I was on my knees on the cold dancefloor, in the empty club, at 10pm. I'd instructed the doormen not to let anyone from the large queue outside in until I told them it was OK. In front of me were two big, half-full record boxes.
All around me, arranged in a rough semi-circle, were small piles of 12" vinyl, each maybe two, three, five records deep. Frantically but methodically, I was taking tunes out of the boxes one by one, and after a few seconds' thought, adding them to one of the piles, slowly making sense of them. From two boxes of chaos, a rough DJ set was forming in front of me. In just five minutes more, maybe, I'd be ready. And then the first very surprised paying customer walked into the club...
Cracking some joke about: "I bet you've never walked into a club with no music playing and the DJ on his knees with his tunes all over the dancefloor!", I hurriedly finished what I was doing, re-boxed the records (which were now roughly sorted to my satisfaction), and sheepishly retired to the DJ booth as people streamed in, all wondering why the house lights were on and the music wasn't.
I powered up the gear (no time for a sound check), knocked off the house lights, went to the front of the first box, grabbed a couple of likely tunes, cranked the first one up, and finally the night started.
The perils of last-minute gigs
That night turned out to be one of the best DJ sets I've ever played. Yet two hours earlier, I was 100 miles away from the club, tucking into supper in the middle of the countryside with family, enjoying a rare night off and safe in the knowledge that tonight's gig was being handled by my DJing and business partner who I ran the night with. Until, that is, the phone rang.
"Phil, I'm ill. And I mean, ill. I can't get out of bed, you're going to have to do tonight's show."
I went through all the emotions and words you might expect. Denial. Disbelief. Anger. Begging. (Somewhere in here you can add "think of anyone else you know who can stand in for you". There wasn't). Finally, acceptance. Straight in the car, home, and packing records. The big thing was that this was a classics night, so I couldn't even just grab last week's boxes and run - I had to literally comb through my whole collection of thousands of tunes to find the drop-dead house classics the crowd that night were expecting.
That's why I was very late getting to the club. That's why we hadn't sound checked. And that's why at 10.05pm that cold Saturday night, I was on my knees surrounded by records in a silent venue as the first paying customers walked in.
As I said, though, it turned out to be a cracking night, so all good in the end. But following on from Saturday's reader question about how venues and promoters deal with DJ no-shows, I thought about it and realised that actually, I have volunteered to stand in, or actually stood in, many times in my DJ career. Being able to do this has got me some great unexpected nights, some extra pay, and some gigs I wouldn't otherwise have got.
So I thought I'd present here seven easy ways to, as the Boy Scouts motto goes, "be prepared", so you can be ready for when you get that last minute call, wherever it may come from.
7 Tips For Surviving A Last Minute DJ Booking
(Obviously we're all digital now, but all the principles are the same - in the above scenario, you might be frantically sorting iTunes playlists out, bent over a glowing laptop screen, rather than sorting out piles of vinyl.)
1 Use your last gig's tunes
Just load up your playlists from last time you DJed. They're fresh in your memory, and as long as you're playing the same type of gig, you'll pull it off and hardly if anyone will ever notice. If your "history" in your software goes back to the last time you played that venue or to that crowd, even better. It's a great starting point.
2. Think of the two or three new "must play" songs for this week, and add these to the previous week's playlist
If you have just a little bit longer, you can grab the songs that you just can't get out of your head from the last seven days or since you last played and add those to the above, which will to all non-trained ears, completely refresh your set - it'll sound like the whole set was meticulously thought through!
People tend to leave a venue singing just one song in their heads (usually, the last one you play) - so end your set on a big new tune and for 80% of people, that's the job done. Sad maybe, but true.
3. Have a list of friends and fans who are the most likely to come to the gig, and email / text / SMS / Facebook them - fast!
Promoters love to see DJs bring a crowd, we all know that. If you keep pre-prepared lists of your "most likely to support me" people, you can amaze promoters by bringing a crowd even though they booked you at the very last minute, just by firing out a quick invite!
By the way, bribe them with free entry: One of the first things you should do when offered a last-minute gig is insist on a decent guest list - after all, you could be dropping social plans yourself…
4. Play "tried and tested", not "upfront and experimental"
We all like to push the boundaries in our DJ sets, don't we? It's what DJing is all about - education vs entertainment, and all of that. But one of the keys to pushing the boundaries is to be properly prepared. If you aren't, this is no gig to be trying new stuff out.
Falling back on what you know and "playing by numbers" is not a crime, especially when you've not had time to properly think through the gig. Sticking with what you know works - you're less likely to mess up, and as we learned in 2. above, most people will not know or care anyway.
5. Use the warm-up for planning
Assuming you're booked to play, say, in a bar, or a longer set in a club where maybe there aren't that many people there to start, this is a great tip, and one that's got me out of jail more than a few times.
Basically, you pragmatically "write off" the first hour of your set as "not really important", and when you get to the gig, very quickly line up, say, 10 long tunes to play for the first hour. Taking as little time as you can to mix them, you then spend all the time in-between planning the next section of your set as if you were at home doing it. By the time the club is getting full and people are thinking about dancing, you're ready to hit them with some better thought-out DJing.
6. Have a checklist of stuff to take so you don't forget anything
Some DJs I've heard even pin one of these behind their door. It says things like, "laptop, controller, headphones, USB backup drive, spare power adapter" and so on. I prefer to keep my DJ checklist on an app on my iPhone, but wherever you keep it, have a checklist.
It's a good idea anyway, but it's doubly important for a last minute booking where you may be running around to get out of the door. Nobody wants to turn up for a gig minus a vital USB cable, now, do they?
7. Keep food in your bag
Nuts, chocolate, Jelly Babies - whatever floats your boat, but have calories in your bag at all times. Then, when you do get booked last minute, you can grab your stuff and run, safe at least in the knowledge that you're not going to starve (and trust me, nobody likes a hungry, irritable DJ. Plus drink works too fast on an empty stomach…)
PS. Planning vs preparation
Why's he going on about planning, you might be asking? Surely you shouldn't plan a DJ set, you should just turn up and play whatever the crowd wants?
Well, I think there's a difference between "preparing" and "planning". Preparing is sorting out your music, deciding what you'd like to play, thinking about possible mixes, making sure you've got enough vocals, dubs, floor-fillers, "bridge" tunes, genre changers, and so on. And it's vital, especially in the digital age where our collections tend to be bigger than in the old vinyl days.
In the story I told at the beginning, I was playing a classics night so I had no choice but to first sort out, then at least roughly prepare my tunes - in this case, I'd lost all familiarity with most of them.
But even if you're just being called in to cover a slot in a club you know well where you're used to playing that type of music, it's still worth spending at least a little time sorting out a pool of tunes to choose from when you get behind the decks - your set will flow more smoothly, and people will notice you've put some thought in. That's the reason for the first tip (use last week's set), because I'm presuming you put the care in seven days ago or whenever it was you played from that pool of tunes.
We've already touched on some of the great reasons why it's worth accepting last minute gigs (and we haven't spoken money, either: You can usually hike your price a little with a desperate promoter), but there is one more big reason: You'll always seem the hero, whatever happens!
The promoter will thank you, the crowd will thank you, and expectations will be lowered so even if you only play an average set you'll more than likely get away with it. But it's often the case that you'll surprise yourself and play a blinder - and if that happens, it'll be a memorable night for the whole club, not just for you.
It's happened to me too many times for it to just be coincidence - there's something about last-minute gigs that brings out the best in DJs. Be prepared for them, and you'll be able to accept and make the most of these bookings, to the good of your DJ career.
Have you ever been asked to stand in at the last minute? Got any tips to add to mine? How did your gig go? Please share your thoughts in the comments.