Sun Tzu: The Art of DJing (Pt1)

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June 16, 2015 by DJ Elroy

If you’re not “making it” as a DJ, maybe you need to change your outlook and your approach. Think of it as a war. After all, you’re competing with every other DJ for a very limited number of available slots at clubs or even listening time for your mixes. I’m not sure how much of a stretch this comparison is, but if the reaction here is good I’ll dig deeper into the Art of War lessons.

Sun Tzu says “War is a matter of vital importance … it should be thoroughly studied … Appraise it in terms of five fundamental factors: Moral Influence, Weather, Terrain, Command, and Doctrine.”

How does this apply to DJing? If you plan on taking your music beyond the bedroom and turn it into more than a hobby, you’ll want to reappraise the direction you’re going.

Moral Influence is that “which causes people to be in harmony with their leaders”. And as a DJ, you’re in control of the playlist. You’ve got to “lead” listeners on a journey through sound. You’ll first need to build a fanbase by delivering a quality product (live shows, mixes, and singles) and through interaction. DJs can’t sit in their tower and wave to the common-man below anymore; they need to mingle with the fans and build true grass-roots support. Your fans need to trust you.

Weather is the “interaction of natural forces”. It doesn’t need to be taken literally if you’re applying it to your music career, but what are some of the “natural forces” in the industry? What are some of the things that are beyond your control? How about music fads? Trap? Moombahton? Even dubstep? How do you handle the ups and downs of what’s hot? Can you survive and adapt as a DJ when the music you love suddenly isn’t popular anymore?

Terrain: Again, a literal interpretation doesn’t work here. Will your path be “traversed with ease or difficulty…” and what are your chances of success (or failure)? Do some research to find out what’s ahead. What type of gear will you be using? What type of crowd? Age? Taste? A little forethought and research before you start moving can help you to avoid missteps in your career path and setbacks of your brand.

Command: Work on improving your “qualities of wisdom, sincerity, humanity, courage, and strictness.” A wise DJ is “able to recognize changing circumstances and act expediently.” On a small scale this is about reading the crowd and deciding what to play next. On a bigger scale it’s about reading the direction of the nightlife scene and the music industry and making the smartest business decisions possible. A sincere DJ is one that appreciates his fans and isn’t afraid to apologize for an “off night” or a stupid Twitter comment. A humane DJ works well with others and “appreciates their industry and toil”. Remembering fans is great, but just as important is treating the promoters, the club staff, and other DJs. Being courageous means “seizing opportunity without hesitation”. Some argue that there’s no such thing as being in the right place at the right time; they’ll say instead that it’s all about the hustle, networking, recognizing an opportunity and grabbing it. Strictness can be taken two ways: When dealing with others, be fair but be firm. And don’t forget to keep yourself in check; one night of too much partying (especially while you’re performing) can be devastating to your brand and reputation.

Doctrine is the “organization, control, and assignment” of duties. Until you hit the big time, you’ll probably be doing most of the logistical work of promoting your brand yourself. As it true for most self-employed work, this is where most people fall short and eventually fall out of the game.

“Those who master [these five matters] win; those who do not are defeated.”

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