We asked a couple of professional DJs what drew them to this most unusual of vocations. What is the appeal of spinning discs, or the digital equivalent, for a heaving mass of sweaty dancers?
Amy Rozier, aka DJ Veronica, is a Vancouverite who worked her way through college DJing in the late 1990s, and then spent a few years doing it full-time. Today she sells real estate for a living, but still takes gigs whenever she can.
"There's a certain high you get from having a crowd of people who are really into what you're doing, and smiling and sharing and connecting with you, and you're making eye contact with them, and it's - infectious," Rozier says. "I'll be dancing as well - I'm really quite animated up there - and I just feel this kind of - Aaah! Yeah! It's a rush." She pauses for a moment, then adds, "It's just making people happy, really."
The Essence of DJing
Dimitri Tadros, aka DJ Dimitri, a Toronto-based weekend club and private DJ was stumped for a moment when we asked the question, then blurted, "The crazier the party, the better."
Tadros thinks a little more about his answer and starts on a new tack. "Call it pride or self-fulfillment," but somehow he comes back to where he started. "What's the best thing? The crazier the party, the longer it goes - yeah, that's it."
When the grey beards among us were growing up, a disc jockey, a DJ, was the guy who spun Top 40 hits on the local radio station. That guy, or girl, is still called a DJ; but the term more often refers to live performers who select, play, mix and modify recorded music to provide a non-stop dance beat at clubs, weddings, corporate events and parties.
The DJ, in fact, often makes the party, or not, depending on his or her talent and skill. Which is in part of what turns Tadros and Rozier on about DJing. "You reflect onto the crowd," he says, "and the crowd reflects onto you. There's a relationship: you feed off your crowd, your crowd feeds off you."
DJ Veronica (aka Amy Rozier): "There's a certain high you get from having a crowd of people who are really into what you're doing, and smiling and sharing and connecting with you."
"You're giving out energy, they're giving you back energy - that's what it is," echoes Rozier.
More and more Canadians, of all ages, want to become DJs, if not professionally then recreationally, so they can mess around with music in the basement, entertain friends at Saturday night house parties or maybe volunteer to provide entertainment at a club or school event.
But however modest their stated ambitions, the lure, the dream, of show business success is always there too.
Becoming a Star
"I wanted to conquer the world," Rozier admits of her aspirations early on. "I had T-shirts [made] with my logo on them even before I had gigs." She also had her own "CD sweat shop" in her parent's basement, making CDs with her mixes to help promote her DJ career.
"My goal was always to DJ in other countries," she says. "And I did do a world tour that took me to New York city, Spain, England, Hong Kong, Australia, and all up the west coast: California, Oregon, Washington."
Tadros' ambitions were more modest when he started; it was more a hobby that grew into a career. "It was like a dream to do shows with 500 to 700 people," he says now.
The top tour DJs are idolized stars who travel the world, playing for thousands each night, recording and releasing their own music mixes, and pulling down big bucks. This is where DJing shades into performance art, and the DJs themselves become the attraction more than the music or the club.
Top acts command fees of $60,000 to $100,000 a night, sometimes more, says Abby Tobias, president of Scratch Lab, a Toronto school for DJs.
And it's not just cool Europeans and brash Americans filling the top rungs of the DJ world. Two of the most successful acts on the world scene today are Canadian.
Toronto-based Joel Zimmerman is deadmau5 (pronounced dead mouse), one of the top-grossing club DJs in the world, if not the top, Tobias says.
DJ Rhiannon (DJ Veronica's younger sister as it happens) and DJ Heather Van Viper make up a vampish DJ duo known as The Violent Lips. Rhiannon is originally from Vancouver, Heather from Toronto. They're based in Los Angeles now, and like deadmau5, travel the world.
The DJ Opportunity
The good news is that becoming a DJ today, recreational or professional, is more attainable than ever. There are more opportunities to acquire skills, and the investment in equipment and music is smaller than it was in the past. This is in large part thanks to the transition from vinyl and CD to digital music sources and controllers.
DJ Dimitri Tadros: "It's an art. You have to be able to hear in your head what you want it to sound like, and then make that happen."
Arguably, that transition has made the technology easier to master. It has certainly simplified logistics for mobile DJs who no longer have to carry boxes of CDs or LPs.
That doesn't mean it's easy to become a successful pro, Tobias hastens to add. He likens schools such as his to top hockey schools where, theoretically, a certain percentage of students, the best of the best, have a chance to make it to the NHL; "but in reality, often, none will."
Tobias isn't trying to discourage prospective students, just manage expectations. Some of his graduates in fact are working professionally, and the school has only been operating since 2006.
He points out too that there is constant churn in the DJ world, more perhaps than in other areas of music performance, and that means there will always be opportunities for talented newcomers.
"The best 100 guys in [Toronto] probably won't be the best 100 guys in five or 10 years," Tobias says. "In fact, I bet there won't be more than five or six of today's top performers on that list in five or 10 years."
So what does it take to become a successful DJ?
Learning the Licks
You'll need to invest in some basic electronic gear, which we'll talk about later. The other "equipment" you'll need is a little less tangible, and a little more difficult to acquire.
Abby Tobias, Scratch School DJ Institute: "There are guys who do very well who do not have super skills. But they do have great drive and personality."
"Like most of the arts, the skill set makes up about 50 per cent of what you need," Tobias says. "It's easy for those in the know to differentiate between [DJs] who are good and those who just think they're good. This is a skills-based vocation."
There is more than one way to acquire those skills. Tadros, who is 31, started when he was 17, learning and improvising on his own, watching older DJs when he could.
"It's a school of hard knocks," he says. "When I was getting started, I learned some of the technical stuff on my own, but I had my rough gigs. I had to learn how I should and shouldn't be doing things. You learn as you go along."
DJ Veronica, now 34, was also partly self-taught, but she was lucky enough to be taken under the wing by an older, successful club DJ who taught her and let her use his equipment for practice. It was a no-strings-attached relationship, Rozier says. "He just saw that I had a real passion for it and was willing to help."
She passed the good deed forward to her younger sister. While Rozier insists her now-much-more-successful sibling "did it all herself," DJ Rhiannon did have the advantage of access to her big sis's gear for practice, and also Rozier's equipment troubleshooting expertise when she was starting to gig.
The school option: Nowadays, of course, you can also go to DJ school. Scratch Lab, for example, offers a complete program of nine semesters, each 12 weeks long, with one 70-minute class per week. The cost: $499 per semester. It's one of several private schools in major population centres across the country, including in Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal.
The Scratch Lab curriculum, developed by Tobias and others in the business, is taught by top Toronto DJs, including DJ Grouch, DJ Wristpect and Baba Kahn. The same curriculum is taught to both recreational DJs and wannabe pros.
Scratch Lab professors have to acquire some teaching chops before they can do the job, but Tobias notes that "ultimately we found that training a DJ to be an instructor was easier than training a teacher to be DJ."
Currently based in Los Angeles, DJs Rhiannon and Heather make a vampish duo known at The Violent Lips.
The curriculum includes all the technical skills, plus training on the business, history and culture of DJing. "It's a wide base of knowledge over and above the hands-on skill sets," he says.
But the hands-on skills are the core. They fall into four broad areas: mixing, beat-matching, scratching, cue points.
Mixing is the often complex art of blending one recorded music track into the next to deliver a continuous music experience.
Beat-matching is one technique for seamlessly mixing two tracks by ensuring they have the same number of beats per minute (BPM), either by carefully selecting tracks with the same BPM or digitally adjusting one or both.
Another crucial part of mixing is identifying optimal cue points, usually on the beat at the beginnings and endings of tracks, where two pieces of music can most seamlessly be overlapped.
The ION Discover DJ kit lets home DJs mix and scratch digital audio tracks on PCs or Macs. Features include pitch-matching and beat-matching.
Scratching refers to an array of techniques, both analogue and digital, for altering and adding effects to music. Originally it was done by manually controlling a turntable - slowing, speeding and reversing it - and rhythmically scratching the stylus across grooves in a vinyl LP. Hence the term. But many DJs today use digital controllers with jog shuttle dials or touchpads to create similar and other effects.
Another key part of the Scratch Lab curriculum is digital DJing, using computer software-based music controllers and music sources. It's an important part of the school's value proposition, Tobias says. Students get exposed to three or four of the most popular applications, including market-dominating Serato Scratch Live, which helps them figure out which is best for them.
Tobias says the ongoing transition from analogue techniques and technology to all-digital solutions doesn't fundamentally alter the curriculum at Scratch Lab. "The skill set is to a large extent the same whichever equipment you use. A beat match is a beat match.
"But if [digital DJing] continues to grow in popularity, we might have to implement it earlier in the curriculum," he adds.
Is school the route you should go to acquire technical DJing skills?
Back to School?
Although self-taught himself, Tadros says yes. Some pros, he points out, will learn on their own and begin working, then go to school to refine their techniques and learn new ones, and he believes that is a valuable exercise.
Rozier doesn't agree. "I think it's a waste of money," she says of DJ school, then adds, "Maybe if you have tons of money, or you could take just a couple of lessons. But realistically, if you sit with someone and have them show you the basics, you can accomplish the same thing at home."
Rozier insists that finding a mentor willing to show you the basics shouldn't be difficult. She has done it for others. There are a lot more DJs out there now than when she was starting, she points out, and in particular, there are more women who might be willing to help other women.
Once you have the basics, the key is practicing at home, recording yourself, listening for what you did wrong and right, and repeating the process, Rozier says. "It's just practice, record yourself, listen, practice, record, practice."
Which route you take for acquiring the skills might depend in part on the kind of DJing you hope to do. At Scratch Lab, 70 per cent of students only want to do it recreationally. For them, finding a mentor might be a tougher proposition than for someone with serious career ambitions.
Another 15 per cent of the students at the school, though, are aspiring professionals just starting out; and 15 per cent are pros looking to upgrade skills. This mix is just a reflection of the market right now, not any bias in the school's marketing, Tobias notes. Scratch Lab caters equally to both, he says.
Technical skills are vitally important but there is much more to mastering the profession. What is the other 50 per cent of what you'll need to make it as a DJ?
"It's an art," Tadros says of what he and other DJs do. "You have to be able to hear in your head what you want it to sound like, and then make that happen."
A music background helps, he adds, if for nothing else than acquiring basic skills in counting beats. Rozier agrees. "If you can't clap to the beat, you really can't be a DJ," she says.
There are also subtle issues around music selection, which is partly about reading the mood of the crowd and picking tracks and sequences that will get them engaged and dancing, or keep them high.
It means, at a minimum, that you need a thorough and up-to-date knowledge of the music, and of course, you have to have the music. Part of your kit as a DJ, which we'll be coming to in a moment, is the music, now mostly digital.
And then there is the whole performance aspect. Artists can learn and hone performance skills, but it's also partly innate. "Someone could teach it to you," Tadros says. "But if you don't have it in you, if you don't have the feel, it's no good.
"A DJ has to have a personality," he adds in something of an understatement. "It's all about the personality, the personal expression. You have to have a smile; you have to be that happy person out there."
Tobias agrees. "There are guys who do very well who do not have super skills," he says. "But they do have great drive and personality."
Pioneer's pro-grade CDJ-900 Multi Player plays digital music files on CD and USB memory devices. Its Slip Mode feature silently continues song playback during a loop, reverse or scratch, then continues audible playback when the effect is ended, creating smoother transitions.
Even a DJ with first-class skills and great presence and charisma won't make it if they don't also have business know-how, though. This is, after all, a business.
The successful ones, Tobias says, have the same sense of professionalism demanded in any other field. "They don't show up late for work, they don't disrespect their employers or co-workers, they treat their job like a job, they don't think they're a rock star."
Acquiring - or being born with - the "equipment" needed to be a successful DJ is one thing. Breaking in to this competitive field as a professional is another.
Rozier had some help from her mentor, who invited her to play with him on club dates and made sure she was paid for it. She did the same for her sister who sometimes opened for her when DJ Veronica was the headliner.
Rozier also executed a somewhat risky entrepreneurial strategy to help launch her career. She opened her own after-hours club while at university. She rented warehouse space, advertised on campus and employed friends to man the doors and serve drinks.
DJ Veronica was the featured act some of the time, but she also booked other DJs, often others with club connections. One of the conditions of her booking them was that they get her bookings. That way she got varied experience and wider exposure.
Rozier's club didn't last more than a few months. Unlicensed and illegal, it was shut down. But it was "quite profitable" while it lasted, she says, and it established her on the local scene and gave her contacts that helped develop her career later.
Tadros also started as an entrepreneurial part-time DJ while a student. He was ready to call it quits after college (he has a full-time career in information technology), but happened to meet one of the executives at Quality Plus Entertainment, a Toronto-based DJ services and entertainment production firm, who persuaded him to come work for the company. Today's he's a busy weekend DJ with a standing one-hour, Friday night gig at a club-restaurant in the Toronto area and frequent corporate and private-party work.
Every city of any size has at least one, often multiple, DJ services companies like Quality Plus that provide DJs for weddings, parties and corporate events. They're an obvious place for aspiring professionals to look for work.
The DJ Kit
Which brings us to the (relatively) easy part: the kit. What equipment do you need? It will depend in part on the kind of career (or hobby) you hope to have, and where you expect to be DJing. And on whether you're going to go old-school or all-digital.
There are, or were, two essential tools of the trade. One is the mixer, a device that can take input from multiple sources, usually two for DJing, and control volume and mix (of high, midrange and low frequencies) for each. Mixers designed for use by DJs range up in price from less than $150 for a product such as the Numark iM1, a two-channel mixer with an integrated iPod dock.
The other essential tool is the controller used to cue music, speed it up, slow it down, make it play backwards and add effects. It has evolved over the years, and today, mixer and controller functionality are often combined in various ways.
The evolution of DJing: The original controller was a set of dual turntables plugged into an analogue mixer. Traditionalists still use turntables, but virtually nobody plays actual vinyl LPs anymore.
Instead, they "play" vinyl control disks that let them control and add simulated scratching effects to a digital music stream coming from a computer hard drive or iPod, but using manual techniques the same as or similar to those developed by the original analogue turntablists.
Later, CD players, sometimes referred to as CDJs (for Pioneer Electronics' CDJ line of DJ CD players), replaced turntables, because that was the most convenient music source. They too are still available and often used by traditionalists. They include turntable-like dials that DJs manipulate to simulate the effects turntablists created - but again, using them to modify a digital music signal.
Now DJs can also use mixer/controllers, often referred to as Midi controllers, connected to a computer-based digital music source or iPod and use software and the Midi controller instead of turntables or CD players. The controller may feature turntable-like dials similar to DJ CD players (some of which are also now sometimes referred to as Midi controllers), or in some cases touchpads.
What you'll need: DJs like Tadros who work exclusively for one DJ service company or who play only at nightclubs that have their own sound systems and control booths need relatively little equipment.
Tadros has gone all-digital. His kit, which includes a laptop computer, Serato Scratch Live software and a controller from Rane designed specifically to work with Serato, is worth about $3,000, he says.
DJ Veronica, who mainly plays at venues that have their own sound systems, is old-school. She uses a combination of turntable and CDJ, and recommends aspiring pro DJs buy two $800 Pioneer CDJs. They're standard professional gear, the same as or similar to what many clubs will have.
"It's not good if you get into a new place and the touch [on the supplied equipment] is a bit different than you're used to," she points out. "You want something consistent with what the clubs are likely to have."
Rozier, who has tried but doesn't like software-based products like Serato, disputes the contention that all-digital solutions make buying a DJ kit less expensive. If you factor in the cost of a computer, she points out, it comes to about the same for basic professional gear.
But most starting DJs these days already have a computer, and a music source such as an iPod they could use.
Sound system, etc.: All the other equipment Tadros needs for his travelling gigs (powered and/or passive speaker systems, amplifiers, and sometimes lighting, smoke machines and video gear) is supplied by Quality Plus Entertainment.
If you expect to work for yourself as a mobile DJ, you will need to invest in at least some of this gear yourself. Rozier recommends DJs buy a pair of powered speakers that plug into the outputs from the mixer.
Powered speakers, which incorporate an amplifier, are priced from under $150. The least expensive systems are probably only appropriate for practice studios or house parties. Starting-out pro DJs playing small venues may be able to get by with only slightly more expensive systems in the $500 range.
Another option for newbies and part-timers unwilling to invest thousands in equipment without any assurance of a return on the investment is to rent, Rozier points out. It's also a great way to try out new equipment and learn and practice before committing to purchasing expensive gear.
Designed for hobbyist DJs, Stanton's 4DJ all-in-one DJ system can play and mix tracks stored on USB memory devices and smartphones. Automatic tempo and beat calculation help DJs synchronize tracks.
The big names: If you're going shopping for pro DJ gear, you should know who the key manufacturers are. For mixers, controllers and other DJ-specific gear, the big names are Stanton (www.stantondj.com), Pioneer DJ (www.pioneerdj.com), Denon DJ (www.denondj.com) and Numark (www.numark.com).
The home DJ: Another way to start is to invest in relatively inexpensive products designed for consumer hobbyists, of which there are more and more. Future Shop and Best Buy, for example, both now sell DJ equipment, mainly for hobbyists.
One of the lowest-price products is the $100 ION Audio Discover DJ Mixer, which plugs into a computer, comes with computer software and allows amateur DJs to mix MP3 tracks and create scratch effects using the jog dials on the top surface.
And Stanton recently introduced an all-in-one device, the Stanton Control System 4DJ, that combines computer, software and controller in one compact unit for under $500.
Hobbyist DJs might also consider powered speakers if they want to be able to take their act on the road, but they can also plug DJ gear into an existing home sound system.
DJing is about two things: music and fun. If you like to do more than just listen to music, if you're an inveterate compiler of music playlists and personal mix CDs, learning to use DJ gear may be the next logical step. Or it could be your introduction to a fabulous career in show biz. Just don't count on it.