Patrick Donlon

Pat Donlon aka DJ Spacey Space


***Disclaimer from Patrick:    As any psychology student knows, memory is unreliable. It’s probably best to take what is written here with a grain of salt.

I am a DJ and a psychology student.

I started working early, doing casual jobs in high school. Even though I was a town kid, I would go hay baling during the hay season, or work shifts at a butter factory. I really enjoyed that, working with adults and sort of being treated like one.

Despite doing really well throughout year 12, I didn’t prepare well for the final exams, and in those days they didn’t take into account your study history. I passed, but instead of going to university, I got a job at Safeway, joining their management-training program.

Within a year, I decided that wasn’t for me. I then worked in a bottle shop for another 6 months, without much enthusiasm. I was fired for being late, but when I complained to head office, I was told that the manager himself was about to be fired and the shop closed down anyway.

For a while, I was receiving unemployment benefits, and living in a shared house. I knew I wanted to do something creative. Around that time one of my mates asked me if I wanted to come DJ with him at The Lounge, because he knew me as a serious record collector.

That’s how I got the gig DJing at The Lounge on Tuesdays, which lasted about a year or so.

We didn’t have to get people to dance, but just to attend. So the focus was on thinking up strategies to get punters in. It was fun for a while, but not challenging for a DJ. I decided to try playing at a dance club. I got a couple of techno sets, some of which evolved into regular gigs, and that was the start of my career.

Pat Donlon aka Spacey Space during his Sunday morning set at Revolver

Getting those first sets wasn’t too hard: people already knew that I had good records, and I was keen to play. My DJ buddy and I played in various nightclubs, and at parties, and got booked for events.

At that time though, I didn’t see DJing as a viable future. I wanted to become an artist and so I enrolled in a TAFE art course. So I was painting, drawing and so on during the day, and DJing at night.

I took it seriously as a painter and not so seriously as a DJ at that time. I loved music but I never really thought of it as a career.

DJing was helping me pay for my records, but it wasn’t close to enough to live on. So I was getting Austudy support, and just getting by.

After a year, I applied for a three-year fine art degree with a strong folio, but stuffed up the application process. At the same time, my then partner and I got evicted from our flat. It was a very bad time for renters, and I had to drop out of the second year of TAFE and spent a month trying to find a place to live.

Pat Donlon aka Spacey Space searchng for new music online

Once we were settled, I got a studio in the city instead, and thought I’d try to get enough work made to have an exhibition, or to try again to get into a painting degree course. So I was back on unemployment benefits.

The turnaround came when I was knew I had to either get off the dole or get a job, or do some sort of training. There was a specific program for artists at NEIS – New Enterprise Initiative Scheme.

It focused on getting artists to create a business plan. They said to me: “You are already making money as a DJ, and not making any as a painter. The reason you’re making money as a DJ is because you have skills no one else has, and people need you. Why don’t you take that seriously?” So I wrote a business plan for my music career.

My business plan was very simple: I needed to expand on what I was doing by becoming more professional and committed. I started record-shopping regularly and invoicing my clients properly.

Revolver DJ roster

Some clients were paying me a very low hourly rate, because I never thought to ask for more. I asked for some pay raises, and got them. They were small, but after a while, I’d ask again and get another one and so on.

In the music industry, the more you work, the more people you know and know you.

Work comes in, and you start to develop a profile. After the NEIS course, I got to playing a few nights a week. That was around 1996 – 1997, five years since I had my first gig.

There still wasn’t much money in DJing, so I had to work part-time for extra cash, find ways to do casual jobs or projects to support myself. I started a three-year degree at RMIT. It was a music production course, dealing with making music, film scores, and soundtracks. During this degree, the DJing got even more serious and my profile grew.

Pat Donlon aka Spacey Space during his Sunday morning set at Revolver1

One of the key milestones in my career was getting proper residencies at established clubs. I had Saturday nights at The Lounge, throughout the RMIT years. The other big one was when Revolver Upstairs opened. Within the first few months, I was playing there two nights a week.

Around this time I hosted a radio show called Space Station on Kiss FM, which at that time had a temporary license. I think it was a Tuesday night. I’d have guests come and play some of their favourite records and for a while I had a guest announcer who would announce techno and house records in a super smooth FM radio vocal style. I loved doing that show, and I think it helped in raising my profile.

When Revolver Upstairs got a 24-hour license, I was offered another residency, this time on Sundays.

I wasn’t able to play during the day because of my other DJ and study commitments. I called the friend who got me my first gig, and he started playing there as a guest, after the peak of the night.

It worked out well for a while, but the club needed a dance DJ to keep the party going, so I came on board to play that set every week. My DJ mate from Saturdays at Lounge and I would play 4 hours each Sunday at Revolver, which became a sort of Melbourne institution. In turn, it helped to make our careers even more solid, led to more bookings.

These days I also play every Friday at Tramp. I’m exclusive, meaning that I can’t play at any other venues. But they give me a great set every week. On Saturdays I do guest sets in different places around Melbourne and on Sundays I play two sets at Revolver Upstairs. On public holidays I do various guest spots or play at festivals.

A huge part of this job is sourcing new music.

Back in the day, every Thursday I’d head out to the record stores to sift through new releases. There are still some good records stores in Melbourne that I occasionally shop in, but these days I mostly shop online.

Pat Donlon aka Spacey Space during his Sunday morning set at Revolver2

Every week I scan through several hundred new tracks and try to find something I like. I hope to find things that other people would miss, so I have to dig a bit deeper. For me, it’s about finding the balance between the popular stuff and less well-known gems.

After I buy the tracks, I work out what key they are in and I put them into a playlist. Then I save it on a USB to bring the music to the club. I construct my set on the spot. Sometimes I do think ahead to what track to play, particularly the first track of the set, but I don’t start with my best track, I like to build it up a bit.

The other creative aspect of being a DJ is production work.

It’s mostly electronic, so you can write music using synthesizers and software. Established DJs don’t really have to produce a lot of music themselves. Still, I challenge myself to make good music. It’s a wonderful feeling to finish a record and play it to a big audience that loves it.

Getting people to dance is a combination of knowing the crowd and knowing how to match the music to the crowd.

I wouldn’t pretend to know what 400 let alone 4000 people are thinking or feeling. But I can play a track to test the audience out, feel the vibe and the energy in the room. If it works, I give them more of it, if not, you look for something else that works.

Pat Donlon aka Spacey Space during his Sunday morning set at Revolver3

I don’t think I’m any kind of a celebrity, but there are people who like what I do and come to hear Spacey Space play at different clubs. That’s my DJ name. There is a story behind it. As a teenager I played basketball at a semi-professional level with some imported American players. They thought I was different from the other Aussies, because I was really into hip hop, wearing baseball hats and sneakers, a bit unusual back then.

So they nicknamed me Space Cadet or Spacey. Other mates picked up on it.

The name ‘Spacey Space’ comes from a time not long after I stopped playing basketball, when a friend of mine tried to prank the 3AW radio station by calling in and promoting a non-existent hip hop album by me.

He rang in saying ‘Yeah, my man Spacey Space has a new dope album, freshly dropped, check it out!’. The talkback host wasn’t impressed, but when I started DJing, I remembered that and thought it was a pretty funny name. It stuck from the start.

I loved DJing 10, even 20 years ago, now I love it even more.

Last few years have been great; the residencies are going well, I’ve had some great guest spots. The best set I’ve played recently is one I’ve wanted to play for a long time, at the Market stage of the Rainbow Serpent Festival. That was particularly good!

There are some drawbacks, naturally. Working in clubs obviously means working at night-time. It is hard having a partner who works a 9-to-5 job.

Working weekends, you miss out on time with your mates, or going away.

You need to plan when to take weekends off work, it’s only really for special occasions like traveling overseas or weddings. There’s no holiday or sick pay.

I operate as a sole trader, so part of the job involves office admin, of course: paying taxes and staying on track of my business. I’ve also had a couple booking agents over the years. They are not there to get me more work, more to be the first point of contact for people looking to book me. They take care of the guest spots, festivals, and liaise with the promoters.

I think I’ve made some mistakes over the years, like everyone else has. I see them as learning experiences rather than regrets, because I’ve moved on. For instance, I used to own a whole lot of vintage synthesizers and drum machines. I got rid of them as I thought that computers would replace them. That didn’t happen, and now they are four times more expensive. But you live and learn, it’s not the end of the world.

At one stage, about 5 years ago, I thought, “Do I want to be a DJ until I retire? Perhaps I should develop another set of skills.”

I love studying. For various reasons, I thought of becoming a psychologist. I saw that psychology could be very helpful for people at certain stages of life. I enrolled at Charles Sturt University, studying a psychology degree part time and online.

As soon as I started studying, I started getting even more DJ work. Now I’ve nearly finished my degree, but I’m not even sure if I will end up registering as a psychologist. It started off as a plan for a back-up career, but I’ve really enjoyed learning just for the sake of it.

However I do think that after finishing my RMIT degree I became a better DJ, perhaps because I became more aware of how sound works and of the creative process. As I finish this psychology course, I think it is helping me with my DJing as well. Just how, I don’t know though. Maybe by knowing myself better.

Sometimes I think I might finish this degree and do something else entirely, like astronomy or mathematics!

It’s not that I think being a psychologist isn’t a great job, but the certification takes a long time. You need to get the degree plus another year of Honors, and then do your Master’s degree, another 2 years full-time, further training or both. A lot of people never qualify and register, but still end up working in the health field in some way.

I’ve never really had a really concrete plan of what I’m going to do.

Even when I did careers counseling in high school, they told me, “You can work in a circus, or as a tram driver, or as a surgeon.” My interests are just too varied.

But I’ve always been passionate about music and arts.

I think that’s the key. You don’t necessarily need a plan of what you want to achieve, but you do have to work hard. And that’s much easier if you have a passion.

It’s true that there isn’t as much money in the creative industries. But I’ve always been focused on my work, keeping a studio, studying. That’s been the focus, and if the money come through, that was a bonus. And as I developed and grew my skills, I started earning more, though I was never greedy about it.

The main thing for me is to be able to do what I want every day – whether it’s making music, being a DJ or a painter, or studying. And that’s the plan going forward.