There's no such thing as the "best DJ in Chicago" - only the one who's right for your event. But if you're deep enough into your plans to be comparing rates, you may be noticing broad differences in what different DJs charge. Focus specifically on wedding DJ pricing, and the discrepancy looks even greater.
I've written elsewhere about what the differences in Chicago DJ pricing can mean to you, the client. But in this post I want to look at why, exactly, the best DJs are so expensive. And I want to explain in a way that's as transparent and honest as possible.
Here's how my Chicago DJ company breaks down our wedding pricing. This is where your money actually goes.
I'll list percentages in the breakdown below - then, at the end, I'll give you some sample dollar amounts to make it even easier to understand. Just keep in mind that these are guidelines - every event, every month and every year the actual breakdown is a little different. That's what makes being a small business fun! But the numbers below are the estimates I actually use to operate that small business.
1. Performers: 40-50%
Not every company's like mine, but at Backthird we believe no one should have to work a wedding on their own. You'll have a lead DJ and an assistant DJ at your wedding, and a little less than half of what you pay goes to cover their wages, along with the tax and worker's compensation insurance that every employer is required to cover.
Have you noticed yet that weddings cost more than other DJ events? It's true, and wages is one of the main reasons why. Most DJs can do a bar or party job alone, by just showing up and setting up. But a wedding is highly customized - it takes many hours of pre-production, including meetings with you to iron out the specifics, to get it right. We pay our DJs more when they do that work.
2. Equipment: 5-10%
It costs us around $8000 to build a basic wedding DJ setup, and about half that for one of the smaller sound systems we'd use to play music and amplify your officiant at an outdoor wedding ceremony. (Since many weddings change locations throughout the night and require extra equipment to help with transitions, this is another reason they can cost a little more.)
3. Music and Travel: 5-10%
After more than a decade in the wedding business, one thing that amazes me is how we're still purchasing new music for nearly every event. I guess your personal taste in music really is unique.
Backthird also reimburses DJs for travel costs. If your DJ lives downtown and your wedding's in the suburbs - or vice-versa - he or she could easily spend 3 hours in transit. And have you seen what it costs to park at Trump Tower these days?
4. Marketing: 20%
It costs us a lot to help clients find us in the first place - especially in the crowded Chicago wedding scene. But marketing expenses cover more than advertisements and paid listings on your favorite wedding websites.
Almost anything we do to improve the experience of our clients falls under the "marketing" label. That quirky postcard your Account Manager mailed you to brighten your day? The afternoon she spent visiting your wedding venue and getting to know your coordinator so that our plans would line up with theirs? The time it took me to write this post, and the questionable number of cups of coffee I drank while doing so? Those are all marketing expenses.
Most of the time, "marketing" is just a fancy word for "communication" - and it's one of the things that separates the best Chicago DJ companies from the rest. If you want your DJ company to keep in touch with you, it better have a reasonable marketing budget.
5. Overhead: 25%
This is the biggest and most nebulous category in any business, but it means "all the other stuff you have to do so that the company can run." At Backthird that means paying wages to our full-time office staff, rent on our office and meeting space in Geneva, and boring-but-essential costs like the software you'll use to submit your music requests and the phone line you'll call us on when you're ready to put some specific plans together for the wedding day.
It also includes insurance, which is a small but important piece of the pie. Many venues in Chicago ask to see our proof of insurance before we perform at your wedding - among other things, it helps them separate the best Chicago wedding DJs from the ones who won't reflect as well on them.
6. Profit: 0-10%
If there's something left after the above expenses, we call it "profit." That either gets reinvested in things that could make the business better next year, or it becomes raises and bonuses for the people who've worked hardest to help the business be successful so far. After taxes, of course!
My job as the business owner is simple: Optimize the many factors listed above so that everybody gets treated right and there's something left over. I have to do this ethically, honoring both our clients and our own team members along the way without taking anyone for granted.
If I succeed, we make some extra money and we get to try again next year.
So why do some DJs cost less?
If your DJ's pricing is lower than mine, he or she is spending less money on one of the categories above. That might be a deliberate choice, or it might just be out of ignorance.
Performer Wages are probably lower if your DJ's pricing is lower. That means savings for you in the short term, but in the long term it means DJs who can't keep doing what they do. The better your DJ is paid, the more likely he or she is to still be a DJ by the time your wedding date arrives.
There's a good chance Marketing costs are lower if your DJ's pricing is lower, too. You'll need to find such a DJ by word of mouth since he won't have a high profile in the local scene. And it will be much harder to evaluate whether or not he's good at what he does based on reputation, since he won't have as much of one - good or bad - as someone who spends more time and energy communicating.
If your DJ's cost is really low, Overhead, Equipment and Music are probably areas of compromise as well. He works from home, on equipment he paid for with his day job, and plays tracks he "borrowed" from another DJ.
Good expensive vs. bad expensive
The bottom line here is that the money you spend for your DJ service is going somewhere. If your DJ company is well managed, then spending more probably translates into a better experience for you. If your DJ company is NOT well managed, then spending more may NOT translate into a better experience for you.
If that's true then the first question you should ask is not, "is this an expensive DJ service?" The first question you should ask is, "is this a well-run DJ service?"
But isn't that true for everywhere you spend your money?
Greedy folks don't open wedding businesses.
I think it's important to point out that the vast majority of the wedding vendors I've met in my time in this business are NOT particularly wealthy - in fact, far too many aren't even making a profit. We do this because we love the creative process of events and the special relationships we get to build with clients like you. I wish most of us - my team included - were earning more.
But most of the money-focused entrepreneurs I know are building software firms or real-estate empires, not wedding businesses. And anyone who gets into weddings for the money doesn't last. It simply takes too long to get started in this line of work. You have to love it.