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Becoming a DJ: How my passion for music led me to my dream job

Gemma Edwards is a DJ, photographer, and blogger living in Southampton.

I was hugely engaged in Southampton’s alternative music scene as a teenager and spent my evenings sending the latest tracks back and forth between friends on MSN.

My school days were spent writing my favourite bands on my school back-pack in permanent marker because I couldn’t afford all the patches – I spent all my money on gigs and CDs.

My collection became huge, 100s of CDs and I also collected vinyl before begrudgingly moving over to MP3 (though I still have a CD player and my full collection now) and merging this with my growing love of photography.

As I approached college I started shooting photos of the bands I was seeing live locally and soon I was getting press passes for bigger shows and displaying my photos on my MySpace page.

Getting into the industry

I really wanted to get into the music industry, specifically magazines. When I was 17, I did a few weeks’ work experience with Rock Sound magazine (my favourite at the time). But as I got more interested in photography my attention turned from live bands to portraits.

Read more: How my music internship turned into a career

Finally, once my iPod was full with my favourite bands I felt like that was enough music for me. I loved the music I loved and I didn’t really need any more. I stopped buying CDs or really listening to anything new from around 2005 to 2007.

After studying photography at uni and spending a few years shooting for print magazines I became a staff photographer for alternative brand Suicide Girls in 2013.

Becoming a DJ

Become a DJ

I was very lucky that I ended up where I am with DJing and I definitely ‘fell into it’ without any kind of direction at the start.

It’s such a dream job I wouldn’t have ever felt good enough to approach it.

Some of my friends were running a local rock night and because that music is slightly more niche in the world of DJing, they felt it would be easier to recruit someone that knew the music, the locals and the ‘scene’ and simply teach them the DJing side.

Making a name for myself

At a basic level, it wasn’t too much to learn and after working with them for a year or so I soon made a name for myself as an alternative DJ. I performed at many of the biggest Alt nights across the UK in a number of different cities, as well as festivals like Slam Dunk, Bestival and most notably Download with alt brand Dis-Grace.

There is nothing quite like playing Slipknot to 6,000 people shouting it back at you whilst on a stage so big you can hardly see the faces in the crowd, surrounded by Suicide Girls breathing fire and operating angle grinders all around you. I now have my own decks and mostly work freelance at a number of student nights.

Overcoming challenges

My main challenge was being on stage, throughout an eight-year photography career I was very much used to being behind the lens so I found this role reversal really nerve-wracking.

A still ongoing challenge is keeping up with new music. When I first started there were quite a few really well-loved bands I’d never even heard of and some old favourites I had no idea were still going.

I try to take requests as much as possible and even if I don’t know the songs if something is repeatedly asked for that lets me know that it’s something I should definitely check out.

Keep the good vibe going

Fortunately, a lot of the work I do is heavily nostalgia-based and doesn’t rely too heavily on new music but more on variety. I don’t devise a setlist for my gigs as I am usually DJing for around five hours – I simply see where the night takes me and pick my songs based on the reactions as I go and reading the room.

If the crowd goes wild for a certain song it’s usually safe to play around with a few tracks from the same time or genre and then move on to try something slightly different.

You need to be able to keep the good vibe going whether there are six people there or 6,000, and I often have a variety of different people of different ages to keep dancing.

The late nights can be hard but thankfully I’m naturally more of a night owl, so being self-employed and able to organise my own schedule helps and sometimes I nap before work if it’s going to be a late one.

My advice for budding DJs

I now enjoy working a variety of nights, pop classics, 90s – 00s and still have my own rock night and future passion projects in the works.

My advice for newcomers would be that Youtube is your friend. There are so many tutorials that will help you get to grips with what you need to know and free software that replicates using decks so you don’t need much to get started.

I use Recordbox for organising my music after downloading from iTunes but there are simple programs like Virtual DJ that are great and intuitive for beginners. If you’re near London, Hub 16 in Shoreditch is great for group sessions or one-to-one support but if not then have a look around the colleges nearby.

Promote your work

If you have any friends that are DJs or involved in a club night then that’s a great start, but if not then try and put together your own mix that you could send to the sort of places you’d like to work – just 10 to 15 minutes is fine.

This is great practice and shows that you’re willing to learn as well as showing off what you can do.

I love my job and I still pinch myself that being a massive emo in my teens led me here, where people pay me to play the music I love to a like-minded audience.

For Gemma’s Instagram, visit @ItsGemmaEdwards

Charlotte Harding
Charlotte Harding
Charlotte is a journalist and the co-founder of The Women's Work Collective.


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