10 things we learned about DJing in 2023

From mastering social media to studying our worst DJ gigs, here are some of the most important things we will take away from this year.

When it comes to acquiring new skills and ideas, the modern world gives us basically infinite possibilities. The opportunities to learn and to teach have never been greater, and this only increases with each passing year. But the enormous advantages of our current age can be overwhelming. How do we make sense of all this information? Are we absorbing ideas and learning? Or are we “consuming content”?  

It often pays to take a breath and reflect, so we decided to look back on what we published in 2023 and offer you 10 of the key takeaways. Some of these points feel very 2023. The way we talk about technology and social media might have felt far off a year ago, and will, of course, be dated before long. Other points are more timeless, serving as welcome reminders rather than new information. In these cases, it’s interesting to consider new angles and possibilities on the things we think we already know. 

On behalf of everyone at Pioneer DJ, thank you for reading in 2023. We’ll be returning in early next year with “10 ways to up your DJ game in 2024.” 


Many DJs will tell you that they’ve always fancied learning to scratch. After all, scratch and turntablism mastery still represent the peak of DJ technique. But the scratch world can be daunting for beginners. You see videos of virtuosic performances at world championships and think, “Ah, I could never do that.”  

In challenging Vanessa Maria, a DJ with no prior experience, to come up with a scratch routine after just 12 hours of tutoring and practice, we wanted to try and break down some of these barriers. With help from UK scratch legend Cutmaster Swift, Vanessa threw herself into the task and emerged 12 hours later with a routine that would have been hard to imagine the day before. Sure, not everyone gets to have a former DMC champion as their tutor. But Vanessa’s quick and impressive progress shows how much technique boils down to a willingness to show up and get stuck in. 

2. Unlocking the special potential of the occasion

Great DJs are chameleonic: they change style to suit their environment. The house party is an ideal example of this. As we talked about in our guide to playing house parties, the rules of club mixing and track selection mostly don’t apply here. Musically, almost anything could happen. House parties require DJs to detect subtle cues—someone tapping their foot, people shouting over the music—and respond decisively. 

As one of the smallest possible DJ gigs, house parties allow us to look at crowd dynamics and environments as if under a microscope. Who is here? What do they like? What sounds good in this room? The answers to these questions become more general as the size of the venue and the crowd increases, but they can still form a fundamental part of your process. “As with any DJ gig,” we said, “the more you unlock the special potential of the particular setting and occasion, the better the experience will be for you and everyone else there.” 

3. How ChatGPT can help DJs and producers 

This time last year many of us hadn’t even heard of ChatGPT; a year on, it’s the fastest-growing consumer app in history, with millions of people now using it every day as a kind of digital assistant in their personal and professional lives. David Boyle, a marketing expert with a background in music, sensed the possibilities of ChatGPT early. He co-wrote a book in the space of a month (a fact he attributes to his use of ChatGPT) called PROMPT for Musicians, in which he outlines how ChatGPT can help make most things on the modern artist’s to-do list “better, clearer, quicker and more fun.” 

The gist is that even if you’re a semi-serious artist or DJ, there are will be mundane tasks that can be offloaded or significantly speeded up by using ChatGPT. There are chapters in PROMPT on understanding your audience, planning releases and creating marketing assets, while the book also suggests how ChatGPT could be used to shape a DJ set, write chord progressions or pen lyrics. As we discussed with David, the emergence of AI has raised many difficult questions related to copyright, plagiarism, misinformation and job losses. But it also has many enormous advantages. “With AI we absolutely should spend time on all these concerns and challenges and take them seriously,” David said. “But if you’re trying to market your music release, you should use AI. I think we have that uncomfortable tension where we should do both.”

 4. (A reminder about) The importance of knowing your music

This year we put out an open call on our social media asking, “What advice would you offer to new DJs?” Amazingly, almost 400 people responded. We summarised the key themes in an article, and it was striking how timeless the advice felt. “Be yourself.” “Play for the crowd (not yourself).” “Backup your music.” But the point that people kept coming back to, time and again, was: “Know your music.” 

This was so self-evidently true to the people who offered the advice that no one explained why it’s important. So we tried to:

“As DJs, we play a certain track at a certain moment because we believe it will create a certain feeling on the dance floor. We don’t always get this right—the response might be nothing like we anticipated. But when we know our music well, we should more frequently get the dance floor outcome we expected… 

“Beyond the track’s overall mood and affect, knowing your music also means you should have a sense of its key events. Things like breakdowns, the arrival of a vocal, a song’s bridge, an unexpected tempo shift, tracks that fade in or fade out—this is all crucial information that will shape how you mix, sequence, create loops and so on.” 

Even if you’re an experienced DJ, it might be worth periodically (re)asking yourself: How well do I know my music?

5. The rise of “drop videos” are a mixed a blessing

“Drop videos”—that is, videos that capture the biggest moments of a set, with the crowd at maximum excitement—are without doubt now a fundamental part of DJ culture. If you use social media to follow club music, it’s become next to impossible to avoid them. When we spoke to a range of music industry figures about their rise, it was surprising to learn just how complex this seemingly simple phenomenon is. 

“Drop videos” can be fantastically entertaining. They distil some of the best aspects of DJing and dancing into bitesize form. They’re a high-impact, low-cost marketing tool for DJs. And they showcase music at a time when producers have never earned less from their output.   

But there has been plenty of pushback. Some people are concerned that this type of social media hype risks rewarding the creation of “big moments” over all else. DJs who aim to create subtly evolving dance floor journeys feel like they’re being sidelined. It’s possible that important aspect of the artform is being eroded. 

We learned that there are no easy answers here. “Drop videos” will almost certainly be a debate that continues across 2024 and beyond.

6. The finger drumming community is growing 

If you’re looking for ways to differentiate yourself as a DJ, consider joining the growing community of finger drummers. This technique has been around for at least a couple decades. But in 2023 it hit new heights, thanks to the rise of short-form video, the proliferation of performance pads on DJ controllers, and highly visible practitioners like Fred again.. and Beats by Jblack.

Unlike other areas of DJing and live electronic performance, audiences can quickly understand—and be excited by—what a finger drummer is doing, as they rhythmically tap those pads. The ever-looming online metrics back this up, with clips of virtuosic finger drumming racking up millions of views.

“I have noticed an incremental increase in demand on behalf of promoters for more live elements in lineups,” Spinscott told us in our exploration of the past, present and future of finger drumming. “And I expect this trend to continue as fans move away from pre-recorded, automated, and fully synchronized sets. Finger drumming will continue to be a great way to blend the excitement of live musicianship with the art of DJing.”

7 . For many music industry jobs, hands-on experience is still best

This point was emphatically made to us by three leading industry professionals this year. Wayne “Rabbit” Sergeant, a sound engineer whose clients have included Calvin Harris, Swedish House Mafia, Dizzee Rascal and fabric, told us that for people wanting to break into his field, “I still think practical experiences are really, really beneficial… I suppose a good way to get involved is if you have a club locally. A music venue or a nightclub. Just go in there and knock on the door and offer some help.” 

Cass Irvine and Kevin Grainger, mixing and mastering engineers whose combined client list includes Fisher, Camelphat, Charli XCX and Galantis, said something similar. Asked if they prioritise people with formal education, Kevin said, “No, not bothered [about that] at all.” They explained that passion, dedication and professionalism, along with some knowledge of mixing and mastering, is what they’re looking for. As our working lives become increasingly automated and conducted online, the lesson here is that soft skills and getting your hands dirty still matter.

8. We learn more from our worst DJ gigs than our best

Have you ever woken up at 4 AM in a cold sweat thinking about a bad mix you did last year? How about that recent track selection that cleared the dance floor? As DJs, even mediocre gigs can haunt us—let alone our worst ones. So the idea of focussing on and unpacking our worst DJ gigs can at first feel icky. 

But as we suggested at the time, “The first step to learning from this experience is acceptance… Now you’ve acknowledged this, you can reflect on what exactly went wrong… Some of these self-assessments might be unfair, but by thinking back through the set you should notice the things that felt off. Work on these weak points for next time.” 

To an enormous extent, DJing is a psychological tussle with ourselves. If we only focus on the positives, the danger is that we inflate our egos and miss valuable opportunities for growth. So hold your nose and open the lid on some of those bad DJ memories. You’ll be glad you did.

9. The pillars of social media success

Even DJs who we might call “social media successes” can find the process overwhelming. There’s the ongoing demand to serve up engaging content for your fans, which in turn can influence your bookings. Using social media can create negative patterns of thinking, as you compare yourself to other DJs and fall into the “grass is always greener” fallacy. And as we mentioned above in discussing “drop videos,” there can be a flattening effect where everyone’s content starts to look the same. But does it need to be this way? 

This year we studied artists who are social media masters to see what we could learn. In all cases, their social media felt like extensions of their overall creativity, with platforms not used just as marketing tools but as canvases for creative expression. “To thrive in the digital sphere, you need to carve a unique path,” we said. “Anticipate some challenges. Know that it won’t always be smooth sailing, but these hurdles are valuable opportunities for personal growth and skill development. Take inspiration from the artists we’ve discussed but don’t aim for mere imitation. Adapt their principles to align with your individual story. Even if it’s on a far smaller scale, your relationship with social media can be just as rewarding as theirs.” 

10. How to get DJ gigs

Who better to answer this question than the people who book DJs? We asked promoters from across the globe what they’re looking for when they book new DJs. How do you land gigs in venues that you actually want to play in and for promoters you want to work with? How can you stand out in a scene that’s already heaving with up-and-comers? How do you reach out to bookers and promoters in the first place? Do you have to produce music, in addition to DJing, to make a strong first impression? How do you get club bookings without the experience of playing in a club? Is talent as important as online clout?

There was a lot to cover. The bookers we spoke to couldn’t offer blanket advice and there were, of course, differences of opinion. But some key themes did emerge. Be honest with yourself about how good you are. Reflect on your motivations. Think closely about your online presence—but don’t worry too much about “the numbers.” Approach promoters respectfully. If you’re a DJ looking to secure more bookings, we hope that the comprehensive advice here will serve as a useful guide as we move into 2024.

Text: Ryan Keeling