I reached out to several DJs who regularly DJ dance events across Europe. I asked them if they could share what system they use to organize themselves for DJ’ing, some pros and cons of their system, and any advice they have for beginner DJs.
Photo: Jelena Lihatsova
I use iTunes to create lots of playlists based on style/tempo/instrumentation etc. When I get a new album I listen through it and split tracks into different styles of Blues/Swing/Fusion (one track can go on multiple playlists) and over time I’ve built up a library of these playlists. For example, I have a harmonica Blues playlist, or a ‘Lounge Blues’ playlist. I then select tracks from these styles to prepare a long list for an event knowing only about 2/3 of the tracks will get played. Before the event, I know when I’ll be playing and I can judge what an overall theme or style for the time of night. Many organizers will request something based on what live music is playing that night or similar. On the night I pick from the long list based on how the room is going.
A main pro is that I get to know my music pretty well and it’s all in the one place and I think that allows me to select good tracks for the mood.
A con is that it takes up a lot of space on my laptop and that buying all my music is expensive.
Advice in general is to start by making playlists, whether Spotify or iTunes, then get started in your local scene’s small socials. When deciding if a track is good enough, think not just if you enjoy it, but if it’s GOOD to dance to. Actually get up and dance to it!
Malcolm is booked to DJ in February at Double Shot Blues & Fusion. If you wish to contact him, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
JÖRG “DJ GRANDPA SLOWHAND” SEEMUND
Photo: Chris Stephenson
Yes, I have a system to organize my music. I label each song with as many descriptions as possible. I use all of the tagging options available in my “Virtual DJ” program. So this means that for each song, I have many different ways to categorize it, and the end result is a well organized database. The fields I use are song title, artist, album, genre, comment, and beats per minute. In the “commentary” field, I put which language the song is in. In the “album” field I store descriptors like Christmas, Birthday or New Year’s Eve, and in the “genre” field I do a finer division of the style of music. For example slow Blues, dance Blues, slow grind, Ska, Waltz or “pause music” (which I play during meals). This means I can match very specific requests. On request, I can play a fast Swedish Blues, a slow French Swing, or a song for birthday, etc…
Then there are the playlists. These can arise in different ways. Either putting together a list of songs I want to play beforehand, or creating the playlist “on the fly” during an event. I use both types. They help me to improve my work. For example, if I’m to play for the second or third time at the same event, and I can assume that many dancers were there on the first or second times and listened to my music, I make sure to watch the old playlists so I do not play the same music.
When I’m preparing playlists, most of the time I will put twice as many songs in the list as I can play in the evening. And yet, the result is, what I actually play that evening is always different. This means that while I’m playing, I’m looking for more songs from my database and am constantly changing the order in which the songs are played. It depends on how the mood on the dance floor is, what music the band or DJ before me played, what time we have or what wishes the dancers have. The bar for me is always “How full is the dance floor?”
What advice would I give to new DJs? Know your music and know the lyrics if possible. You should not play a Blues song with ambiguous or dubious lyrics at a feminist ball. Talk to the dancers. Keep eye contact with them. Check out what other DJs are doing and learn from them. Play the music for the dancers and not for yourself.
Photo: Enric Duch
I like to think about myself as a “music supervisor” – a person who creates soundtracks for the movies, in this case a long and boring dance party where nothing happens, people just dance. So I feel that this soundtrack must be really good 😉
But jokes aside… I don’t think much about organizing music or having a system. It somehow comes naturally. Since my DJ style is very spontaneous, I use Spotify, because it makes it very easy for me to search for songs from my old memories, or discover new music. I tend to hoard songs.
I have one big playlist with all sorts of Blues music, something around 320 songs, it is getting bigger with every year. Also at the beginning of the new year I start a new Blues and a new Fusion playlist and add songs that I discover along the way – these are my two “soundtracks for my year.”
When I know that I’ll be DJ’ing at a bigger event, I usually create a playlist with the name of the event a few weeks or months beforehand. I will add songs that I know and like, as well as some new discoveries – all the songs that make me think “Wow, this might be a great song for dancing.” Or just an interesting experiment.
At the event, it really all depends on the atmosphere at the party and… my mood. Even if I had some songs in mind, a playlist full of good choices, I usually end up playing a few songs that I hadn’t thought about, they just came to my mind when I was observing people, feeling the atmosphere. Sometimes it just hits me, I feel that people are in the right moment for this particular song I just thought about three seconds ago, or that I just remembered a song that I haven’t heard for a long time and I want to listen to it right now. Or maybe I talked to someone about a certain song and I thought “Why don’t I play it tonight?”. So it turns out that it’s not really the DJ who has an impact on the dancers and the atmosphere, but very often it’s the atmosphere and the dancers that influence the DJ. Maybe DJ’ing is like dancing in fact. You start as a leader and then you end up switching.
What is the main pro of my method?
Well, as I am a song “hoarder” and an improviser, the biggest pro is an ability to be in the moment, to feel a little adrenaline maybe, to watch people dance without having to explain why you’re not dancing. Also watching people dance to your choice of music is like staring at a bonfire, you just add some wood to it and enjoy, it calms me down.
I never play the same set of songs, so this could be a pro – that every set is different, you can never get bored with your own music. Playing your favorite music for your favorite people, making them smile after the dance is a great satisfaction and a big honor, I get very emotional sometimes, too, it can be very touching. I think it’s a big PRO just having the chance to do it, whatever method you choose.
What is the main con of my method?
Probably that I can’t just press play and go dancing. Also for me a little con is that sometimes I feel “Oh, no, this is not good, I shouldn’t have played this one” or “F**k, I thought the song was something else.” Sometimes I am not sure if I remember how the song sounds, I only remember that I wanted to play it. So the risk of playing the “wrong” song may be a little stressful sometimes. But on the other hand it can also lead to some really unexpected discoveries.
What advice would I give new DJs?
Just one? If just one then it would be: play the music you like and would like to dance to, because you will never satisfy everyone, so at least you can enjoy the music yourself. And have a drink. Or two. And listen, listen to music.