7 Tips For Surviving A Last Minute DJ Booking


This, or a quiet night in with the family? In today's post, you'll learn why last minute DJ bookings that drag you away from quiet nights in can be the best gigs you ever play, if you prepare right...

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.

Facebook Friends

Have you got a list of top fans you can call on last minute to support you at your gigs?

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.

Jelly Babies

Jelly Babies can be a DJ's best friend, especially when you've been booked last minute and left home unfed...

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.

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  1. Just last night I wads called up to play my first club gig. I work ad a bussy/glassy at the club and have been trying to get behind the decks for a while. One of the managers asked me during the week to keep my gear in the car in case one if the dj's can't play. Luckily, I had my gear with me and got given the chance to play. Unfortunately, our club has 3 levels each playing different types of music. I had to deal with playing for people who came for club bangers and those who came for top 40 pop hits. I was all by myself on the stage, I was nervous as all hell, but I was on my own gear and had a couple of playlists with tunes I knew pretty well. Although I messed up some mixes, and spent the three hours of my set trying to play the right songs, I had loads of fun. Everyone seemed to think it was alright and although I reckon I could've done better, for as unprepared as I was, it was a bunch of fun. This is a great article Phil, and you're right about last minute gigs, they can be a blessing in disguise. I'm excited to see what will come of my impromptu gig.

    • i have messed up mixes before but you know what....folks don't really notice unless you have one of those crowds full of douches. Just keep on truckin' like nothing happened, like you did it on purpose. once I hit the play button on the wrong platter...but I have my Itch setting to slowly come to a halt.....all I did it just hit play on the next platter. never once looked up to say oops. you would be surprised what you can get away with when the room is full of drunk dancers.

  2. For me the music organizing is always the biggest part. In the last year, my previous system has fallen apart. I used to rely on an organized itunes library to sort by genre as well as playlists (some from past gigs like suggested in the story).

    My problem is that I moved to a Mac air and now have a small harddrive. Now my music is sometimes on multiple hard drives and I don't always use the same computer.

    What has worked for me is to keep an index card system. I go to a coffee shop, listen to tracks and write them on playlists on individual index cards. I can review the playlists at anytime, even with out a computer. It's easy to lay out a number of playlists at once on a counter to choose tracks and I've taken photos of each card as back up in case I lose them.

    Even before this system, I used to write down tracks on paper before my gigs. I've found that the physical writing process helps my brain identify songs even if I lose the paper.

  3. I was out one night at the club with friends. We showed up pretty early to one spot as we were planning on hoping around to a bunch of different places throughout the night. We start having a few drinks and I run into an friend who is a small promoter in town. He tells me that 2 of the 3 DJs for the night had just dropped out and he was wondering if I'd like to spin for a bit since the first DJ was brand spanking new and he wanted someone with some experience (at the time, I had only done a few club gigs). I tell him sure IF he can give me 40 bucks on the spot so I can cab home and back with my stuff. He hands me 2 20's, says get going. I was home and back within 30mins, and set-up within 5mins (never sweated so much just plugging stuff in).

    Luckily the night was a house night (which is what I usually play), so I randomly picked a song, hit play and then just jumped around my pool of songs. I kept it simple, mostly did long endzone mixes with some other stuff thrown in for some flavour. The set went alright. Wasn't my best ever but I hadn't planned for it so I was happy with. At the end of the night, had the club owner come up and offer me 2 gigs a month.

  4. its telling that your example started with you using vinyl because this has never been an issue for me since i started using serato...

    i do about 5 or 6 different gigs and i have the music basically prepared in my computer for each one. i might get one or two new songs each week that I want to play, but for the most part i could go about a month (10-15 gigs) without preparing anything AND mostly play different songs each time...

  5. The food tip is spot on, DJing on an empty stomach is hardly an ideal situation! Great write up Phil, loved the story at the beginning.

  6. DJ_ForcedHand says:

    I like the index cards idea. I keep all of the gear I need to play with n one travel bag along with extra cables just in case I break one. This has served me well... There'salso a physical checklist in the bag I have learned to check every time.

  7. Was at a wedding down country as a guest. Hotel package DJ was on. Dance floor empty. Normally I'd leave him at it but he was a kid who was obviously just dropped in it by some rental service as he looked really nervous. I've been doing weddings ten years so I went up and asked was he ok, my first night he said. Now some first nights are good, some are bad, but this was terrible. He had no playlists set up except for a few house tunes he liked playing in his bedroom and all the crowd wanted was some cheese. So I had my lapper in the car, brought it in and sat with him, whipped out the cheese and we got through it . Moral? Always be prepared.
    There's a question btw, I personally would have no problem giving someone a lend of music, but not my playlists. Thoughts?

    • Agree about music/playlists. My playlists are mine, if I give someone my music without my playlists they would have to sit there and find the tunes to play. Without my playlists even I would be lost!

      • Im new to DJ'ing.....found out this last yr I love to mix and haven't looked back. Im either reading about it or doing it....honestly. But playlists are 1 thing I struggle with....I'm my own worst critic in organizing tunes. I can even think back to 2001....my senior yr in high school. Napster had just came out and EVERYONE was asking for cd's. I obsessed about organizing the order of my music even then.....
        For some reason I feel the need to have a career DJ, or someone who's at least done it before, to show me how....or at least some guidelines. I find it really hard to teach myself in this area......usually if I'm messing with my tunes it's bc I'm mixing them.....
        I make the process of creating playlists (sets) a lot harder on myself than I know it should be.

        • This all falls into place when you play real, live DJ sets. As long as you discipline yourself to pack a virtual "crate" for each gig you play, the rest will follow. Aim to "pack" double the number of tunes you use, and aim to only DJ from that folder at your gig.

      • Phil is spot on. what I want to play and what I end up playing are two different things. double the music allows for flexibility.
        Dang Phil, you need to create a "like" button for some of these posts you and the other put up on here.

  8. DJ Homei says:

    Good point about how the best DJ nights can be unexpected.

    When I was a resident, sometimes my best nights started out with me in a bad mood to DJ (sick, tired, etc.) and facing an uncooperative crowd.

  9. I just found the column about the "Night stages" method of sorting my music....
    So simple it's genius.....left thinking "...why didn't I think of that?"
    Seems this site has the answers to all my questions. Just a matter of finding them

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