7 Tricks For Making Your Crowd Go Wild To Music They Don’t Know

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You’re banging out unknown bomb after unknown bomb, the place is electric, and you’re totally in charge… a dream, right? Not if you learn the right way to get the crowd to eat out of your hand, it ain’t…

It’s every DJ’s dream, right? Banging out all your favourite tunes that you just know nobody in the room is going to know or have, but you’ve got ‘em, and they rock. The place goes, wild, those phones are Shazam’ing, there’s a queue of people wanting track titles, there are no silly requests coming in ‘cos everyone’s dancing, and you’re the MAN (or woman, naturally…).

So why is it that sometimes we can feel like jukeboxes, like we’re treading an impossible tightrope, struggling to find tunes than anyone likes, never mind getting the chance to slip in the odd tune they don’t know to satisfy our own creative tastes? Well, this article isn’t about finding the good gigs, or jukebox vs creative DJ, or how to satisfy difficult crowds – but what it IS about is a strategy for getting to play at least some of the music you love, at least some of the time. It’s not all going to work for everyone at every gig, but hopefully there’s something here you can take away.

1. Entertain, then educate

I’ve seen it loads of times. A DJ comes on, head down, straight into what he or she loves – no consideration for the crowd, who came before, the flow of the night – nothing. And they wonder why their “amazing” music clears the floor. But then there’s the other way, which I’ve also seen, from underground as well as commercial DJs: You have a box of tunes that express you, for sure, but you also have tunes you are pretty sure will please the dancefloor. The thing smart DJs like these do is spend the first part of their set pleasing the crowd, then when they’ve won their confidence, feel their way with twisting things around to their way of thinking, gently and considerately.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that the second half of the night is usually the intoxicated half – or to put it another way, people aren’t going to generally become less likely to dance as the night wears on! So planning your set in this way gives you longer to weave in those 4am techno minimal must-hears that have been kicking around at the back of your collection for months. Get everyone onside, then test your “good” stuff – you may be surprised.

2. Tease and test

Of course, you don’t want to just play a whole pile of tunes everyone knows, then bang into some UK white label dub country step (i just made that up – please tell me I made it up!) and expect the whole floor to come with you. Teasing and testing is your friend here. You can tease riffs, beats, intro sections, vocals, drum loops – anything that is reminiscent of what you want to play later, just for a few seconds or eight bars, repeatedly, to get people used to the sounds you want to move across to.

This teasing is your “test” – you’re watching the dancefloor, watching who maybe recognises stuff you didn’t think they would, getting a feel for what you may or may not be able to get away with. You’re priming and preparing people for the direction you’d like your set to take, in good time. You’re marking our boundaries, pushing things slowly, and always with the dancefloor on your side.

3. There’s a difference between “like” and “know”

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “like” and “know” mean the same thing. Just because your crowd doesn’t know a song, doesn’t mean it won’t necessarily like it. You’re a DJ, a tastemaker. Let people taste the new music – they might like it! Remember, every song wasn’t known by anyone, once. Use your judgement to decide if a song is going to suit the night or not.

Of course this ties in with points 1 and 2: You can tease and test new music, and you can save it for later in your set, but there’s nothing better than “breaking” a tune that goes on to become huge – it’s “yours”, even though it subsequently gets heard everywhere. People will remember it, and you for first introducing them to it. Having an ear for a commercial song before anyone else is a huge skill and one not to be sniffed at – just ask the likes of Pete Tong, who has signed hundreds of hits with his “record label” hat on over the years, to give just one example.

4. Mix it well

Throwing a different style in badly is one thing. But playing a considered build up to a surprising twist in a pre-planned mini-mix is something else entirely. If you want to play a different style, to try something new, to surprise the crowd, then it definitely pays to plan a little and make sure they way you are going to mix that new thing in is clever, or at least smooth and accomplished.

There’s nothing wrong with practising mixes; it’s not the same as sticking rigidly to a pre-planned set, which is wrong of course (in most circumstances, anyway) – many DJs play from lots of 2-3 tune mini sets, slotting them together as they go along, and this can be a great way of holding the crowd’s attention with more challenging material – plus of course it makes you look good as a DJ, and pulling off pre-planned mixes in public that are maybe that bit more technical as a result is a buzz in itself, whether the material is challenging to the audience or not.

5. Look like you’re enjoying it

It can be really easy to look sheepish when playing tunes you’re not sure of – or to look scared, or be rigid (“rabbit in the headlamps”). It can happen to us all – I remember several times throwing on a tune that just bombed while DJing, and being so embarrassed that I actually hid (crouched down, pretending to look for something in my bag)! Luckily it doesn’t happen too often…

Thing is, you’re the leader of the party. Most people (with the greatest respect) are usually sheep – they’re looking around them for clues and pointers as to how to behave, and will generally follow the crowd. And the leaders of the crowd? Well, on a dancefloor, they’re looking at YOU. If you’re confident, dancing behind your decks, having fun (even if the material you’re playing is unknown to the audience / suddenly challenging), they are FAR more likely to copy you. Make no mistake: when you’re DJing, you’re leading from the front. Be bold. Make it as hard as you can for people to NOT enjoy your music!

6. Use mashups and remixes to introduce styles

Classic advice, but very true. In “old times”, you’d throw a familiar acapella over a challenging instrumental. Crudely, girls can dance to the vocal, boys to the beats. Not always the case, of course, but hopefully you see what I mean: If you can introduce something familiar to your new material, people will more likely accept it – especially if you tie it in with 4 above.

Now, more than ever in this SoundCloud world, there are myriad version of all kinds of tunes available. Find remixes of commercial tracks in the style you love. Find clever or fun mashups where the remixer has done the hard work for you. Have a go at doing your own re-edits to meld stuff more to the way you like to play or mix. Music isn’t sacred; it’s a tool, there to be twisted into whatever shapes you can imagine for your floors. And don’t worry about not being “purist” – remember, this is meant to be fun! Break a few rules – you’ll be remembered for it.

7. Persevere

A DJ (who sadly I can’t recall) once said that he felt if he didn’t empty the dancefloor at least once a night, he wasn’t doing his job right. A bit extreme maybe, but you get his drift, no? It’s OK to like stuff nobody (yet) likes. Sometimes, a tune played one week will empty the floor, the next week it will fill it. Sometimes, the same tune played at the end of a set will work having bombed at the beginning. There are no hard and fast rules – if there were, everyone would know them! So it’s OK to mess up every now and then. In fact, it’s pretty much essential.

Bottom line is you don’t have to play music everyone loves all the time. For example, we all have our favourite comedian, right? But we don’t laugh at all their jokes. We don’t expect to. They’re allowed to push it too far every now and then, to “test out new material”. It’s the same with DJs – if what you do is part of a bigger picture, and you’re letting people glimpse parts of that picture every time you play, they’ll get it. They understand they’re not going to love everything you ever do. Be genuine, try your hardest, keep your vision, and you’ll at least start to work out where and how to get away with mixing the stuff you really want to play in with the stuff you have to.

What tips can you add to these? what experiences, good or bad, have you had with trying to play the music you love? I’d really like to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Comments

  1. Brilliant text! Thank you. I’d say making those “super short” edits of the tunes you may wanna try with proper intros and outros makes it easier to test ‘em out and see the crowds reaction.

    • Good thinking!

    • Yes the short versions are rather handy if you can get them or make them; I did short versions of a few of the current Uk tunes (Gotsome-Bassline and New World Sound-Flute) to play in a commercial club before they were famous and have now been able to go back to the extended versions as they have become more familiar with the crowd, even when it’s still months before the release date (the latter, anyway).

  2. Great article. “many DJs play from lots of 2-3 tune mini sets, slotting them together as they go along:” <– I always give this advice to new djs. I think it's an easier way to maintain focus on the mixing rather than always looking for the next track. Also it allows you to put together blocks with different vibes/emotional appeal.

    I DJ a lot of events that are 8-10 hours (with other djs) and bring down the energy level purposely so as to not wear people out too fast. Granted there are some people that can dance for 8 hours straight but I'm not sure they are entirely human. Bringing the energy down and having a sparse dancefloor allows time to experiment with odd tracks that not everyone will love. And then I can pander to the audience a bit more once they've had a chance to hydrate. :)

  3. Nice article! Keep going and saludos from Argentina!

  4. Definatley agree with all of these. One thing I’ve done at a recent gigs is to take a song people know, but haven’t totally listen to, (Ex: Turn Down for What) then halfway through, when things start to get boring, slam/mix into something similar that the crowd doesn’t know. I’ve done this a couple times now and its like a spoonful of sugar to help down the second track.

  5. Great euphemisms and suggestions. I once played ‘Blurred Lines’ at a wedding the week it broke the charts. Cleared the dance floor. We all know what happened after.

  6. I live (and preach) the idea of “Educate & Entertain”. In many ways, you just have to be smart and take chances.

    Clear the floor and work to get them back. If your promoter/manager gives you flack, tell him/her you’re sending them to the bar…which means revenue. Believe me, I’ve seen nights where the floor was packed/crazy all night, but the bar did poorly because no one stopped for a break.

    I think too much now everyone’s so scared to take chances that they “play it safe” all the time…thus you end up with the club and/or night being labeled “lame”…which means a short shelf-life.

    • “. If your promoter/manager gives you flack, tell him/her you’re sending them to the bar…which means revenue.” – unless you’re sending them to the door, of course! ;)

  7. I find if you hint another popular song in the mix of the new song, people are extremely receptive to it. Maybe a vocal part of a popular song echoed in at the start..

  8. Great stuff

  9. D-Jam, you mean “Entertain & Educate” than the other way round

  10. Very good read, thxs Phil !

    I would add : get a little crazy sometimes. I for example throw a sirtaki house remix now and then and the people go nuts ! They all know the sirtaki dance and you have them dancing all together…They are there to have fun and look at you for funny ideas and funny songs. They know the radio songs, they all have their underground favorite unknown band… But those crazy “ridiculous” songs makes them feel like they’re at a family party or something, cements the people together. And a cemented dancefloor will respond to anything you throw, allowing you to play the music you genuinely love and take them with you on the ride ;-)

  11. Like Neosho’s but the other way round, an age-old but effective hip-hop trick is to play a well-known tune then at the big drop go off-piste, either a re-edit of the tune or better still something completely different – people’s anticipation of the tune they know and love will carry them into the new tune before they realize they’ve been tricked.

    Another way of twisting your crowd is to go in deep into a style then pop out into something light – often gets the biggest cheer of the night. For example over half an hour or so go deep into bassy dub/glitch instrumental, then drop some bouncy 90s US hip hop track that gets everyone leaping out of their skins with the release.

  12. dj_forcedhand@yahoo.com says:

    I had been using Tran-chero (Trance and Ranchero) and Dubble-Step (a reference to Country Two-Step remixed with Dubstep … but only in joking) Like Choral versions of Rap songs (think Christmas music with Rap lyrics) and Country versions of famous Rap songs… think about it… Putting a country back-beat to “Straight Outta’ Compton” just like it was Tracy Byrd’s “Ten rounds with Jose Cuervo.”

    I do enjoy your humor though.

  13. I concur that slipping in the new goods between the already known and popular is a good practise. Go from one know floor banger to the track you want to introduce to the crowd and if it doesn’t go over you can always claim them back with another hit song immediately after. Too, I automatically start dancing and fist pumpin any new and/or obscure track I really like. The way I see it the people should look at the DJ like he/she knows what’s good and if the DJ is going bat-shit crazy for some new track well hell maybe you oughta be liking it too. Unless the DJ is into Happy Hardcore then…

  14. Practical advice! Thumbs up!

  15. Flow.

    If you completely jerk a new tune into the set, ‘whoomp there it is style’, it may go down well, it may flop, but you are slapping people in the face with it and you’ve got to be really certain it’s going to work to do that. Sometimes you just know it is a stone cold killer track that your crowd are going to love and you can get away with it, but when you aren’t sure it can help to blend it in. Instead of jumping straight into that new track, take the mix in that direction first, get it in the right ballpark with a transition track or two that you know they love that sounds kinda similar to the new song you want to drop, then slide in the new track. If your mixing is good enough they may be dancing before they’ve even realised it’s a different track.

    • “Sometimes you just know it is a stone cold killer track that your crowd are going to love and you can get away with it, but when you aren’t sure it can help to blend it in.” – good point, use the “genre change drop” with care :)

  16. Thanks Phil, another excellent write up, it was as if this piece was written with me in mind. I have asked a similar question before in the forums about this sort of thing
    One of the main reasons i ever decided to be a DJ was that i felt too many Djs played the same thing or the same songs. It got to a point that whenever, i went to a party or a club and i hear a DJ play, i could predict about 50% of some of the songs he would play. I always asked myself, what happens to all the other tunes that get released?
    I use a system called 5-1, This means i will play 5 well known tracks and then one of my own loved maybe not too known. Another trick i use it to play only the first verse and chorus of a song. Sometimes, during the the start of a set, i might scan through different genres and watch the reaction of the crowd to know what might sit well
    The moment someone walks up to me and asks ‘who sings this one’?, i know i have succeeded.
    Finally, music is an explorative art and i believe we DJs owe it to the crowd to educate and not just follow. As long as you know the boundries, pls continue to entertain and educate

  17. I am a video DJ and play almost exclusively my own video mashups and I’d like to add something that a lot of other DJs seem to forget:

    There is a MASSIVE difference between clearing the dancefloor and playing the wrong tune.

    Put yourself in the punters’ position when you feel uncomfortable – when YOU are out at a night, you don’t always dance to everything, do you? You jump up and and hit the floor when that particular tune comes on because you love it. Just because your crowd aren’t dancing during one song doesn’t mean they hate it.

    Putting some awful local unheard of Heavy Metal in the middle of your underground Techno set is likely to clear the floor because they DO hate it. In that case, you ARE playing the wrong song.

  18. dj alxxx says:

    I clear the floor in the bar once every 35 min,,from a packed floor to a few people dancing ,, I do that so the bar can sell bozze ,, when people sit down they drink ,, ..money and having a good time ,,, been doing that for 15 years ,, works every time ..

  19. Great article. I’ll read it later though. I played in a college bar that really wasn’t “DJ based”. I tried to cram my stuff down their throats but they weren’t buying it. No good DJ wanted to spin there but that’s where I learned to “DJ”.

    1) Not everybody likes what you like or are gonna like what you think they should like. You just have to accept that there are other styles of music out there.

    2) I would go from one really hot song that was on the radio to just 30 seconds to a minute of the new song I wanted to break then right back into something they recognized. Didn’t wanna risk clearing the floor. It’s kinda like when you have to give your dog a pill. You hide it inside a treat.

    3) Wait ’til they’re all hammered. Usually happens around an hour before the club closes. You can pretty much get away with playing anything.

  20. Garrett says:

    “…He felt if he didn’t empty the dancefloor at least once a night, he wasn’t doing his job right.”

    I feel the same way, but I have a different interpretation of the quote. I think it refers to the way the sophisticated DJ excites the crowd not by commanding them to dance with every song he blasts, but by connecting with them, giving the night an ebb-and-flow.

    Have you ever been in a club where the DJ is just pounding out the loudest part of the hottest tunes all night? They’re often just hard-cutting into the choruses or the big drops of commercial tracks before mixing abruptly into the next one. They probably play the biggest 4 or 5 songs many times in one night. In a crowded venue, the effect is hardly noticed– One person loses interest, another person takes their place, and the dance floor stays packed.

    But a sophisticated DJ connects with his audience. There’s an ebb and flow to the night. The DJ leaves room for people to breathe for a few minutes– go pee, get a drink, exchange numbers– before he turns up the heat again. This also hooks in new people who weren’t feeling the hard stuff yet. He knows that the crowd will love him more if he lets them go a bit before reeling them back in.

    Kind of off-topic, I know– But when you anticipate and manipulate the ebb-and-flow, getting the crowd feeling new music becomes alot more intuitive.

  21. I think the last point to persevere is the most important point. I’m still mastering this but in my earlier days clearing the floor would reakky get me down which would kill my confidence andreally put me in a downward spiral. Keep plugging away guys!

  22. really great article. and well written. thank you!

  23. Dook Nookem says:

    I dunno what it is but I feel much the same about clearing the floor, I dunno I kinda take pride in clearing the floor the once. Usually it’s just the one tune I wanna hear through a fat stack just for me. People come back when they realise your not playing that tune anymore anyways.

  24. I was told once by a bar/club owner that my style was great for bars and clubs because I would get the crowd worked up, then throw in a slow tune or experimental number, or whole other set altogether, and I’d do it on purpose. Why? To send them back to the bar. You have to remember the type of setting your in. If you keep this intense dance or beat up for too long… you will lose your floor no matter what you were going to play next. It can be the number one song in the world, and three quarters of them are going to leave to get a drink no matter what. And they will wind up requesting that same song later on, once they’ve smoked and rehydrated for a few songs. Watch your crowd. Read your floor. Instead… mix up into a different style, or even different genre. The people that a rocking out to the pop and the hip hop aren’t usually going to stay around for the latest from the country charts… so, maybe even fill your floor with a “new group” and give the others a chance to re-energize and come back for more!

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