9 Behind-the-scenes Secrets of Party DJs

A few months ago I was interviewed for a magazine article for Mental Floss.  They asked some pretty interesting questions, and I, being as passionate as I am about what I do, was happy to answer.  They didn't use all of my answers, but rather pieced together the answers of a few different DJs to come up with one good read.  Thanks @Mental_Floss!

Click here to read the article

A post about DJ rates

Hey Mr. DJ.,  

My fiancé and I are in the process of planning our wedding.  We’re shopping vendors, and we’re noticing that DJs are the one vendor that doesn’t have a standard price range.  We’ve found them from $300 to $3000, and they all look good.  It’s hard to tell the difference.  How much should we expect to pay, and how do we distinguish the good from the bad?

Thanks in advance for your help.

Sincerely,

Anna Bujitt


This is a good question, and one that I’m sure many people seek the answer to, but are not even sure who to ask.  It’s unfortunately true, that you can find part-time, amateur DJs for as little as nothing these days, and some that will charge what seems like an unreasonable amount of money for essentially just “playing some music”.  I wish I could sum it up by saying you get what you pay for, but that’s not always true either.  Some wedding DJs who charge the highest rates do so only because they’ve been DJing weddings since the golden era, but are not current in their style of DJing or their music.  The short answer is, for a good DJ to do the job right, you should pay somewhere in the mid-hi area of the $300-$3000 range you’ve mentioned, or $300-$400/performance hour (as of 2014).  This is assuming that your DJ is providing your sound system as well, and your guest count is no higher than 200.  Here’s the long answer…  

There are a handful of key factors that should be taken into consideration when a DJ is deciding their rates, so let’s go over those;

How long have they been in business?  Not how long have they been DJing in their bedroom, how long have they been making money from DJing events, and how often do they have gigs?  The more time they’ve spent DJing gigs, the more chances they’ve had to do things wrong, and make sure they’ll never make those mistakes again.  Most DJs will spend their first few years DJing with an experienced crew, kind of like an internship, to learn the ropes and cut their teeth.  That’s not to say that you shouldn’t give a newbie a chance, but newbies should have newbie rates.  And if it’s your wedding day, you may want to consider someone with more experience.  

What type of experience do they have?  They may be the baddest club DJ on the planet, but that doesn’t mean they know how to handle the prep work that goes into a wedding.  It also doesn’t mean they’ll have the level of professionalism required when dealing with wedding clients, or guests making requests.  And sure your younger guests are going to love that nightclub style of mixing and music, but are Mom and Dad going to like it?  It’s an important day for them as well, so you want to make sure they have a good time too.  Your DJ should be versatile with their styles, and should know which style to play, and when.  It’s certainly a bonus if they do currently play at any public venue on a regular basis.  This will keep their music selection and their performance caliber up to date, as well as offer some relevance in the DJ world, so you know they’re not just a bedroom DJ who’s charging a lot simply because they know they can.

Do they have a professional website?  If this is what they do for a living, there’s no reason not to have one these days.  Their website should have pictures of them in action, a description of who they are and what they do, and should definitely offer some music samples.  I often hear about “wedding DJs” that don’t have sample mixes, and their excuse is “every couple is different, so it’s impossible to make a sample mix, as every couple will require a different mix”.  Not true.  It’s possible to make a mix that shows a sample of a DJs range and ability to mix and transition between songs, regardless of the songs in the mix.  A DJ’s demo mix is their resume, and to not have one is the equivalent of walking into any business with no credentials and asking for a job based on trust.  

Do they have a Yelp page, or another place you can read reviews from past clients?  If not you can ask for references, but most career DJs theses days will have some online reviews you can read.  

What equipment will they be using?  If you saw them at a club and they were using turntables, you may have that vision in your head, and that vision may be shattered if they show up to your wedding without turntables.  FYI, most DJs are capable of rocking a wedding just as well without turntables, so don’t feel like they have to have them to do a good job, but I find that most of my clients prefer them aesthetically.  Will they have a subwoofer?  Is their equipment up to date and in excellent shape?  For weddings, it must be.  Will they have a reliable, wireless microphone for toasts and announcements?  If they’re handling the sound for the ceremony, do they have a specific sound system dedicated to this?  If they just plan to plug a lapel mic into the same system they’re going to be DJing on, there’s a good chance that will not go well.  What kind of car do they have?  It should be a spacious vehicle that can obviously carry the amount of equipment needed to DJ a wedding, and then some.  And it should be reliable.  If it’s a ’95 Ford focus, I would consider this an issue.

Do they have insurance?  Most venues may not ask for it, but do require all outside vendors to carry at least a $1mil special event policy.  It’s almost never needed, but you’d hate to find out the hard way that your DJ isn’t covered if something happens.  And on that note, if they were to run a cable past a doorway or across a walkway, what would they do to make sure no one trips over it?  Don’t be afraid to ask them this.  

Are they professional?  Do they have a well written contract?  Can they offer a formal estimate?  Do they have music forms to fill out.  Do they respond to emails or calls in a timely fashion?  If you’ve scheduled a meeting with them, in person or by phone, were they on time?  Do they accept credit cards?  Do they have a business license?  I wouldn’t sweat it too much if they don’t, not many DJs do.  but it does show a level of professionalism if they do.  

Do they have a staff or an assistant?  I don't but my rates are lower than most.  If you hire through an agency, you typically pay more, but it's money well spent.  You have a team of people, each of whom is dedicated to a different aspect of preparation for your wedding to make sure it's a flawless event.  And should something unforeseen happen that prevents your chosen DJ from performing on that day, you're sure to have an adequate replacement on hand.

Do they have any formal training?  That question is really just a bonus, but I feel it’s an important factor when it comes to one’s rates.  Most DJs won’t have any sort of formal DJ training, as DJ schools are a fairly new concept still, and most career DJs didn’t take classes to learn their craft.  But other types of training can apply.  I went to school for audio production and sound engineering, so I know acoustics very well.  I know how many speakers it’s going to take to accommodate any number of guests in a particular space.  I know best speaker placement for acoustics, as well as  pleasing aesthetics.  I know how to properly wire my system, and how to troubleshoot problems with it, should they occur.  I also took classes in business and got my degree in auto mechanics, so I know how to manage my business properly, and the chances of me getting stuck on the side of the road on the way to your wedding are slim.  Any schooling or form of training may apply, so never hesitate to ask about any they may have.  

Do you like them?  If you’re considering a particular DJ for your big day, the chances are good that you’ve spoken to them by phone, or otherwise.  So what kind of vibe did you get from them?  Are they friendly and genuine?  Are they asking the right questions?  Are they asking good questions you haven’t even considered?  That’s a good sign of a seasoned veteran.  Do they seem like they’re being overly agreeable and giving preset answers to your questions just to get the gig?  How do they present themselves, physically and otherwise?  Ask how they will dress at your wedding.  And furthermore, ask about their presentation in general, Do they have a table and linen?  Most caterers or venues will provide the DJ a table and linen, but not all.  It’s good to know if your DJ will come prepared.  Will they do their best to make sure cables aren’t seen and equipment is thoughtfully placed and presented so if it makes it into some pictures, which it most likely will, it doesn’t stand out?  Presentation is a key factor that is quite a bit more important at a wedding or corporate event than at a club.  If you’re hiring through an agency, it’s important that you meet with any DJs they’ve selected for you before making a decision.

Also, do they MC, and to what level.  You should understand that a DJ and MC are two different things, and in hiring one you should not assume you’re getting the other.  Any DJ should be comfortable on the mic, and okay with making general announcements, but they should not be expected to do any extra curricular entertaining on the microphone, or “crowd hyping”.  This is a special talent in itself, and one should expect to pay quite a bit more for this, even if it means hiring someone other than your DJ to handle this task.  On this subject, most people these days are quick to tell me they don’t want this type of MC at their wedding because they find it annoying.  But in all reality, some crowds need this type of encouragement to get on the dance floor after a long day of standing in the sun and drinking and eating excessively for free.  Consider this, and be realistic about your guests.  Keep an eye out for a blog post on this subject in the very near future (www.djvon.com).

If these questions are answered in a manner that satisfies you and makes you feel 110% confident that they are going to do the best possible job of DJing your event, then you should expect to pay around the high end of that range you’ve mentioned, assuming that they are providing a sound system, and that your guest count is no higher than 200.  If you don’t have that kind of budget, then consider which of these factors aren’t important to you, and expect to pay less to a DJ who might not meet all of this criteria.  But anything less than $200/hour, you're entering dangerous territory.  If you do find a DJ that meets all of this criteria and they’re rates are on the lower end of the spectrum, that’s a red flag in itself, and there’s a good chance you’re going to find out the hard way why they are so cheap.  For such an important day, don’t risk it.  


Good luck and best wishes,

Von Woo


**There are many helpful lists of questions to ask your potential DJ online, but too many can be overwhelming.  Not to mention, most aren’t written by DJs, so they venture into territory that does not fall under the umbrella of a DJs responsibilities.  And one major misconception is that all DJs are fully programmable.  They should be versatile and willing to accommodate, but if you’re favorite genre is country and my background is in hip hop and dance clubs, I may not be the right DJ for you.  Here’s a link to what I think is a good short list of questions to ask your DJ.

http://www.bridalguide.com/blogs/the-budget-guru/wedding-dj

A post about Angels with Machine Guns

If I had to choose a favorite song from the Beyonce & Jay Z show last week in SF, it would have to be the one song that neither of them had anything to do with.  In fact, I don't think either of them were on stage for it.  It was a mashup of Machine Gun by Portishead and Angels by The XX that was played toward the end of the show during the video dialogue.  I liked the contrast of the two songs, so I did my best to recreate it here. 

I do realize that these 2 songs have no business being together, so maybe they played it as a metaphor for their relationship.  And to be honest I'm not sure it's worth ever listening to again after right now, so enjoy it while it lasts.

A Facebook post by Digital Dave

A few weeks ago a guy by the name Dave Lander, AKA DJ Digital Dave, posted the following on Facebook.  It's so well written and spot on, I wish I had written it myself.  Although I didn't I still felt it needed to be shared.  So with Dave's approval, I'm posting it on my blog.  Read, absorb, and enjoy!

 

Ladies and Gentlemen of the DJ class of ’14. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, always taking your backpack out of your car would be it. The guarantee of not having your laptop stolen is a provable and beneficial fact whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable
than my own meandering experience…I will dispense this advice now.

Be yourself. As you go through time you will realize that you'll never be able to impress every promoter and every other DJ and in the end you'll be unhappy for not staying true to yourself.

Value yourself. There is no benefit to undercutting others. The result is making enemies, working for substandard pay and supporting a system that will eventually result in someone else undercutting you.

Don't take gigs that don't fit you . If you are a hip-hop DJ taking an EDM gig will only lead to frustration, butting heads with the promoter and no matter what you won't even have fun.

Don't play bangers in your opening set.

Play music for the vibe of the venue where you are performing. Playing DMX in a hookah bar is akin to an Italian Restuarant having General Tso's Chicken on their menu. It will only make you look like a fool.

Try not to let narcissistic customers get you down, not only do they not care about you, they don't care about anyone else in the venue but them self. Whether you play their song or not, let what they say go in one ear and out the other.

Don’t waste your time on jealousy, sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes
you’re behind, the race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself. Remember the compliments you receive, forget the insults. If you
succeed in doing this, tell me how.

Listen to Chromeo.

Don't ever "fake it." You'll only make enemies and in the end you'll never win the race.

Enjoy your gigs. You are blessed to be paid to play music. Do not take it for granted.

Don't play airhorns. Avoid hype mixes at all costs. Don't play mashups in clubs. That all got burnt out by 2008. Realize it and don't fight it.

Play one song every night that most of your crowd doesn't know.

Don't work at clubs with metal detectors. Every club I have worked at with a metal detector someone has always brought a weapon into the club and used it.

Listen to old soul music. Most DJ's never try, those who do try always love it in the end. You will not regret it.

Play for your crowd. This doesn't mean play every request. It solely means to leave your crowd with an overall positive experience.

Maybe you'll play in Vegas, maybe you won't. Maybe you'll produce a number one record, maybe you won't. Maybe you'll have to play polkas at a wedding in a VFW. The race is long make sure you enjoy the trip.

Don't put yourself in a box. If you wanna play something play it. Don't let arbitrary intangible musical boundaries constrict you. Some of the most successful DJs are those who have broken down musical boundaries.

Help your friends and root for them to succeed. There is far too little of this in the DJ world right now. Do it and you can make a positive difference for your culture.

Learn your history. If you don't know Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash, Frankie Knuckles or Larry Levan, look them up. You live in a world where information at your fingertips. Don't forsake the opportunity to learn. Those who came before you spent more time and effort to learn that you can ever imagine. You don't know life without the internet.

Go to a record store at least once in life.

Accept unfortunate realities. Some DJs will always undercut, some owners will always screw you and some customers will always be rude. Don't let it worry you too much, you'll regret not living more carefree in the end.

Some of this advice you may not listen to, some may not apply to you, some you may view as my personal invalidated musings, which is fine. You have every right to do so. But trust me on the backpack.

 

Dave is a great writer in general, if you'd like to follow or learn more about him, here's his Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/djdigitaldave

 

 

Dequest - a post about song requests.

If you’re at a party and you’re not having a good time, you always blame it on the DJ.  Why is that?  If you don’t like the food do you go back in the kitchen and tell the chef?  No you do not, you either don’t eat it, or you cash in on the free meal and keep your mouth shut.  And if it’s so bad you feel something has to be said about it, you still don’t tell the chef, you tell the person throwing the party and let them deal with it.  Why don’t you treat the music the same way?  Is it because the DJ is accessible and vulnerable?  Because they’re right there for you to approach, and you’ve got just enough alcohol in your system to feel okay with telling them how to do their job?  Or is it because they’re DJs so they’re used to accepting requests?  It’s their job, right?  Wrong. This whole audience request thing is nothing new, but it’s certainly gotten out of hand in recent years.  So let's learn how to do it the right way, shall we?…

There are a few ways to properly make a request, if you must.  First of all, don’t assume that we take requests.  Be friendly, have a conversation with the DJ before you jump into asking for something from a perfect stranger.  Keep the conversation brief, we are working.  And understand that we already have our set planned in our heads, so when you decide to spring the question, act like you know that.  Maybe say “any chance you might have _______ on your set list tonight?”  Most DJs will at least consider a good request, but don’t take offense if you don’t hear yours played.  And on that note, a “yes” to your request doesn’t mean you’ll hear it next, or even in the next hour.  It means, “yes, eventually, if I remember”.

There’s really only one way to make sure your request is going to be heard, and that’s with payment.  Cash is the most universal currency, and fellas, opening bid is $20.  If you don’t want to spend that much, then go buy the DJ a drink at least, but I can’t promise that will always work.  Other acceptable forms of currency will vary from one DJ to the next, use your imagination.  

We work hard at what we do.  Trust us, and trust the person who’s party you’re at, for that matter.  If they've invited you and you’ve decided to attend, then kick back and enjoy the ride.  This goes for everything from night clubs to weddings.  It’s not a choose your own adventure, it’s a special event planned by someone who has put an awful lot of thought into how to create the perfect party from start to finish, and has hired the right team to successfully execute that plan.  And if that’s not the case, then perhaps you shouldn’t attend their party.  Or maybe don’t go to a party just because the flyer looked cool.  Good marketing doesn’t always equal good party.  Do some homework on where you’re going to party and spend your evening and hard earned money, or you just might end up at a place you don’t like, or worse, a place with a great DJ that you think is a shitty one because he refuses to play your request.  If you prefer the kind of party where you call the shots, then go to a karaoke bar or one with a jukebox.  Or better yet, throw your own party.  Pay the DJ well, and make all the requests you want.  If you’re at a wedding, remember you’re there for the couple getting married, and they’ve already communicated to their DJ what to play and what not to play.  They also most likely just bought you a meal and some drinks, and have invited you to help make their big day that much bigger.  Don’t ruin it by making selfish song requests.  

And a tip for those hiring a DJ for a special event, especially a wedding or company party:  Try to get your audience requests in ahead of time, that way the DJ can work them into their set while preparing for your party (yes, pros do prepare).  A good way to do this is if you have a wedding website, put a page on there where people can submit requests.  If you don't have a website, send out a mass email, or send a request card with your invitations, and they can return with their RSVP.  This way you can filter out the requests you don't like. 

At the end of the day, know that we are at work, and we’re doing our best to do a good job and make sure everyone has a good time.  That is our aim, I don’t think any DJ walks into work saying to themselves “I hope this party sucks and nobody has a good time”.  Quite the contrary.  And again, albeit fun, it is work for us, treat it as such.  We don’t come to your job and tell you how you can do it better, so give us the same respect.  Please.  Thank You.  See you on the dance floor.

A Post About A Toast

If there's one thing I'm seeing happen way too often these days, it's inappropriate toasts at weddings.  I used to be shocked when this would happen, but it's happening so frequently these days that the shock is wearing off.  It's become commonplace to me to see toasts given that make people completely uneasy, and in some cases must hinder friendships, at least temporarily.  The person giving the toast never realizes that it's gone sour while it's happening, and what's worse is the uncomfortable look on most of the guest's faces, especially the bride and groom.  Sometimes I wish i had a "Wrap-It-Up" button.   

Inappropriate can mean many things.  Of course there is the obvious, like the wedding I did where the grooms ex-turned-bride's best friend droned on telling story after story about good times her and the groom spent together, never actually making a point or cleverly giving it a brilliant "best wishes" ending like everyone hoped she would.  It was the only time ever had to cut off someone's mic during a toast.  I don't think she and the bride were friends anymore after that, just my guess.  Okay, that's a pretty extreme and rare example, but certainly one I had to share for the sake of entertainment.  There are also the less extreme examples of best friends getting up and telling stories of exes, or even parents of bride or groom droning on endlessly about how great their son/daughter is.  That's nice, but it's already made obvious by the fact they just got married.  You don't need to convince us anymore.  Typically what I see is people who get up and off to a good start, but after a few minutes it becomes obvious that they have no plan or direction whatsoever and they're winging it, badly.  I'm sure they have the best intentions, but good intent doesn't make a good toast, and now your wasting the couple's precious and expensive time.  With such easy access to information these days, there is just no excuse for that.  I'm going to cut this paragraph short because honestly I could go on endlessly about the stuff I've seen go wrong. 

So let's get down to some solutions:

Keep it short, sweet, and to the point.  The average attention span of people these days gives you about 2 minutes before they start getting bored.  So that's not to say your toast has to be 2 minutes, but you'd better convince them in those 2 minutes, no, in that first minute, that the rest of your toast is going to be worth paying attention to. 

Google search some information and even some videos on giving toasts.  About half of the toasts I see these days start with "I've never had to give a toast before so I Google searched some tips".  And those usually end up being good ones. 

Practice your speech on someone else, preferably even a few others before the big day.  It will help work out the kinks ahead of time.   What might be hilarious and endlessly entertaining stories to you, may not be to those who weren't there to experience it, and you just might put your audience to sleep with them (I've actually seen this happen).  A practice run on someone else can prevent this.

Write it down.  When I see someone stand up to give a toast and they don't have anything written down, a little panic stirs inside of me, and it's usually justified in the minutes that follow.  People appreciate preparation.  Nobody is impressed by your ability to freestyle a speech.  There are the few rare exceptions to this rule, some folks are just good speakers, they speak clearly and get to the point without taking detours or getting lost on the way.  But those of you who are truly blessed with this ability certainly know who you are, and most of you who aren't still seem to think you are for some reason.  Just play it safe and write it down.

Humor is good, but know where to draw the line.  If the whole toast is shtick, then the crowd is going to think all you have is shtick, and you're not capable of coming up with genuine, positive, well wishes, which is what the toast is all about.    

I would assume that last statement is obvious, but I'm learning the hard way that the simplest concepts aren't so obvious anymore.  Having said that, I must state the most obvious thing of all;

THIS DAY IS ABOUT THE BRIDE AND GROOM!!!

This seems to be so easily and often forgotten by the guests at weddings.  I can't keep track of the number of times I want to say to people at every wedding "this is not your day, it's theirs, and they planned it this way".  But there's too much to write on that subject alone, so I'll save it for another, or many other blog posts.   

And a note to any couple planning a wedding, I've never seen an "open toast" situation go well.  Ever.  The number of things that can go horribly wrong are never considered ahead of time.  But they happen, and you don't realize it until it's too late, and nothing can be done about it.  Either appoint a few special people to say something, or let your guests know ahead of time that there will be no open toasts so anyone who would like to say something should submit their request to do so well in advance.  If you have a website for your wedding, this is a perfect place to let this be known.  You assume that all of your guests have the best intentions, and your best interest in mind, but once the train starts rolling and the alcohol starts flowing, that train can derail pretty quickly if the tracks aren't laid properly.

If you need help planning a toast for a wedding, here are some helpful links: 

 

I tried to look for video samples but found no good ones.  If you know of any, please leave them in comments.   

Note: the most common denominator I've found in all toasting tips is to toast sober.  One drink is good to calm nerves, but more than that could get you in trouble. 

Good luck!  Now go forth, and toast right!