Working as a DJ, from Then to Now

Few jobs are as rewarding and exciting, as cutting edge, as working as a DJ. If you have musical talent, entrepreneurial drive and a dream, it's a possibility. But it's also a very tough gig: You need musical expertise, a way with crowds, and the ability to take in information and process it fast. You need to be an extrovert on the stage and a business whiz.

Larry Levan became the DJ of the first true DJ club
Pictured above: Larry Levan - DJ of the first true DJ club

Working as a DJ is a busy business: There are more than 1 million people working in the field. Most make very little, but the very best can bring in millions of dollars. DJ Tiesto of Holland, the highest-paid person working as a DJ, can pull down $20 million. This price tag usually covers DJs who fill stadiums.

Working as a DJ: From the Beginning


As modern as DJ'ing may seem, there is actually a long history to working as a DJ. The job has roots that reach back to the 1800s.

The first distribution of recorded sound to the general public happened in 1892, when Emile Berliner handed out his gramophone records. Disk jockeys today do essentially the same thing, though in much more complex form.

The first radio broadcast of a  sound recording occurred in 1906. In 1909, Ray Newby became the first person working as a DJ by playing records over a spark radio transmitter. He interspersed them with brief news broadcasts.

The 1910s saw the introduction of more live content to radio broadcasting. The broadcasts were managed by announcers and programmers who essentially served as early DJs. In the next decade, the juke box became a fixture at so-called juke joints in the Deep South. These nightclubs were raucous establishments catering mostly to rural black residents. Thus recorded music became an even deeper part of popular culture.

Working as a DJ: The Term

Radio personality Walter Winchell coined the term "disk jockey" in 1935. The phrase initially referred to Martin Block, the first truly famous radio announcer. Variety magazine first published the term in 1941.

Now disgraced Jimmy Saville, a DJ who played jazz records at an English club hall, may have been the first person working as a DJ who hosted a version of what today would be recognized as a modern dance party. He was the same DJ who first used dual turntables to avoid skips between records. Paris' Whiskey à Go-Go nightclub opened its doors in 1947, becoming the first club in the world to play recorded music - or discothèque.

DJs began to gain more prominence in the 1940s and '50s, as the radio personality gained stature. Elvis Presley and many other soon-to-be-famous rock performers were introduced to national audiences by radio announcers working as DJs.

The '60s and '70s, meanwhile, saw the advent of new technology. Mixing techniques became a focus of innovation, as did "beatmatching," or skipping between records with changing tempo. Hip-hop and disco were both born in the '70s and gave new opportunities to everyone working as a DJ. That decade also gave rise to scratching and sampling.

Music videos were born in the '80s, as was the video jockey, or VJ. The music industry and the way one would go about working as a DJ were changed dramatically by the introduction of compact disks in this decade. Larry Levan became the DJ of the first true DJ club, Paradise Garden in New York City. House and techno music both emerged in the '80s.

A person working as a DJ in the '90s would have seen the birth of the rave. The Internet and the digital music that came with it brought new changes to the way DJing works.

Nowadays working as a DJ is not much different from working as any other kind of musician, as long as you've got the talent, the salesmanship and the drive. There's decent money to be had, even fame, but as ever, it's a tough game.

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