The Secret DJ: If you're serious about being a DJ, nothing will stop you
The Secret DJ on why persevering through the bad times is the making of an artist
Dear Whoever You Are. I’m pushing 40 and my bookings are drying up. I’m trapped in a genre that is dying and when I try to play different stuff the crowds at the genre nights I am booked at don’t like it. I’m feeling quite low, I don’t recognise anyone in the clubs any more, and I’m almost ready to ‘get a proper job’. Anything to say before I hang up my headphones? Is it possible to reinvent myself? C, Manchester
This is a bigger issue than genre. We’re talking about second chances here (though I always say to anyone who asks that if you hitch yourself to a bandwagon, you will go down with it…) Lots of things can make you feel as though you’re approaching the twilight years of your game. For me, one of the things I noticed was being very isolated after many years of support from friends. After a while your peeps can get left behind, especially if you don’t nurture them. You can end up very far away, figuratively, physically and emotionally.
There should be a lovely long German word for when your mates are either too old or too jaded to come to your gigs any more. Social media doesn’t help; suddenly you aren’t asking everyone nice and personally any more (and on this subject, here’s a tip: if you’re playing records in Moscow, or Paris, or Auckland... why send invites to everyone in your home town? Do you think we’ll all go out and buy a plane ticket?) If you yourself stop caring about personal contact, why should anyone care in return? Before you can say “rewind!” you’re on your own, and the fun can go out of almost anything when you’re a party of one. Support networks are vital.
Reinventing yourself as a DJ can seem like something you need to whittle down to a single issue. It’s common to relate it to a change of genre: “If only I changed the music I play everything will be fine”. And there are great examples of artists who have successfully made that transition. Skream made the huge move from dubstep poster-boy to house and disco DJ. Simon Bird became Simon Neale who became Dave Spoon who is now Shadow Child (and even now Avec). The guys behind super-cool techno outfit Spektre were a hard house producer and funky house DJ. Skrillex was in an EMO band. One of Solardo used to do dubstep, one of Camelphat made trance bangers. DJ EZ – once indelibly associated with a specific genre – just launched a house and techno alias. Basing your career on releasing records makes it much easier to slip sidewise. You may slough off a few old fans along the way, but time would do that anyway. There are more worlds to conquer.
But it isn’t simply a case of having put all your eggs in the trance basket or sitting around on the dub step too long that can bring on the ennui you describe. Second chances are also about testing who you are in a very fundamental way. Are you a fighter or a passenger? Because newsflash! Every job gets hard and has the potential to dry up. Being a DJ was never going to be a doddle or a doss. There is no pot of bliss at the end of the rainbow, just more work. And all the top dogs go through these issues, too. They might look as serene as swans, but their little legs are going like the clappers underneath the water.
What you are being presented with is a simple choice: are you serious? Because until you’re ready to have nothing left except the drive to make new things happen, you aren’t ready to play the game. Reinventing yourself isn’t the sign of a mistake; it’s an inevitability. This life is no different to a marriage. Expecting it to be sunshine and happiness all the time and then pulling the alarm cord the minute anything goes wrong is a recipe for disaster (and a rather costly divorce).
Forgive me if this sounds like tough love, but frankly, you are only as strong as the last three or four times you’ve had to pack it all in and press ‘reset’. Second chances are a beautiful thing; an opportunity. You’ll get to see who you really are. You know how I know I am a DJ – apart from the DJing-related anxiety dreams? I know with a sense of searing conviction that I am a DJ because I hit rock bottom several times and did not give an inch. I chose to have literally nothing – and continue. It was very, very hard. But it steeled me. It gave me armour against envy and hate. Gave me conviction and confidence. Made me take the thing very seriously.
We’ve talked many times in these pages about understanding the value of what you do and who you are. You can only truly understand this when you bottom out and push through. Changing what you play is the least of it. Making it through the tunnel and into the light means changing everything up. You have to do whatever it takes to re-energise you. I could give you a list, but really it boils down to something really simple; a decision hard as diamond and precise as a laser. Ask yourself this: am I a DJ? If the answer is ‘yes’ then nothing will ever stop you being one. Nothing.
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Tiago Majuelos is an illustrator and animator, follow him on Instagram
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