5 Life Lessons I Learned From Being a DJ
The author on the decks at Transmission at the Parlour, c. 2002-2003
From the personal collection of Liz Ohanesian
It sounded like a joke. There was no way that my favorite DJ, Jason Lavitt, was trying to reach me. He was the tall guy in the booth who would make us dance at the goth club Helter Skelter, with big helpings of Marc Almond and a dash of The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack. I was just an anonymous girl in black, on a dance floor that was always veiled in red lights and cigarette smoke.
After a few rounds of phone tag, though, we spoke. I wrapped and unwrapped the phone cord nervously, staring at the glossy goth magazine photos of boys who looked like Bowie on my dorm room wall.
He heard the radio show that I did once a week during morning drive time on KXLU and thought I would make a great guest DJ at this new party he was getting ready to launch in Hollywood, called Coven 13.
That night at Coven 13 in 1997 wasn't my first club gig, but it was the first time I played in a venue that wasn't mostly empty. I was so green that I didn't know what to do when sound problems arose — which, of course, happened. I was terrified, but still cued up a record and let it go. The shaking stopped. I played the set and ended with sweaty hair, runny eyeliner and cramps in my high-heeled legs. I thought I was terrible, but I got through it.
For reasons I will never understand, Jason and his Coven 13 co-promoter, Joseph Brooks, asked me to come back. Soon I was regularly DJing for them. In fact, I ended up being one of their go-to DJs for several years.
I played for other people, too, and my styles varied depending on the party. Some nights were goth and industrial. Others involved some mix of '80s, Britpop and indie. Later on, I got into electro with a touch of techno and house. I never toured, never played a festival and never released my own music. I did, however, have a few residencies, notably Bang! and Beat It. I promoted my own party, Transmission, at the now-defunct Parlour in West Hollywood. I got to warm up for Ladytron's DJ set at Bang! and dropped tracks between bands when The Faint hit the Troubadour.
It was an exciting time and the best education I had outside of college. Below, I'll share a bit of what I learned — and how it's all turned out to apply not just to working the dance floor but also to nearly every other aspect of my life.
1. Promotion is great, but you have to back up the self-hype.
I was 19 when I met Jason and, although I had been to plenty of clubs, I didn't understand how they worked. Fortunately, he taught me well. We spent a lot of time at local record stores, digging through bins for the coolest new and used finds that we could try out in our sets. We never exited the stores without leaving a stack of flyers.
Thanks to Jason, I learned that a party won't happen without promotion. More importantly, I learned that you have to back up what you say. If you're going to tell people to come to your gig, it has to be good.
At Coven 13 and Bang! (for which Jason and Joseph were also co-promoters), no detail was ignored. Everything from the flyers to the music to the projections followed specific aesthetics.
My DJ sets had to be top-notch. There's no slacking when you're expecting the club to hit capacity by midnight. You have to instinctively know what the crowd wants and give it to them over and over again. You have to practice and you have to constantly keep up on what's new and interesting.
When I started writing seriously, I took everything I learned about club promotion and applied it to my new ambition. I used social media early on to help get my name out onto the web. That helped me land assignments — but, like the clubs, I knew that this would only work if I could turn in a good story.
I practice by writing things that I doubt will ever be published. I read a lot and listen to people online and in person to spark ideas for new stories. I'm applying a lot of the same skills— from crate-digging to trend-spotting— to a different line of work.
2. Always be prepared for the worst-case scenario.
When you're a DJ, you get used to parties going awry. Sound problems are a given. When almost all of us were playing vinyl, they were particularly common. I learned to carry a survival kit with all the odds and ends that might not be in the booth.
Of course, there are other club disasters, too. There are nights when even heavy promotion can't bring in a crowd, and nights when there are so many people at the venue that the fire marshal shuts down the party. Club life is erratic, but so is regular life.
I'm pretty neurotic even when things go as planned, so the goal isn't to stay calm. However, I have spent enough time troubleshooting to know not to enter a situation without Plans B, C and D ready to go into action as soon as I stop panicking.
3. Never rely on past success.
Coven 13, Bang! and Jason's '80s party Beat It were all very popular clubs in their eras. Even my own night, Transmission, spent a short time packing people tightly into its home. I was used to playing for big crowds that hit the dance floor early and stayed there until after the lights were on and security started ushering people out the door.
I'm very proud to have been a part of some successful nights in Los Angeles, but those credits didn't guarantee future gigs. They didn't keep me from getting kicked off the decks at a downtown bar. They certainly didn't keep people from walking off the dance floor when I played something they didn't like.
A few good credits to your name might get your foot in the door, but it doesn't mean that you will get the job or keep it. It doesn't mean that people will automatically like your new venture. Ultimately, we have to start every new endeavor from scratch and never expect that your past will dictate your future.
4. Sometimes the compliments are as bad as the criticism.
There's no way you'll please everyone at the club. Some won't like the music you play because it's too mainstream. Some might think it's too underground. Others dislike the club because the crowd is too scene-y — or too normal. Then there are the people who will hate everything you ever play because you didn't bring the one song they requested.
On the other hand, the people who compliment you may not be sincere. They want to be your friend because you have a guest list and drink tickets. They're the ones who will take the free drink and not leave a tip for the bartender. Sometimes you ignore the obvious user behavior, because fake friends are better than no friends. But once the gigs dry up, they move on to someone else's guest list.
In the end, my problem was that I let my ego inflate to the size of a disco ball. Once that happened, I ignored the people who were trying to keep me in check. Eventually, I fucked up. One of those mistakes cost me a residency. After I got fired from that gig, things got so tense at my other residency that my sets suffered. I wasn't playing as well as I should have, so I left. Not long after that, I ended my own promotion, Transmission.
I did continue to DJ sporadically. Later on, I even had the chance to return to one of my old residencies for a couple fill-in slots. Things weren't the same — the music and crowd had changed, as had I — but it was fun to be there and good to know that my bad behavior hadn't permanently alienated people that I genuinely admired.
Just as you can't take criticism too seriously, it's important not to place too much weight on the compliments, either. I listened to what I wanted to hear instead of what I needed to hear, and I paid for it. In the end, I learned to trust only the opinions of those who are as willing to tell me that I screwed up as they are to say that I did a good job.
5. Appreciate the small wins.
I fell into DJing and, for a few years, gigs came my way without much effort. In fact, they came too easily. When things got tough, I couldn't keep my frustration in check. I didn't leave that world entirely, but I was no longer ambitious about it.
Writing, on the other hand, was always difficult. I didn't get many rejection emails because people just ignored me. A lot of times, they still ignore me. Anytime I send out a batch of pitches, which is almost daily, I do it knowing that at least one will get either no response or a negative one.
Despite the rejection, I never considered walking away from writing, because I remember the regret that haunted me after I ended Transmission. I was angry at myself for years because I didn't appreciate the amazing opportunities I had until they were gone. I wasn't raised to be a brat and couldn't believe that I had turned into one.
As a writer, I've learned to appreciate the small steps forward. Every new assignment is an opportunity to prove myself and a cause for personal celebration.
I feel the same way about DJing now. I don't do it that often. However, when I do get behind the decks, I think about how this is something that most people in this world will never do, and I try to make the most of the night. That feeling is liberating.
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