Fast Track: Last night a DJ saved my career

Partying can disrupt many a student's studies: But it's the making of some who go on to be DJs or club promoters
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The Independent Culture
University life is all about working hard and playing hard - most students hope that the former will land them with a great job, but increasing numbers are realising a terrible hangover is not the only thing that comes with the latter. Hundreds of clubs and venues (an increasing number of which are owned and run by colleges and student unions) are offering students a glimpse of a possible future career as a club promoter or DJ.

Job prospects for disc jockeys have changed drastically over the past 30 years. In the Seventies a successful DJ could, after a noteworthy stint on a pirate or commercial station, expect to win a slot on BBC radio. Once established with Auntie, the lucky few had the chance to reach one of the triple towers of success that represent DJ career zenith: A breakfast show slot, the Sunday night Top 40 show or the Holy Grail itself ... Top of the Pops.

The explosion of modern club culture in the late Eighties transformed the employment landscape, however. A residency at one of the hundreds of clubs that the dance music revolution inspired encouraged thousands of "bedroom" and student DJs to pursue a clubbing career. Today, Britain's club industry is a multi-million pound business and universally recognised as the biggest of its kind in the world. Its top DJs are international stars - style mag icons, courted by top clubs who fly them around the globe to grace their record decks for a couple of hours.

In 1998, the distinction between radio DJs and club DJs could not be more stark. While it is certainly true that many successful club DJs appear on the radio, "success" in clubland depends solely on credibility. The right music and the all-important ability to mix records is the foundation for any successful club DJ.

Playing two or three slots on Friday and Saturday night, a popular DJ can earn between pounds 1,000 and pounds 2,000 a week. "Super DJs" (the likes of Pete Tong, Paul Oakenfold, Sasha, Carl Cox, Goldie and Allister Whitehead) can command more than pounds 1,000 a night, in addition to the lucrative income from international bookings and remixing and producing work.

Best of all, you don't need any formal qualifications - just patience, determination and practice. "I always believed that things would work out," says "Super DJ" Carl Cox. "I knew what I had, in terms of making people happy, so I didn't really wait for the phone to ring. I went out there and did it - there's always a hall to be hired.

"Sometimes I got pounds 30, pounds 50 or pounds 2, but I always believed that something would come up and that I could make a living as a DJ."

Club promoters require similar drive, ambition and imagination, and also do not require a licence to practise. Promoters create the concept, name the event, hire the DJs (usually "bedroom" DJs who will play for free for the chance to build a reputation), other staff, print and distribute flyers, then you sit back and wait for the crowds to roll in.

First, though, the promoter has to find a venue and convince the owner that you have created the best idea for a club night since the dawn of time. After securing an unfashionable weeknight spot (all the best venues have their successful promotions on Friday and Saturday nights), you are on your way. A magnanimous owner will let a promoter keep the money from the door, but it is not uncommon for owners to take a percentage in addition to revenue from the bar. If no one turns up, owners are unlikely to be patient; there are dozens of other promoters eager to try their luck.

Prospective DJs require persistence, contacts and a thick slice of luck. DJ Heaven, for instance, currently a resident DJ every Friday at London superclub Ministry of Sound (MoS), got her foot in the door by sending the club one of her mix tapes. A few months later she was signed and flying to Australia to DJ on an MoS tour.

Signing for one of the big-name clubs is a dream for many DJs, but it's not the only way to obtain work. Many agencies sign up-and-coming DJs and chase bookings for their acts. Any DJ offered such a contract should read the small print first as the agreement can be restrictive. If a DJ signed to an agency finds work independently, for instance, the agency may still be entitled to around 30 per cent of the fee. Moreover, many agency contracts stipulate that payments must be made up to six months after the termination of a contract.

When you consider that most promoters know their DJs personally, an agency contract may not, on balance, be the best vehicle. By far the best method of finding work is getting to know the clubs and their promoters personally. Unlike many other industries, the highly sociable nature of clubs makes it easy to contact promoters who are always on the look out for new talent.

Anju Nimalananda is aged 20 and has been DJing for around four years. Recently she's been working at Cake, a night at The Blue Note, a fashionable London club, but she is not about to give up her day job with the Performing Rights Society. "It's still a hobby in many ways because the work comes and goes," she said. "Until you're up with the top DJs, you can't really rely on the income as clubs come and go."

Most DJs claim they are driven by love of the music rather than fame or riches, and a significant proportion of their income goes on records. Ultimately, DJs say, it is the thrill of controlling a dancefloor that keeps them coming back for more. "It's a real buzz," says Anju. "Once you've played in a big club and done well you want to keep going. My most memorable set was playing the Ashram night, at Adrenaline Village on New Year's Eve. There were about 2,000 people, and everyone looked so carefree and happy. The whole place was jumping."

She is currently working on Mirage, a pirate station, as a guest DJ. A regular slot will increase her exposure and give her credentials a healthy boost, as will a forthcoming booking at London's premier garage club, Garage City.

"I went down to the office to give one of the promoters a tape I'd put together," she said. "I wasn't really nervous but I got a real grilling from one of the promoters before they booked me. I'm on the same bill as top DJs, and it's a chance to prove myself."

Pick 'n' Mix:

How to get

started

DJ at college. Many have excellent venues and offer a great training ground. You'll discover that playing in a large venue is nothing like mixing records at home.

Choose one type of dance music. If you're going to buy vinyl regularly you'll find it will be very expensive, so don't spread yourself too thin.

It's good to talk. Approach promoters and strike up a conversation - even just a few words. The best promoters speak to everyone and remember faces.

Always carry your own headphones. Many venues will not have any.

Practice mixing. It doesn't guarantee success but you can't succeed without mixing skills. Test yourself by mixing "blind" (randomly selecting records). It's okay to plan part of your set but you must be able to react to the mood on the floor.

Buy good equipment: You can learn on a range of decks but in the end it at all comes down to Technics. Forget CD mixers - Technics decks are the industry benchmark. A pair of Technics and a mixer will cost around pounds 700.

Make up mix tapes: Promoters will receive dozens of these a year but they do listen to most. Try to be as innovative as possible so your sound stands out from the crowd.

Find a good record shop: Get to know the people on the other side of the counter - it can mean discounts, white labels and introductions to industry contacts.

Play any slot: DJs can be quite egotistical. When you're starting out, play any slot and take consolation from the fact you're gaining valuable experience.

Buy a lock box: Whether working at a house party of a club you'll have to leave your records unattended at some point and vinyl has a habit of disappearing.

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