Mark Duff on How to Succeed in the DJ Business

by Susan Johnston on August 30, 2011
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DJ Mark Duff has provided music at nightclubs and private events in Southern California for the past 25 years. Although he makes it look easy, the job requires far more than spinning discs and keeping the crowd happy. Duff attributes much of his success to his entrepreneurial savvy, such as understanding the customer’s needs and choosing the right gear. He recently chatted with the ISBB about the business side of being a DJ.

ISBB: What business challenges do DJs face?

Duff: The biggest one is the evolution of technology. DJs don’t have to know how to mix vinyl on turntables anymore; they just need a computer. So, the market has been saturated with amateurs, people who don’t know anything about music and timing (what to play or when to play it) and don’t know anything about sound. This drives wages down for people who work hard to make a living as DJs.

How do you compete with amateurs without lowering your prices too much?

I compete by being really into sound; it’s part of what I studied in college. I stick with higher-end equipment, too. For example, I only use JBL loudspeakers. It’s like buying clothes: You can tell just by looking at the equipment if it’s quality gear or not. A lot of the cheaper equipment falls apart, because it’s constantly being moved and bounced around in a car.

Do you require a deposit or full payment in advance?

Depending on the type of gig, I’ll require just $100 or half of the total. For a basic wedding now, you can get a DJ to do four hours for $495 or $500, which is really cheap. There’s a lot of time involved when you customize the music to the particular event. I spend 10 to 20 hours on programming before the event. I’ll often start a bid higher, but I also end up doing an entire wedding, including the ceremony, which includes extra music and another sound system.

How have gas prices affected your business? Do you set a travel radius or charge a travel fee?

We [Duff's wife helps with some shows] try to be as generous as we can, but we’ll add $50 or $75 to the bottom line of the price if we’re driving long distances (more than 50 miles).

How do you market yourself?

Mostly word of mouth. When I’ve needed to get gigs quickly, I have gone to some of the larger companies that hire DJs for gigs and asked them do the marketing for me. They will basically sell you to their clients. Of course, they take a small cut, but because they’re a larger company, their prices are higher, so I typically end up earning about the same amount as I would on my own. For direct marketing, I have business cards, and now I send Facebook invites to gigs that are open to the public. That’s about it.

Any other tips or advice for mobile DJs?

Insurance is a must for mobile DJs. Join the American DJ Association. If you’re doing a gig and your system goes down — or you lose power, or your laptop hard drive crashes — and you can’t solve the problem, you’re going to get sued.

Always sign contracts. It protects you, and it protects your client. We had a situation where we were playing in a old house in Long Beach, but they had remodeled this house and they didn’t really pay attention to the power, so between the cooking going on in the kitchen and my system pulling power in the living room, we kept blowing out the circuits. We had to wait for the kitchen to finish before we could continue. In that type of situation, in an older house like that, you don’t want circuit breakers popping and burning the house down. Fortunately, we didn’t start a fire. If something fails and you don’t have liability insurance to cover the damages, you’re in the hole for that money.

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