Pagan contributed the most recent instalment to our ‘Top Tips’ series with CUPRA. The Donegal native discusses his early days playing at student events, preparing a guest mix for BICEP, growing his Soundcloud following, learning to block out the noise, and much more.

CUPRA continues to shine a light on Irish artists in the electronic music scene as they pave the way for future DJs, following the success of their recent ‘On The Pulse’ DJ Competition, which awarded rising DJ, Cian Bolger the opportunity to play Beyond The Pale last weekend as well as a cash prize to further their artistic ambitions.

Rossa Doherty was born in Donegal, but the Pagan moniker most certainly belongs to the various Dublin dancefloors the youngster has inhibited on either side of the booth over the last half a decade. Pagan has firmly cemented his name in the Irish dance music scene through his work with his party Lost, to playing regularly at seminal club night Toast, and receiving early support from a wide range of DJs including DJ Boring, KI/KI, X-Coast, and Alan Fitzpatrick, to name a few. Pagan’s success may be ascribed to a lot of elbow grease over the years, as he has constantly churned out high-quality work, sliding in and out of numerous categories while keeping consistent in his approach, goal, and character.

Pagan’s rise to prominence has been a steady climb, from his early tracks ‘Mirage’ and ‘Most Kings Get Their Heads Cut Off’ to his recent outing on the coveted Parisian imprint RAW with his latest track ‘Spikes’, the Donegal native has been chomping at the bit, often taking time away from his hectic release schedule to return with an arsenal of smoking releases ready to leap off the shelves. His sound defies categorisation, often nestled in the sweet spot between techno, house, and trance. Pagan’s vigorous approach to creative projects is ever-changing, but his delivery is acutely concise, often releasing music at the right time, in the right place, as if he has a deeper understanding of his artistic path than most. This unwavering attitude has earned him a spot on BICEP’s ‘FEEL MY BICEP’ podcast series, a tour of India, performances at every major Irish festival, and releases on Shall Not Fade, HOMAGE, and other labels.

We caught up with Pagan to hear some of his essential DJ Tips to help aspiring DJs on their journey.

You’ve been heavily involved in the dance music scene for a long time, from DJing to producing, venue management, AR work, label work, event promotion, and more, but when you first started DJing, what steps did you take to get your first gigs?

I think with these things there’s rarely one ‘quick hack’ or one major thing that can get your foot in the door, from my experience it’s a culmination of different things that you need to be doing simultaneously. That’s as true for me now as it was then. 

Producing music is an obvious one that gave me a leg up in the early days, as most of the other DJs who were starting out around that time were just DJing, and hadn’t gone down the production path yet. Even just from a name recognition perspective, I think that having my name on the likes of Four Four through premieres helped grab the attention of promoters back then.

Trying to win favour with promoters by offering to do stuff for them that created value and helped get people in the door of a club was an important step. For me, this was anything from bringing my mates to the gigs to handing out flyers on the street to sharing the event on Facebook, and everything in between. I made sure I had 2-3 solid mixes on Soundcloud which included various styles of music, all of which were based around what I would play during a warm-up set in a club. I noticed fairly quickly that leading with a mix was getting me nowhere though, it was all about making the personal connection first and then being able to back that up with a solid mix.

Putting on my own events early on was a big one too. I think that starting small with infrequent gigs allows you to build a strong foundation, and means that you have the time to play at other people’s parties too if the opportunity comes up. During my first year in college, I only ran around three events, so my mates were happy to come to all of them and help me promote them, whereas if I had been running a gig every week or bi-weekly, I would have played to a lot more empty rooms. 

Coming from Donegal, where there isn’t much of a dance music scene, to Dublin, which hosts the most gigs in the country, how did you make yourself known in a relatively unknown territory? 

When I first came to Dublin for college, I already had half an idea of the events that were considered the ‘big nights’ and who ran them, mostly from checking the Four Four Facebook group almost daily for the two years prior. I started by just attending the nights, and introducing myself to the promoters on the night. Later on, I’d start offering to give them a hand with promoting the night, be it just sharing the event or doing flyers in town. I also joined the DJ soc in DCU pretty early on which helped in so many ways. I actually didn’t get on the committee that year (High Fidelity won the spot I was going for, still haven’t forgiven him for that one), but I quickly became mates with some of the older lads through the weekly tutorials. The people I met in the DJ society are still some of my closest mates, and having that community early on wasn’t just fun, it was also a valuable asset that promoters wanted to tap into. The way promoters would see it – if they booked me, they might get a crew of people from the society coming to the gig.

On top of that, I would try to attend nights that I knew other DJs and promoters went to regularly, Toast in the South William being the big one at the time. It took a while, but I eventually got pretty friendly with a few of the regular DJs there. In a few instances, that turned into sending each other demos for feedback, playing b2b sets, and even working on tracks together. 

On the other hand, as a promoter, what qualities do you look for in a DJ when booking events?

You want someone that ticks a few different boxes. When we get sent mixes, we don’t want to hear an hour of peak-time bangers because we’re not going to be booking you for a peak-time slot. A mix with stuff that would work early on in the night is what helps you stand out (bonus points if the tracks are a bit more obscure). That’s not to say you need to be putting out house mixes if you want to be a techno dj, but just that the mixes need to be slower and more flowing, with few big breakdowns and buildups, and more of a focus on creating a steady vibe that headliners can then build off of. It really doesn’t matter if you’re sending a mix that was on Rinse, or a mix you threw up on your SoundCloud with a Simpsons screenshot as the artwork, just as long as it matches the vibe of what a warm-up DJ should be playing. A social presence helps but it’s not essential, however, the reality is that promoters want a DJ who’s going to bring people in through the door. If promoters think you’ll bring 5-10 ticket-buying mates to the gig, your chances of getting booked more frequently improve, so you need to be able to demonstrate that in some way. It sounds obvious but being sound, and taking the role of warm-up DJ seriously is important. That means not trying to grab the spotlight by playing a load of peak-time techno or trance classics, but it also means turning up to the club early and (reasonably) sober. Having one or two pictures or videos of you DJ’ing that the promoter can use is helpful, and being willing to give the event a good push on socials is always appreciated. 

DJing has never been more popular, which obviously has many advantages, but it can also make it difficult for DJs to stand out among the sea of selectors in Ireland. What do you think DJs can do to distinguish themselves from the crowd?

Honestly, I’m still trying to work this one out for myself. From what I can see, I think it’s important to figure out what is unique about you and lean into that. This could be your background, your influences, your interests, and how all those things affect your taste and output as an artist. When I say output, I mostly mean the mixes or music you’re creating, but I also mean the content you put out. Ultimately, we’re living in the age of digital content, and I don’t see any alternative but to accept that and try to create content that is authentic and enjoyable to make (which in some cases, it can be). I recognise it does feel quite dystopian when you need to post pictures of yourself three times a week to get bookings, or labels are telling you they need a viral TikTok to release your music, but artists have always had to do things that were out of their comfort zone in order to promote themselves.

You’ve done some high-profile mixes over the years, including Rinse FM, RAW, and the Feel My Bicep Podcast. These mixes add credibility to DJs’ portfolios; what advice would you give to DJs looking to get on the radar of these major platforms?

These mixes all came about in different ways, but the one common factor for all of them was that my tracks played a big part in getting on these series. A lot of them were invites from artists who were playing my music, or in the case of the bicep one, giving them a copy of an EP I had done on vinyl that year. Sometimes though, you just need to send the email and ask to do the mix, and then follow up 2-3 times after. Never be afraid of a nudge on these things, people are usually just busy and aren’t ignoring your email out of ignorance. 

On the other hand, you have a number of well-received mixes on your own Soundcloud; could you explain the importance of growing your own following rather than focusing solely on guest mixes and podcasts?

I’m a big believer in the importance of building your own platforms and SoundCloud is one of the best ways to do that. I think an active Soundcloud account helps build community around what you’re doing, as has been demonstrated by a lot of the breakout artists over the past 3-4 years. Guest mixes and premieres can help you reach new audiences, but you won’t build ‘fans’ with one-off features, whereas when someone discovers a SoundCloud profile with a sizeable discography, it gives the listener multiple different touch points and helps to tell your story as an artist a lot better than a one-off track ever will. 

Do you’ve any final pieces of advice for DJs looking to break through in 2024?

I’m partly saying this as a reminder to myself, but try not to worry about what anyone else is doing. Social media has created a sense of constant competition between DJs and producers, but music doesn’t work like that. Everyone’s going at their own pace, and looking at what big gigs or releases someone else is doing shouldn’t impact how you feel about your own achievements. 

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