Before we start – I am not a DJ. Calvin Harris is a DJ. Steve Aoki is a DJ. Joel Zimmerman is a DJ. I’m a guy that plays songs in different club nights and bars on occasion.
They’re generally more down the rock / alternative spectrum but occasionally I do general party or “anything goes” type of night, but still geared towards a less mainstream (I don’t want to use the word hipster). I cannot mix vinyl or do dance music or anything flashy like that, but general feedback whenever I play music at club nights is I do a damn good job at it. Without wanting to sound full of myself, I’m inclined to agree – it just so happens that getting the dancefloor moving at a clubnight is something I’m relatively good at.
Some clubs I do include What Ever Happened To P-Rock and ad-hoc sets at places such as The Stillery and The Macbeth. I used to DJ at quite a big club called Hot Damn and I even DJed the very first Slam Dunk Festival (a highlight). I have no career aspirations doing this – it’s basically a way to get free entry to nights I’d probably want to go to myself, try and do what I can to make them as enjoyable as possible and get some free drinks in the process.
As such, I have a fair bit of experience (possibly too much – is 30 too old to be doing this??). What’s interesting is at clubs a lot of people offer their thoughts and increasingly I see armchair DJs saying how they would do things and what they expect from a club night. Therefore I thought I’d write something for those thinking about starting their own night / offering their services to an existing ones, so here are 5 golden rules:
1. Timing Is Everything…And Know Your Role
Club nights will generally go from 8-10pm until 2-4am. That’s quite a bit of time and as a result you’ll usually share shifts with other DJs. I’ve very rarely done an entire night and quite often it’s a case of you get a slot at a particular time and do your thing. If you are lucky enough to get the whole night or the majority of it – equally important to plan your set meticulously.
It’s vital you play the appropriate music for that slot. It’s completely daft to play a lesser known but hyped up and coming credible band at 1am in order to make yourself look like a tastemaker because that’s the time people are pissed up and want to dance to hits. It’s equally stupid to play the biggest singles from your respective genre during the evening’s opening pre 11pm when people are still entering the club, getting cheap drinks and talking to their friends. If anything, you’ve made yourself look a bit of a dick because that song can no longer be used at the appropriate time unless you / a colleague plays the same song twice.
If you’re handet a slot before 11pm you might feel like you’ve drawn the short straw compared to the later slots, as people aren’t inebriated enough to get dancing. There’s some truth to it but you’re better off appreciating that you have to earn the right for prime time positioning, and the early slot is a great opportunity to showcase your music knowledge, take risks and play niche songs that will appeal to the die-hards which could earn yourself a following. That’s exactly what I did when I started getting regular slots during the opening of club nights – I played songs that other DJs did not know and established credibility by playing songs that die hard fans and aficionados turned up early to hear, as well as introducing other folk to their new favourite bands. If you can get a dancefloor moving at a difficult time, you’re definitely doing something right, and it gives you a great opportunity to form new friendships over smaller, niche acts as appreciative punters thank you. Trying to play a cool, up-and-coming niche act at 2am will not make you look super cool and credible – it’ll simply clear the dancefloor as the majority of more passive nightclub goers are now simply wanting to hear the chart bangers and do more shots.
2. It’s Not About You
The clubnight and its atmosphere relies on the audience generating it. You’re there to do everything you can to be the catalyst of this and being an attention seeker won’t work. Equally, shying away in the corner isn’t ideal because if you’re not dancing around and loving the music being played, who else will?
That’s where a balance must be struck. Jump around, be a bit of a hype guy/girl and hope the enthusiasm spreads…but don’t be someone who constantly hogs the microphone to talk about yourself or your night. Strike a balance and ensure you have a presence that isn’t overwhelming. I won’t lie – DJing will give you a lot of nice attention from people which is exceptionally flattering, but that can’t be your primary motivation. Your motivation should be to do a good job and please people. Ultimately, in doing this you’ll get the positive attention that your ego might crave.
By equal measures, whilst you are playing music from your collection…it isn’t about playing what you want to hear – it’s about playing what the audience want to hear and what is appropriate for the night. Mixing songs together is obviously a great skill to have an integral to the art of being a great DJ in dance music…but too often I’ve seen people mix songs together in a club where it’s completely out of context (i.e. rock nights or cheese nights). Does anyone really want to hear Papa Roach mixed with Rihanna? Why not just play Papa Roach and Rihanna separately? Might be my personal taste but I just don’t see the point and it seems to be showboating rather than trying to play a song to get people dancing and singing along (unless it’s a really, totally out there crazy mix that actually works, or it’s two connected songs from the same genre that, again, works).
3. Be Honest With Requests
Somewhat of a continuation from the last point here. I generally always try to be as transparent with peoples’ requests as possible. If someone asks for a track that I simply don’t have. there’s no point in me nodding, saying yep and leaving it unplayed. Most often than not, the request is something I know but haven’t brought because it didn’t fit the night – and I explain it. If I’m asked to DJ a rock night that’s focused around Green Day, Blink-182 and Sum 41, the likelihood is, despite loving the band, I won’t have brought a Fugazi CD with me. If I get a request, I’ll explain how 13 Songs is one of my favourite records of all time (ok ok I know it isn’t technically an album) but I just didn’t think it was worth bringing along because it didn’t fit the event description. Screw it – if I hate the band, I explain they’re not my cup of tea and therefore don’t have it on CD.
However, regardless of my personal taste, if requests something on repeat, I’ll try and bring it next time. Some friends ran a club where they refused to play more mainstream music or anything that wasn’t their specific niche taste. In a sense I respected them for it, particularly as it was a style that no other club dared to go near. But by equal measures, it frustrated me that a club night that was a superb idea rarely got more than 15 people attending because people just didn’t know any of the songs beyond their immediate circle of friends.
4. Get A Flow Going & Be Ready For Plan B
It’s rare that you’ll be asked to DJ a set that’s SOLELY restricted to one specific sub-genre all night. Even if you are, there are ways you can keep a feeling of variation without switching genres – it could be time period (90s classics to early 2000s etc.) or geographical scene (West Coast to East Coast etc.). I find that a set flows a lot better if you ensure every song has relevance or suitability to the one that precedes it. Let’s take an example (not a real life one, this is the purpose of illustrating a point)- it would be somewhat odd playing The Descendents, Five Seconds Of Summer, Millencolin and New Found Glory. However, it might seem more tangible to go Descendents, Millencolin, New Found Glory then 5SOS…because you’re generally going on a journey from old school punk to new school pop rock.
It’s hard to explain in a broader blog without getting specific but if my set does change in direction – let’s say from skate punk to emo, or hip-hop to rap-tinged r&b, it’s usually done gradually so the songs have some connection that lead to one another. There are times you can break the rule – I generally play a few nuggets of cheesy chart pop gold in a rock set, and it’s usually better to make it happen at the more unexpected moments, but generally if you’re changing direction without it being novel, this way works best.
However, it might not work out, and you’ll find the dancefloor starts to clear. If you have cleared the dancefloor, you might think it’s easy to go from Song type B immediately back to A. What will make your set seem more consistent (and will appease the few who did enjoy song Type B) is play a song that sits inbetween type A and B. Basically, ensure that you’re prepared for a song to ease people back if you’ve found a change in tone to the set has backfired.
5. Don’t Be a Dick With Other DJs
As mentioned above, I’m usually sharing the privilege of DJing with a number of others and made good friends out of doing so (and the funnest sets I’ve done have usually been tag teaming with a friend). However, it amazes me how many repeatedly grind my gears with their selfishness and bad manners.
If you have an hour’s set, you should be wrapping up with your final song by 5 minutes to the finish (unless every song is a 2 minute one). This allows the DJ following you to cue up their first song, and for you to gather your bits and get out of their way and allow them to start planning their set out and spreading their equipment.
Equally, you should not arrive at the booth any earlier than 5 minutes before. There is nothing more off putting than at quarter or ten to, when you’ve still got a good 4 songs to go, have some dickhead whack out their laptop and start moving your stuff around, invading your personal space and risking drink spillage.
No DJ is more important than anyone else. Sure, you might think the prime 1:30am slot is more important than the earlier ones, but the money made at the bar remains the same. If anything, doing a good job early on and bringing punters in and spending at the bar then is arguably more valuable than the prime slots which almost speak for themselves. It’s not an important debate really – the point is treat your colleagues with the respect you would want to receive. Don’t attempt to cut their set short by dragging yours over or making them rush to finish, it’s just not cool.
There you have it, more 5 golden rules. Again – I’m not a DJ. But if I can establish a successful track record of playing tunes at clubs and being good at it, anyone can.
It’s not rocket science – it definitely requires skill and an advanced knowledge and enthusiasm for music – but it’s something that can be really enjoyable and rewarding if you can do it well.
I do find myself at less clubs than my early to mid twenties, and notably friends older than me do it a lot, lot less. However, there’s an increasing amount of nostalgia themed nights for our generation who want to dance to music from the late 90s / early 00s when we were in our golden years and find the biggest clubs just a bit too young. Perhaps that’s a topic for another time, as it is quite evident that Londoners definitely remain young that bit longer than in other cities where it seems more normal to opt down the settle down with partner and mortgage route meaning demand for club nights not aimed at students is less.
Let me know your thoughts on what you look for in a DJ, and what club nights are missing from your town.