9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Party DJs
By Suzanne Raga
Where would a wedding or a bar mitzvah be without the DJ? Disc jockeys provide more than the playlist—they set the mood, get people dancing, and sometimes even emcee the reception. But there’s plenty of work that goes on behind the scenes, too. We talked to a few DJs to find out more about how they work, what they do and don’t want to see at a party, and what to know before you hire one.
1. DJS PUT IN A LOT OF WORK BEFORE THE PARTY STARTS.
Although some people think that DJs simply show up to an event with a laptop and press play, being a DJ actually requires a ton of work behind the scenes. DJ Jeffty, who spins at parties in the San Francisco Bay Area, explains that paperwork tasks such as drafting contracts, processing venue/vendor agreements, getting gate codes and parking access, and filing tax and insurance forms is a time-consuming requirement.
“A lot of what I do is involved with pre-planning, and curating the playlist for each event,” he says. “For a wedding, pre-planning can be anything from site visits, lighting design, being involved with the rehearsal, coordinating/sound checking with performers, or practicing pronouncing the names of the bridal party!”
DJs must also arrive early at the venue to coordinate any extras such as lighting, props, dancers, and video projectors. Setting up, and later breaking down, equipment can also take a significant amount of time and effort.
2. SO THEIR FEE MIGHT BE HIGHER THAN YOU WERE EXPECTING.
The fees for DJs are all over the map, from a few hundred dollars to more than a thousand. Most DJs stress that you get what you pay for—a cheap DJ may only work a few gigs per month and not have quality equipment. More expensive DJs usually have more experience, professional equipment, a large music library, and are licensed and insured.
3. MOST DJS HATE CARPETS, BRIGHT LIGHTS, AND DRY EVENTS.
DJs prefer working in venues with a wood or tile dance floor, rather than carpet, because carpet isn’t conducive to dancing—it just feels awkward. DJs also like to spin in a dark room, since most people are too self-conscious to bust their moves in glaring lights. Finally, alcohol loosens people up so they hit the dance floor without inhibitions.
4. THEY HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT TAKING REQUESTS.
The last thing DJs want is a dead crowd. To encourage people to dance, DJs play a variety of well-known songs, switching up the genre and time period frequently to appeal to the most people. Good DJs also intuitively sense any lulls in the crowd’s energy and play a different song to get the party back on track.
Some DJs are loath to take requests because they know that certain songs will kill the vibe on the dance floor—and after all, they’ve already spent a bunch of time putting together the perfect playlist. However, other DJs will encourage requests.
“I am well aware that many DJs do not like to be approached while they are working an event,” DJ Jeffty says. “But personally, I believe that requests are essential to getting a read on what the crowd likes. I don't play every request I receive, but I do welcome the interaction with the crowd. In the end, the event is not about me ... it's about my clients and their guests.”
5. KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PART- AND FULL-TIME DJS.
For some DJs, spinning is not their full-time gig. These DJs may work as a freelance contractor for a company that takes a percentage of the fee. Because big DJ companies rely on volume for their business, you may have little say over which DJ you actually get for your event. Other DJs are independent, working for themselves or running their own company. For most successful independent DJs, it’s their full-time job—they spin at parties on the weekends and evenings, and they run their business during the day. Price points and levels of professionalism vary, so you should speak with potential DJs to get a sense of how well they would fit for your event.
6. THEY WANT FOOD, BUT WILL PROBABLY DECLINE A DRINK.
Party etiquette dictates that the photographer, videographer, and florist should get a meal during an event … and don’t forget about the DJ. Whether or not they’re emceeing your party, they probably also need to eat at some point. However, they may not want to drink.
“I think that every DJ should get a meal … Please feed your DJ! As far as drinking, I choose not to drink alcohol. I want to always put my best foot forward for my clients,” DJ Jeffty says.
Vaughn Wooster, a.k.a. DJ Von Woo, a DJ in the Bay Area, stresses that every event is different, and in some cases it may be acceptable for DJs to discreetly eat their vendor meal at the booth, “in case any unforeseen changes in the music happen.”
But because alcohol can hinder a DJ’s ability to perform at his or her best, Jerry Laskin, a DJ and owner of Jerry Laskin Enterprises, which serves New York and surrounding states, says that alcohol “should never be an option for the DJ or entertainers booked.”
7. THERE’S MORE MONEY IN BAR MITZVAHS THAN IN WEDDINGS.
2015 data compiled by job listing website Thumbtack showed that on average, DJs charge 32% more for bar and bat mitzvahs than weddings. According to Joel Macht, president of SpotlightLA, the DJ/emcee for a bar mitzvah “will be out and involved with the crowd, running games, setting up the photo montage, explaining how the candle-lighting works, and so on.” Entertaining a group of young teenagers requires more interaction, energy, and skills than entertaining adults. Bar mitzvahs are also more likely than weddings or birthday parties to feature dancers, special lighting, and audio/visual techs, which all add to the cost.
8. TAKE THE AWARDS AND REVIEWS ON SOME DJS' WEBSITES WITH A GRAIN OF SALT.
The wedding services industry brings in $60 billion of revenue annually. To differentiate themselves from the competition and attract eyeballs, some wedding DJs put awards on their websites. Russ Messick, a DJ who specializes in weddings, writes on his website that DJs who pay for advertising get an award to display: “It's quite the joke. DJs love to tout their ‘awards’ they claim they have been bestowed … A bit misleading, but brides and grooms don't know it.”
Messick also reveals that he spends $800 to $1400 per month to be featured on wedding sites, while other DJs post their own fake, positive reviews on wedding sites to try to get more clients. “There is no real way to know for sure whether reviews are real or fake,” Messick says.
9. WORD OF MOUTH IS THE MAIN WAY THEY GET MORE GIGS.
DJs who have done a great job spinning at parties say they get more and more clients via word of mouth. Former clients will recommend DJs to their friends, and every guest who attends a party is a potential client. Laskin says his company’s best recommendations come “from former satisfied clients as well as repeat customers, venues, caterers and decorators who have enjoyed our work, as well as event planners and orchestras. A smaller percentage comes from our online ad campaigns and social networking blogging and channels.”
All images courtesy of iStock