Idealism x Reality: How To Make A Living from Dance Music


Just like every other art related professions, being a producer/DJ have its own shares of problems. With the advance of technology it becomes easier for anyone to create music and become producers. Technology basically has even out the playing field but at the same time it makes it that much more competitive. For every success story like Madeon or Martin Garrix there are another 1000 similar kids struggling to break through. At the end though, how can we as one of those other 1000 kids continue to pursue our dream to make a living from being a producer/DJ? Those success storie above can rely 100% from music for their income. What about the rest of us?

Trying to make it as superstar producer/DJ is almost like winning a lottery. Of course unlike winning lottery, luck is not the only factor that comes to play. To make it requires hard work, skills, perseverance, the willingness to hustle, the willingness to accept NO over and over again, connections, the right looks (this is not essential but certainly helps) and a bit of luck. Having only one of those is not enough. Luckily, for some of us that might lack one or more of the prerequisite to be superstar dj/producers, there are alternatives way to make a living from the field that we love.

Now let’s see what alternative out there are available for the rest of us.

  1. Music producer
    In a way, this is similar to what we want to do to begin with. The difference is we’re making music for other people. It might not be the kind of music you want to make but the positive is you are getting paid. How to get started on this? You can get started by approaching some of your friend who aspire to become a singer or rapper. Offered to help them produce their album or single. Don’t expect to get paid right away. Instead, offered to work as collaboration. Since you’re practically an unknown producer, your friend will more likely to take a chance on you when there are no or little money involved. When you make this a collaboration you usually will have more creative control, therefore the end product will be something that you could be proud of. If your collaboration becomes a minor underground hit in the artists’ respected scene then you now have a legit portfolio and your name is getting out there. The next project that comes around, you can start to charge them.
  2. Music composer for advertising
    This field is pretty lucrative but I find them to be soul sucking at the same time. There are real money to be made in this field. What you need to do to get started is starts creating a sound reel. Compile examples of your previous works (the more diverse the style, the better) and starts to search for production houses in your area. Once you find severals, contact them about sending your reel. These people are pretty busy so get in their good grace. Of course, usually people that works in the adverts industry are usually pretty hip. Therefore, they usually hangs out at the hippest clubs/events. If you happen to be a DJ that plays a pretty hip music genre then you already got a head start. Talk and befriended them and don’t forget to send them that reel. The thing with production house people, they tend to stick with the regular musicians they accustomed to work with. So as a newbie you have to make it clear that you’re open for discussion when it comes to rate. As a newbie, always be ready to work on one of those public service adverts with next to nothing budget. If you can deliver good quality work, follow brief and be prompt with deadline (and budget friendly) then the next time bigger project comes around they will call you. It’s important that you remain in contact with them even when there’s no work. Be less obvious by inviting them when you play out, gives them guest lists and all those goodies.
  3. Film / video game scoring
    The film and video game industry is also another possibility as an income source. Once again, the advantage of being a DJ is you are more likely to be in the proximity of young hip film people. If you have an aspiring film maker friends, offered to score their film projects (could be their small indie shorts or school project) for a small fee (but be prepared to do it for free). If your friends ended up making real movie, you will be his/her first go to guy for scoring. If not, at least you have another piece of work that can be placed in that all important reel.
    Video game is similar, with the emergence of app stores, there are many new small development studio emerging. Most of these games needs music therefore there are a lot of opportunity to get in the industry.
  4. Ghost Writer
    There are many kids out there (including us) trying to make it as superstar djs/producers. Many of them got no skill but got the right looks and backer. Here’s your opportunity to make tunes for and get paid for it. In a way you still make that sick dance music that you love to make and now you are guaranteed to make some money of it. Of course it Sucks when that track you make becomes a huge hit and people didn’t know that you’re the actual producer. But at least deep down it validate your skill as producer (still Sucks though). But to look at it on the bright side, that person that pays you to be ghost writer actually have equal chance with you in term of becoming big success.. At least this time you get paid whether it was successfull or not.
  5. Mobile DJ (not applicable in Indonesia)
    There’s no shame in being a mobile DJ. It might be far off from our dream of playing in festival in front of 10k people. But it beats being stuck in an office from 8-5 (or even better, you can keep that 8-5 job and still do mobile DJ work on the weekend). You’re still getting paid to play music,. You just need to have the right mindset and broaden up your musical taste. At the end though being a mobile DJ can be a satisfying line of work.

As a parting shot, I want to tell you this little story. Hopefully this little story will help you.

I have a friend who was a respected dance music producer in the early noughties. He had releases in several big UK & American labels. One day, He had an opportunity to work with one of the Indonesian pop star and his first tune became a big hit. Afterwards, other pop stars and major labels are lining up to have music produced by him. He decided to take all these projects to the point where he no longer have no time to do anything. At the end he completely abandoned his dance music root and due to the workload, his work quality suffers, tarnishing his reputation as producer. Now he tries to get back to dance music but he is so out of touch that his work sounds outdated. In the pop music side, the big artists left and now he’s stuck working with less than stellar list of artists with less than stellar music. He’s still making money but it’s probably pretty depressing (I’d be depressed if I were him) having to work on really crappy music. The moral of the story, if you do make it in the music industry, try to be selective with which artist you work with and know your limit. Don’t be greedy. In this industry you live by your reputation. Once they are tarnished there’s no way back.

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