The unstoppable rise of social media DJing

Are we seeing the latest evolution of DJ culture? We explore the challenges and opportunities of this massive recent trend.

The past two years have changed the way we connect, replacing social contact with social media. Internet usage has surged by up to 70%, with many more people spending hours on TikTok, falling into YouTube rabbit holes or discovering their new favourite streamer on Twitch. As more people than ever turn to the internet for entertainment, and the post-covid climate continues to be digitally-driven, new ways of DJing and reaching an audience have emerged. Although the use of digital platforms isn’t a new phenomena for dance music culture—Calvin Harris was originally picked up on MySpace, for example—the covid situation has super-charged this trend.

The opportunities of social media DJing are abundant, but there are also plenty of challenges. Algorithms, audience growth and monetisation are just a few of the things DJs need to navigate in order to thrive. There is also a rumbling debate over the legitimacy of social media DJs that shrouds even the most successful. With such fundamental shifts recently taking place, should we broaden the way we think about DJing?

Social media platforms like YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and Twitch provide immediately accessible opportunities to build one’s audience, skills and confidence. This was the case for both Jovynn and DJ Love, who both chose TikTok to begin their DJ journeys. “I realised I could contribute to the community as a DJ by creating mashups/sound edits so [the audience] could use them to spark their own ideas,” Jovynn said. Originally beginning as a general content creator, as her platform grew she picked up skills, which has since resulted in her account growing to over eight million followers.

Jovynn’s realisation of what the community enjoys echoes DJ Love’s decision to use TikTok. “I will never not go on about how insane that thing is,” he said. “I picked it for my streams due to its algorithm and just didn’t really feel the same love on other platforms that I get on there.”

Algorithms offer potential to immediately go viral. But they’re also a very real threat to a DJ’s shelf life. Chris Luno, who took his existing DJ career onto YouTube and regularly garners hundreds of thousands of views per video, emphasised this. “Pro: the algorithm knows exactly what I want to hear,” he said. “Con: The algorithm knows exactly what I want to hear.” 

Algorithms learn viewership habits and consequently push similar content to audiences that should, in theory, enjoy it. Whilst this can benefit the audience, creators may feel that they’re under pressure to reproduce content that the algorithm knows would fit their viewership. Producing different content might mean a drop of engagement. The algorithm may then assume audiences are no longer interested in a creator’s work and reduce its promotion of their channel. This can be detrimental to those who turned to social media as a form of income due to the pandemic.

Regardless, social media can be a vital tool for DJs who’ve been in the industry for years and are looking to expand their audience, such as Jodie Weston, a house DJ who has over 130,000 Instagram followers and hosts a show on Flex FM. “I utilise Instagram to put a face to a name, to interact and further build my fanbase. I also used it to put up videos of me DJing throughout the pandemic,” she said.

During the pandemic, the duo SOFI TUKKER, best known for their tracks “Drinkee” and “Awoo,” expanded their social media presence from Instagram to Twitch, considering it an important platform for live streaming their DJ sets. “It is great to build community because of the chat function and audience-building functionalities,” they said.

Doni Brasco, who started his career in pirate radio, managed to reach a global audience via Twitch, which he also turned to because of the pandemic. “It has been best for virtual gigs,” he said. “It’s allowed me to grow a loyal fanbase, especially over the lockdown where I was streaming almost every day. It incorporates fun ways for the viewers to interact with me: through commands, a chat box and by gifting bitties—which is almost like tipping. It’s a real music-geek-meets-tech-geek platform, with the ability to incorporate special personalised touches.”

Income has been sparse for DJs over the past two years, but features such as tipping on Twitch and TikTok’s Creator Fund have benefitted many. On the surface, earning money on social media sounds great. “I can start earning some form of money for literally doing what I love, even if it’s just a few pounds at the moment,” said DJ Love. 

Unfortunately, though, “a few pounds” is relevant here. “With Twitch the payout can be minimal after the taxes are applied and you have to declare your earnings as income,” Doni explained. He also highlighted the difficulty to monetise in the first place. To begin earning money on Twitch it’s suggested that you need around 500 regular viewers. “It requires hours a day of virtual streaming,” he said. However, once you have that viewership, larger creators can be looking at earning significant money from a potentially global audience.

Audience growth is another huge draw for DJs on social media, allowing those who’ve been DJing for some time to reach corners of the earth they’d never have dreamed about at the beginning of their career. “You can be exposed to a fan base from around the world,” Jodie said. She does, however, note the flip-side of this. “You cannot bring all of those people physically together in one room as they are from different countries. Regardless, it is great to fill in downtimes where you don’t have as many gigs, or during the pandemic, and keep your fans interested in you and your life.”

Online success, however, is often accompanied with negative perceptions and the downplaying of one’s achievements. This seems especially true for those who use TikTok: despite being able to attract thousands of people watching your every move, the suggestion is that it’s less credible than filling a club. “People are quick to assume that we’re doing nothing, but someone who knows about [traditional] DJing wouldn’t appreciate the art of understanding how to play to an online crowd,” Jovynn said. 

DJ Love elaborated: “There seems to be a sort of stigma against TikTok in the DJ community. I do, however, feel like this is easy to overcome. I’m hoping to be an example of how you can just use it to promote a normal career. There’s no shame in it really; I’d be mixing for hours everyday anyway, so why not let people listen in while I do it?”

“People used to hustle selling CDs on the street and now they hustle on social media—it’s just a way to get eyeballs or ears on your art or your skills,” said SOFI TUKKER. “It doesn’t matter how you get your foot in the door: if you’re good, you’re good.”

There’s also the general perception that DJs on social media are less capable, a point Jodie picked up on. “There definitely are some people who go on a TV show or two and then decide that they’ll become a DJ because it’s ‘cool,’” she said. “It does make it a million times more frustrating for people like me who have put in the time, effort and money with the sole aim of becoming a genuinely good—and popular—DJ. I know my genre well, and I’m always looking for the best new tracks, supporting house producers who have a few hundred following them as well as those who have a 100,000-strong following. I wish people would do the same and not judge me. I don’t follow trends or listen to other people’s radio shows and copy them, I play what I think sounds great and have a very loyal fanbase on my radio show who then come and watch me play out because they like me as a DJ. It’s not a one size fits all: you can’t put everyone who has come from a certain background into one bracket.” 

“Music lovers and promoters have discovered me and my mixes that would’ve most likely never known I existed if I’d gone a purely traditional route,” DJ Love said.  

In several cases, online success has meant real life opportunities. Jovynn has just played her first international gig, in Dubai, which she secured during the pandemic through her TikTok. “Putting yourself out there online could bring you lots of monetary opportunities, whether that’s music promotions, brand deals or gigs,” she said. 

“Before I went viral on YouTube, mainly my friends were vibing on the dance floor. Now it’s strangers plus my friends,” Chris said, illustrating the success that online growth can also bring to established DJs.

Combined with online growth, social media allows DJs to connect with their audience on a personal level, rather than being viewed as a faceless jukebox.“We aren’t just DJs, we are people,” said Tukker of SOFI TUKKER. “We have been able to share not just our music but also how we think, how we are, how we communicate and the dynamic between us, more intimately and in more detail than we could if people only experienced us while on stage.” 

Doni echoed this: “Social media has allowed people to get to know me as a person as opposed to just the DJ. On Twitch, I was able to speak to my viewers about real life issues I have faced, and barriers I have had to overcome daily.” 

Whilst connecting with your audience is a benefit of social media, playing for them through a screen is much different from the experience of playing in the club. “It’s definitely another ballgame,” Jodie said. Having started out years ago playing for free in some “really grotty bars,” she did note that playing on live radio during the pandemic was an interestingly different challenge in order to work out how to hold a listener’s attention for two hours.

The online sphere, however, has been transferrable to real life for some. “It’s definitely aided my confidence playing in front of people,” said DJ Love. “I try to actively speak with those in my livestreams in the same way that an old pirate radio station would do shoutouts, but when that’s not possible in real life, it’s made me so much more comfortable just having a dance whilst mixing.”

“In my opinion it hasn’t been any different than playing to a TikTok crowd,” Jovynn said, days after her Dubai gig. “There’s just more real life interactions and examinations involved. It definitely requires a lot more observation towards the crowd’s reaction to your music. If you see them vibing, then you’re doing the right thing. If not, you’ll probably have to switch to an alternative genre. It also requires a little bit of studying of the country, event and crowd you’re playing for beforehand.”

Should we consider social media and real life DJing in the same way? After all, each requires different skillsets. Jovynn viewed it as “like being in an art exhibition with different aesthetics in each corner—you’d still consider each of them an artist. They’ve all just got different work.” 

“If your DJ career is solely posting videos for content then you still are a DJ, but that cannot compare to a performer with years of party rocking, or a competition level turntablist,” said Doni. “Everyone has their place, and it would be lovely to have individual terms to describe the styles —bring on the subculture talk—but I also believe the way the world is now, we have to master many skills to be successful.”

There has also been debate over whether the DJ is actually someone who plays and mixes live. “Some social media DJs don’t play live,” said Jodie. “However, I always have done and always will do, so I don’t think where you come from, or how long you’ve been doing it, dictates your skills or talent as a DJ. If you can hold a crowd, play good tracks and mix live then I think you should be able to class yourself as one.”

It might be most appropriate to say that DJing can be many different things to many different people. For some, you’re a DJ as long as you’re somehow performing, yet for others you only qualify as a DJ once you’ve cracked vinyl, like “back in the day.” It could be argued that simply referring to someone as a DJ doesn’t take in the multiplicity of the term these days. 

After all, as Doni noted, society now forces us to master many skills, with social media simply being another ingredient in the recipe for success. “Being able to keep your crowd consistently happy over hours is as valuable as making eyes light up for a 30-second video, it’s all part of the puzzle,” he said.

Where will the ever-developing sphere of social media shift DJ culture to next? The idea of “evolution” was constantly referenced by the people I spoke to. Whilst in-person gigs aren’t going anywhere, there is a strong suggestion that DJ culture may become a hybrid between the offline and online worlds. 

“Being a DJ has become so accessible to anyone that wants to give it a shot, which I love to bits,” said DJ Love. “I just hope that everyone that becomes one has a genuine passion for it and enjoys what they do.” 

“The industry is getting quite saturated, especially since the pandemic, so I do think it will become more about your following and how important it is to have a fan base,” said Jodie. “However, there will also have to be genuine talent for DJing and crowd reading in there. I don’t think people should be so against DJs with large social media followings because the world is becoming so social media-oriented, but I do think a mix is needed of long established DJs who have been doing it for over ten years and DJs with online fans who will buy tickets to see them play live because they play great tracks as well.”

“The world of DJing is going to become a lot more diverse and inclusive and that excites me the most,” said Sofi of SOFI TUKKER. In addition to social media, we will likely see new DJs exploring the upcoming metaverse and digital realms. Jovynn noted this exploration, alluding to an increased uptake in virtual gigs, which give audiences the option to view “on demand.”

“I would love to see DJs become creators and be able to monetise their content,” Doni said. “NFTs are very interesting and having pieces owned and transferred for revenue is the new future.”

Chris elaborated on this: “Maybe we’ll be trading crypto currencies against virtual dance moves, so our super rare NFT avatars can pretend to have a good time in the metaverse,” he laughed. “Man, that would be so lame.” Lame for some, but in the digital era some may view this type of thing as a legitimate possibility.

“DJing is, and will always remain, an important part of music culture,” Doni said. “I believe whilst we evolve the art into the virtual world it will always exist in the physical world. The future will be hybrid, and so long as you are able to keep your foot in both worlds, a good DJ will always be able to wow a crowd no matter the realm.”

Words: Niamh Ingram