The term disc jockey came about in the 1930s, and they became more popular after World War II. As the radio gained traction, people who ran the station and played music got the term disc jockey, which you can shorten to DJ.
A DJ is called a disc jockey because “DJ” is a shortened version of the term. The term refers to when these individuals would use music on discs to play for their audience, either over the radio, on television, or in person. Even though discs aren’t as common anymore, DJ is still the proper term.
If you want to become a DJ or a disc jockey, you should know where the term came from. Then, you can better understand the job of being a DJ. Even if you never work with CDs or physical recordings, you should understand the term and its history.
Disc Jockey Beginnings
Disc jockeys first appeared on radio and television stations in the 1930s, and they used discs to play music. However, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required DJs to disclose that they were playing recordings and not live songs. Some record labels and musicians even put labels on their music that stated the music was not for radio.
The strict regulations surrounding the playing of recordings on the radio limited disc jockeys. While they could play recordings, the constant disclosures were irritating to listeners. Anytime a jockey put on a new song, they would have to tell their audience about the source.
As radio shows grew in popularity, so did the music. A man named Martin Block was a radio host, and he added music to one of his shows to give the feeling of being in a dance hall. The audience loved it, so the network kept the show going.
Eventually, the FCC changed the regulations so that stations only had to announce recordings each half-hour. Fewer disclaimers meant that the public could listen to the radio without being as annoyed. Disc jockeys didn’t have to remind listeners of recordings versus live songs as often, so they could develop their shows more.
Live vs. Recorded Music
While some radio stations have used live music, recordings are much more practical. Even when people used phonographs and other devices to play music, those were smaller and more convenient than bringing in a live band.
Recordings also gave radio stations the ability to vary the music they play. By bringing in live musicians, they would have to limit the music to what the group could perform. But you could rotate through various recordings.
Disc jockeys also revolutionized dance clubs and other venues. Just like with a radio station, a dance club might have only had one artist or group per night. The musicians could play their music, but they probably wouldn’t stray far away.
But as DJs made their way to dance clubs and discos, they were able to bring their recordings with them. The discs were much easier to transport, though DJs also needed other equipment, like turntables. Still, the setup was more versatile and could appeal to large audiences.
In a variety of venues and locations, disc jockeys could bring the music to the masses. Companies didn’t have to hire live musicians for shows, so they would hire a DJ instead. But the DJ could provide more value to the company or venue and the public.
The rise of disc jockeys gave record companies and musicians more exposure. A DJ in New York could play music from a band across the country and vice versa. Musicians and bands could then make money with royalties through groups such as the American Society for Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).
Record labels began to realize that they could make a lot of money off of recordings, so they stopped restricting radio broadcasts. As musicians stopped prohibiting radios from playing their music, they could see more exposure. The musicians could reach audiences from anywhere.
More exposure would increase record label profits, and it could advance the careers of various musicians such as B.B. King. And since the exposure applied to both dance clubs and radio stations, people didn’t have to leave their house to discover new music.
As disc jockeys kept playing discs of music on the radio, it would benefit everyone. Musicians and record labels saw their profits rise, while radio stations attracted more listeners. The public could learn about new songs and artists, and they could also enjoy old favorites.
Growth of Dance Clubs
Dance clubs grew in popularity alongside radio stations. Whenever people wanted to spend a night out dancing, they might have been used to a live band. However, clubs could hire a single disc jockey to play music for the crowd.
The DJ would bring a turntable and a variety of discs so that they could play different songs and artists. And popular dance clubs weren’t exclusive to the largest cities. Even smaller cities in areas like the Midwest could enjoy a night out at a club with a DJ.
Just like at a radio station, a DJ could set up their equipment and play music. But with a live audience in person, they could react to the crowd. If the crowd seemed ready to dance, the jockey could play something upbeat. And if the audience looked ready for a break, the DJ could slow things down.
Throughout this development, disc jockeys still used discs, such as compact discs (CDs), to play music. While it started with vinyl records, the switch to CDs and later, digital files, didn’t change the basic function of a DJ.
Transition to Digital
As disc jockeys moved from using physical discs to digital audio files, they never changed their main goal. A DJ’s job is to combine different songs, often from different artists, to create a fantastic listening experience. But as discs became less popular, the term disc jockey has become confusing.
Digital files don’t require a turntable to play, but they still take special skills. And in some ways, the move to digital music files has made DJing more accessible to more people.
Gone are the days of needing an expensive turntable and the space to store and transport multiple discs. You can start DJing with a laptop, and you can find digital music files on iTunes or elsewhere online.
Now that DJs rarely use physical discs, it can be hard to understand why DJs are called disc jockeys. If you don’t understand the history before digital music, then it will be confusing. But if you know how the disc jockey role started and how it has evolved, the terms DJ and disc jockey make more sense.
The role of a DJ has changed to serve the times, but the basic tasks are still the same. A good disc jockey should know and have access to a variety of songs that they can play. They should be able to transition from one song to the next, and the playlist should make sense.
On the radio, the DJ should be able to program their show so that their listeners will enjoy it at work, on the road or at home. And in a club, a DJ needs to read the crowd and be flexible so that they can feed off the audience’s energy.
If you know the basics of a DJ or disc jockey’s job, you can do it in a radio station or in front of a live audience. It doesn’t matter that you aren’t using CDs or other discs to make music. You’re still serving your audience with music that will (hopefully) make them happy.
When you see a DJ mixing tracks on their laptop, it can be strange to think that DJ is short for disc jockey. After all, modern DJs rarely use physical discs to make music. But DJing has a long history, and much of that time did involve physical discs, hence the term disc jockey.
- Britannica: disc jockey | Definition, History, & Facts
- Curious History: The Musical History of the Disc Jockey
- Quora: Why does dj stand for disc jockey? Why jockey?
- ASCAP: About ASCAP
- Steve Hoffman Music Forums: Great Musicians Who Were Also Radio Disc Jockeys
- The Lantern: Columbus dance clubs attract world’s top DJs