DJ mixer. (Don’t worry, the agency will ask for that in your rider.) Coming from where you are and having worked with a virtual mixing console and EQs, the principle of DJ mixing will be easy enough to understand. Your mission is to understand the above. However, operating the CD players takes some practice as you will have to match up the speed of the tracks and have them synchronised to the beginning of each bar. The latter shouldn’t be a problem if you can safely count to four without using your fingers, but the overall process takes a while to learn and get straight in a dimly lit booth. Your next and immediate challenge will be to find a setup to practice on. You don’t actually need to own one, but obviously having access to one is key. Do not get lured into being a laptop DJ as it will earn you bad looks at certain places. On the other side, there is no need to go the vinyl route or use timecode ones. Every club will have CDJs ready for you, so all you need to do is expand to a decent enough music collection from the online shops, get some promos from your online contacts and burn all of that on audio CDs. (Don’t use MP3 CDs.) Make an easily readable catalogue of what’s on where and get a solid case that you can flip through even with scantily clad females around you pushing their assets into your face, and booth sharks sternly watching your every move.
So here’s a few handy ground rules for when the day comes: At arrival, expect to be picked up at the airport/station and be driven to the hotel where you can load off your stuff. Then you go check out the club before you get to enjoy a fresh warm meal. After, um, dessert, head back to the hotel to freshen up. Only consume drugs you are offered from the club promoter, don’t drink too much alcohol (even better to stick with water), don’t touch his/her girlfriend/boyfriend in ways that might be considered indecent or vice versa, try to make sure your set isn’t longer than 3-4 hours and last but not least, never leave right after you finished playing without having one last nightcap with your new friends. Also, you will probably want to slip them your newest stuff. If any of this doesn’t happen, act irritated but still friendly. Maybe add some professional distance but still go through with your gig and be sure to tell the agency later.
That’s it. If you have followed through with all of this to the T, the world will be your oyster. You will have the best years of your life before you move on to college or to being an architect, lawyer, doctor and/or get married and have children. The time to work up to this (no longer than up to a year) should be seen as a reasonable investment for luxurious pool parties, free sex and sizeable gig fees. Now it’s time to buy a nice big mansion. After a few more years, you will have forgotten about music, and will be nurturing the memories of your wildest moments as a top notch DJ. Oh, and If you’re still waiting for me to get to the boob job part, I’ll have to leave you out in the cold on that.