Should DJs Be Playing For Free?

As far back as we can imagine, human beings have enjoyed the spotlight and being the center of attention, and music is one of the more popular ways to create endorphins in our bodies.

Endorphins originate in various parts of your body — the pituitary gland, your spinal cord and throughout other parts of your brain and nervous system — and interact mainly with receptors in cells found in regions of the brain responsible for blocking pain and controlling emotion.

Now that the education portion of this article is complete, the subject at hand is one that can be viewed, like anything else, in many ways.

With the over-saturation of today’s dance music industry, artists of all genres are fighting tooth and nail to obtain the all-important gig to showcase their talents. But, in doing so, are promoters and venues taking advantage of the fact that aspiring and up-and-coming DJ’s are willing to play for free to gain “exposure” or are the DJ’s at fault for not demanding payment for their services? We can look at this from several angles, and although not all topics will be discussed, a few immediately come to mind.

Should DJ's Play For Free
Courtesy: Matthew Reininger

When a promotions brand is beginning their journey into the dance music scene with little to no capital behind them, it is commonplace for the brand to reach out to their DJ friends and ask for their free support with the new venture. It’s what this scene is supposed to be about, right? A family. Everyone helping everyone out. However, if a DJ is asked to play an event for free, and they refuse, the likelihood of them being asked again is next to zero.

So, here’s where it gets tricky:

If you’re an up-and-comer seeking exposure to build your brand, there’s a part of you that wants to play the event for two reasons: You can immediately boast about it on social media to receive the instant gratification we all yearn for by obtaining the all-important “likes” and “congratulations” because you “earned” it. The second is your actual performance and literally being the center of attention by having yourself showcased to several people. It does wonders for the human psyche and is the reason many people get into DJ’ing in the first place. It makes us feel good, right? But, does the temporary adulation outweigh the fact that you’re not being compensated for your efforts?

How many times does a DJ have to agree to play for free before starting to ask for compensation? Is there a “pay your dues” phase that all DJ’s must go through to establish relevance and earn the right of being paid or should playing be automatically considered a type of services rendered? In the end, it’s ultimately up to the DJ to decide that, right?

And, where is the line drawn between compensating someone for their time and travel versus doing someone a favor or “earning the right” to be paid? Is it based on the all-mighty social media followers that apparently give the DJ clout? Is it word of mouth? Is it the artist’s management (if they have one)? Or, is it the promoters and venue owners?

Should DJ's Play For Free
Courtesy: Matthew Reininger

The fact is that there are currently well known, successful brands that are coordinated by some of the most popular artists in the Trance music industry that do not pay certain booked artists for their time and travel. Is it the DJ’s fault for not taking a stand and saying, “No?” Well, be assured that as soon as that artist does, there will be ten others right behind him/her that will say, “Yes” for the reasons (and many others) mentioned above. So, why would the promoters and venue owners alter their business plans if they have willing participants to perform in front of hundreds if not thousands of people for free? Again, money versus self-gratification.

But, is it ethically right? Is it right to exploit and manipulate the DJ into believing that “it’s the way it is” or “take it or leave it?” Are the promoters and venue owners to the point of just being greedy ?

Is the simple promise of sharing the stage for a night with well known DJ’s reason enough for a lesser-known DJ to accept the fact that they won’t be paid or are the promoters and venues simply playing into the emotions of those Dj’s that probably wouldn’t be offered that time slot at any other time?

Granted, some DJ’s are asked to perform at these events based on their merit, and many are happy to do so because they know it is a once in a lifetime opportunity, but is that reason enough to not pay them?

Of course, this goes deeper than just the money. In the end, it’s about the sustainability of a brand, and at some point, you would think that someone would expose them. But, do the brands have the right to be called out when DJ’s are more than willing to participate without saying a word publicly that they’re playing for free? Again, it’s their choice, right?

Today, we are wired as a society to phrase our language in a way as to not directly call anyone out in public for multiple reasons that are topics for another day. Yet, we’ll turn right around and say what we really think when the subject is out of earshot. This wasn’t the case 20 years ago.

Again, these are just a few of the many scenarios that can be viewed when discussing this issue, and in closing, I’ll leave you with this: The endorphins released by DJing become the new currency in a business where many go without pay. But these neurons will eventually become less elastic and will stop firing. The currency becomes useless. Playing for free wears down the resolution – these performers have to keep creating – and once that’s worn down both creator and consumer could be jeopardized. So, pick your currency and choose wisely, but just know that neither are immune to inflation.

What do you think? We invite your thoughts in the reply section below.

Erik Lake

All this machinery making modern music can still be open hearted.

5 thoughts on “Should DJs Be Playing For Free?

  1. I’ve recently started a blog, the info you provide on this site has helped me greatly. Thanks for all of your time & work. “A physicist is an atom’s way of knowing about atoms.” by George Wald.

  2. Marc, you’re the best.
    I love your insight and writing style.
    You are a giant of knowledge in this industry.

  3. Thank you for your comment.

    And, yes, you are right about the article merely touching on several scenarios that can be discussed regarding this topic.

    In the spirit of time and easy readability, I cut the article short.

    Hours upon hours can be spent discussing this topic and I just wanted to thank you for chiming in!


  4. This article merely touches on what is a dark arena of the music business and unfortunately has been a practice for many years in the scene, especially in regards to trance.

    What is worse in my opinion is having DJs who are not getting paid being forced to sell tickets for a warm up slot – usually consisting of 30 minutes in a back room playing to 5 or ten people. In essence these DJs are actually paying to play, plus not being compensated in travel or accommodation and not even getting a thank you from the promoter when they are handing them over hundreds of €/£/$ in ticket money.

    I know of several promoters who use these shady practices who are both well known and smaller and there is no excuse for it. It’s degrading that DJs are the only one in a club that don’t get paid while the Cleaners and Barstaff do. Would they work for free? Why should DJs be any different?

    Those who play for free are getting the piss ripped out of them and it’s high time people woke up to it.

    Would anyone work for anyone in any other industry and not receive payment? I think not.

  5. This article nicely outlines the bounds of this issue. I think there are a number of additional issues with not paying DJs. First, it incentivizes pirating/ripping music. Next, it delegitimizes DJing as a useful service and quality skill. Lastly, it lowers quality control and effort on the part of the venue/DJ.

    If a DJ is not getting paid, why would they ever buy music? Sure, I love DJing as a passion but over the past 10 years I’ve spent thousands on gear and tracks. That’s my choice because I want to have reliable equipment -independent from a laptop. And I want quality sound but I cannot expect everyone wants or has a job that easily supports the potentially very expensive hobby of DJing.

    DJing might not be the same skill as musicianship or producing – although many DJs have crossover abilities in those realms. Still, DJing itself is an art-form that can make or break a vibe at a bar/club. It does seem ethically “unsound” to have a bar/club potentially make thousands in drink sales and not pay the DJ a cent. Paying a DJ with drink tokens in not the same as pay either. Paying a DJ recognizes their contribution to bringing people through the doors and establishes a professional relationship.

    Choosing to not pay a DJ ensures that only the most desperate (sometimes myself included) acts are interested. This gives a venue/ the organizers the most amount of undesirable options. It also forces a smaller market based on ease of access and proximity. So in the end the DJs most likely to take on a free gig are those with the least experience and looking for exposure, those who can put in very little effort and gas money, and those who just want a random show to play at for the attention.

We invite your comments in the section below.