Not Your Father's DJ

If you were a fly on the wall in the office of any large club owner in Las Vegas, Miami, New York City or Hollywood, you’d probably have a nice vantage point to check out the latest issue of US Weekly, People or OK! magazines.


Well, these owners may be celebrity gossip addicts, but more likely they are wise to the fact that DJs have become household names and the subjects of frequent paparazzi photo essays. Today, DJs are as hot as the star-studded crowds they entertain.

Over the last half-decade, two distinct groups of highly recognizable DJ talent have emerged: Names like Tiesto, Digweed and Sasha are recognizable spin veterans known for booking international clubs, packing out stadiums and bringing in fees far beyond 10-grand a gig; then there’s latest celebrity DJs, with names like AM, Barker and Ronson, recognizable because of who they date and the hot nightclub parties they play.

For club owners, booking agents and artist managers, the tabloids that flood their desks keep their fingers on the pulse of celebrity DJ news, as does industry-insider buzz about who’s becoming hot and who is booked where.

Being in the know on the DJ scene means operators can identify the up-and-comers as well as the orbits in which the established spinners circulate and the type of crowds they attract. Such intelligence is crucial when lining up talent, whether for a Saturday night or a special event, and it also sheds light on the potential traffic a DJ might drive into the club and the all-important question of fees.

Then and Now
“I think the first real true celebrity DJ was probably AM,” says Tony Wang, nightlife events manager for the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. “It started when he moved to Vegas and began dating Nicole Richie. There is more media exposure [for DJs] now than ever before; it has become a phenomenon.”

Bruno Cardinali, director of nightclub promotions for Envy at the Ivy Hotel in San Diego agrees. “I think the big celebrity DJ situation started within the last five years. Before that, you had recognizable names like Carl Cox and David Morales, who are still very well known. The house music format names were the first big ones recognized in the nightclubs. Now, you have DJ AM or Sam Ronson, known for their connection with famous actors, playing a lot of open format.

“I came from New York City in the 1980s,” he continues, “and when I was coming up, DJs were their own promoters, and they launched the careers of rock stars like Madonna by playing her songs. Now it’s more promoter driven, and our crowd in San Diego definitely craves that name recognition in a DJ.”

What’s really responsible for this shift to DJ-as-celebrity? According to DJ Reach, it’s the Internet. You can find Reach, whose real name is Semu Namakajo, on the tables at Tao in Las Vegas every Friday and he alternates his Saturdays at Dune in the Hamptons and Lavo in Las Vegas. His meteoric career also includes gigs for Lindsay Lohan and Diddy, as well as after-parties for Madonna’s “Confessions” tour and Jay-Z’s “Hanger” tour.

“Back in the day, DJing was about building that hard-to-find record collection,” Reach muses. “To be great, you were working on a 10,000-record collection, and now that’s out the window. We now all have the same access to the same music through the Internet. The standard is to DJ on a laptop using Serato Scratch Live. So, you now have to define yourself by how you put songs together, the way you market yourself, and we all have to be miniature entrepreneurs and moguls. We have T-shirts and logos and photoshoots. We definitely didn’t have that before.”

In other words, thanks to the Internet, DJs now have to brand themselves in order to differentiate themselves. Some have become quite successful doing just that, while others have attached themselves to known entities (read: stars and starlets) and enhanced their own star power by association.

Fees: Past & Present
What does the rise of the star DJ mean to club owners and operators? Well, the bottom line is monetary adjustments. As name recognition has risen and song collections have moved from vinyl to computer program, the fees for top name DJs have escalated. DJ Reach charges on average $5,000 a night, but he will swing down to $3,000 if the gig offers great press exposure or the chance to play in a dream location. For New Year’s Eve or the Super Bowl, his price moves in the range of $15,000. In 2009, however, DJ Reach and others who share the air up there have felt the effects of the economic downturn.

“Cities you were once playing in, like Kansas City for example, can no longer afford the big names,” he says. “Bottle service is down, which means, as a DJ, I have to now be a better negotiator and work to get an owner the bang for the buck. I have to now help sell tables and do everything in my power to promote those shows on my MySpace, Facebook and Twitter pages.”

Across the board, all DJ fees are still considerably higher than they were five years ago, but the tier below someone like Reach is experiencing a bit less of a gut punch. Danny Stern, a Miami DJ who has standing gigs at the Delano Miami on Friday nights and Shore Club on Sundays and Segafredo on Saturdays, says neither he nor his DJ friends have been asked or forced to drop rates. Stern’s fees run between $300 and $800 a night.

“My fees have stayed the same in this economy and, if anything, have increased,” Stern offers. “There’s still a demand for nightlife and a demand for music. The difference between someone like Paul Oakenfold and myself is that he may charge $20,000 for an hour. I would imagine his rates have come down. There is still a huge draw for him, but with this economy, to pay someone $50,000 a night is difficult. People are not spending the way they once were in the clubs.”

To get these big names at a competitive price with the current state of bottle service, some operators are supplementing rates with bonuses. “This economy has absolutely had an effect on us,” says Wang. “I’ve become creative, and while I don’t want to give away secrets, I will say I am offering different forms of additional compensation for lower rates. This could be perks like hotel rooms, or I might offer a multiple day booking deal.”

DJs also are being repped by agents more often today, and some actually are stepping into that role. Roongsak Griffeth, more commonly known as DJ Roonie G, now fronts Video Assassins, a video DJ booking agency. The firm represents DVDJ Unique, DVDJ G-Funk, DJ Steel, Don Lynch, Mike Baroody and Kris P, among others, negotiating fees of $1,000 to $5,000 per event, along with other perks, like equipment.

“Video mixing is more technically demanding [than solely mixing audio], so there is more equipment needed. Many times, it’s more efficient for the club to provide that versus my dragging it with me and taking a chance of damaging equipment on the road,” he says, adding: “It only makes sense to have travel, rooms and meals covered, just like any artist. [Negotiating such things is] nothing new, but I think we are definitely seeing more of it for DJs.

“DJs are becoming more and more like artists, and it is always good for the artist/VJ to keep the focus on the art form while the agency focuses on the bookings,” he says.

Marketing Matters
With more than 11 million visitors recorded by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority between January and April 2009, Las Vegas is where you will find celebrity DJs most frequently — and with good reason.

“The difference between here and everywhere else in the U.S. is that our customers are tourists and their tastes in music vary greatly. If you are in L.A. or Chicago, your crowd is roughly the same every week,” Wang says. “In Vegas, every place has a strong DJ, but it’s a matter of finding a balance of the big name and strong talent. Talent is overall more important [than celebrity status]. DJs like Vice and AM are ones that can pull off name recognition and talent. They are here, and they should be.”

The challenge of finding the right combination of talent and celebrity is one that club owners face frequently. Simply booking a DJ because he or she is a “name” can leave patrons less than satisfied.

“You can bring in a celebrity and have them just stand there, but if you bring in a celebrity DJ, he or she had better deliver,” Wang advises. “If you get a great celebrity DJ, generally that person is going to have his or her friends come in. Then you have celebrities in your club for free, not because you hired them. We brought in Jermaine Dupri, for example, and Tyrese came with him and actually got up to perform a song.”

Such is often the case in Hollywood, but club owners there now find the market losing DJ talent to Vegas and are hard-pressed to compete for top DJs because of the super-sized fees. Chris Breed is a nightclub mogul in Hollywood, developing the scenes at Halo, Green Door and Cabana Club, all in Los Angeles. “I believe most of the celebrity DJs these days are going to Las Vegas,” Breed admits, “but if they are in town here, they sometimes come out to play. Back in the day when I booked AM it was $300. Now he wants $5,000, and I cannot afford that for a night.”

This doesn’t mean you won’t catch a celebrity set early in the a.m. hours at Green Door, though, because Breed leverages cultivated relationships. “A lot of the clubs here are run by promoters,” he says, “and the right promoters will bring the hip crowd. But Sam Ronson really likes hanging out at Green Door because her friends do. So when she is in town, she might come play. It’s not the money she’s used to making, but it’s where she wants to be.

“There are tons of really talented DJs on the market,” he continues. “They are trying to make a name for themselves, and remember, these younger kids are going to be the ones creating the next new wave of music. My advice is to get them in your place. You will then be the lucky one who found them before they get dragged off to Vegas.” NCB

Insider's View

For insights on how venue operators can make the most of the current DJ trends, Nightclub & Bar talked with Nick James Hahn, director of marketing and distribution for Promo Only Inc., the Orlando-based provider of music and video content to professional DJs and entertainment venues. Prior to joining Promo Only in 2006, Hahn was DJ, national trainer and head of marketing for Pioneer’s USA Pro DJ Division for six years.

NCB: What does the rise of celebrity DJs do to the industry overall? Does it make it harder for an aspiring DJ who may be talented but isn’t dating someone famous or hanging out with celebs?
Hahn: I would say yes, to a point. Just because someone DJs at a high-profile Las Vegas, New York City or L.A. club and is dating a tabloid celeb [doesn’t mean it will be quality; it] could mean you and your patrons might be in for a long and disappointing evening that can sound very amateur-ish.

I’d also like to point out that there are some “Hollywood DJs” who are talented ... Steve Aoki and DJ AM are good examples. There are far more folks who made it without the celebrity endorsements, though, like Z-trip, Bad Boy Bill, Dean Coleman, Tommie Sunshine, Monk, co-founder of Rabbit in The Moon, Las Vegas favorite Scotty Boy and many more who started off working either mobile gigs or at local clubs. They scratched (pun intended) and clawed their way to touring the country and the world by possessing a love for the music, technical know how, the ability to read a crowd’s reaction to music and, for some, production credits and marketing sense.

NCB: What should club owners do when booking a celebrity DJ to ensure that they get the most out of them — a great night for patrons and the most bang for the buck?
Hahn: Club owners should first look at the appeal of the DJ. Are the locals aware of that DJ? What type of music does this DJ play and does it fit with the current format of the club? If you are looking to expand your market and grab new patrons, grass roots marketing describing the night and the DJ are musts. Facebook and MySpace are obvious tools, but hitting local forums and increasing word-of-mouth advertising still works by bringing out the heads.

Tie the night in with a theme. Frat house, keg on the floor seems to be the latest trend and, to be honest, it’s a lot of fun. It pokes at the bottle service movement. In Tampa, there’s a night called Filthy Richard at CZAR where attendees can purchase pint-size bottles for a reasonable price ($13), served in brown paper bags while watching and dancing to alternative and mainstream videos. Folks come out in droves because they can afford to, and the spectacular entertainment is worth the small price of admission. Repeat business and customer satisfaction is the point, right?
NCB: What are rates now being charged by celebrity, tabloid-worthy DJs?
Hahn: I’ve seen DJs charge anywhere from $5,000 to $40,000, depending on the night, the size of the venue and crowd, ticket price and their own availability. Owners and operators should remember to correlate admission prices and expected drink revenues with the cost of bringing in any talent. Hollywood types might not be worth the expense overall. You might have some local, undiscovered, hard-working talent who has the “moxy” to tear up your club with his work ethic, skills and musical adaptability. Ask for a demo and if it sounds clean, see what type of networking this person may have with the local population. You may not need a big name.
NCB: Are DJ rates rising or falling since the economy has taken a hit?
Hahn: Without a doubt, rates are falling. Clubs just don’t have the budget to pay these, in most cases, over-inflated prices. I’ve seen most DJs take it in stride and work with the owners to achieve a mutually beneficial arrangement. Start by asking the cost and then work from there. Provide a smaller guarantee and a portion of drink revenues. Be creative.

Laws of Attraction

Sujit Kundu is the president/owner of SKAM, an artist management company servicing New York, Miami and Hollywood. Working with dozens of DJs, Kundu has a good handle on what attracts them to a particular club and what turns them off. Making your venue a place a DJ is dying to spin takes some investment, but it’s worth a lot of money to the bottom line when you succeed. Kundu shared his top picks for features that will entice a recognizable DJ to solicit a club owner for a night to play.

1. A good sound system
We reached out to DJ Reach to inquire about this one, and found out his faves include the Technics SL-1200 turntable, the Rane TTM 57 mixer and a Shure needle.

2. Strategic positioning of the DJ booth and the dancefloor
A DJ booth should be located where the DJ can thrive off the energy of the crowd, and the dancefloor should offer ample room to move accordingly to the type of music being played.

3. A good-looking crowd and a hot party
This goes beyond enforcing a dress code, but that applies as well. Utilize promoters to create a night that has a consistent crowd and a great vibe. Make sure your DJ will take something from and give something back to that particular crowd.

4. Consider logistics
This is known as routing. If a DJ has a show in Los Angeles on Friday and your club is in San Diego, then you might appeal to him or her for that prior Thursday night. Particularly in this economy, logical bookings benefit everyone. But you can only offer him or her that slot if you are keen to the booked L.A. gig in the first place, so keep your ears open.

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