Be A Pioneer, Stop Making DJ Mixes

Rain Robinson
October 2nd, 2017

What are DJ mixes even?

There are plenty of semantics within this debate so before we even kick this off let’s iron out these terms with a very important distinction first. When we say DJ mixes, we are not referring to live recordings or live streams of DJ sets.

Of course by definition, all of those are certainly ‘DJ mixes’ but they work off of two different principles.

Live recordings of a mix are to give your fans the chance to relive, or in most cases experience, that EDC set you just played the other weekend. Same goes for the livestream.

On the other hand, DJ mixes are the ones that you record in your bedroom either with Ableton or just through live mixing. We’ll discuss both but it’s really the latter that we’ll be focusing on in this article.

Plus, if you think about it. While they might be different to artists, to fans they very much look and sound the exact same when uploaded to SoundCloud so there’s that.

Anyway, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into it!

So chances are that if you’re reading this you’ve probably got some DJ mixes from your favorite artists that you regularly listen to.

Better yet, maybe you’ve made some in the past that you’ve shared on SoundCloud or Mixcloud.

In any case, DJ mixes are such a staple of the DJ world that it almost doesn’t seem like a topic that might be best catered towards producers like all of our previous content usually is. So what’s up with that?

Well, the answer’s pretty much in the question.

In our experience DJ mixes are usually catered towards two sets of fan bases. Local club DJs or producers that have already crossed a certain threshold marker of fans and followers.

It’s only till you’ve passed that threshold and certain other factors come into play, like the right outlet, that DJ mixes can truly help you create value where a hit single or strong official remix won’t.

In this article, we’ll walk through our thoughts on DJ mixes, how to get the best out of them but most importantly – when it’s best to start putting these out.

DJing and producing – synonymous or not?

Let’s face it guys, DJing isn’t too tricky of a task.

It was different back in the days when you had to play on vinyl, beat match by hand, know your records well enough to, well DJ, and then have the energy to lug your crates of records around to your next gig.

Man, back then DJing was tough.

Now, it’s much easier with CDJs, programs like Traktor, and controllers like Traktor’s S4. This is why you’re just as likely to find somebody DJing at your next house party or at the local club any given night.

The process has been heavily democratized over the years through a combination of better technology and the mainstream exposure of DJing through both hip-hop and then later dance music.

Nowadays anybody can be a DJ.

Wanna Have Millions of Fans listen to your music? Check out this list of DJ mix shows

And because anyone has the access to become a DJ these days, it no longer means that just being an extremely technically proficient DJ can ensure that you’ll travel the world USBs in hand like a rock star.

Plus, with every passing year of electronic music’s growth thanks to the EDM boom earlier in the decade, there are hundreds of thousands more young producers downloading Ableton for the first time and learning how to produce. Many of whom have actually never DJ’d in their lives.

Let that number of hungry young producers grow year on year and now you’ve got a pretty big crowd of producers that might be great at cranking out remixes but might not have ever touched a pair of CDJs in their lives.

For as long as electronic music has existed, it’s coexisted along the art form that is DJing. That’s certainly manifested itself in touring where the end goal for most producers is to tour the world carrying just USBs and a headset.

How sweet is that?

And while it might be tempting to just jump the gun and start investing in a pair of CDJs early on to try and get booked, or even crank out mix after mix, we should probably re-evaluate to see just how the huge influx of talented producers year after year impacted the touring world.

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The old-school and the new school

Today, you can still find cases of DJs touring the world solely based on the skills of their live DJ sets and mixes. These are mostly regulated to more niche genres and sounds like techno, deep house or trance.

In a nutshell, these DJs mostly exist in the older more established sounds and genres of electronic music that was here long before Skrillex broke brostep and will likely be here long after plenty of others fade.

Nowadays, if you’re going to see a touring DJ perform in your city it’s because they’ve established themselves through producing their own music.

That’s also how some of the more traditionalist DJs have extended their careers and what you’ll need to do separate from this oversaturated crowd.

Don’t worry about not knowing how to DJ at all or even start thinking about that until you’ve made a name for yourself as a producer. At the end of the day, it’ll be the quality of your music that will get you booked. Not the quality of your DJing.

The quality of your DJ sets will certainly extend your touring career but even if you’re just not a good DJ, there’s plenty of ways around that. Live sets, anybody?

In any case, let’s get back to DJing and discuss how since the game changed, it’s been hard to just DJ with no music to your name. And, at a certain point, your career may plateau.

The old school

Like we said directly above, there are examples of DJs whose careers have inherently been limited by a lack of original material on their parts.

Let’s look at one of the biggest names in EDM history who started out DJing before producing and how he truly blew up.

Tiësto.

Tiësto first started DJing at his hometown club The Sprock as a teen. From the ages of 16 to 25 he was a resident DJ there and other clubs around the Netherlands. But that was just it, he was stuck in the Netherlands only DJing to crowds and people who knew him well within that scene.

It wasn’t until he started producing around the mid to late 90s that he really got noticed and his career as an artist truly took off. His early productions were noticed by the general manager of Basic Beat Recordings who put out some of his records on Basic Beat imprints.

These early releases, however raw they were, brought new attention to Tiësto. As he continued to make a name for himself through his music, he began to prove that there was considerably more value to him than ‘just’ being a DJ. He was expanding his brand.

From there he teamed up with Ferry Corsten, Armin van Buuren and the rest of the old school trance guys who are still going strong before he said goodbye to producing trance and moved onto house.

The rest is, as they say, history.

These productions built on Tiësto’s career in ways DJing simply couldn’t. They enhanced his brand and built him fans outside the reach of word-of-mouth DJ sets could have.

If Tiësto remained just a DJ it’s not unlikely to think he would still be successful. But, it’s even more unlikely that he would be able to land a single in the top 15 of the UK Singles Chart with Gouryella propelling him to stardom as an artist and not just a DJ.

This has been the case for a lot of other older DJs as well who started out playing records before producing them.
Another artist that fits the mold is Steve Aoki.

Steve started the Dim Mak label back in 1996 because he loved the music his friends were making and he wanted a way to showcase the music to the world.

Before starting his label, he would DJ house parties right out of his college dorm room to grow the community of people who loved the music. It wasn’t before long that Dim Mak followed.

It didn’t matter how much notoriety those house parties plus his growing A&R reputation for a new label brought to Steve Aoki the man. In combination, those weren’t enough to launch Steve Aoki the artist just yet.

Like Tiësto, his brand plateaued when people became less interested in just DJ sets – no matter how great they were. Fans of EDM wanted more. They wanted a new experience from Steve Aoki and above all, they wanted music from Steve Aoki.

Wanna Have Millions of Fans listen to your music? Check out this list of DJ mix shows

In the mid-2000s, Steve Aoki paired with Blake Miller to produce remixes under the pseudonym Weird Science. This opened doors for him as a credible producer and allowed him to further his career by collaborating with countless electronic producers and pop-stars as well.

Since those remixes, Steve Aoki has gone on to be one of the biggest names in the touring world of EDM today playing hundreds of shows a year across the globe.

For Aoki, stepping away from just being a DJ – not to speak of record executive – and into production actually allowed him to truly break as an internationally touring DJ starting in the late 2000s and become the EDM icon he is today. Oh, and he also started throwing cakes at people as well too.

The new school

How about a more modern example then?

Mija’s a great one. And she’s also one of the rare acts in the last few years that have broken as DJ first, producer second.

Everybody’s favorite blue-haired producer first gained traction in the modern industry as a reputable tastemaker thanks to her incredible DJ skills and her knowledge as a promoter.
However, like those that preceded her, she reached a pivotal moment where she was nearing the ceiling of what she could accomplish as just a DJ. That’s not to take away from what Mija accomplished before she began producing, mind you.

Even before she started producing she had been playing at festival-affiliated events like Bonnaroo, Burning Man and TomorrowWorld in 2014. In fact, it was at one of these festivals that her relationship with Skrillex began. They played a b2b set on a Bonnaroo art car, after which Skrillex encouraged her to move to Los Angeles, which she did in late 2014 as she started to produce.

Mija realized to enhance her brand, and to accelerate her already impressive rise in the industry, she would need to be ‘better.’ And she did just that putting out her lead single “Better” with Vindata back in 2016.

By creating original content, while still continuing to focus on her core strength of music curation and even throwing, she was able to augment the ‘Mija’ brand.

Her continued work on projects ‘FK A Genre’ or ‘Made By Mija’ in particular have only since accelerated with Mija’s growth.

There’s a pretty clear pattern here.

You can only get so far with DJing alone.

And while there’s always going to be exceptions to the rule and outliers, it’s extremely hard to truly break as a touring act if all you can rely on is DJing, and by extension mixes.

That said, DJ mixes can absolutely still help your brand and here’s how.

The how is really the when

It’s funny.

The ‘how’ in that statement above is really answered with a when.

And our secret to truly maximizing a DJ mix is to absolutely not do a single one at all until you’ve hit a certain threshold in your fledgling career that justifies doing one. Otherwise, if you ask us, it’s always best to just focus on producing.

For most artists, that first mix almost always exists at the request of somebody else and should be treated more like a barometer of your success as a producer above all.

Whether your first DJ mix comes as a blog feature or a guest mix for an established artist’s radio show or even on your own after overwhelming fan demand, it’ll come because there’s a real demand for it.

Don’t bother spending any time or effort into perfecting a DJ mix just for the sake of showing that you can mix.

Until you’ve really attracted a following with your music, a ‘good’ DJ mix on your SoundCloud or MixCloud page is really unlikely to move the needle for you. Again, the industry has shifted towards booking producers and for the most part if you’re DJing is of a passable quality – you’ll absolutely be fine in the long run!

You’ll know when you’ve reached the point after a couple of sucessful remixes and singles under your belt that you might want to treat your fans to a mix.

And when you’ve crossed that threshold of fandom with a few releases to your name you’ll find that you’ll able to really maximize your fan’s attentions and actually get something out of a DJ mix.

Also, they’re a great way to put out fresh content with your name on it in between your release cycles.

Again, here’s the real essence of it in the simplest terms. If you have no fans or followers, you’re unlikely to incentivize people to listen to your sets and really move the needle – no matter how good they may be.

You’ll know you’re big enough when you check your socials and your fans are asking for you to make a mix chock full of your personal favorite records, rather than you making a mix and hoping they’ll even listen to it.

You might even want to start a branded mix when you reach that threshold.

Lots of established artists have their own mix series’ where they do this with regularity. Think of Gryffin’s Flight Logs or ODESZA’s No.SLEEP. These mixes are to showcase what music the artist is into at the moment, whether that be a throwback hip-hop tune from the 90s or a track that came out yesterday.

There is also radio mix shows like Diplo’s Diplo and Friends or Nice Hair by The Chainsmokers. These are usually also aired on satellite radio (BBC Radio 1 or Sirius XM) instead of just SoundCloud. These types of shows exist as yet another continuation of the artist’s brands. It’s a way for them to showcase some of their favorite artists by having them come on as guests with guest mixes.

Mix shows are more of a way that bigger artists recognize the efforts of rising talent and showcase them under their own brands, whereas mixes like No.SLEEP are there to build ODESZA’s brand and sound and primarily live on SoundCloud.

There are also mix shows like Group Therapy or Toolroom Radio, geared towards showcasing new sounds within their respective genres or artists signed to related labels.

Wanna Have Millions of Fans listen to your music? Check out this list of DJ mix shows

Again, if you don’t have a solid group of fans, more often than not it will take you far longer to build a following just through DJ mixes than it would if you put out a few releases and then did a mix when the time was right.

This brings me to my next point.

If you’re an artist who is just starting out and you want to grow your fan base, the best way to do that is to release great music. Both remixes and originals work but we always prefer a good hit single. Hell, a great collaboration works too.

As you gain traction, it is beneficial for you as an artist to do mixes with outlets that will get you more exposure. Doing a Too Future guest mix or a NEST HQ MiniMix are just two stepping stones that countless emerging artists have checked off in the last two to three years. Many of whom have since grown into international touring acts mind you.

These sorts of blog-branded mixes will provide more exposure to your brand than doing one on your own since they already come with a pre-set of fans that check in regularly to see if artists they like have mixes on the horizon.

Of course, they’ll also give you the opportunity to explore further press since mixes on Too Future (Run The Trap) and NEST HQ are often accompanied by interviews. And of course, it keeps the conversations open for next time since you’ve already gained their respect once.

However, to even get considered for a mix at either place you’ll have to prove yourself as a producer first.

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Good music trumps all

The formula to success isn’t rocket science. Make great music and put it out regularly.

Once you’ve managed to get a few big releases under your belt with a decent amount of press on each, don’t be surprised when blogs come calling about guest mixes and interviews.

Until then don’t bother at all because you’re far more likely to scale through original music rather than DJ mixes.

Again, only after you have an established fan base can you expect DJ mixes to really progress and expand your brand. Putting them out on the regular with no SoundCloud followers or even fans will likely lead nowhere.

If you’re in the rare boat (nowadays at least) of being DJ first, producer second just know that there’s an inherent cap on how well you can succeed as a performer without being able to perform anything that’s inherently yours.

In fact, from the opposite end, it’s much easier. The pressure of needing to be a DJ in order to tour as an electronic music artist no longer exists.

Plenty of producers refuse to DJ at all except for the odd after-party and can sell out huge crowds doing so.

Just look at Porter Robinson or ODESZA.

Until then, work on your own music and be the best producer you can be. Soon enough you’ll land some tasteful blog mix features and a takeover on Nice Hair then you can really step into the limelight with some properly booked gigs and hopefully even a first festival offer.