Sometimes it's obvious your crowd has had a good time. Packed dancefloor, screaming girls, sweaty faces, a sea of movement, colour and smiles. It's what all DJs dream of, and we never forget it when we get it.
But not all gigs are like this. Half-empty clubs, bars without a dancefloor, too-cool venues where people just won't let their hair down - all these places need DJs too, and they can also be great places to play. But the question is: In places where it's not too obvious, how do you know your crowd is having (or has had) a good time?
More than that, how do you fight the demons that tell you your crowd is not not having a good time - and that it's your fault? Because once the paranoia sets in and you think you're wrecking everyone's night... well, at that stage, standing in front of a crowd can be one of the loneliest, most horrible places in the world for a DJ to be.
So today I'm going to give you a toolkit to deal with those kinds of negative emotions. Simple stuff that I know to be true. How do I know? Because I've played everywhere from a venue with 10 people in (when my housemate came up to me and said: "Phil, pack it in. Go home!"), to the biggest club in the world, packed with thousands of people. I've dealt with all these emotions before, and I know how to come out the other side smiling, with a more accurate picture of how the crowd has enjoyed the night. Here's how:
1. Assume everyone's having a good time.
Remember, people have chosen to be in the venue you're DJing at, and people tend to start from a state of "all is OK", so don't get paranoid and start convincing yourself otherwise. That one big night out a week is a big deal to most people. Hell, any night out is a big deal to lots of folk. Assuming they're hell-bent on making the most of it is a safe thing to do.
And importantly, never let that one drunken idiot giving you abuse spoil your evening. Someone once said that it's not what people say to us that hurts us, it's how we deal with it. You've done your homework, you've thought a lot more about the music for this night than they have, so trust your instincts and ignore unreasonable words. Even if there are changes or corrections to your style, your record collection, or your approach that you decide may have to be made, mid-set is not the time to make them. Sure, fine-tune what you're doing (that's what good DJs do, after all) - but definitely ignore the idiot telling you to "play something I can dance to". He's not the DJ. You are.
2. Leave the DJ booth for a bit.
Put a longer record on and wander off to the bar, chat to some friends for a couple of minutes, even just saunter along to the restrooms. The idea is to get out of the role of DJ, into the role of punter. That should help settle your nerves, and tune you in more to what your crowd is feeling. I love the idea of not treating your DJ booth like a prison, rather like a place you should be most (not all) of the time when you're DJing.
(By the way, have you ever been DJing, when a DJ you know - or worse, a group of DJs - walks in? Have you felt an almost primal urge to change the music you're playing to impress the other DJs, temporarily forgetting about your crowd? It's a bad move, and this trick is the one to use to tune you back in to your crowd and help you to counter those temptations.)
3. Be cool.
Grab a beer, turn the monitor speakers up a bit, play something YOU really love, to get you back "in the mood". You don't have to play for the crowd 100% of the time. DJing is a confidence thing, and people are looking to you for their cue to have a good time. So be selfish for five minutes and do something for yourself.
Your "crowd radar" will be better tuned once you've done this, and you'll spot the little signs of fun that maybe were passing you by before. As Chris Martin sang: "God give me style and give me grace; God put a smile upon my face". Be cool. You're alive. You're the DJ. Smile.
4. Have someone you trust in the crowd feeding back to you
Girlfriend, boyfriend, bar manager, best mate... pick someone who enjoys socialising and who'll naturally be mingling with your crowd, and ask them how the night's music is going down. Pick someone you trust, who has no agenda of their own, and who can be honest with you, though!
5. Remember, no news in good news
"If people have a good night, they leave quiet but happy and if they've had a bad night, they'll tell you about it in no uncertain terms." Wise words from Tu Kai, a DJ, bar manager and reader of this website. Remember, for a lot of people, music is a background. Whether or not they have a good time is not in your control.
So don't take it on your own shoulders so much - some nights will go well, some not so, and you can't always control this. Enjoy your music, and trust everyone in the crowd has enjoyed it in their own way. Because normally, they have.
Do you play in venues where your crowd is sometimes hard to read? How do you deal with the feeling that your music maybe isn't going down as well as you think it should be? Please share your experiences in the comments.