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Should You DJ for Free? A Pragmatic Guide to Performing

When you’re starting out as a musician, it is incredibly tough to figure out when to perform for free. Music is work, and takes time, money, and talent to put together a good set. While on one hand you feel like you should be paid for your art, there are dozens of other similarly talented musicians vying for your spot. It seems like a rat race at times. So, should you DJ for free?

As a DJ-gone-promoter, I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I’ve played for free, and I’ve been paid well. I’ve paid my artists more than I’ve paid myself, and I’ve also had friends come to out to perform for free or for a couple of drinks.

My general belief that is until an artist is big enough to tour, they should play every opportunity they can. Hustle was my ethos as an artist, and it still is to this day. This isn’t coming from the cheap promoter perspective, but rather it comes from the following mindset:

If you are serious about making something out of your work, you need to do the inglorious work. You need to show up and do your best no matter if it’s for 9 people or 90,000 people, a couple drinks or a couple thousand dollars. Until you are in a place where you can afford to say no, always say yes.

Here’s some backstory on the history of the DJ market, criterion for when you should/shouldn’t play for free, and thoughts to back up my philosophy. Enjoy.

Technology Killed the DJ

To be a DJ back in 1999 took guts, money, and skill. I won’t pretend I was there (I was 4 years-old in 1999) but I will share the stories and perspectives from my friends and mentors who ran through the scene back then.

Back in the old days, DJs had to play on vinyl. Not Serato vinyls with timecodes and a DVS box that hooks up to a laptop, but the literal vinyl records that your grandparents have been buying since 1930.

Vinyl posed a lot of challenges to early DJs. First, playing vinyl on turntables required DJs to learn to beatmatch by ear. This means so phase meters, no BPM displays, just beats that are out of sync and tempo. Learning to match up songs on the fly is an incredibly difficult skill to learn, but for DJing back in the day, it was a requirement. The turntables were expensive and needed analog mixers to run between them–much like CDJs and DJM mixers now. The stylus (needle) that connected the turntable arm to the record would often break or go missing, requiring DJs to constantly buy new, expensive replacements.

Vinyl itself is a handful. DJs would show up with literal crates of vinyl to have access to the songs they needed. If there was multiple songs on one record, you had to manually find where the song you wanted started and stopped. If you wanted hot cues, you pencilled in little marks on the record to show where to drop the needle. Dance music records could cost upwards of $10 a pop and often had only one song (or an original mix and a handful of remixes), meaning playing a 20 song set could cost $200 just for the music. Yikes.

Because of the intense capital, skill, and time required to be a DJ, early DJs were far and few between. They were decently paid because nobody else could fulfill their services. But not for long.

In the mid 2000’s, the digital DJ revolution begins. With controllers, digital vinyl systems, and CDJs rising in the market, the old-school ways of learning to play vinyl disappeared.

The better the technology got, the easier it was to become a DJ. Instead of buying spendy vinyl records, digital DJs could buy MP3’s for cheap or pirate music for free. DJs could also store massive amounts of tunes on CDs or USBs. A 20 pound box of records could now be stored in a single thumb drive.

The advent of the sync button absolutely destroyed the old way of DJing. Instead of learning to painstakingly line up tracks so they are playing in tempo and phase, DJs could now press a button and have a computer do it for them. This cut out 90% of the skill required to be a DJ.

Now, anyone could DJ. And now, everyone does DJ.

This technology shift drove two market shifts that are pivotal to understanding the rest of this article. First, producers stole the value, gigs, and popularity that was once shared between producers and DJs. Secondly, the amount of producers in an area shot up, lowering the price of performances to, eventually, free.

Enter: Producers

DJing and producing used to be two separate career paths. Both took an incredible amount of time, skill and investment in equipment. Once technology opened up DJing to the masses, people who only knew how to play records slowly had their livelihoods cut.

While advances in software, auxiliary devices, and computing speed made producing music easier, it paled in comparison to how technology made DJing easier. In 2007, it was a lot harder to produce music than to DJ music. The same rings true 10 years later.

Part of this has to do with musicality and creativity. There is an incredible amount of musicality and creativity involved in DJing, but if you have good taste in DJing and a basic set of skills, you can borrow the talents of the producers to make your set good. But if you want to make a good record, you need to know songwriting, music theory, sound design, and audio engineering just to start. While you can (and should) use other people and resources to help you with these areas, it is still monumentally harder to put together a good song from nothing than a good set from 25 banging songs.

Even with new live DJ technology like stem mixing, remix decks, and sampler pads that add a more production approach to DJing, producing is the rare skill. Once DJing expanded to the people who actually made the songs other DJs would play, it spelled game over for the mid-tier DJ who didn’t know how to produce. Suddenly the market was being grabbed by producers, and sole DJ’s were forced to have local bar gigs, club residencies, or even wedding entertainment. While some circles like techno and drum & bass have popular DJs who do not produce, gone was the night when a talented DJ with no production skills could make a full-time touring career.

Supply and Demand

As technology enabled more DJs to step forward, the value of DJing decreased to where, now, most local DJs are expected to play for free. Check this scenario out.

Promoter: I need DJ’s. How much do you charge?
Experienced vinyl DJ: I charge $300 a night. I’ve toured all over and have 10 years of experience.
New controller kid: My controller lets me play just as good as that dude and I’ll do it for $50.

Which do you think the promoter–a businessman–will choose? The controller kid 9 out of 10 times.

In a business, you make profit by either raising sales or lowering costs. If the experienced DJ doesn’t have the draw to bring out over $250 more people than the controller kid, it doesn’t make sense to book them. So, the controller kid gets the gig. And the next controller kid does it for cheaper. And the next for cheaper, until finally the cost of DJing is free. The more digital DJs that come forward, the less power the handful of vinyl DJs have over the market and price of DJing, driving the classic supply & demand curve. As the supply of DJs increases, the search to book a good DJ decreases, lowering the price per DJ gig.

It’s good to note that the new kid with a controller can offer a prices so much cheaper than their elders. It’s cheaper to open an online business now than it was twenty years ago rent an office and hire staff. Before the internet, you had to own a retail store, hire staff, and buy inventory. Now you can open up a website, take pre-orders, and crush it. Similarly, the cut costs for learning to DJ slashed the prices needed for DJs to break even on their investment. The financial and time cost to learn to DJ dramatically decreased. If you can decrease your costs, you can decrease your price.

Even more so, new DJs are competitive in price and eager for exposure and the thrill of playing. New DJs are willing to take less money than an experienced veteran whose ego dictated that they were worth a certain price, or had more expenses, bills, and overhead in their lives. Now that DJing is easier, a 19 year-old college kid with a $250 Numark controller and a Macbook suddenly poses a threat to a 20-year veteran DJ who had spent thousands of dollars on records and gear throughout their career. Ouch.

Those Who Can’t Play, Promote

With producers stealing the spotlight at festivals and local DJs being marginalized, many of the old school DJs turned to promoting. These veterans still had a love for the music, but could not make a lifestyle out performing anymore. If you look in your scene, you’ll notice a decent sized crowd of older people who run local shows, clubs, and festivals are 30 to 45 year-old ex-DJs still wanting to make a living off of music.

Sometimes these old cats get to play out of their regions on trade with other promoters, but for the most part they are behind the curtain putting on shows in the cities they once ruled. They are still incredibly talented DJs and have a lot of wisdom, but they also harbor also a lot of romanticism and frustration how things used to be. These older artists remember the days when they could get $300 for playing a local show, and bring along older ideas into a market place that has dramatically shifted.

Now, Should You DJ for Free?

“Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I can not respect someone that doesn’t see the difference.”
– Francis Underwood, 
House of Cards

Ah yes, the meat of the the article. Should you play for free? In most cases, I say yes.

If you’re even asking yourself if you should play for free, you’re not at a point where you should start charging. Unless you’re down in out-of-state booking requests and have talent agents knocking at your door, you need to build demand for yourself. There’s few better ways to do this than to meet fans and promoters face-to-face by showcasing your stuff.

I’ve played a lot for free. I’ve also been paid good money to play. There is a strategy to knowing when to charge, and when to do things pro-bono. Here are my guidelines for assessing when to ask for money, and when not to.

When to Play for Free

  1. You have more time than less. I charge the prices that I do because I need to place a limit of other people’s influence on my time. If you have the time to play Xbox, watch Game of Thrones, or dick around making Facebook memes for hours each day, you have the time to play a show for free. Not only do you have the time, but your time is probably better spent playing out because you can build your brand and audience while performing, while you can’t do that while sitting in your underwear playing Battlefield 1. 
  2. You value connections more than experience, time, and money. I was always willing to work for free because I knew I would get more out of it than the money I would be owed. When you’re coming up in the scene, you don’t have the luxury to be picky because you need valuable connections to people in the industry and other artists. Even if you are well-connected in your area, there is a time to go pro-bono. If you usually charge to play, but an artist is coming to town that you know you could build a relationship with, consider opening for free. While a hundred bucks will go away before you know it, you can cash in on relationships years down the line. Don’t always assume that money is the only thing you’ll get out of performing.
    See what Gary Vaynerchuk says about playing for free.
  3. You want to build your audience from the ground up. When I played a show, I made every opportunity to meet people and bring them into my tribe. I used every performance as a chance to connect with new fans, reward the returning ones, and have a great time. With each performance, I noticed a significant boost in my brand awareness. If you want to be a hometown hero, you need to let your hometown know about you first.
  4. You are not signed to a legitimate talent agency. Unless you share a talent roster with experienced artists and have a real booking agent who’s sold acts for thousands of dollars, you should be hustling at every chance you get. You’re not rare yet.
  5. You’re serious about your career. If you’re going to be a hotshot producer/DJ who plays the Ultra Music stage next year, it shouldn’t matter that you’re going to lose $75 by taking a day off of work to play a show. If you say you’re going to become a millionaire off of music, then by all means all of the $100 spent here and $50 spent there to perform will mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. Make sure you can live, but remember that money can always be made. You can pick up a $20 bill on the streets, but you’ll never stumble across extra years of your life to accomplish your goals. If you’re going to be the next big thing, you need to be as aggressive as possible. Work overtime so you can afford to drive down to play in another state for street cred. Try to make every opportunity work until the opportunities work for you.

    When Not to Play for Free

    Now, if you are an eager hustler, there will be promoters who will try to take advantage of you.

    I am all about local artists selling tickets. As a local artist, I hustled tickets. As a promoter, I ask (not demand or require) my artists to hustle tickets. Most of the artists I work with are major team players, and eager to do their part to improve the scene and make something awesome. We’re family.

    Now, there is a line between selling tickets to prove yourself and build relationships and selling tickets because the promoter is exploiting you.

    Here’s how to tell if a promoter is exploiting you, and scenarios which you should never accept a booking. Promoters who run these schemes are toxic, and not people you want in your network.

    1. If you only can play if you sell more tickets than the other DJ’s.
    2. If a promoter requires you to sell a high quota (25+ tickets in my opinion).
    3. If a promoter asks you to buy tickets ahead of time to flip.

    Now, there’s a few other elements that can add to your decline.

    1. You can’t afford the travel. If you can afford to buy your own way to play out-of-state and you really want to get a booking out of your region, go for it. Getting an out-of-state gig can add significant street cred to your name. If you can’t afford it, have the promoter pay for gas or a flight.
    2. You don’t have time to produce. Every minute you’re performing is a minute you’re not producing. Like earlier, producers hold more brand value than DJs do. If you find yourself constantly playing for free at the point where you don’t have any time to dedicate to the studio, put up a fee and free up your time.
    3. You don’t like to play (but still good at it). If you want a mini-retirement from performing, put a price tag on yourself to limit the demand of bookings. If you’re the best DJ in town but want to focus on other things, raise your prices so when you do get booked to DJ, its worth giving up the other things you would have done with that time. If you are building a producer/DJ career, this option is NOT for you. This is for people like me, who are busy doing other things but still get asked to revisit their old chops.
    4. The promoter says, “We’ll pay you more in the future.” If you’re the $50 DJ and the promoter says they’ll pay you $5000 per show later down the road, they won’t. Instead when they get the money, they will go out and book the $5000 artist because the value has already been established. This is someone who is lying to you. Don’t do business with shady people.
    5. If the promoter offers payment. If the promoter offers to pay you, take it! I recommend negotiating a little bit. If you’re offered $50, ask for $75. If you’re offered $200, ask for $250.

Amelia Earhart’s First Transatlantic Flight

Amelia Earhart was once approached with an offensive offer. A group of people came to her, looking to book the first woman to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean. They told Amelia that they were coming to her because their first pick said no. Then, they told her she would actually not be flying the plane. Instead, two men would be flying and “chaperoning” her.

Oh and on top of it, she wasn’t going to get paid.

What did Amelia Earhart, later to become one of the most famous and respected women of the 20th Century say to this? She said yes.

Sure, that offer sucked. But Amelia knew that she was not at the point where she could afford to say no. Saying yes to this sexist offer would open doors in the future. Sure enough, that repulsive offer to fly across the Atlantic was pivotal to her history-making solo flight, 5 years later.

Like this story? Read about it and other stories like in it The Obstacle is the Way.

So if an unideal offer was good enough for one of history’s bravest women, why is it not good enough for you?

The Danger of Monetizing Too Early

There’s a motto in Silicon Valley: build a following, then monetize. Many software platforms have crumbled because they did not monetize at the right time. By charging too much too early, the value added by the company did not equate to the price they were charging.  Instead of getting new users which could allow them more access to money, they went hardcore sales and killed to their brand. They were asking too much for delivering too little, and because of this, they fell.

The same is true for everything in life, even in performing. You must deliver more than you ask.

This past November, White Rabbit Group founder Brandon Cloud Owen showed me the progression of empires. From Rome to businesses to the Catholic Church, the progression is the same. After an empire is founded, it experiences a period of innovation and expansion. Once sufficiently expanded and innovated, the empire can rest on its laurels and enjoy abundance, but not for long. After the empire has become fat and lazy off of the hard work of generations before (sound familiar?), it begins to decline. Workers become lazy. People don’t hustle like they did. The state of affairs decays.

Similarly, if you, the artist, begin enjoying abundance too early, you’ll enter decline. If you get used to being treated a certain way, and suddenly that opportunity vanishes, you’re in trouble. If you got paid much higher by one person than anyone else in your area is willing to pay, you have two choices. First, you can sit and wait someone else to pay that fee. Or, you could lower your prices and hustle until everyone in your area is willing to pay that price for you.

Both of these are good options but present challenges.

If you don’t lower your price, you never devalue yourself. Work begets work, so if somebody books you for half your usual rate, the next promoter will find out and ask you for the same price.

But on the flip side, if you stick to your guns and never adjust your price, you may not get booked for a very long time until your value catches up with what you are charging. It does not matter what you think you are worth unless someone agrees to pay you for it.

Instagram waited until it had 150 million users on its platform before it started selling ads to make money. Why are you different than them? Why can’t you build a fan base by removing your controversial $200 performance fee for 18 months so you can blow up and start charging $2,000 with no questions asked?

Keeping the Scene Alive

Let’s be real: money is hard to come by in the entertainment industry. Unless your scene has a well-established promoter that deals in millions of dollars a year, the promoters who will book you are just as scrappy as you are.

In order to have a place for you to play, they need to keep their costs low. While you might be living off of a kitchen job or doing something in the daytime, chances are these promoters are living off of their shows. If you want to increase the longevity of the scene by supporting these promoters, playing for free is a good place to start.

Ego and Saying Yes

Recently, a few people in Boise have come up to me and asked the same question. It goes something like this: “Sky, I see you everywhere. You’re always doing something. I’ve watched you for the past four years as you went between different promotion companies and opportunities. How can you always be at the center of the scene?”

The answer: I don’t think myself above much of anything, and I say yes to everything.

I started producing in 2011. In 2013, I started the hustle. I bought a Traktor S4 with my first freelance design check, and began going to work. I would do anything from setting up shows to selling tickets, all with no compensation. As a high school kid, I spent the money I made washing dishes to travel to music festivals so I could volunteer and learn the ropes. I still spend my own money to further learn and make connections from business trips, product promos, and giveaways. I knew that I was the youngest, dumbest person in the room, and I did everything I could to work with experienced people in the scene. I swallowed my pride and swept confetti off the floor just to learn a thing or two about how things worked.

Our egos tell us that we are too important to take action precisely at the point where we need to. Once we start feasting on our labors, our hunger dies out. We think that what we were doing two minutes ago is now beneath our station.

This is a major blocker for many artists’ careers. I’ve seen plenty of artists in my area who fell off of the map of relevance because their egos withheld themselves from participating in the scene. While they thought they were protecting the integrity of the scene by being expensive or exclusive, they were undermining the very same scene by not becoming the beacons they would be if they had the attitude to do the work. Instead of improving the DJ conditions for everyone by creating a standard of pay, they backed themselves into a corner and faded away. It would have been more beneficial if they would have had the punk rock, DIY hustle attitude until they were big enough to pull people up with them.

It’s extremely convenient to put a high price tag on your performances so you can sit in the studio or play Xbox all day. It even seems like you’re making progress because you feel you’re worth what you are charging. You might even think that you’re protecting your brand or your artistry by not being so played out. But unless you really have that brand, unless you really have people who show up, or you struggle to find hours in the day because you’re legitimately swamped with opportunities, you’re not making any progress. You’re letting yourself be forgotten because you’re not out in the scene, taking names.

But even if you are in the studio, this same methodology applies. You should be releasing constantly. You should be DMing YouTube and SoundCloud channels to feature your music despite the fact if they have 35 followers or 3.5 million. You should be hustling until you’ve built yourself a name where you can be picky about what opportunities you take.

I’m entering the period where I legitimately need to guard my time. These days, I run out of hours in the day. I’m a single parent, full-time student, plus an entrepreneur with Pariah, the shows I put on, and the design work I do for my clients. While last summer I would design logo for $30 total, now I don’t have the time to get out of bed for less than $50 per hour. I cut meetings to 20 minutes if I can. I don’t always listen to pitches I would have taken 2 years ago because I’ve had to learn who is a dreamer and time waster and who wants to get to work.

All of this is not because I’m suddenly too smart to push cases for minimum wage, or that I’m too connected to be seen with certain people. My brand isn’t becoming too commonplace and devalued because it’s everywhere. This is because I have to prioritize my life based on strict practicality.

That said, I will rarely turn down an opportunity to open a Pariah Reign booth at a show, even if I only sell a single dad hat. You should have that mentality too.

What do you think of this? Do you agree that upcoming artists should play for free? Share this article on Facebook with your opinion and see if people agree with you.

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