The Business Etiquette of DJing

The Business Etiquette of DJing

Whether you’ve just landed your first professional gig as a DJ or are a veteran of the trade, the duties of the modern DJ extend far beyond the precious moments spent within the booth. From self-promotion and negotiating deals to set performance, travel, and socializing at shows, the roles and responsibilities of a DJ are just as numerous and varied as the styles of music in the world. Yet, there are some inalienable aspects of this work — be it one’s hobby, profession, or lifestyle — and learning how to navigate and master them is as important to the craft as curating one’s taste and identity as a modern music selector.

Especially at the early stages of one’s performance career, there is no substitution for the exhilaration of landing a gig. But regardless of one's experience level, this is only the beginning of the process. Navigating the steps that follow will play a pivotal role in developing your reputation as not only a great DJ or performer, but also as a professional with whom promotors and venues wish to do business time and time again.

When Confirming a Show

Regardless of how the gig was secured — whether through self-advocacy, direct outreach, word of mouth, or unsolicited inquiry — never forget that without the promotors and venues, there would be no shows. As such, always remember to thank your promotor once you have taken a booking. Of the numerous DJs out there, they selected you, and it’s important to let them know that you are excited about performing and sharing your craft!

If you have a contract, send this as soon as the offer is confirmed. If you do not have a contract, ask for a written offer from the promotor that includes key information such as your offer, billing, time slot, and payment terms. This is also an appropriate time to send over your EPK (electronic press kit), which should include your logo, a brief bio, and a handful of high-resolution photos, as well as your technical rider and (if agreed upon in your offer) a copy of your hospitality rider. The latter is unlikely to be fulfilled early in a DJ career, but as you move up the ladder, developing a clear rider helps communicate to a promotor what it is needed for your to perform at your absolute best.

Additionally, if a deposit is included in your offer (this should be discussed prior to reaching a written agreement), provide the promotor with multiple avenues of payment for collection along with a clearly defined due date.

While small-scale events often operate as cash-in-hand deals, providing items like contracts, invoices, multiple payment methods, W9s, and formal documentation will help convey that you are a professional and wish to be treated as such. Remember, this is business, and the clearer you are about your requirements as a performer, the less chance there will be for miscommunications, missed payments, and general confusion, which will help provide a smooth experience for all parties in the mix.

Leading Up to the Show

It should go without saying, but always do your part in the marketing department. Even if a promotor does not specifically lay out their requirements or requests, promotion is essential to the success of music events. You have likely been booked for a combination of your sound and energy as well as your pull — honor that and honor the promotor by telling people about the show!

Next up is research. Especially when playing the role of either a support artist or as a piece of a larger lineup, it’s important to understand who the acts surrounding you are as well as how you fit into the greater sonic storyline of the event. Even when acting as a headliner, it can be helpful to communicate with a promotor about the desired sound or energy they’re expecting from you in advance, as in many cases, they know their event, time slots, and crowd better than anyone else.

Similarly, if you have a specific idea for your set or have contrary thoughts to those of the promotor, it’s better to discuss that in advance rather than on the night of the show. These are ideally details that are discussed prior to contracting, but it’s never too late to discuss set details and flow with promotors. This can also be a good time to discuss or confirm production elements such as sound equipment, lighting and visuals, stage performers, etc. The better an idea you have about the event before it happens, the more you can focus on developing a performance that enhances rather than works against the vibe and general flow of the event.

Once You Are At the Venue

The night of the performance has arrived! If you haven’t already been in touch with the promotor or a point of contact, take a moment to check in with them once you arrive at the venue. Introduce yourself, thank them for having you, and be sure to ask any questions you have about the event now that you are there. This is a great time to find out who the stage manager is, how to find the green room, where to store your things, and of course, where to find either your hospitality rider or your drink tickets! As a good rule of thumb, it’s in better taste to leave your settlement questions until after the performance unless you have serious doubts about being paid or have agreed up payment prior to your performance.

Once you’ve settled in — and, ideally, introduced yourself to any other artists you encounter in the green room — walk the dance floor after the music gets started. Listen to how the sound carries and, even if the dance floor isn’t filled yet, get a sense of what it feels like in front of the speakers and what the crowd might be hearing.

If you have not already checked in with the stage manager, make time to do this before your set. Confirm that they have your technical rider (always have a copy on your phone!) or that the setup in the booth matches what you are expecting. If you have gear to set up, ensure you allow extra time for this, and confirm whether it will be you or the stage team handling the grunt work. If you prefer to set it up yourself, confirm when is appropriate to approach the booth and ensure it will allow enough time to set everything up without rushing. If you have any questions about where or how to plug in, now is the time to ask, not after you're in the booth.

When playing on a “club standard” setup (most commonly, a Pioneer DJM-900NXS2 + 2-4 CDJ-2000NXS2s or newer), confirm with the stage manager that all of the gear is present, set up, functioning correctly, and connected via Pro DJ Link (network cables). If the the 1st channel on the mixer is bad, or there are only two linked CDJs when your rider calls for three, you’ll want to know this before you get into the booth, not when you’re about to plug in!

Lastly, if it has not already been made crystal clear to you, confirm your set start and end times, whether or not the stage is running on schedule, and if there is any quiet time between the performance that precedes and — if applicable — follows yours.

Once in the DJ Booth

Regardless of whose gear you are playing on, there are some basic tenets to follow whenever entering the booth during another artist’s set.

First and foremost, time your entrance. Entering the booth too soon, unless it’s to set up your equipment, can be distracting to the artist as well as to the crowd. Acknowledge and be courteous to the artist while showing respect to the end of their performance by minimizing your time in the booth beyond what is necessary for you to get your gear set up (or, in the case of using CDJs, queue the deck settings up), opening track loaded, and to briefly sync with the artist currently playing.

When checking in with the current DJ, introduce yourself and unless it's already clear to you, ask some important questions:

  • If playing out, how much time is left in their set?
  • If mixing in, what BPM are they at? When can you take over?
  • What channel(s) are they on?
  • Are there any issues with the gear that you should be aware of?
  • If on CDJs, where should you plug in your USB, and which deck is open?

When the time comes for the artist to end their set, read the room to determine if you should be in the booth and ready to go or if the artist would benefit from finishing their set alone in the booth. If there is an MC, appeal to them for direction. Similarly, provide space to the artist finishing to say a few words on the microphone so long as it does not cut into your set time.

In the event that the artist does cut into your set time, explain to them what is happening as politely as possible and prepare your opening track. If the artist does not move to give you command over the booth once their set time has passed, try to speak with the stage manager rather than confronting the artist directly! While situations like this are not common, it does happen, and learning how to navigate the situation professionally without losing your cool will be an invaluable component of building your reputation in this trade.

Lastly, when reaching the end of your set, provide the same courtesies to the incoming performer. Similarly, if you feel that your boundaries are being pushed by a DJ who enters the booth too soon or who acts in a distracting manner, kindly ask them to give you your space and explain what you need. Advocate for yourself in a professional manner while being courteous, clear, and concise.

Once finished, collect your things and, if you feel called to it, express your appreciation for the crowd on the microphone. This is also a great time to thank the promotors, venue, and staff as well as to introduce yourself and the artist that follows. Microphones aren’t for everyone, but if you are comfortable speaking, this opportunity can be a powerful means of focusing energy and building excitement for everyone in attendance.

For CDJ users, don’t forget to grab your USB before you leave — just don’t eject it too soon!

After Your Performance

Following your performance, take your time to cool off. DJing can be hard work, mentally, physically, and emotionally, and having a few moments to decompress away from the stage can prove invaluable. Confirm you have all your possessions, hydrate, and stow your gear in a safe place.

Unless the party is over or the vibe feels off, sticking around for a short time helps reinforce your investment in the event and displays your support for the community, which can significantly improve your chances of being booked again.

Of course, staying late isn’t always in the cards. If it’s in your contract to walk with cash following your performance, find the promotor or your hospitality person and inquire about payment in a courteous manner. Don’t be pushy, and try to provide flexible methods of payment, such as digital wallet apps like Zelle, Venmo Business, and Paypal when possible. Take note to account for any transaction fees before taking payment, as those are the responsibility of the promotor.

If you have any doubts about the promotor paying you (a regrettable but unfortunately not uncommon scenario), recognize that your best chance of being paid is the same night of the show. If you have a contract for your performance, have a copy of it on your phone. It is ultimately up to you to decide how firm to be on walking with or without payment on the night of show, and this underscores why professionalism and communication from the beginning is such an important aspect of this work.

Lastly, if you have any comments — good, negative, or neutral — to share with the promotor about their event, don’t hesitate to speak up in a sincere manner when the time feels right.

What’s Next?

At the end of the night, being a DJ is something many of us do not because it’s always a logical thing, but because some part of us needs it. Sharing music is an intimate experience for most people, and doing so with an audience amplifies the experience to a state that for some can border on transcendental. In the purest moments behind the booth, there is no substitution for the elation that comes from a flawless and unplanned transition, or a drop so fresh it blows even you away, and the inevitable reaction that follows.

How do we achieve this state time and time again? We must be consistent in as many aspects as possible, and the bedrock of achieving that is in the elimination of variables that impede the art. Learn your processes and establish them as something you can repeat effortlessly. Handle yourself both on and off the stage with professionalism, sincerity, and purity of intention. Advocate for not only yourself, but for those other brave souls who have ventured into this world before you, with you, and for those who are yet to arrive.

Becoming a performer is easy, but doing it time and time again is an art unto itself.