Is DJing “work”?

I recently participated in a very interesting debate among DJs in an online forum. The original question was this: What is an adequate salary for a gig? How much should a DJ ask for?

The debate got very heated when some newcomer DJs said they were accepting gigs for free to build a reputation and get connections. This made some of the more experienced DJs really angry, and they accused the newcomers of being responsible for low salaries and bad working conditions.

It became apparent that people had widely varying views on the role and value of a DJ. Is DJing more of a hobby – or is it work? Is a DJ an artist – or just someone who provides a service?

Those are actually very hard questions, and I can only draw my personal conclusions here. However, I would like to shed some light on the various different aspects of those questions – after all, almost all DJs think about those questions at some point.

Art, hobby or service?

One fundamental question that every DJ has to answer for himself is what role he/she plays as a DJ. From the arguments I have heard, there are three main lines of reasoning here:

  • Hobby: “DJing is my hobby. I enjoy playing music in front of an audience, and it’s cool to party with my friends and be in charge of the music. I would never call myself a professional, I just enjoy it. If someone wants to give me some money for that, I happily accept it but I don’t really expect it. I am ok with playing for free drinks and a few bucks for a taxi ride home.”
  • Art: “I see DJing as an art form. I have been collecting music for a very long time, and I consider myself an expert for my kind of music. I want to be appreciated as an artist, and I don’t like others to influence me in the way that I perform my art. I used to play for free or very low salaries, but I have reached a certain level as an artist now and my salary reflects that. To play for less would mean to lower my status as an artist, and that is inacceptable.”
  • Service: “DJing is a job more or less like anything else. When I am booked for a party, I play whatever the host wants. When I am done, I take my money and leave. I don’t really care about which kind of music I play, but I do want to be professional about how I handle everything. If someone books me, they can expect a certain level of quality, and I can deliver that. I do like my job, but it’s still a job – nothing more, nothing less.”
In reality, you often see combinations between those three types of DJs. Someone can play at a company party on one day and just do his job – and be a true artist the next day. I just wanted to point out that most DJs have a clear tendency towards any one of those perspectives.
So is DJing work? Yes and no. It depends on your perspective…

What is an appropriate price?

Even if you have taken your position on what you are as a DJ, you still have the problem on how to find an appropriate price.
In practice, this depends on various different factors, like size of the venue, length of the set, competition, your own reputation etc..

The bad news here is that there is no right price here. In fact, no thing on earth is created with a price tag. Prices are always something artificial – and they can in fact be very irrational. I don’t want to go too much into detail here, but if this interests you then Dan Ariely’s book “Predictably Irrational” is an excellent read.

Among DJs, a few ways to calculate an appropriate price have developed:

  • Pricing by effort: This pricing model is pretty straightforward: You take the length of your set, multiply it with your hourly rate and that’s your price. Most DJs add a fixed base rate to that price to compensate for expenses like getting to the gig, preparing playlists etc.. If the hourly rates don’t vary too much between DJs, this will lead to a relatively narrow range of salaries that still allows to adapt hourly rates based on experience.
  • Pricing by status: This model assumes that it’s not so much about how much effort a DJ puts into his set, but more about how many people he attracts. This model can lead to low salaries for newcomers and local DJs and very high salaries for well-known DJs.
  • Success salaries: Sometimes, host and DJ negotiate a price model that is based on how well the party goes. For example, the DJ gets a certain amount of money for every guest at the party. This is supposed to encourage the DJ to promote the party more and it can be good for both the host and the DJ. On the other hand, this can also be a bad deal for DJs as it burdens them with a risk they cannot fully control. After all, the host is typically responsible for promoting a party, and a DJ can only support those efforts.
  • Fixed pricing: Sometimes, DJs and hosts negotiate a fixed price for an evening – no matter how long the DJs plays. In some clubs, there is also a fixed price that DJs can only accept or reject. This model is fair (everyone gets the same), but it is typically unattractive for more experienced DJs.
Again, there are combinations of those models, and all of them have their advantages and disadvantages. As a DJ, it helps to understand those pricing models and be aware of what you accept.

What really counts: Know your deal – and how to say “no”

I think it is clear now that there is no way to determine once and for all if DJing is work and much it should be worth in monetary terms.

So how can you tell if you are getting a fair salary as a DJ? How can you avoid being ripped off?

My personal conclusion is this:

On some nights, I am an artist. On others, I am a service provider.
Sometimes, I enjoy the party so much that I hardly notice how long I am playing – and sometimes, 2 hours can feel like a very long time. Some gigs let me meet interesting people that can be useful contacts later. Some gigs are prestigious and help my reputation. And finally, I just cannot refuse if a good friends asks me to play at his party.

All of this influences how much I consider DJing work, art or hobby. All of this influences the price that I ask for – and all of this is part of the deal. However, I have to admit that I do not depend on DJing to make a living, so I have a choice on which role I want to play.

Anyway, this is the important part: If I profit from everything that I get from a gig, then it is a good deal for me. Sometimes, it’s even ok to play for free if I benefit enough emotionally and artistically.

The hard thing is to see is when you get ripped of – and this is something that newcomers often don’t see or see differently. It’s ok to play for free if you are having fun and if you are building a reputation. However, if you played a gig for free and it was neither fun nor good for your reputation, then you got ripped off.

This is the one conclusion that I would like to draw here: It’s not about determining the right price on a rational level. It’s about knowing what you take home from a gig – and it’s important to know when to say “no”.


About marvis (209 Articles)
Marvis is the founder of Sweet Headache. He lives in Cologne (Germany) and has been a music nerd for a long, long time.

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