Opinion: Why A Digital DJ Should Never Play From Behind The Bar

A band would never play from behind a bar, so why should a DJ? Pic from: rubyturner.com

A band would never play from behind a bar, so why should a DJ? Pic from: rubyturner.com

I'm not going to front. I'm a newbie to the DJ game, a newbie in his early forties. But I want to tell you what I already know: that if you get a gig in a bar, you should do everything you can to avoid being made to play from behind the bar itself. Here's why:

A year ago, my first gigs involved me plugging my laptop into the bar's stereo system, a system located behind the bar counter. At first, I just worked for booze. As time passed, I began receiving a percentage of bar sales. Plus I kept tips and still received free booze. Soon, I realised I was positioned in a bad spot. Because of my location behind the bar counter, bar patrons mistook me for a bartender. Also, because they were closer to the DJ, patrons sitting at the bar counter held the most influence on my music choice. Some nights this proved irritating.

For DJs who hate being treated like a jukebox, being located at the bar counter makes matters worse. Many nights, I've had counter sitters request song after freakin' song all night... and who didn't tip. Being a Wednesday night DJ, I would sometimes do a Friday or Saturday night. Sometimes, I would do both nights right after the other. Band cancellations caused this.

It's important to be seen

A funny thing would happen on Fridays and Saturdays. Between 10pm and 12am, the bar would be packed. After 12am, patrons would drift away. Now the bar would be dead. The owner and I assumed it was the bar's existence in a small town. Because Fridays and Saturdays are usually live band nights, I assumed patrons respected bands more than DJs. Bands rarely had problems with the bar going dead, unless they really sucked. Also, I secretly wondered whether my skills had anything to do with it.


The bar: Great place to mix cocktails, not such a good place to mix tunes.

Because of another band cancellation, the laptop and I contributed another Saturday night performance. This night was different. As I entered the bar, I noticed an amp on the stage. To this, I hooked up the laptop and an old floor speaker the bar owned (yes, this was ghetto). Still, the ghetto sound system caused an unexpected response from bar patrons. Unlike my previous Friday and Saturday nights, bar patrons remained in the bar past 12am.

From that point on, my nights remained onstage. I plugged a mic into the bar's only instrument amp. That's how I made announcements. I still do it that way too. Every since I moved onstage, attendance for my nights increased. During this time, I found another bar, a place I currently DJ every other Sunday night. At this spot, the laptop and I are located at the bar counter. And I hate it. As before, people sit next to me and attempt influencing my music choice. A gig does not go by without this happening.

Also, I'll never forget the night some drunk women kept feeling all over me. Oh yeah, poor me, right? Boobs and booty grinding against me, and I complain. But the thing is that first, drunk women do this to influence your music choice, and second, I just can't concentrate with all this going on...

Why digital DJs deserve the spotlight

A good digital DJ is not just another laptop idiot. They are the evening's entertainment, the reason a bar patron decides to order another drink before going home. Also, they're the reason booty shaking begins. If a booth isn't available, these are the reasons why the digital DJ needs to be onstage, and nowhere near a bar counter. True enough, many of us own nothing more than a laptop and an external hard drive, but we still deserve the same respect as bands and vinyl DJs. A talented digital DJ brings the bar more money than it would have seen that night, even if the bar didn't make a lot of money compared to other nights.

So my advice to my fellow digital DJ peers is: If you can avoid it, resist setting up at the bar counter. My short experience proves why. Onstage, I gain respect. At the bar counter, I'm treated like just another laptop idiot.

• DJ Stone Crazy is a DJ from Central Florida, USA. Here's his blog.

Are you a bar DJ who's got to DJ from behind the counter? How do you think it affects the audience? How does it affect your DJing? Let us know your thoughts please in the comments.

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  1. Good article, DJ Stone Crazy; I thank you for writing it. :)

    However, I'd suggest you actually wind up making a compelling argument against the "It's Important to Be Seen" and "...Deserve the Spotlight" headlines in the article. Did you notice how your show became more effective when you abstracted away from the audience (physically?) That's because your *craft* was able to come to the forefront. When people were no longer in close physical proximity to you, drooling on your keyboard and hollering in your ear, the sound coming from the speakers became you identity.

    That's where you won and continue to win. People come to the bar not to interact with you/me/us; they are there to interact with each other. They are there to have a good time. The drinks passing over the bar contribute to that, and so too does the music. Analogous to the cocktails, the better and stronger you mix YOUR brew, the happier your audience will be. The net? They stay longer and come back again. Why? Because they are having the good time they sought with each other.

    Music is the drug.

    My experience has taught me, over and over again, that if you are doing your job well, the audience cares not who you are nor what gear you use. They care if they are having fun. In any crowd, there will be a few annoying exceptions to this, sure. Every industry has armchair-quarterbacks who need to feed their insecurities by nosing into your booth, bemoaning how "easy it must be since the computer is doing all the work." Smile and nod; that full and happy dance floor is your true caliper.

    But, it looks like you've quickly figured all this out already. Keep up the good work and congrats on the steady gigs! :)

  2. I agree with the viewpoint. In the right spot, the DJ can be seen as important as a band and thus people stay out, thinking there is entertainment.

    It's even why I'll bring secondary controllers like my MPD24 and Midi-Fighter. Even if I don't use them like crazy, people get off on seeing someone with loads of gear around them, like they're some special act.

  3. Correct me if I'm wrong but isn't the patron the boss of the club and not a customer?

  4. Don't forget, I knew you when !!

  5. it depends on what kind of bar you play, sometimes when you play on stage you can get isolated and you need the contact with the people..... i played in many bars now and i always enjoyed it more when i played behind the bar...

    • What I do is keep my eye on the crowd. Sometimes, when the crows is in one room while I'm in another, I would walk into the crowd's room and see if they're grooving to the music. When I see a foot or hand tapping, I happily go back to "work".

  6. captainhit@comcast.net says:


    Is a musician / DJ that composes produces some if not all of their EDM tracks in his studio no longer a musician ?

    Did "spell check" destroy the art of writing ?

    Djing is the art of playing records OR using parts of recordings as a music sound generator (samples) i.e. a true musical instrument.

    Any person playing sounds in an organized nature inspired by emotional inspiration is a MUSICIAN ! (THE definition of music by the way !). DJs are musicians by the definition of music.

    Am I, as a DJ, learn to DJ using vinyl ? You bet. Saying that, at the age of 5 years, did I learn my scales on the piano, start slower with Mozart (a true musical giant) who was deceptively difficult and then later played Chopin and Beethoven AND THEN played jazz doing the same as learning the basics of DJing, learning my scales and doing endless hours of classical music that exercises your mind and fingers ? Every time I played a Miles Davis song on piano, I played it differently with say a jazz quintet. Miles went through HELL when he came out with "Bitches Brew" and used a Fender electric piano ( Herbie Hancock)! Another example, HELL was raised at the music conservatory I studied in when students started playing Bach on a Hammond B-3 ! God forbid ! BUT then they could sit at a 5 manual church pipe organ and wail ! PLEASE with the picky crap !

    Oh, while I am on a rant, how on earth does a concert DJ que HUGE light shows and fireworks without sync equipment i.e. already composed and produced electronic music tracks FOR THE MOST PART. Most all DJs improvise with their basic pre-produced and precomposed music especially in a LARGE concert setting. Some don't , but I BET one of their decks is probably synchronizing by at least a click track that is hooked to the light show and fireworks being used thusly, no wandering from the BASIC structure of his/her set.. Oh, and about deadmau5, which I have seen pretty busy behind what on earth he has up there, meaning a lot being his inventions - are you being booked as much as he AND is your music REALLY as good ?

    From an old fart that has played clubs in rock bands in biker bars to concert groups in front of 250,000, the audience is the genius. You better make 100 to 100,000 people happy unless you want your ass thrown off stage ! Milli Vanilli - I heard them in a studio after "the incident" and they can sing - mediocre but can sing in tune ! They wanted the freedom to dance and unfortunately for them, were one of the first to use tracks but unlike OTHERS at the time, got "caught". Does one really think that all the famous hip-hop artists, pop artists who dance and do cartwheels on stage can sing in tune while doing "gymnastics"? One is an exception, Michael Jackson. I have been back stage with some very famous country stars and some couldn't sing in tune to save their lives (but could deliver the EMOTION AND MESSAGE of the song). Got news for those who don't know, their are ALWAYS racks of studio equipment i.e. a complete recording studio below that grated stage of ANY large concert. The audience WANTS what they hear on the CD -- unless your a jazz group or The Grateful Dead ! For those who bitch about sync buttons, stop using time to complain and do better or as good as the top 30 DJs and you will find out that at that level, it isn't easy as you think ! Doesn't mean one can't just perform the best they are have but when the 128 measures are up, it might be a good idea to follow your "set" !

    Again, you as MUSICIANS and ALSO ENTERTAINERS and are working for the audience with the music you love to make. The audience will tell you real quick their "reviews" about your music - with or without sync buttons just for starters ! And remember, your job is to make people happy WHILE you are happy with way you make your music. By the way their are people who still love to play a harpsichord and a VERY good at and I love to hear it but there are MANY more pianists that perform a whole lot more and I love that too. What will be played and how 50 years from now ?
    "Music Without Prejudice"
    Duane Hitchings

    Website NOT an add, just another place some can bitch at me ! By the way Phil, thank you for your hard work and dedication. I have taken a couple of courses and though somewhat experienced, I have learned things every time ! Cheers !

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