I got antsy. I was waiting out the pandemic with the rest of the world. I needed to get my mind off the potential end of civilization. I bought an old vinyl turntable off of Craigslist.
While I had collected vintage audio gear from the 60s and earlier for years, I had avoided collecting vinyl records as I saw it as the deep rabbit hole that it is. But as the pandemic wore on and eventually waned, I found myself with a new obsession. My collection quickly grew from 1 to 3000 records bolstered by buying other entire collections. One of those collections contained about 100 12” singles typically used by DJs in the 80s.
In March 2021, my wife and I decided to purchase a house in Miami to be closer to her family in Venezuela. Miami has a vibrant music scene which is defined simultaneously by Latin and DJ culture. Miami is one of the few places in the US where DJs still regularly spin vinyl, and you can often hear Salsa music playing in the streets. It is common for restaurants to have DJs as entertainment.
Last year my wife took an extended trip to Venezuela to visit her family, and I started to get restless spending days alone in the house. I had an idea. Why didn’t I see if a local restaurant which has vinyl DJs wanted to host a “customer vinyl” night. I sent them a DM on IG pitching the idea.
After some prodding the owner finally relented and asked me to visit him at the restaurant. I was pretty nervous as I had never done anything like this in my life. My pitch was simple. Most other vinyl DJs are digging for unheard of obscure tracks. I will do the opposite and only play familiar 80s hits.
When I got to the restaurant, I assumed the owner only wanted to chat, but he asked me where my records were, and to bring some records. I quickly went home and gathered about 30 records and headed back to the restaurant.
I had no idea what I was doing. I had never used two turntables and a mixer before. This was escalating quickly. I decided to just wing it. I didn’t even have headphones. After about 2 hours of poorly mixing 80s pop tracks, the owner came back and said I could have the gig, but not at the restaurant, at another outdoor venue they owned in Wynwood. It was a 7 hour set which paid $500. I did it! I got the gig!
What I learned
Persistence pays off
After I got the gig, I didn’t hear back from them. Months later I got a panicked call from the owner. They needed a DJ that weekend, but I was in NYC. I almost cut my trip short, but they agreed to book me the next weekend. I was off!
The music matters
There are two arts of vinyl DJing. 1 selecting the records. 2 mixing. Mixing (basically combining the end of one song with the beginning of the next) on vinyl is an art, but unless you are playing house music in a club, advanced mixing isn’t as critical as other DJs would lead you to believe.
Yes other DJs will evaluate your poor mixing skills, just like coders will evaluate your code in a code review, the general public only cares about the music. I got a lot of positive feedback about my sets because people related with the music. “That’s the music I grew up with!” “That reminds me of trips in the car with my dad! I miss my dad!”
Being human matters
A lot of DJs are like machines. They don’t want to be interrupted. But I’m always willing to take requests or talk to people about the vinyl and equipment. The physical and human nature of playing vinyl is part of the experience. I get questions like: “Is that really playing?” “What are those?” “Is that original vinyl (ed. yes it mostly is!)” “Why do you have two record players?” “Can you play Michael Jackson?” Sometimes people just want to fist bump you and tell you they are a DJ too! Interacting with the DJ is part of the experience in my opinion.
Hospitality is a hard business
I’ve worked in software exclusively for over 25 years. Working as a DJ has allowed me to look behind the curtain of the hospitality business. Things we take for granted in tech, don’t exist in hospitality. In tech we take great pains onboarding new employees. What I found in hospitality is operations are all almost tribal knowledge. Most DJ booths basically work the same, but they are all also subtly different and have their own quirks. But there are almost never guidelines on how to operate the booth. It is basically, “here’s the booth, good luck.”
Also it is a business. You have to remember why you are there. You are there to entice people to engage and consume more food and drinks. If you don’t do that, you aren’t doing your job. If something isn’t working, you need to change what you are doing.
It can be difficult for me to compete for gigs in some venues because professional DJs will snag most dates. That’s probably ok. Putting food on the table as a work-a-day DJ is not easy. I have to remember this is only a hobby for me.
I did make one mistake. I played a genre an owner didn’t want in his restaurant. Again the type of music to play was basically tribal knowledge shared by DJs who played in the venue, but being new I wasn’t part of the tribe yet. One idea is to reach out to other DJs who have played in that venue to see what the owner or manager expects, but another is to just use some of the basic skills I’ve learned as a software manager. Make sure you are aligned with the management.
Now I’m explicit about the type of music I will be playing and even make sample playlists on Spotify to make sure I’m not going to surprise anyone. If people consider their venue to be “family oriented” you might want to tone down the gangster rap for instance.
I was fortunate to break into DJing with persistence, but honestly it takes work and marketing to build your reputation. I get frustrated when I see DJs getting booked in venues where I struggle to get an answer, but it takes time. People are trusting their business with you. Most don’t want to take chances. But I keep sending out flyers and occasionally I’ll get a call back, and expand the places I’m playing. For instance I will be playing a new venue in March based solely on a cold DM.
While it is pretty unusual for someone my age to start DJing (I’m 48), it isn’t impossible, and you have the advantage of knowing music from time younger DJs might not fully grok. You need to be realistic about who you will be playing for (I will never play tech house in a club), but in a market like Miami, there is room for different types of styles. Technique matters, but in the end it is about the music and relating with your crowd. In some ways it isn't so different than working on a tech product.
The last thing I will say, if you want to do something in life, now is the time to do it. The clock is ticking. I’m pretty sure if I hadn’t started DJing last year I would have never done it, and that is something I would have regretted.