Beat Wisdom
January 22, 2010 3:17 AM   Subscribe

DJs and club-goers: Pass on some advice to help a first-time DJ keep the place moving.

I've been given the opportunity to DJ at a bar in town that has a modest-sized dancefloor. The crowd is almost entirely college-aged, "alternative", with rock and electronica leanings. My set will be primarily Japanese dance, trance, techno, hardcore and some rock. What I want to know, from DJs and clubbers alike: what advise can you give on steeling my nerves, and keeping the crowd interested, engaged, and having fun?

All suggestions welcome.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Try to hang out there and check the sound quality on the floor on a busy night for yourself before your set night. Reduce your stress on the night by getting there early to check sound and everything else is in order. Bring a spare set of headphones. Give yourself enough headroom with your volume when you start the set and the floor's empty so that you can crank it as much as you'll need when it's busy.

Make eye contact and grin at people who react well to a particular tune when you notice this happen. It'll relax you and help you read and engage with the mood of the floor. Passive, cooly controlled (be it through nerves or deliberate!) robot DJs don't work so well with the energetic genres you'll be playing.
posted by protorp at 4:49 AM on January 22, 2010

Passive, cooly controlled (be it through nerves or deliberate!) robot DJs don't work so well with the energetic genres you'll be playing.

Have to respectfully disagree with this point, my boyfriend is a relatively successful DJ and a very reserved person, he plays techno, trance, tech-house and electro and has had no trouble keeping the crowd interested solely through track selection.

Plan your sets to a certain degree, make sure there is a progression from less intense music for the first hour or two, then 'peak time' music, obviously not banging trance as you're playing a bar not a club, but perhaps a higher BPM, then more chilled out towards closing time.

Try not to take too much advantage of any complimentary drinks, especially if you're nervous! Congratulations on your first DJing opportunity too!
posted by ellieBOA at 5:02 AM on January 22, 2010

There are lots of different performance/"personality" styles for DJs: some DJs are completely impassive and emotionless, exuding a sense of mastery but also detachment (Ben Klock and Marcel Dettmann do this); some emphasize small, elegant movements and the occasional conspiratorial smile and wink, which gives the impression of poise and understated warmth (Marco Resmann is a good example of this); some dance continually to their own music, throw their hands in the air, and continually exchange waves, hugs, kisses and so on with the crowd (GummiHz is a good example of this); and some get trashed and party harder than the people on the dancefloor, which can be great if you don't lose your DJing skills under the influence (Ricardo Villalobos is a well-controlled example of this, Ellen Allien is a trainwrecking, sloshed example of this).

Anyway, think about your own personality and what fits best with it. There are plenty of ways to engage with the crowd, and what will work depends on what feels natural for you, what kind of crowd you're playing for, and what other DJs in your genre / scene tend to do.

Also, bring an extra shirt, especially if you tend to be sweaty. Lighting can be hot on you, especially if you have a big pair of circumaural headphones on…and there's a chance you'll get someone's drink on you.

Finally, plan your set out in advance. Experienced DJs can just show up and pick out a few starting tracks a few minutes before their set, but you'll feel a lot more comfortable if you have at least an hour's worth of music sequenced and set aside.
posted by LMGM at 5:22 AM on January 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would concur with all the advice to plan your set in advance. If you have the time, try and play through the whole thing at least once. Some usually formidable tunes can mysteriously lose their potency when played after certain other tunes and this does not always follow your rational assumptions in my opinion.

A small technical tip for the night itself: keep mindful of the relative volume of the tune you're bringing in. It's a horrible moment when you slide the cross fader over and your carefully lined up and cued anthem is parping out at painful volume. Most modern mixers have a visual db meter for each channel so you can keep an eye on this. Otherwise I tend to err on the side of caution and bring it in quiet - you can always fade it up if you need to.
posted by Captain Najork at 5:48 AM on January 22, 2010

This advice is probably dated, since I stopped spinning around the time that CD turntables were getting popular, and I'm not even really sure what kind of equipment you'll have access to. But I would venture to say all vinyl DJ's definitely plan out their set, or at the very least, plan what records to bring, because you know, it's impossible to carry your whole collection.

On top of that, if you're beat-matching, you want to know what songs blend well together, and then you stack your records in your case in order accordingly. Then while you're actually spinning, you're sort of taking the pulse of the dance floor, maybe people don't want to hear some shit you really like, maybe you need to speed things up, or slow it down.

These days I imagine DJ's are capable of carrying much bigger collections into a venue (through hard drives, etc.) so if you're part of this community and are familiar with "the hits" that everyone likes - make. sure. to. bring. it. I always used to lean towards obscure hip-hop as a DJ, which was nice - but in doses. You have to satisfy the crowd's desire to hear popular music - without playing shit they've heard a million times.

I'll share with you this experience - I'm in college, and I learn this trick a couple of days before I'm supposed to do this set at a frat party, where you press the power off button on the downbeat of a song - so the song sounds like it just died at the worst possible moment, like somebody just cut the power off. And so I was doing my set, and this song I had on was sucking major ass, so I cue up a bona fide album on my headphones (something like, Dr. Dre's "The Chronic") but nobody can hear it yet. I kill the old song, there's a moment where everything falls silent, some guy yells "You fucking suck!" and then I release the "Nuthin but a G Thang", and the crowd went nuts. Haha, I got that fucker back.

You might get a little nervous, you might make a few small mistakes, at the end of the day people want to share your vision, it's about the music. So make sure you have access to it. Planning things will ironically give you a stronger ability to improvise. And strong songs will buy you time, give you a chance to wipe the slate clean with the crowd, and build momentum.
posted by phaedon at 8:46 AM on January 22, 2010

I'm not even really sure what kind of equipment you'll have access to.

Ah, forget to mention that - using a laptop with sufficient software to do mixing, crossfading et al.

Lots of great answers so far, everyone. Would've never thought to bring an extra shirt or give myself headroom. Keep 'em coming!
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:55 AM on January 22, 2010

Some of this advice is more about preparation than the actual performance but good preparation will help your confidence I performance so here goes:

• Your equipment. All depends on what you are playing from (vinyl, CD, laptop) but – headphone adaptors so you can plug in to 1/4" or 1/8" sockets. Notepad & pens. Your own slip mats & headshells & record cleaner from home (never rely on the venue having decent ones). A battery-powered light of some sort – ideally one you can use handsfree. Change of shirt. Small towel (those lightweight camping ones are good). One thing I always forget about until I've ended up rubbing my finger raw on an exposed fader prong is something to protect my hands from missing knobs. Sounds a bit anal but I've cut my fingers on the damn things before. Carrying a selection of replacements might be a little extreme but any idea welcome.

• Check the gear in advance if you can. The hardest thing about DJing is going into a venue and having to use whatever equipment they have straight away. Double that if you are having to connect your own gear and following another DJ. The aforementioned missing knobs, filthy everything, worn off labelling, ancient etc. All good fun. If you can familiarise yourself with the setup it will help. How does the cueing, eq, gain, input selection, crossfader, headphone monitor & volume (master & monitor) work? Are the decks suspended or on a solid base?

• Have an assistant. You want to concentrate on your set so having to deal with random drinkers (who will get more random & more drunk as the night wears on) who might want to ask what the track you played was, make a request (grrr!), offer advice, book you for their next party etc. is something left to a helpful partner or friend. Maybe they'll end up as your manager ;-) They can also guard the decks when you're taking a break & give out stuff (see below for these & other uses).

• Piss Tracks. You will probably need to take a bathroom break so have tracks that are long enough / don't involve long mixes to allow time for crowded bathrooms.

• Publicise. Having mix CD to give away, links to mix downloads, blog, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace is going to help you get more support & if you can bring a crowd you'll get more bookings. If people are having a great time, capture it (camera/video courtesy of your assistant)

• Plan to be flexible. If the crowd ain't getting down to your Japanese techno hardcore you'll need to move on but as you're starting out, it's worth planning some groups of tracks that can be used to go in different directions. Write 'em down so you don't forget ;-) Basically, plan out a set but work in some flexibility/different directions.

• Build it up. All depends on when you start & how long you're on for but I'll assume, for this gig, you're the only DJ that night. Unless the crowd is raring to go, start your set at a fairly mellow volume and something that might make people sway rather than dance. Let them have a chat and get some drinks inside them.

Don't worry about filling the dance floor, or even getting anyone on the dance floor. This will help with any nerves as you don't have to worry about keeping the dance floor going, working your set and so forth. Play some records and warm yourself up so that when you do need to step up, you're used to everything and feel more confident.

As people loosen up and the place gets fuller/louder, nudge up the volume, step up the pace, drop in something that'll make people notice (a good hook, something they'll love) and so on.

The line you have to walk is between schooling people with your fabulous music taste and giving them what they want. In a bar situation you'll probably want to err towards the latter.

• It's all experience. There's no way you're going to go through your DJing career without screwing up now & again so just make light of it when you do and move on. I've been in situations where the music has died for some reason (my mistake, some idiot messing with the power trying to plug something in, etc). Everyone stops, looks over, I yell something along the lines of 'What? You mean you don't want to go home yet?!', everyone yells back and when I start up the music again the place goes nuts. If you don't mess up you don't learn.

• Technical note. Get into the habit of looking at your mixer & checking where the selectors, crossfader, & volume sliders are and which channel is playing BEFORE you remove a track & cue up the new one. Taking off the track that's playing is always fun. Check the set up again when you start cueing up the new track to make sure that you're not playing the cueing in with the live track ;-)

OK. I'll stop now.
posted by i_cola at 9:00 AM on January 22, 2010

OK, so most of my advice is old school. Just make sure you've got space for your gear and know how to connect it ;-)
posted by i_cola at 9:02 AM on January 22, 2010

Speaking as a dancer, if you play something that instantly and completely clears a busy dancefloor, I don't understand why you would let that song finish instead of transition to something else. (When it happens, I don't often see the DJs act on it, they seem to let the song finish, by which time some people have cooled their heels and are less inclined to start again). Even if the intention is to play something that will thin the floor in order to send more people to the bar, I'd personally prefer that you kill a track that has killed the floor.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:37 AM on January 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Lots of great advice here on how to prepare. As for what to do once you're up there, I have one simple plea. There's a thing many DJs do from time to time where they drop out everything that has a beat and let some majestic synth cords wash over the room for 10-20 seconds while they raise their arms and bask in the adulation of the crowd. Don't do that. It seems like good drama, but anyone who was dancing is now standing there, snapped back to reality, sweaty and irritated, waiting for you to get over yourself so we can get back to dancing. You'll want dynamic arcs of various kinds, but you need to work them into the music.
posted by aigeek at 1:07 PM on January 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

aigeek: That's usually part of the track. Trance music particularly is built around the whole breakdown-release – see here for more.
posted by i_cola at 8:03 AM on January 27, 2010

« Older Getting that Long-Distance thing to Work?   |   Legitimately unlocking a mobile phone? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.