Opinion Feature: DJ Quick Fixes

Credit: Arnold Jaeger Werner

In his latest feature, The Waveform Transmitter‘s Simon Huxtable offers up a few dos and don’ts for those of us who are looking to make a name for themselves in the DJing world.

De La Soul said it best “Everybody want’s to be a DJ, everybody want’s to be an MC” but as artists we don’t really have a standardised way of teaching the new generation on etiquette, professionalism and how to make that final 10% count. So I thought I would come up with a few perennial fixes to give you an edge. So, in no particular order:

Read the crowd and try to avoid pre-preparing too much

Learning how to understand what a room full of people want and like is a daunting task, but once mastered, it will make your selections and sets much more fluid and powerful. Start slow and build up your skill by having one foot on the floor and one in the DJ booth (metaphorically) and if the opportunity allows, actually get on the floor and have a boogie! They will love you for it and you get to hear what its like in the midst of it.

A great way of practicing this skill is taking a few pub/corporate gigs. Sure, it’s not 3 am in Berghain playing your latest nosebleed techno, but successfully dealing with people’e expectations of you builds your confidence and makes you a better DJ.

The key phrase is ‘controlled spontaneity’. There are DJs that spend hours in the beginnings of their careers meticulously planning every track they will play. They make notes on key changes and mood etc and thats fine, but if the floor doesn’t react you’re stuffed and the crowd will simply not enjoy anything you play, no matter how good or far up the charts it is.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t have a few tracks you know work well together pre-prepared, it can get you out of a jam when nothing seems to be working, but not a whole set. So read the crowd and react to what they want to hear, not what you want to play them.

Be positive with punters who request tracks

Lets be honest, after a few sherbets, we all think we could do better than the DJ playing. Requests will come in all forms and in my experience, being rude to these punters usually ends in being punched or shouted at. So smile, nod, have a look to see if you have it, but under no circumstance be rude to them – they are paying your wage after all. Smarten up and avoid unnecessary bad vibes. In fairness, I have in the past actually gotten some good requests too…

There is a time and place for all music

Structuring your set will come in time, but something that is paramount if you want to succeed is don’t just play the hits. Jobbing DJs use these bigger tracks to add momentum and energy to the night. They can be your get out of jail free cards so don’t waste them.

However, playing obscure and unknown Baltic whale songs is completely missing the point, good DJs can play underground tracks with more recognised material seamlessly. This also applies to the time of night you are playing, no-one wants to hear a warm up jock spinning the Beatport top ten while redlining the mixer so they seem better than the headliner.

It is NOT about you, there is a flow to a night and if you act right the promoter will have you back. If you don’t, you’ll be that old guy ranting on Facebook at midnight about ‘back in the days’ that no-one clicks ‘like’ about.

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Be professional and punctual

Your set is at stupid o clock in the morning, so you turn up 5 minutes beforehand and are annoyed the DJ before you is just cueing up a new track. Of course they are, unless you’re the headliner and have arranged to start your set with a fanfare and pyrotechnics they just think you’re being a diva.

Get to the gig at least 30 minutes before your set, earlier if you can, have a chat with the promoter/bar staff/ bouncers/DJs. Get a feel for the vibe of the place and start to plan in your head your first 5 tracks. When it comes up to your time to start, hang off to the side but let the DJ know you’re around.

Nothing more off-putting than an eager beaver leaning over your shoulder as to mix in your last track. And for those digital DJs, if it’s a small booth, maybe think about having a USB or some CDs with you so you aren’t all up in the last DJs business plugging in your Audio 8 etc. At bigger venues the sound guys can hook you up.

Stay after the gig too. Build up your relationships with anyone who wants to talk, which in turn builds your fan base.

If the crowd are leaving the floor don’t panic. 

Some clubs are small and this ebb and flow of crowds can appear more obvious than at bigger events. The advice here is the same: Don’t Panic. You’ve no doubt been in a club before and have had to use the restrooms/have a cigarette/chat up a date.

People will move around a club, thats a fact and playing a banger in the middle of a warm up set is only going to drive them away (thinking you are rubbish) than keep them dancing longer. Stick at it. This is not about you, you are merely a part of the night as a whole. It’s a hard lesson to learn and many young DJs struggle with it, but understand, the ones that do get it sooner are the ones who get the gigs.

Learn some basic music theory and apply it to your sets and demos

It’s very simple really, some tracks work together and some don’t. A good DJ knows that instinctively and can tell if a transition will go well even in headphones. Basic music theory can aid you not only with DJing, but also when you start to make you’re own tracks.

Products like Mixed in Key are great if you follow the rules, but sometimes the tracks aren’t compatible because of percussion or beats or energy. Having that extra bit of musical knowledge in your toolbox can help to lift your sound and makes it more noticeable.

What ever your preferred medium of play, be the best you can be at it.

I learned on turntables, got good, moved onto CDJs. Most DJs nowadays learn digitally. Controllerism is the new frontier and the DJs that can manipulate music files will be the James Zabielas and Jeff Mills‘ of the future. Its way too easy to just press sync and lazily select tracks.

Be original and different because there are 10,000 DJs just like you with way better music collections and contacts that will take your gigs from you. If you want to succeed you have to be willing to put in the hours of practice, anyone who is the best at anything will tell you the same thing.

However much you love partying, when you have an agent it’s all business.

When all is said and done, our goal with DJing is to make a bit of money. If you get good enough to be full-time and are playing all over the globe you will have a myriad of temptations thrown at you. At the end of the day, how you handle that is your business.

I’m not going to preach at you about snorting coke at 5am in your hotel room while a group of hangers-on drink all the booze in your mini bar and leave. Haven’t we all! But what I will say is listen to your agent about business stuff. If you are booked for a two hour slot, play two hours, not five, because the promoter hooked you up, if you need to be at the airport, then get there.

Eat well, sleep properly and have a solid plan for each week. Your job is DJing, which is cool. But it is a job now, not a hobby. Your agent will have the best intentions for you on how to make a shit tonne of money, and if you don’t take it seriously, the opportunity will be lost.

Author: simon huxtable

Jack of all trades, Simon likes long walks on the beach, strong alcoholic drinks and dancing all night long. Most of all, he enjoys writing in the third person and Progressive House. Sometimes at the same time.

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