Why DJs shouldn’t play for free.

Pictures by Red Bull Elektropedia archives


In the life of a DJ, many things are uncertain. However, you can always count on one thing: every now and then you will be asked if you can play a DJ set for free. Often, a good booking agent is the first gatekeeper who will halt these inquiries. But if you don’t have someone who manages your gigs, proposals like these are a balancing exercise that need a little more thought than you might assume initially.

Of course there are many promoters who want a good DJ and don’t mind to pay a good fee, but the reality is that this number is shrinking. Like in any other profession, you need to get paid for a performance, however small it might be. You make the effort to travel to the venue, you (normally) make expenses for the music you purchased and you put up with at least one drunk Rihanna request. Beforehand, you have most likely prepared yourself for this night by downloading new music and maybe even trying out some new combo’s. You also promoted this event with your social media channels. Afterwards, you either sleep in the passenger seat if you’re lucky or drive home yourself if you remained sober throughout the night. All this is to say there are definitely less glamorous parts of being a DJ. DJ-ing is a fun job, but it’s a job. Sidenote: if you don’t get any of that fun out of it, then why are you still doing this?

A fee ensures professionalism from both sides.

Now, before we continue we want to talk about some exceptions to the rule – as we can already hear some of you protest. When a friend is throwing a private party, you can definitely do him or her a solid and play for free. It’s a private event after all. The same can be said about fundraiser events for a good cause. Simply, these are situations that don’t apply to our argument because they take place in a completely different context.

By accepting a free DJ set, you undermine your work and value as a performer. A promoter is not going to put in as much effort into your comfort if he’s not paying for it. Would you take as much care of a free pair of sunglasses as a pair you payed actual money for? Ok, the analogy is a bit far-fetched, but similar mechanisms are at work here. Chances are higher your technical and hospitality rider will not be respected. Obviously there are some promoters will always take your comfort seriously, but there are many that will not. 

The economics will turn on you.

A promoter usually wants the best possible DJ for the lowest possible price. If one can book you for zero euros, why would another promoter pay you more? Word goes around quickly – and it suddenly becomes hard to ask a normal fee once people know how low you can go. And it doesn’t just affect you. If you keep on playing for free, you will set a certain standard for that promoter down the line, which will eventually put pressure on other DJs too. On a wide scale, you are undermining the ‘good DJ’-industry, albeit in tiny steps.

The fact of the matter is that as a performing artist, you are part of a night in which money is made. People come to the party to enjoy good music - and they pay for it with entrance fees and drinks. Don’t get us wrong, as a promoter, it’s anything but easy to make enough revenue in the nightlife industry to cover the costs of the venue, headliners, staff and promotion. If it’s been a good night, the promoter will have made some money at the end. It’s not easy, but it’s not an excuse too. In many cases, the costs for non-headlining DJs is the first that will be cut in order to raise revenue. Often the ways in which they can ‘pay you instead’ can become very creative: so called ‘exposure’, drink tickets or guestlist spots. All things that don’t really cost much for the promoter. As long as there are DJs that will accept this bait, the cycle continues. Combine this with the seemingly ever-growing number of new DJs that seem to pop up out of nowhere and we have an environment in which increased competition drives the price down (another simple economic principle). Unfortunately, an ‘OK but cheap’ DJ becomes the preferred option over a ‘great but more expensive’ DJ in many cases.

What about those expensive superstar DJs?

“But wait, DJs have actually never been more expensive” you may think. A very logical reaction indeed. It’s true that for the top tier of international DJs, prices have gone up significantly, causing a great deal of protest from smaller festivals and clubs around the world. The effects of this trend actually drives up the pressure for other DJs to play for less and less. Club owners now often prefer to spend 95% of their DJ budget on headliners that will only play 90 minutes. You can argue that this is the only way promoters can attract visitors nowadays, but you can’t deny that this is a strategy that will slap you back in the face in the long run. If a club owner doesn’t value local DJs, how can you expect that the people will?

Raise the bar and learn to say ‘no’.

So what to do as a DJ if you want to play out but you don’t want to be taken advantage of? The answer is simple, but not easy: become a better DJ. How you want to do that is a different question entirely, but in a context of murderous competition, that’s really the only way. Spend more time on you’re the uniqueness of your mixes, live shows and productions and you will get good gigs (ones that pay) eventually. The importance of a network of healthy supporters around you cannot be underestimated either: connect with other DJs, artists and promotors, stay hungry for innovation and remain humble. Quality will surface – and once that happens, you are in a stronger position to stand your ground.

We admit, saying ‘no’ can be difficult – especially if all you want to do is play music. But it’s something you have to learn to do every now and then if you want to be valued as a DJ in the long run. Maybe you’ll eventually get a booking agent who can do all the negotiating for you. Maybe you don’t care about anything we just said – and that’s cool too. All we’re saying is that DJ-ing is a job as any other. Similarly, you wouldn’t ask a carpenter to redo your kitchen either, even if you promise him that the exposure will benefit him down the line.