Turning The Tables: Why Successful DJs Should Pay Underground Producers For The Music They’re Playing

Auscultation at Cheer Up Charlie’s in Austin, TX in July of 2018. Photo by Victoria Renard.

I’m not trying to throw any real shade here, but wanted to offer some food for thought with regards to the DJ gig economy.

Let me preface this by saying that there’s nothing that feels better, more cathartic, or more beautiful to me than performing live for people. It is my favorite thing.

However, I’ve been gigging hard doing Live PA for several years now and every time I play a show, I have to tear my entire studio down, risk having my gear knocked around and broken (which I generally can barely afford to fix and definitely can’t afford to replace), thrash my sleep schedule, and just generally destabilize my life. I have to bring 3 bags full of shit for my set and yeah it’s fucking heavy. Also, at this point I have put several records and dozens of tapes out, my shows have been Resident Advisor picks more than once, and I’ve been lucky enough to get a lot of kind press over the years.

That being said, promoters — like successful promoters with beautiful $150 haircuts, working in full-size venues, and dealing with BIG money DJs — will STILL hym and haw when I ask for a $300 performance fee, as though it’s completely unreasonable, but won’t hesitate to pay a touring DJ 2k to 25k to show up with a thumb drive and throw down.

Now my criticism is not aimed at all of the DIY facilitators I’ve dealt with over the years — people who are just trying to make shit happen in their community and are operating on a microbudget. The performance fee I ask for is almost ALWAYS relevant to the context of the gig I’m playing and obviously what my relationship to that person is. I’m not gonna bug spaces like S1 or Pro Arts to pay for my flight and guarantee, because that money just doesn’t exist, but the experience and reciprocal support is meaningful and crucial to me, so I don’t care. Context is very important here.

In fact, this isn’t really about promoters in general, what this post is aimed towards are highly successful DJs who get paid out the ass and bug underground artists for free downloads.

Let’s break this down — let’s say a completely fictional DJ, I don’t know, let’s call them Jimmy Duffett is getting a completely fictional guarantee of sayyyyy 20k for a 4 hour set. That’s 83 dollars PER MINUTE, which means if they were to play 4 minutes of one of my tracks at a gig, they will be getting paid $332 for those minutes. And guess what, I highly doubt they’re accessible for trainspotting, no one is going to know whose track it is, and the only person who benefits from the track being played is the DJ and audience. $332 is more than a lot underground producers make off of digital sales in an entire year.

On a smaller scale, if a DJ is getting paid 2k for a 2 hour gig, they are getting $16 per minute, so playing 4 minutes of my track nets them a whopping $64. And again, none of this will directly benefit the artist.

This is something us underground folks should consider when a successful DJ hits us up for a “free download” of a track they like on our soundcloud or bandcamp pages. If you’re a DJ and you’re getting paid a shitload of money to do your thing several times a year, just offer a measly dollar. Offer to pay for the fucking thing. I know a lot of DJs who buy all of their music and I don’t take any issue with them at all. But if you’re getting paid out the ass to show up with a thumb drive full of underground music that you refused to pay for, you are absolutely part of the problem and should really reconsider how you approach broke producers for their music. Just offer to shoot a dollar over to us via venmo, paypal, whatever. It’s a dollar and it’s far more honorable to offer to pay that dollar for a track than weasel it out of someone you don’t know because of your superior status. And furthermore, I think more of us producers should be more hardlined about asking for that dollar, unless it’s a good friend asking for the track or one of your heroes.

I’m not trying to be a provocateur here, but this is a conversation that I’d like more people involved in. the community to consider.

Special thank you to Steve Dogman, whose keen insights helped grease the cogs for this essay.