How To Compete With Free DJs

How To Compete With Free DJs

A travel agent sells products and services (such as tickets to a resort) on behalf of a supplier.  The tickets are bought by the agent for a discount, and then sold to the end customer.  The agent’s profit is the difference between the advertised price and the agent’s discounted price… in other words, commission.

But travel agencies were realized in a whole different era.  These days, there are so many free alternatives to the traditional travel agent… one might wonder why they need one at all.  How does a travel agent compete against convenient and free alternatives which serve the same basic purpose?

A similar thing has happened to DJs.  A common question is, “How can I be paid as a DJ when so many people are willing to do it for free?”

There’s Really Only One Way

Sell something that’s better than free.

In other words, make your service as a DJ (or promoter, for that matter) something that’s worth paying for.  Does this seem obvious?  Well, too bad.  Because it seems that most DJs these days get very hung up on this.

It’s unlikely that the problem is with your mixing or technical skill.  Those problems are easy to spot, and you probably already know if you’re having trouble in that department.  That is not to say that you do not need to work on your craft… you should always be doing that!

Being a good DJ is way more than counting and phrasing.  The passionate DJ is constantly developing his or her sound, exploring new options, and finding ways to connect with like-minded music lovers in order to turn them into true fans.  And that’s the key – true fans.  Even if you only have 10 or 20 hardcore supporters… they are your support network.  LOVE them and connect with them.  Don’t beg them for support… give them incentive to support you on their own.

Another thing: stick to your guns.  It’s time to get honest with yourself.  Figure out what your thoughts are on music, DJing, and your scene. Then, find out the best ways that you can support your music and your scene while staying true to yourself.  Trust me… over time, people notice that you have a sense of passion and purpose.  This goes farther than you think.  Why?  Because it gives you a visceral connection with other passionate and purposeful people.

There’s nothing that will earn you true fans faster than connecting with someone on an emotional level.

Additional Value

In the digital era, none of us are just DJs.  At least, not if we want to be noticed by anyone.

In order to be successful, the modern DJ must wear many hats.  We’re marketers, promoters, writers, PR experts and social media gurus.  This is the world we live in.

Don’t lament this fact.  For the first time, we are all actually in charge of our destiny.  We don’t have to wait for an opening in the market… we create our own market.  We don’t need to hire a promotional team and hope they do a good job.  Technology has allowed us to forge our own path.  It’s up to you to take advantage of this.

“For the first time, we are all actually in charge of our destiny.”

How can you add value to your DJ “brand” (because, after all, you are constantly branding yourself whether you like it or not) outside of the music you play?  By thinking outside of the box.  How about giving away free download vouchers to fans at your shows?  How about bringing a handful of excited friends with you whenever playing a new venue?  How about interacting with those who are feeling your music?  How about starting a blog, so that people who have never heard you play automatically have an idea of whether or not they connect with you on a musical level (wink)?  How about giving true, useful feedback to other local DJs?  Gift bags to the first 20 people in the door?

These are all simple ideas that are barely out of the box.  You can do so much more with this, but you get the idea… if all you do is show up, play your set, and leave… few people are going to notice you.  At least, at first.  You need to build your audience, and you do that by giving to them.  A lot.

Seriously.  Give, give, give, and give some more.  Only then is it okay for a small ask.

Free is Fine

I’m going to say something that’s controversial amongst DJs and promoters, but it’s how I feel: it’s okay to play for free.

In fact, in most cases it’s absolutely necessary to start out playing free shows.  It’s important to develop yourself as a DJ.  Once you have some experience under your belt… you might have the knowledge and experience which make you valuable enough to be paid.  But, be warned: it’s very easy to get stuck playing for free.  Eventually, you’re going to have to start turning shows down.  And it feels uncomfortable.

For those who simply want a chance to play at the occasional show in a guest slot… if you are happy with free, then by all means, go for it.  I may be in the minority here, but I see absolutely no problem with it.  I only take issue with people who complain about not being able to be paid as a DJ, yet aren’t willing to put effort (I mean real effort) into it.  Kinda like the person who complains about how fat they are, yet are unwilling to change their diet and start working out.  If you’re happy being fat, fine… but don’t complain unless you’re trying to change your situation.

The free DJ does not devalue the paid DJ, unless the paid DJ is failing to provide value worth paying for in the first place.

Jab Before Giving The Right Hook

I recently read a book by Gary Vaynerchuk called Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World.  The book is about how to promote yourself on social media (and I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in that).  The basic premise is to give, give, give, give, give, give, give… then ask for something.

Take the idea of “providing value” to the extreme.  Just give, all the time.  Give away free tracks.  Give away mixes.  Give your attention to others.  Support other DJs and promoters in their endeavors.  Do your best to be helpful, valuable, and inspirational.

So many people focus on the right hook (the ask) instead of the jabs (the giving).  When you’re doing nothing but asking all the time, people being to ignore you.  ”Support my show!”, “Buy my new album!”, “Like my page!”  It gets tiresome.  Give first.

Wrapping Up

It’s easy to get jaded or frustrated, when “those darn kids” keep showing up in the booth with their laptops and 2 months of experience.  But it’s important to remember that what they do has no bearing on what you do.  If these inexperienced DJs are taking your place in the booth, you’re probably doing something wrong in the first place.  Don’t blame the new, young DJs.  Blame yourself for failing to innovate, promote, and give back.

Being shut down because of the “state of the scene” is an excuse to cop-out and give up.  But, that’s not being fair to yourself and to the work you’ve put in thus far.

Viewing this as motivation, instead of defeat, would be a much more productive use of your time.



  1. Casie
    Jan 16, 2014 @ 12:14:47

    On point!

    No need to throw in the towel or complain about it….make yourself better.


  2. Greg
    Jan 16, 2014 @ 13:26:20

    I was recently in debate over this topic. Having been dj for 15+ years and having thrown my own shows for the better part of that time as well I think playing for free is only considerable under certain circumstances. I feel there should be some sort of compensation whether it be a discount on drinks, bar tab for certain amount, or maybe even a certain amount of tickets if it’s a paid show. Under no circumstances do I believe if you are charging a cover for your show should you as a promoter allow a dj to play for free or as a dj say you will play for free. When there is no cover that is where I think certain things can come into play. It is a dynamic situation but I think those are some good ground rules to go by.


  3. FBK
    Jan 16, 2014 @ 21:01:24

    And, let the church say AMEN.


  4. ellgieff
    Feb 17, 2014 @ 16:24:01

    Greg: A bar tab is no good to me, I don’t drink. I’ve yet to have anyone offer to pay me with LSD.

    On Topic: I don’t have a problem with playing for “free”. I play at the Burning Man regional (Kiwiburn), and at parties associated with the Burning Man culture for “free” (It’s not free. It costs me money. But it is my gift to the community of burners).

    I have a massive problem with people who are running gigs that they’re making money off, and not spreading that money around.

    How can I compete with the guys who will play those gigs for free? I can’t, and I don’t have any desire to – I’ve turned down a gig for exactly the reason that others were getting paid, but the support acts weren’t going to be.

    I also don’t measure success as a DJ by how much I get paid, but that’s a separate issue :)


  5. Daryl Northrop
    Feb 18, 2014 @ 08:22:28

    Good points in the article. There is nothing wrong with playing for free, per se. But, context matters. If you and your DJ friends are throwing a fund raiser for a local food bank, then yes, free-jaying is totally appropriate. If you and your DJ friends are starting off a brand new night/party in a non-commercial venue and not charging for entrance, or just to cover then rental fee (warehouse, community art center, etc), then free-jaying is fine.

    BUT, and you knew that was coming,

    If someone else is making money that night off what you do, such as: a promoter, the bar or nightclub you are playing in, etc – then free-jaying should be approached with EXTREME caution. Because if they don’t have to pay you, then they make more money, partially off of YOUR free labor and talent. In these types of situations, I can counsel free-jaying ONLY once as a trial-run situation, and if it goes well, then set up a fair compensation schedule.

    Repeated free-jaying at traditional bar/club/nightclub type venues does indeed hurt all of us. Yes, we should all build our community and provide value, but economics is a two way street. Have you ever asked a plumber to come and install piping for a new bathroom “for the love” or in exchange for “great publicity?” Me neither.

    Their skill has value.

    So does mine.


    • David Michael
      Feb 18, 2014 @ 10:10:15

      Honestly… sounds about right to me.

      My point is, basically, that one sentence: “The free DJ does not devalue the paid DJ, unless the paid DJ is failing to provide value worth paying for in the first place.”


  6. Butters
    Jun 20, 2014 @ 00:23:21

    I DJ twice a week at a restaurant bar, the owner of which is a good friend of mine – for which I get paid cash plus a meal and an unlimited bar tab (this is not nominal – sometimes I’ve walked out of there three sheets to the wind). There are also often other special nights at the same bar where I will be asked to play and sometimes I’ll charge and other times I won’t. I have a good understanding with my mate, though, and he understands that there is a value attached to my services, so I can basically go in any time and have a meal and a few drinks on the house.
    Over time, in this small South African coastal town, I’ve built up quite a following and I’ll often get asked to play private parties. I always charge, albeit a nominal fee (very few people in this town are rolling in money). Sometimes, I’ll do a good friend’s birthday, and my dj’ing will be my birthday gift to that friend.
    Twice a year, though, to say thank you to my “fans”, I throw a free party. These are always well attended, and invariably lead to other work.
    The point is this: if you’re serious about your craft, you need to make others aware that there is a value to what you do and the time a effort you put into it.


    • David Michael
      Jun 20, 2014 @ 10:40:26

      Great story and excellent point made. Thanks for sharing, Butters!

      It’s a great place to be when people are asking you to play gigs instead of you always having to seek them out.


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