#DJLife: Play for Free / Play for Fee?

There are hundreds of reasons we choose to start DJing and there's no denying that the large majority of us want to be acknowledged for the time and effort we put into this craft (let alone compensation for the costs involved!) One of the most gratifying feelings for many DJs is commanding a packed dance floor and knowing that you’re responsible for creating and bringing joy to club goers.


Feelings alone, as gratifying as they can be can't exactly put food on the table for DJs looking to make a living, or at the very least be remunerated for their time. This brings us to the debate of playing for free or invoicing for your set / expecting payment. There's also a discussion around what to charge, and how to be respectful of other working DJs in your area but we'll cover that at another time.

Product Specialist and local Auckland DJ, Ian Wan from Serato HQ talks about his own experiences early on in his career:

I became a DJ after the band I drummed for fell apart and an acquaintance I met was getting into DJing. After a couple of spins I was instantly hooked. Fast forward 6-7 years and here I am working for Serato. Back in those days, the barrier to entry was high, and you would require an outlay of about $4000-$8000 dollars to get a good DJ setup as entry level controllers were non-existent.

During my first few years as a DJ, pretty much every gig I did was free as it was a hobby and I had a full time job. Most of these were friends club nights or smaller scale parties where the crowd weren’t what you would consider mainstream. Quite often they’d barely break even or would run at a loss. Being the new DJ, you’d be the opener or closer for the night 95% of the time. Due to this reason, I’d usually never get paid and wouldn't have considered charging as I felt bad and didn't feel I had earned the right...

This was during the infancy stages of my career, playing for free to get my name out there, helping promoters push tickets in exchange for slots, trying to get ahead in the rat race.

After a while the tables started turning and I was getting booked for more commercial gigs at mainstream bars/clubs, and also began venturing out into the realm of private function DJing. At this point, I would get a bit more confident and start asking about fees and what I would be paid for the night. Admittedly, a good proportion of the music I played out would not be what I’d play willingly, however getting paid and the feeling of commanding a dance floor made up for this! Selling out? Subjective and probably a conversation for a different day. 

My approach these days is that I do believe everyone should invoice for their gigs. As a rule of thumb, If you get asked to do a set, always address the elephant in the corner right from the start and see if this is a paid set and what the rate is. If you feel confident enough to invoice for a set and if you are in a position to do so, reap the rewards of the craft you’ve painstakingly worked on!

To conclude there isn't really a black and white answer to the question of playing for free / playing for a fee - especially for a newer DJ on the scene. It can be very subjective and depends on the situation and circumstances. If you're wondering whether it's time to start getting paid, try asking yourself these questions:

  • Did you provide good value? Could someone else have stepped in and delivered the same thing?
  • Was the promoter happy with you?
  • Did the bar or gig make enough money to cover their own costs?
  • Do you have a good relationship with the bar owner / promoter?
  • Could it maybe affect your ability to be booked for future sets (if you don't have any guaranteed gigs)?
  • Is it a foot in the door type gig or a regular thing?

We know this is a heated topic amongst working DJs so please let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!

Check out other #DJLife articles and discussions.