Thomas Cox argues that promoters need to be more critical when booking DJs to play at their parties.
Throwing a good party should be easy. The basics are simple: find a venue, get a soundsystem, book the right DJ. It’s the last of those three that often seems to cause problems.
A good party relies on many moving parts, most of which are not the responsibility of the DJ. But once those other things are adequately taken care of, it’s the job of the DJ to hammer it all home. So why do so many parties still fall flat? Having been involved with dance music for two decades, it astounds me to see the same mistakes being made over and over again. These ideas are rarely discussed out loud in the industry, and most of the mistakes are interrelated. Let’s examine what it means to book a DJ who knows how to rock a party.
Picking the right DJ is probably the single most defining choice for a party. This is the person in charge of setting the atmosphere for the evening, taking the energy of the room up and down, sending everybody home at the end of the night feeling fulfilled. But not every DJ is created equal. Despite being a relatively simple concept at its most basic level, DJing is clearly difficult enough that there are many DJs being booked all over the world who have no business being on that level.
The first mistake happens when skills are ignored in favour of celebrity status. If the main draw to a party is the fact that the headliner has a few popular records right now, that should send up red flags immediately. More producers than ever before are out on the road playing DJ gigs to generate income, despite not really being DJs. Sadly, there is zero direct relationship between the quality of a producer’s recorded output and the quality of their DJ sets. Even worse, it’s now impossible to gain any insight into a producer’s DJ skills from listening to their mixtapes, which can be as much a product of studio skills as their original tunes. As such, one would expect it to come out sounding good if they’re already making music on that level.
Picking the right DJ is probably the single most defining choice for a party.
Weak DJs typically fall into a few common traps which are detrimental to the quality of a party. I’ve seen many DJs play what sounded like a planned set. They played exactly one style of music at one energy level through their whole set, even when the situation called for something to change. I’ve watched ‘name’ DJ headliners clear an entire party out without even trying something different to stem the tide of heads walking out the door. This is pretty much inexcusable from anyone, much less a headliner. The entire point of a good party is the symbiotic relationship between crowd and DJ, where energy levels are amplified by playing the right record at the right time. If this most basic of premises is a problem, everything else in the party is going to go very poorly.
Another very common trap is that of inexperience. I know every DJ has to start somewhere, but that place should not be at a packed party, killing the energy in the room. I’ve heard stories of recently hyped producers DJing at major clubs, playing a large chunk of their set with the filters on the mixer engaged, cutting the bass to the soundsystem. There are live sets online from hyped DJs that sound as if they’ve never mixed two songs together before in their entire lives. The number of DJs I’ve seen distorting or clipping the shit out of their music and blasting out the eardrums of the crowd would fill ten more columns the same length as this one.
Every DJ has to start somewhere, but that place should not be at a packed party, killing the energy in the room
I wouldn’t expect someone to go from zero DJing experience to playing headline slots at parties in just a few years, yet these guys are thrown into it by promoters trying to ride the hype wave. This is almost always to the detriment of the overall quality of the party, and of course to the promoter’s reputation as well. Dance music DJing is, like most other things worth doing, a skill that will increase over time and with experience. A good DJ will be familiar with most DJ equipment, understand gain staging, and have a musical style benefitting from many years in the game. These should not be considered optional skills; they should be the bare minimum when choosing a DJ to play at a party.
Promoters need to be strict about their criteria for booking DJs. I have a mental exercise I use for deciding which DJ to book at a party, or even whether I should go out to see a DJ perform at a party. I call it the Backyard BBQ Test. The idea is that a BBQ in your backyard with your friends and family in attendance is basically one of the easiest, lowest-pressure DJ gigs around. If I wouldn’t trust a DJ to play a set that will please that group of people in that setting, why would I trust them to play in a higher pressure situation at a nightclub, loft, or warehouse party? People are paying good money to come and have an amazing experience; all it takes is a knowledge of music and the basic DJ skill set.
Even guys like Jeff Mills or Anthony Parasole, known for a more punishing techno style, are gonna bring out some René & Angela or some freestyle to play at the BBQ. They know music, and most importantly they know how to play the right music at the right time to a variety of crowds in a variety of situations. If all a DJ does is play one style of ‘heads’ music all the time, what happens when the party isn’t full of heads? Even more importantly, how exciting are parties where it’s just heads? The best parties are a mix of freaks, crazy people, heads, weirdos, and even some douchebags. A real DJ knows how to handle that kind of situation with no worries.
Choosing a DJ for a party is really not much different to a DJ choosing records. You need to have knowledge of what you’re doing, and you need to choose correctly to get the job done properly. Buying into the hype behind a name or choosing a friend of a friend to do a favour all has the same result: a weak party. The party is central to the whole idea of dance music. A weak party is a cardinal sin against what dance music represents. The good thing is that by starting small, and building size and experience, both party throwers and DJs can learn their craft. There’s no shame in walking before you run. The more time and energy spent learning these skills, the better the whole dance music scene will become.
Thomas Cox has been causing trouble on teh interwebs since 1996 and representing Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania since birth. You can argue with him on Twitter.