Edge of Innovation

How to be a Famous DJ

Kristin Houser Writer & Editor, LA Music Blog

As the popularity of EDM continues to surge, new technology is giving professional and wannabee DJs more options than ever.

Even before he became known the world over as Taylor Swift’s boyfriend, Calvin Harris already had an impressive title: world’s highest-paid DJ. The vin in “Tayvin” earned a whopping $66 million last year according to Forbes — just one player in the exploding $6.2 billion electronic dance music (EDM) genre.

Being a DJ is a lucrative career path for some, and today’s technology is making it easier than ever for aspiring DJs to pursue their dreams.

Even the traditional equipment setup — two turntables and a microphone — is no longer a prerequisite.

“Modern tech makes sure that nowadays your gear cannot be your excuse,” said John Tillema, co-founder of Tuna DJ Gear, which makes knobs that work with any touchscreen to control DJ and music-making apps. “There are so many solutions out there for different workflows.”

Spin Academy

Learn the Ropes

Back in the late-‘80s, Kaskade (No. 8 on Forbes World’s Highest-Paid DJs) honed his skills using a turntable and a crate of vinyl in his dorm room, and for much of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the turntable was the standard piece of equipment used by DJs.

That changed with the emergence of the CD player and Pioneer’s CDJ-500 (which allowed DJs to alter and control CD music) followed by the rise of computer software-based music tech.

Today, anyone with a smartphone or tablet can learn the basics of music production.

Mixfader 1

For those starting from scratch (pun intended), online schools such as Spin-Academy.com are an easy place to begin.

For less than $20 per month, students can watch HD video tutorials covering technical DJ know-how, from working with new gear to mastering software platforms such as Serato, Ableton and Traktor.

Spin Academy also features interviews with club promoters, label execs and other industry insiders.

Mixfader 2

Not only can aspiring DJs use smartphones and tablets to learn the basics, these devices can double as part of a studio setup.

“The next step in DJ tech is going to take digital DJing away from laptops and on to touch devices,” predicted Ben Bowler, co-founder of DJ livestreaming platform Chew.tv.

Today’s DJs are already seeing this shift via apps such as the virtual controller TouchOSC (which lets you send and receive Open Sound Control and MIDI messages over Wi-Fi) and new portable hardware options such as Mixfader and Tillema’s Tuna Knobs, both of which were funded by Kickstarter and cost less than $100.

Tuna Knobs are knob-shaped styluses covered with conductive rubber that translates every twist and turn into the corresponding signal for the user’s touchscreen.

Tuna Knobs 2

Share Your Music

Calvin Harris got signed to EMI in 2006 when a representative for the label A&R saw the songs he posted on MySpace — the largest social networking site in the world at the time.

The internet remains a useful tool for DJs to share music, grow a fan base, hone their skills and maybe even land a big break.

Soundcloud Creators

Seven years after launching, SoundCloud is currently one of the most visited sites where artists can share music.

Now receiving more than 175 million unique listeners each month, the site launched its On Soundcloud partner program in late 2014 as a way to help content creators optimize their tracks, gain exposure, build their brands and, of course, make money.

Mixcloud Profile

Unlike Soundcloud’s two-hour limit for free accounts, Mixcloud allows uploads of unrestricted size, and the site focuses on radio and DJ sets as opposed to individual tracks. A new feature allows SoundCloud users to directly export their mixes to Mixcloud.

The free Music Messenger app uses open-source APIs to make sharing songs and playlists easy. It averages almost one million new users a month.

However, all the shares and likes of your recorded tracks won’t get you very far if you can’t get a crowd excited during a live set.

“Performance is the essence of what it is to be a DJ,” said Bowler, suggesting audience-building sites like Mixlr, a free audio-only platform; Mixify, for DJs with longer sets and wishing to incorporate video, and the one Bowler co-founded, Chew.tv, for video livestreaming.

Bowler said any aspiring DJ with a webcam can take advantage of the platform.

“As you go live on Chew, you’re not only streaming to fans of DJ mixes, you’re streaming to our global network of DJs,” said Bowler.

“DJs can learn and interact with other DJs of their own level,” he continued. “But they can also learn by watching the professionals who stream from studios and clubs around the world.”

Chew TV

Hit the Road

Playing more than 277 shows in one year helped Steve Aoki make No. 5 on the Forbes list, proving that once a DJ hones his performance in front of an online audience, he needs to be ready to drop the beat live.

New hardware and software options allow DJs to deliver studio-level performances on the road without requiring a sky-high production budget.

Deadmau5, #10 on Forbes’ list, practically brings a whole studio along for the ride, while Thud Rumble recently demonstrated a suite of DJ tools utilizing Intel’s Edison boards.

Thud Rumble Edison Chip

In May, Thud Rumble’s DJ Hard Rich treated the crowd at San Francisco’s Maker Faire to a series of demos using the Edison boards in a variety of settings. For example, he hosted virtual synth software, connected to a MIDI keyboard controller and ran DJ software with a small touchscreen.

Not only is this solution more physically streamlined and cost effective than a traditional setup — the Edison boards are priced at about $55 each — but by not running equipment and instruments through a laptop, DJs can create a more precise performance overall.

Another tool that’s giving DJs greater precision: Novation’s new Launchpad Pro ($299) gives DJs greater freedom at a live set.

“The performer can decide when to bring in the drums or vocals, play their own percussion or instrumental lines over the beat, or extend the breakdown or drop depending on how the crowd is reacting,” explained Olly Burke, Lead Product Manager for Novation.

These sites, apps and devices are just a fraction of those available to the modern DJ, with new options emerging all the time. As those who’ve already “made it” prove, there’s more than one path to being a top-paid DJ.

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