I never — and I mean never — would have guessed that at some point in my life, I would make a living playing music.
I kind of play clarinet, I can lead a rag-tag campfire singalong on guitar, and I can plunk out a few chords on the keyboard.
But two years ago I was desperate for work, and, in a sea of job postings, one seemed to jump off the screen.
Wanted: Part-time DJ’s for Busy DJ Company.
When I started out, I knew nothing about sound equipment, had never tried to mix one track into another, and I certainly had no intention of building a reputation as a DJ. I was surprised to learn that creating a killer dance floor has a lot less to do with technical skills than I had originally thought, and a lot more to do with connecting with people.
Want to know how to become a DJ?
Firstly, I’d recommend reading this interview with dj questlove, founding member of The Roots, as it holds some of the most influential advice on DJing that I have ever read.
Failing that, here are the five most important things I’ve learned while falling in love with my job.
1—Use Emotional Connection And Familiarity To Get People Dancing
Generally, people don’t dance to songs they don’t know.
Occasionally, if you’ve already won them over, you can sneak in some unfamiliar stuff towards the end of your show, but by and large, familiarity is the key to engaging a crowd.
No, I don’t want to play the chicken dance.
But the truth is, for some people, old ‘cliche’ songs are part of the fabric of their memory, and a night isn’t complete until they’ve made little chicken-mouth hand motions beside their Auntie Kathy on the dance floor.
That said, the best kind of familiarity to play on is the nostalgia of when people first started listening to music – what was popular when your crowd was 16-25? I love playing for a crowd that is mostly my age, because I know exactly what late-nineties pop music is going to play on those nostalgia cords.
There’s a certain age of women who run to the dance floor when ABBA comes on, and a certain age of men that will almost always get out of their seats for the Rolling Stones. Use that to your advantage.
2—It’s Not About You
It may seem counter-intuitive to building your reputation as a DJ, or your personal 'brand,' if you will, but your performance is not about you. It is about your crowd.
You may cringe when you drop it, but if a song you hate elicits a cheer from the dance floor, guess what? It’s making you appear to be The Best DJ Ever in their eyes.
If you want your crowd to remember you after they leave the dance floor, you’re going to have to check your ego at the door, and play whatever it takes to keep the dance floor moving.
A good DJ is always listening and always watching.
Dinner music is a crucial time to collect information on your crowd that you can use to build your dance floor later. I am always watching the room, looking for what gets heads bobbing. Sometimes a song comes on during cocktails, and you see a person’s head go back and a smile come across their face as they say, ‘Oh! Great song!’ Pay attention to those moments, and make note of the reaction certain songs get from the crowd.
Sometimes people will surprise you. For example, one time a mother of the groom, easily in her sixties, insisted that I play only Macklemore as the night carried on – but often clues gathered from ages and cultures are a good hint.
4—Tailor Your Set List To Your Crowd
NEVER use pre-made playlists – not even for dinner or cocktail hour. It’s stagnant, cliché, and boring.
I can’t tell you the number of times that I have had guests come up to me to tell me that their expectations for me as a wedding DJ were very low – and do you know where that comes from? The fact that every wedding they’ve been to in the past decade has had the same music, played with the same games, spliced with the same old slow songs, preceded by the same dinner music.
I love the classics just as much as anyone else, but people are sick and tired of hearing the same old music.
5—Continually Expand Your Music Knowledge
I am always, always listening for inspiration.
If I’m watching a movie, and I hear something new I think will work well during an event, I write down some lyrics and find it later. Some people use Shazam, which is good too. I never have. I think I like the thrill of the chase, trying to track down that mysterious new melody.
Sometimes I hear an old song, that I forgot even existed, and I think, yes! This will be perfect for that wedding I’ve got coming up – the one that wanted lots of jazz.
I don’t listen to the radio much, but I try to make a point to when I am about to DJ for a young crowd. A few hours of listening to a Top 40 station, and you’ll definitely know what the current number one songs are.
Lastly, if there is one thing you take away, let it be this:
6—Connect With Your Audience On A Personal Level
This isn’t just crucial when it comes to music selection, it is also what will win your clients over.
If people trust you and like you and feel that you are there to serve them, it’s rare that they will give poor feedback, even if your dance floor falls flat.
When it comes to gear and technology, fake it until you make it. Learn as you go. A basic understanding of gear will go a long way, but truly, every venue is different, and it will take a while before you are prepared to walk into a situation/venue and anticipate potential challenges, and that is only learned through trial and error.
No one wants to make an error when all eyes are on them, but truly, people forget about these things if you connect with them on a personal level, or through playing music that tickles their nostalgia bone.
Here’s one parting gift: Sam Cooke. Go buy his Portrait of a Legend album. Every song on that album can be part of creating an epic dance floor. I’ll let you figure out how.
Cover photo by Adam Gaumont.