How to Prepare for DJ Gigs

As a working DJ with fifteen years worth of gigs (with bands, MCs, and as a solo DJ) under my belt – I can honestly say that the experience of gigging can range from the magical and emotional, to the down right bloody awful!

There are millions of things that can go wrong at gigs, but annoying drunken requests and dodgy promoters aside, a lot of this boils down to one vital ingredient – preparation.

This article, assuming you have successfully moved from the bedroom to the club and secured yourself a gig, will hopefully steer you clear of some of these terrible misfortunes, with some handy tips that aim to make your life that little bit easier when it comes to taking on professional work as a DJ.

It used to be so simple – you’d get booked for a gig and the only thing you’d have to worry about was remembering your needles, records and headphones. The DJ booth of yesteryear was a relatively simple place – you’d expect to find two Technics 1210s and a mixer, and a monitor speaker if you were lucky (and the promoter had the first clue about what they were doing!)

Nowadays all that’s changed. The sheer variety of DJ equipment out there is staggering. One can never be sure what they’re going to be faced with at a venue, and this can be problematic considering the amount of music storage formats available – CD, DVD, USB, Hard drives, Vinyl, Laptops etc

CD decks that read USB sticks or hard drives are becoming more popular, but not every venue has them – especially if they have a small budget and still have a perfectly good pair of working decks.

The New generation of Pioneer CDJs can read external hard drives, but they can’t read certain formats, so if you haven’t formatted your hard drive correctly you may end up doing a John Cage style silent disco for an hour, and as innovative and ground-breaking as that may be, it’s not what you’re being paid for!

Therefore, checking what equipment the venue has prior to playing there is vital if you are relying on using a controller, laptop, DVS system, Vinyl or USB sticks. Just turning up and hoping that they have everything you need is asking for trouble.

Often, you may be better off by-passing the promoter entirely and contacting the venue directly, as they should know what they have in the way of DJ kit – usually a quick e-mail is all that’s required, or better still a quick chat with them directly over the phone.

Here are a few things you may want to ask:

  • What make and model are the CDJs?
  • What is the make and model of the mixer?
  • Are there working vinyl decks?
  • Can I use my own mixer/decks/controller?
  • Is there a laptop stand in the booth?
  • Are there are any spare power points?
  • Is there space for a DJ controller?

Another issue nowadays is that Pioneer CD decks have internal firmware that needs to be updated. And guess what? Most promoters and bar owners won’t know the first thing about updating their decks internal firmware – they’ve got bigger issues to worry about, like making money out of your amazing DJ skills!

If you’re using Pioneer’s ‘Rekordbox’ software to organise your music and are using the latest version, but the club’s decks are on an earlier version of the internal firmware, this can cause issues. Even the older CDJ 1000s and CDJ 800s can have their firmware updated by burning the update to a CD (this is supposed to improve performance).

Do yourself a favour and take the latest firmware update for that CDJ model on a USB stick and update the decks before your set.

Monitor Speakers
I’ve played so many gigs where a monitor speaker was not provided for the DJs, when they were expected to mix – whether this happened due to an oversight or just sheer ignorance, mixing without a monitor is not much fun, as you can’t hear what the hell you are doing other than in headphones – and who wants that?!

Asking in advance if there is a DJ monitor may just remind the promoter that there needs to be one and save you struggling through your set and clanging worse than Paris Hilton on a good day.

Cash Money
Sure, you’re doing this for the love of music and all that…I get it, but if someone’s making money out of the night and you’ve played a part in it by rocking the joint, you should get your fair share.

Promoters (bad ones at any rate) can be slippery customers at the best of times, and especially hard to locate when the time comes to hand over your fee. Getting things in order in advance can save a lot of hassle if you play it right.

Agree your fee, set time and length of set in advance

If you are playing for free, try and negotiate free drinks and the cab fare home

If you don’t know the promoter, try and get part of your fee up front – then if the gig gets cancelled or the night ‘loses money’ and your fee suddenly evaporates into thin air, at least you get something.

If you’re being paid on the night, tell the promoter in advance that you’ll need it before you play or straight after your set (make something up like you have another gig to get to if necessary). You don’t want to be hanging around until 5am to get paid because that’s when the venue cashes up.

If you get asked for an invoice in advance – send it as soon as possible! If you slack on this you may miss the boat for a whole month, and will be waiting for payment for far longer than necessary. Some venues even require you to bring your invoice with you to the gig and if you forget it, you ain’t getting paid!

Music Requirements
Depending on what/where/when the gig is and what time you’re playing, asking the person who booked you if there are any special musical requirements or definite no-nos is just common sense.

Use your own judgement from gig to gig – you don’t want to appear that you have no idea what to play if it’s obvious, and also I assume you would have done your research about the night if submitting a mixtape, but here’s a few things you may want to ask.

  • What style would you like me to play?
  • What’s the overall vibe/ theme for the night?
  • What time’s my set?
  • Are there any particular genres I shouldn’t play?
  • What styles do the other DJs play?

If you’re playing and there are other DJs on before you, get there early and listen to the other DJs set. Turning up ten minutes before you’re due on the decks means you won’t have a clue what’s been going on and whether you are about to drop a tune that was already played twenty minutes ago. Sometimes this is un-avoidable, but if you are spinning in between DJs that play a similar style to you, it’s likely they may have some tunes you have, and you don’t want to be seen as the DJ that just copies everyone else.

In conclusion…
Preparation will make your life easier but with all the planning in the world, things can still go wrong – that’s life after all! Bad gigs can be great learning experiences and will ultimately make you appreciate the gigs that go well.

Ben Bristow

Mr.Bristow is a DJ and producer based in London and is Head DJ Tutor at award winning music college Point Blank.
He has had house and breakbeat releases on Sub-Tek Records in the UK and Detox Recordings in the U.S and has mixed & scratched in hundreds of venues. As solo performer, he has played alongside DJ Yoda, Norman Jay and many more; and has played in bands such as the Left Step Band and ‘Groove Jam/1 i Bear’ (alongside members of the Brand New Heavies & Dub Conspiracy).