The Only Way To Be The Real Deal

I signed up for a set of DJ classes. I don’t like to sign up for anything. I don’t like to leave my room.

I don’t like to go on the phone. I don’t like to answer emails. I don’t like to look at the news or go outside. I don’t like to look at people in the eyes.

You realize that’s not what people do, Stephen Dubner told me on one of our podcasts. People don’t look at mouths when they talk. They look in the eyes.

I had no idea, I said.

By learning new ways to “express myself”, I want to learn to write better.

I went to the first class.

“A DJ can always play it safe. A DJ can read the room and see what people like to dance to and then just play that music,” Ellison said. “It’s easy to play it safe.”

He took the class in 2009. Then he took the advanced class. Then he became an intern. Then he started doing shows (“stores hire us. If you make a place feel joyous, people buy”). Now he teaches.

He showed us how to put together the turntables, the needle, what all the buttons meant. He showed us the basic scratch. The scribble scratch. More.

“But you’re not a true DJ until you can clear the dance floor.”

I didn’t know what that meant. Doesn’t a DJ want to fill the dance floor? Why would he want to do the opposite?

“You take what’s safe and you add something new to it. You’re good enough to try something new. You learn the confidence to try something new.”

“A good DJ is always taking a risk. Trying something new. Seeing what happens. ”

And people might not like it. The dance floor empties.

“And trust me, when it’s happening, it hurts. You start to sweat. Your hands are shaking. Your heart’s pounding. How are you going to get people back on the dance floor?”

He gave a nervous laugh. Which I think basically means you give a small laugh while shaking your head “No” back and forth.

“But you aren’t a DJ until you’ve been through that. Until you’ve tried enough new things and some things don’t work. Until you’ve figured out what to do on the spot when you are most scared and you bounce back.”

“If you play it too safe, you’ll never get actually good. You’ll never be the real deal.”

People like to say they don’t care. They don’t care what people think. They just do their thing. Like it’s a badge of honor.

Unfortunately I’m not like that. I try to be like that. I try not to care. But I want people to like me. To dance.

But it’s impossible. I always seem to be making some people unhappy.

Every day is an exploration of the new. And sometimes the dance floor does clear, everyone goes, and for that briefest of moments, I’m all alone.


[photo credit by Pamela Sisson. I’m already doing something wrong with my hands in the photo. What is it?]

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  • Paul King

    The reason a DJ clears the dance floor is because they want the club they’re working at to MAKE MONEY. I’m a partner in two clubs – if our DJ’s kept the floor packed we’d be pissed. They can’t suck so bad that they can’t pack the dance floor – but they also can’t be so good they don’t dump it to the bar ever once in a while.

    DJ’s exist to make us money, not entertain (this is why so many let the gig go to their head – they think it’s about them. It’s not – it’s about money).

    • palmTREAT

      ^ Yes this so much! I am an artist and web designer, I ran a studio for years and it was so difficult to get people to understand that being a professional means that on some level it is about money. Online and in meeting young artists I am constantly accused of being a sellout, but at the end of the day I make a good living off of making art because I understand that its more about other people than myself.

      Its not about compromising your integrity, it is about finding a common area between what you love and what other people will respond positively to.

    • Uffff…a big bucket of cold reality. :) Thanks for the perspective.

      Carl Kruse

    • Jens Kameke

      So much for ‘user centric’ thinking. You may want to ask some guest about what they like in a club. Would they really drink more if the music was bad once a while? Why don’t you then save money in your two clubs and switch to an iPod? Make a playlist with some bad ‘spill em to the bar’ songs on it. Do you might confuse here guests and DJs alike with commodities that cater your money machine? I haven’t heard a guest saying ‘oh what a great night, did you see how much money the club made?’. I often hear ‘great music, great DJ, great bar team’. I wonder who cares about club owners at all…

      • Ashley Alexander

        Every club I’ve played at where the owner micro managed DJ’s have all gone out of business!

    • Ashley Alexander

      That is an old fashioned mentality, I’ve worked for several clubs that thought the same way and guess what? Every good Dj quit, people stopped coming out and each one of those clubs went out of business! I helped launch a new club last year, The motto is to keep the dancefloor packed and keep people entertained. It the top club in the city, people lined up down the block to get in. The club makes a ton of money selling drinks and the customers keep coming back because they enjoy the overall experience! When your clubs go out of business because of your small-minded thinking. Just remember I said I told you so!

      • Paul King

        Hahaha … Thats hilarious. Go go Godzilla.

      • Ramon Richie

        Totally agree Ashley!
        The club where I dance a lot, the average spend of the dancer is 6 euro’s. The DJ’s start at 9 pm and stop at 1 or 2 am. The club is still packed after all these years and dancers are on the floor at 9 already and not 12ish like some other places. 5th year anniversary coming up. The vibe there is great. Plus the great advantage of not having overly drunk people. Only one door guy in the weekend and none during the week.
        So a weekend dance would bring in about 200 * 6 + 200 * 15 entrance… and during the week there are dances from 20 to 22 hours, 150-180 people * 10 euro entrance, tea and water free. Every week, couple of days a week. There is even dancing on Sunday morning around 80 to 100 people yet another € 800,- to a €1000,- every sunday.
        I think the club is so busy cause there it’s about the DJ’s, the music and the dancers and that translates into enough cash to keep the place going.
        Also there is only one or 2 people behind the bar and they are volunteers… Dancers collect the glasses and bring them to the bar.
        In my opinion that’s the new business model, bit more modest, way more relaxed, great atmosphere, best vibe ever!
        And I love it! ( plus a sh*tload of other people who come there week in, week out )

    • Tygron

      What about people who aren’t there to get a drink. If you want the bar packed so much how about you open a bar?

      So what do you think DJ’s are just there so there’s something to do at your “business” but what you really want is for them to go to the bar? Yea nah. Rethink your business model bro.

  • Mike Kimble

    James, in my opinion you are without equal. I do wonder, however, if you’d go to the next level if you never worried about what people thought of you. Or maybe that’s part of your mojo…the caring about others. I’m unsure which it is, but I love the struggle. Truly.

  • Colleen

    “I’m already doing something wrong with my hands in the photo. What is it?”

    You’re resting your hands on the turn table and mixer. The should be up.

  • Tom Mosher

    I cleared a dance floor once. I remember the song that did it, too. Gangta’s Paradise by one of your past podcast guests, Coolio. That song was intensely popular and then it very quickly it wasn’t, and I played it a bit past the shelf life. Had ’em back on the dancefloor in no time, though! When you screw up and everyone hates you, it’s usually only temporary

  • Khoi N.

    Be Evander Holyfield. On the real, this is vintage J.Altucher. Worthy of the read as always.

  • Andy Przybyla

    I clear loads of dance floors must mean I’m brill

  • theghostofnetscape

    Thanks for this. Couldn’t agree more.

  • Word, life!

  • Patrick Hinds

    What are you doing wrong? The needle isn’t even on the record and you’re about to mix it in!!!

  • Geetesh

    I had that experience many times, clearing the dance floor when trying out something new. But some times I do it consciously, put people in suspense for a short period and then have them running back to the dance floor. Last Saturday, I played Touch by Daft Punk and it cleared at least half the dance floor for some minutes.

  • Kenny Zail

    It is a team effort. If the bartenders are not busy the establishment is not making money. If they’re not making money, they can’t pay the DJ or stay in business. If the crowd is not digging the music, they’re not sticking around. If the club is designed where only 60% of a crowd can be on the dance floor at one time, there should be no problems. The dance floor can be packed all night. If the club can have 90% of the crowd on the dance floor at any time a crowded dance floor means little revenue at the bar. Dancers don’t spend money until they are off the dance floor. We also know people are more likely to dance if they have been drinking. It’s a balancing act.

  • I always tell people to go get a beer if they not feeling some of my risky song choices.