Is there anything more delicious and envy-inducing than poring over a “highest-paid DJs” list? The thought of earning millions by providing people with music to dance to — off a USB stick, no less — comes with its own special degree of fascination.
The truth is, the percentage of upper-echelon DJs annually earning seven-plus figures is tiny, about 1%. The next tier of DJs comes in at about 100 times less than that amount at minimum, according to an established promoter. Indeed, most DJs whose names grace the top half of festival flyers are earning a living wage — but only if they’re sensible.
Most DJs are generally stratified into earning $500/$2,000/$5,000/$10,000 per club gig and between $2,000/$5,000/$10,000/$25,000 per festival gig. Meanwhile, festival headliners can command over $100,000, with multiple factors contributing to this jump.
“At this level, performance fees aren’t always determined as a simple dollar value per show,” says Saleem Amode of Amode Agency regarding festival headliners. “Agents, promoters and artist teams evaluate metrics like touring history, ticket history [and] region exclusivity. Of course, the music and recent content comes into play to determine the estimated value and risk of a fee offer. The costs of putting on the event itself are the large[st] factor in determining the risk for the promoter.”
Such dollar amounts are also just gross earnings, before the DJ has paid their agent, manager, business manager, lawyer and flight and hotel costs — which are increasingly being covered by artists’ fees rather than the promoter. After taxes, a DJ’s net pay is often less than 40% of their fee.
“There is a public misunderstanding of how much money DJs are making,” says Orlando Higginbottom, professionally known as producer Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs. “You can do the math on the back of a postcard. If you’re a DJ who is grossing $20,000 a month, what you’re ending up with is $10,000. No one’s going to turn up their nose at that, but a $120,000 annual salary is not the celebrity lifestyle people think DJs are having. It’s not rich money. It’s not house (in L.A.) money. It’s rent money.”
These earnings also don’t come with health insurance, unemployment insurance, retirement plans, human resources support or even job security. “DJs are CEOs of their own company — even if no one views them that way,” says Higginbottom. As such, the unsexy parts of the business are often left to DJs to set up for themselves — or not.
This situation is not exclusive to DJs, but artists across the board. Steve Braines, who manages producer Maya Jane Coles, shares, “I took over a touring rock artist’s career and he filed for bankruptcy. During that time, he was still trying to buy jewelry and had never bought a house despite the huge amounts previously earned.
“There is a sense sometimes that the money will last forever,” Braines continues, “but it’s such a tiny percentage of touring artists that’s true of. DJs also have that same time period of being hot, and then it decays for many. If you can afford to buy a house, buy one, and also get a pension, just as a teacher, doctor or anyone else would. Ultimately, objectively, it’s a job, and the bank doesn’t care how you make your money.”
Though widespread touring has since resumed, the pandemic brought the instability of the profession into even sharper focus for a lot of DJs, particularly because many weren’t eligible for unemployment. Billboard spoke with several about how they’re working to establish a secure future for themselves — even if/when the money in their chosen field dries up.
Put your money in higher-yield accounts
As a headlining artist who says he’s very prudent with his money, 12th Planet (born John Dadzie) exercises the tried-and-true practice of putting aside 25% of his earnings. This percentage is put into certificates of deposit (CDs), which have a fixed term length that typically falls between three months and five years. Though most of these accounts assess penalties for withdrawing your money before the end of the term, they earn a higher interest rate than a conventional savings account. Other options are money market accounts that pay interest based on the market rate, or bonds, for which the issuer pays back the principal plus interest after a set time period.
“It took me a long time to learn that when your money just sits in the bank, you’re actually losing on it,” says Dadzie. “Once I learned that, I moved everything over to other types of accounts. I’m not doing anything aggressive. … I’d rather post a positive 1% or 2% than a negative risky 10%.”
After taking on a business manager early in his career and a wealth manager soon after, Dadzie began putting his money into individual retirement accounts (IRAs) and 401Ks, which are personal pension accounts. The funds in these types of accounts cannot be touched until maturity, which is usually what would be considered “retirement age.” He also recommends starting a retirement plan early, saying “Not only does that money go to you, but it also goes against taxes paid to the government and can move you from being in the highest tax bracket.”
Keep your overhead low
Jennifer Lee, professionally known as TOKiMONSTA, experienced not just the slowdown of the pandemic, but the slowdown of her entire life after brain surgeries to treat Moyamoya disease in 2016. Lee says keeping her spending in proportion to her earnings was a key factor in weathering these unforeseen occurrences.
“It’s being cognizant of how much money you’re making, and how much money you’re spending on a monthly basis,” she says. “A lot of very successful people spend a lot of money and have massive teams and multiple employees. People who have a high overhead are spending that money even when they’re not touring. My operation is fairly simple with two full-time employees. When I’m 60, I don’t know if I [will] want to, or will be able to, DJ every single weekend. I have to set up my whole lifestyle so I’m comfortable at that age.” (She adds that she’s also put her money in investment portfolios.)
Diversify your financial interests
Brothers Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, who have topped DJ Mag’s Top 100 DJs list multiple times — have diversified their finances into multiple arenas. Together, they have a company encompassing artist services, booking and management in a joint venture with their own manager, Nick Royaards, and Michiel Beers, the co-founder of Belgium mega-fest Tomorrowland. They also have their Smash the House record label and its various sub-labels, and each have their own clothing line and were early investors in esports and entertainment company FaZe Clan. Vegas’ particular funding focus is on content creation via his production company, which is focused on the development of films, television series, graphic novels and books.
“Most of my investments go to something I have control over,” says Vegas. “When the pandemic started, I was trying so many different things, because I was a bit scared shows weren’t coming back. There are a lot of people with beautiful decks and crazy ideas and promises. You need to be able to filter out what is going to work, and even then, it’s always risky. It’s about surrounding yourself with people who know what they’re doing or making sure you yourself know what you’re doing.”
Pioneering DJ Richie Hawtin famously invested in the electronic digital download store Beatport early on, a move he considers one of his best. Currently, his Plus8 Equity Partners venture capital firm, which he started with partners John Acquaviva and Rishi Patel, has an investment portfolio that includes Splice, Subpac, Landr, Lynq, Rap Tech Studios and other creative entertainment technology disruptors. As he puts it, the venture allows him to “re-invest back into our own culture.”
Barry Ashworth of Dub Pistols has had his share of financial knockbacks over his more than three-decade career. He went from a $1.5 million record deal for the second Dub Pistols album, Six Million Ways To Live and making $25,000 per remix — which he was doing at a clip of three a day — to his accounts being overdrawn.
After a five-year stretch of living gig-to-gig, Ashworth began making wiser moves, including starting up a healthy Dub Pistols merchandise business. This extends beyond conventional clothing and paraphernalia into a range of branded CBD oil, Minirig portable speakers and pale ale. The latter three items have a high sell-through rate and are manufactured, produced and distributed by companies Ashworth has partnered with. They provide him with wholly passive income.
Ashworth also purchased the U.K.’s Mucky Weekender Festival, which is growing under his leadership and is looking to expand into additional events. When he was unable to source a tour bus amidst the pandemic shortages, he purchased a couple to rent out and launched a touring logistics company. Says Ashworth of his various ventures, “It’s taking every little opportunity you see and feeling confident enough to do it.”
Invest in real estate (if you can afford it)
Property is one of the mainstay investments for DJs, as globally, real estate rarely drops in value. Most DJs purchase their own home(s) as soon as they can afford to. Rental property is the next step for those who can extend to that option. Producer Nicole Moudaber stepped into the rental arena back in 2003 when she bought an estate in Ibiza, upgrading it to a villa aimed at weekly rentals.
“It was like a hotel operation,” says Moudaber. “I did that for 10 years in Ibiza and gained an understanding of architecture and property management. I bought a place in Miami, but I panicked and sold it during COVID. I lost my nerve. I’m mourning it. But lesson learned: Never panic when there’s a crash in the market, and that goes for people who invest in stocks as well.”
Hawtin has also invested in a few real estate properties with significant financial rewards, a move he says is “definitely not as sexy or exciting as sitting with engineers dreaming up new creative tech, but definitely safe and secure.”
If DJs have the disposable income, investing in building development projects can have a significant return, particularly if you invest a large sum. This is what Ashworth has done in the UK. “Property developers are building flats, renovating flats. They need money to do it,” he says. “The return has been quite ludicrous.”
Consider self-releasing your music
Like most DJs, Moudaber owns her own record label, In the Mood, as does Ashworth with Cyclone Records, Lee with Young Art Records and Higginbottom with Nice Age. While DJs owning their own record label is a default of the dance music community, the real value is in owning your music.
While many artists find it tempting to sign a big figure recording or publishing deal at the start of their career, for the long game this choice is not always optimal. Higginbottom found this out the hard way when he signed to Universal Music in the early part of his career. His takeaway from his experience is, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to release through a label, unless you do a very, very good deal and you are getting your masters back in five years or something.”
Higginbottom considers his music an investment, and the only way to retain that investment for the long-term is to self-release it. “That,” he says, “is your pension, your money flow and your passive income.”
“There’s loads of money to be made through streaming, but you have to own the masters,” he continues, “Look how rich the record labels are. Look how much money there is out there. Artists just don’t know how to access it. From streaming, you could make a few hundred, a few thousand or $10,000, $20,000 or $30,000 a month. If you sign with a major label, you’re never going to see it. If you sign with an indie on a 50/50 deal, you’ll see it eventually. Eighty-five percent of my income was through touring. When we lost touring for two years during COVID, that royalty income saved my business.”
Set up different LLCs for each aspect of your business
In a further safety move, Higginbottom recommends setting up different LLCs for each section of an artist’s professional activities. For example, one for touring, one for royalties from your own releases, one for income from songwriting for others. This way, if an artist ends up being liable for something that happens during one of their shows, they won’t get cleared out of their entire income — just the touring LLC. Additionally, when one of the LLCs is having a lull, it can be propped up by the others.
“It’s really hard to make enough as a musician to save or invest,” says Lee. I’m always grateful to be in [the music business] for as long as I have, but I’m very aware of the lack of stability that comes with entertainment, and I’ve steered my career in the direction of stability. You never know when the rug can get pulled out from under you.”