Kelly Meehan Brown
Every Sunday is Mike Gross’ payday. At 21 and just out of college, he sits in his apartment and counts his cash. Six hours of work over a weekend can bring him over $800. But what makes this even more surprising is that his gig as a wedding and event DJ is only his side hustle. He spends most of his week as an accountant for a shipping company based in Maryland.
Like Gross, I earned serious cash as a weekend and evening DJ. While my numbers weren’t as big as his, it helped me pay for my apartment, travel the world, and put down a sizable deposit on a new-to-me car.
Neither Gross nor I started out knowing how to set up speakers correctly or how to spin records. Frankly, I hadn’t touched a vinyl record since I was in elementary school. But I did know the music I loved to dance to. That gave me a leg up on the competition.
Many DJs start off with this passion. They enjoy going to clubs, taking modern dance classes, attending house parties, and so on. A good prospective DJ learns what gets people on (and off) the floor and picks up on song transitions, the vibe of different events, and how to hype on a microphone.
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However, behind the scenes, there is a lot more at work. DJs, even those side hustling, must come prepared with top-of-the-line equipment. Most setups cost between $2,000 and $3,000. That can be a hefty investment if you’re trying to work this job when you're in college or recently graduated, or if you’re strapped for funds.
Gross rents-to-own his $3,500 system (including speakers, microphones, lighting, tables, soundboards, and a Mac Book). He also insures the items for roughly $30 a month, having used the deductible to cover expenses like a blown speaker and a few microphones that went dead.
“If I had one piece of advice for future DJs, it would be to know what you’re paying for,” Gross says.
“Do your research or ask someone more experienced than you to talk you through your purchase. There are a lot of used pieces of equipment out there that you can piecemeal together, but I don’t recommend that unless you know the ins and outs.”
Learning How to Become a DJ
I learned how to do proper sound setups through music business courses. I also participated in a music business student union club. Plus, we took seminars on how and where to place speakers so that the floor doesn’t vibrate, as well as how to work in cavernous spaces. (You can often find online versions of such seminars and courses for cheap.)
Apprenticeship programs offer these skills for free. Before investing in equipment and setting out on his own, Gross worked weekends with a local DJ who taught him everything he knew in exchange for help setting up and tearing down.
“It was so valuable, even if it meant spending three months not being paid more than $20 a night,” he recalls. “I recommend this route for anyone who is interested in getting in the game.”
Keeping Finances in Order
Apart from technical knowledge and equipment, you’ll have to learn the business side. At 19, I had no idea how to market myself or find brides and grooms who would be interested. Most DJs pay to have their ads on Facebook, WeddingWire, The Knot, and Yelp.
They provide discounts for referrals and attend wedding shows. This all comes at a cost — around $100 for each customer that I eventually landed, by my estimates.
Gross used networking to get started, but he had more difficulty balancing his books and paying his quarterly independent contractor taxes (an important point to remember before starting any side hustle).
He was tripped up by the smaller expenses all DJs face, such as paying for specific songs couples wanted to hear, updating his technology, and transporting his gear. And that was just part of it.
When he worked as part of a group business of DJs, he had to pay fees to use their logos and receive referral contacts.
While becoming a DJ may sound like a hassle compared to other side gigs, it pays when you get in. An average wedding DJ might make between $500 and $1,500 per gig. The exact amount depends on your area, equipment quality, and reputation.
The time commitment is low at about four to six hours per night, and several consultations with the customers. Two years in, I was bringing in a net income of $600 per event. Meanwhile, Gross routinely clears $800 per event as a third-year professional DJ.
If you’re tech savvy, love the idea of getting a party started, and have the cash for the investment, DJ-ing may be the perfect side hustle to pad your wallet and get your name out there.