If you want to make a living out of creating dance music, Facebook likes and SoundCloud plays for your mixes and tracks are not going to be enough on their own. We investigate how to break out of that social media bubble, connect with the industry and turn the online applause into gigs, record sales – and a career.
Social media and global connectivity mean that it’s easier than it ever has been to get your music, mixes and creativity out to an audience of like-minded people. But because the web is based on a culture of ‘something for nothing’, if you want to actually start to make a living as a DJ or producer, you need to break out of the social media bubble and connect with the industry.
Man Power: “You have to draw a distinction between success and fame”. He’s dead right. Famous-for-nothing is now chased as a thing in itself. Success, however, is being good at something within an industry structure of peers. In short, the internet should the start of your involvement in the music biz, not the sum of it.
Subb-an: “Social media can be very useful when executed in the right way, but yes – it can create an illusion.” There’s also an almost hermetic community that exists in many areas of dance music, where serious hobbyists feed off each other’s expertise but barely connect to the industry – despite many of those involved actually working in it.
Man Power: “This type of dance music industry, aimed at the enthusiast, is barely self-sustaining and is made up of people making music for like-minded people to listen to.” It’s as easy to get lost in this matrix as a veteran as it is to simply be too young or lacking in contacts to break into the real thing. That said, though, it is a step out of the bedroom and a step in to clubland. Just don’t expect it to pay your bills.
DON’T RUSH TO GIVE UP THE DAY JOB
The boom of the 1990s encouraged a lot of myths and one of them is that you can make a living as a mid-range DJ. Not any more. The top 1 per cent, like actors and writers, are part of the illusion and glamour that the industry relies on. So why not pay the rent with the day job so you can do the whole thing on your own terms rather than on the industry’s? Go full time when you can afford it, and not before.
Caroline Prothero: “When people are so passionate about their art they run a second job too, it’s positive. It’s inspiring! We all have to eat and survive. If music makes you feel alive, you’ll do anything to be a part of it. I know because I did it: counting two pence coins to exchange for twenty pence coins to pay the parking meter. Getting my mum to buy my clothes so I looked the part. There is no shame in following your dreams and doing the grind to get by.” The industry is as a fickle as the punters and there will be dips and dives and you will need to fall back on the day job. Even the biggest DJs and producers only know what’s in their diary a few months in advance, and can experience dry spells.
BUILD A LARGE BODY OF MATERIAL
These days, with very few exceptions, making tunes is what opens doors to gigs. But the biggest mistake many producers make is trying to break through with only one or two tunes. What do you think a label, manager or agent would rather see: a directional haircut or 72 finished tracks? There isn’t much time later to make more when you are touring. The industry is a machine that sells music so you need two things: a consistent supply of good music and a professional engagement with it.
Man Power: “I built up a large body of work before ever approaching anybody to release it.”
Simon Dunmore: “It often seems to be one record that really catapults someone into the dance arena these days – but of course if you can do it on a regular basis, all the better”. The industry wants to work with people who have what it wants. But you have to understand that it’s not going to pay you just to be awesome and shiny. You need to give it stuff. Then, you never know, it might pay you for it.
CREATE A PACKAGE
The idea of artist development (a label or agency working on you to get you up to muster) is long over. So, do you have to arrive as the complete package?
Man Power: “I have to concede that image is playing a bigger and bigger role in the new style music industry. If you arrive appearing like a fully formed package or product, then perhaps it’s easier for the new music consumer to buy into you as a brand.”
Simon Dunmore: “There are packages for a mainstream world and there’s a complete different package for the underground. But the package needs to be consistent.”
Matt Stuart: “It’s good to show you have a real plot and aesthetic as to what you’re about.” The industry wants to see that you are a worker and that you are effective out in the real world. So your package needs to reflect that. It needs to have a lot of good tunes, a well-maintained internet presence and evidence that you work at it, rather than hide behind it. A video of you doing something in the real world is worth 100 websites.
RESEARCH YOUR INDUSTRY
Look for the right managers, agents and labels to approach by researching how they operate and who they represent. Read magazines and trade publications cover-to-cover, even the ones you sneer at. Subscribe to proper music industry publications as well as for the genres you like. It’s a mistake to try to compete with the industry. Pros don’t want to see you pretending to be a CEO of your imaginary company in an arsey Indie T-shirt, or acting the chisel-hoofing diva. They just want you to be a partner who delivers great music with consistency – and a junior partner at that. It’s a business, so part of your research should be into business as a whole. It won’t kill you to learn how to do your own accounts.
A word from legendary DJ Roy The Roach: “To be big on the scene you need to be big on the scene”. Go to conferences, events and talks. Many people make good contacts by doing entry-level work in the industry.
Matt Stuart: “I did work experience at Sony Music. I made a lot of tea and wasn’t scared to muck in and do mundane stuff. That’s what got me on my way”. Many big names got on the first rung as part of the infrastructure. As well as employment, it teaches attitude.
Simon Dunmore: “For me it was an evolution: from being a collector to being a DJ, to working in a shop to working at a record label, to owning my own label and even then, becoming a record company that started to do its own events. Looking back, I think the most important factor was being a collector and a music enthusiast at the very beginning.”
There’s no doubt that the crucial bridge between online applause and making a living is representation. Call it a manager or agent, it doesn’t matter: it’s the thing that means you are for real. Sure, you can make a tune that does well and makes some noise, but if you’re going to appear in public for money in any form or capitalise on that tune’s success then representation is what you need.
You can look up who represents the artists you admire or whose career you would like to emulate on the web, but once again, getting out there and meeting people is key. Talk to DJs about their agents and management, talk to other artists and club promoters about who they rate. Be realistic, too. A top agent is not going to sign a total unknown (barring perhaps a huge breakthrough track). But that’s fine: agents and managers can be beginners too, and there’s nothing wrong or unusual with moving up through the ranks as you develop.
The bottom line is the industry is a scene and scenes are real-life things that you can break into. Waiting politely in the ether as an email or sitting idly on the virtual demo pile is not proactive. Put yourself there in person. And remember: these people literally get hundreds of wannabes sending in hours of music they couldn’t listen to even if they wanted to, so work on your package instead and get involved in real-life projects. This is what will separate you from the demo pile. This is what will shine through. People who succeed and connect in the music industry are in it full-on. They don’t just like and want it. They are it.