As the amber sun faded from the sky, Elements of Life’s “Sunshine” rose from the speakers on the rooftop of the Liaison Hotel, where DJ Adrian Loving holds a steady gig on Thursday nights.
An artsy crowd trickled into the downtown D.C. hotel, most making a B-line for the bar. sisters Goldie Deane and Ayana Patrick, however, grabbed a couple of cabana chairs near Loving’s station.
“We started following him on Facebook, after we heard him spin an ode to soul,” explained Deane, director of an arts nonprofit in the District. “There about a half dozen DJs, whose events we look out for, and he’s one.”
The poolside party is part of Loving’s rotation of gigs that can include everything from swank clubs to exhibition launches at the National Gallery of Art. This, he said, is what it means to be a DJ in Washington, a place with a diverse range of clients that keep demand beating at a steady rhythm, at least enough to make a living.
Loving, who also teaches graphic design and runs art gallery Dissident Display, estimates he earned roughly $50,000 just from playing events around town last year.
On average, DJs who play weddings and corporate events, so-called mobile DJs, can earn an average $600 to $900 for a four-hour gig, according to the National Association of Mobile Entertainers. Nightclub DJs, on the other hand, can take in anywhere from $25 to $5,000 per hour, depending on their recognition.
Business has grown in the Washington region, where an increase in venues and influx of young professionals have created a thriving scene. To make it to the top strata of the industry, however, local experts say DJs still have to leave the market.
“As good as the scene has gotten, there is still a braindrain for the more internationally aspiring DJs,” said Arash Shirazi, co-founder of Georgetown-based Bullitt Bookings, a DJ agency. “It’s really hard to grow to a global scale here, but you certainly can make a living.”
To Shirazi, there are three kinds of area DJs: “A-list,” those who produce and spin music to international acclaim; “reliable locals,” with a strong hometown following and client base; and “special events,” the go-to guys for store openings and other corporate events.
Washington, he said, has produced talent in all of those categories, though the city is rarely mentioned alongside major industry hubs, like New York or London.
Shirazi’s own brother, Ali Shirazinia, better known as Dubfire of the Grammy-award winning duo Deep Dish, credits the city, in part, for his success in electronica. Shirazinia made a name playing the club scene in the District throughout the 1990s and producing remixes for the likes of Janet Jackson, Madonna and the Rolling Stones.
“Being outside of New York, London or Chicago helped define my sound in terms of it being a bit unique,” he said. “Few people were doing electronic music back then.”
These days, Shirazinia spends about 250 days a year on the road, performing 130 shows in 2010 alone. He would not share how lucrative those gigs are, but he wagered that A-list DJs, which he considers himself to be, take in anywhere from $3 million to $5 million a year.
With the promise of that kind of paycheck, it’s no wonder enrollment is steady at Beat Refinery, a DJ academy with locations in Bethesda and Herndon. The school, launched May of last year, currently has 35 students registered for courses on mixing, scratching and producing, ranging from $175 to $480.
“We’ve already bred 10 DJs that are working full time,” said Chris Stiles (DJ Stylus Chris), who founded the school along with Brian Sadiarin (DJ Geometrix). “We want to keep the art of the DJ alive through the school.”
And what better market than one with “so many avenues to get gigs, whether its a bar, big time nightclub or a corporate event at Nine West in Tysons Corner,” he said.
One of the most popular local venues, U Street Music Hall, is the brainchild of two longtime D.C. DJs, Will Eastman and Jesse Tittsworth. The pair opened the nightclub last year to have a place “where they could be proud to play,” Tittsworth said. “We’re slowly making a change with the club in how top DJs view D.C.”
Tittsworth, who has toured with Kanye West and Kid Sister, said artistry and branding are key to standing out in an industry overrun with tech-savvy wannabes. Producing music, he said, can move DJs from one rung to another, depending on the quality of the product.
Loving agreed, with the caveat that creating an experience for the audience can be equally compelling. He prides himself on “curating music,” so if he’s spinning 1950s Afro-Cuban soul, expect “the visuals, the theme, the textures that captures the essence of the era.” Creating atmosphere, he said, is what gained him a loyal following.
“Even if the crowd is a bit dull, it doesn’t matter as long as the music good, and it always is,” declared Patrick, between excited gasps as Loving mixed a Teddy Pendergrass tune with one from First Choice.