Why It’s Worth Paying For a Pro DJ

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Last updated 10 April, 2018

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What can the professional DJ bring to the table that an amateur simply can’t? We take a deep dive in this guest article written by Morocco Dave…

Every few days I sit down, look over my DJ enquiries, re-check that my quotes are correct, make sure everything still fits in the diary and do some chase calls (very often a potential client won’t let you know that they don’t want your services after all, which just leads to a cluttered calendar). Sometimes, a call will result in “sorry, you’re too expensive, a mate has said he’ll do it for 20 quid”.

Now this is interesting because it’s not the first context in which I’ve encountered this. Years ago I used to work in a tiny little business building websites for other tiny little businesses. “I’ve got a mate who’ll do it cheaper” became a recurring theme in conversations with clients, so much so that it almost became a joke in the office.

Too often we’d go through the process of explaining that a mate with some basic web skills is very much not the same thing as having a professional do it, how that mate has no design training, no delivery process, no carefully developed quality standards, no reputation to maintain and no investment in being able to do a good job not just once but over and over again. I learned two things from this:

First, it was rare that any argument in favour of taking the professional path would result in the client changing their mind and sticking with us; once the idea has been planted that you’re charging not just “too much” for your services, but way too much, the argument for the client becomes emotional (and therefore immune to reason).

Second, I never once saw a good outcome for a client who took the cheaper path. They’d typically end up with a website that looked bad, was riddled with inconsistencies, with areas where the “mate with skills” had clearly overreached his ability. That 20 quid spend usually translated into hundreds in re-work, reputation repair and lost business for the client.

I no longer argue on price with prospective clients. If they’re not in the market for a professional service, no amount of debate will change their mind. That’s not to say I’m not flexible – I’m happy to work with a client who has a known budget and is clear about that upfront – but that may only result in my politely wishing them well for their event and withdrawing my interest.

The reasons for this are worth knowing, even though I wouldn’t actually go through this conversation on the phone or via email. It’s the kind of thing a client ought to know in advance of approaching a pro. So here it is, and if you’re thinking of hiring a professional DJ for an event this should give you some pointers as to the value-for-money that you can expect from any pro that you hire.

Worst night ever…

Pro Amateur
It takes more than just loudspeakers, DJ gear, laptop and lights to become a professional, and the most crucial qualities of a pro DJ are the ones that are invisible to the naked eye…

Let’s talk about that mate first, shall we? Here’s how your big party night might go…

Your mate is an amateur but he DJs a lot at home, for fun. He’s told you he’s got a PA system and a laptop and it’ll be fine. You know he’s got music, lots of it – he’s always listening to new stuff and playing the latest dance tunes so he’ll definitely have that side of it covered. You’ve talked about lighting and he’s assured you that he’s got that covered, too. Generally he’s enthusiastic and keen and totally psyched to be doing this for you. Sounds great.

The night arrives and you rock up at the venue. Your mate is there and he’s busy with loads of gear: Speakers, laptop and half the lighting are on tables borrowed from the venue. There are cables everywhere, with power leads and extension cords hanging from every surface but what your mate is most keen for you to see is the smoke machine that he’s managed to get hold of.

He’s still really enthusiastic and has some tunes pumping out in no time; you reckon that once he’s finished setting up and got it at full volume it’ll sound awesome, so you bung him his 20 quid then head off to greet your guests and check out the bar. Your mate is a few minutes late getting properly started but hey, there’s hardly anyone here and he’s cheap.

The first indication that all is not quite right is when, an hour later and with the room filling up, it’s no louder than when your mate was setting up and absolutely no-one is dancing. You pop over to see your mate and mention this. He fiddles with some knobs on something and it gets a bit louder, but you’re now seeing red lights lighting up on whatever the thing is that he’s messing with. Still, it’s a bit louder at least. While you’re there you notice that he’s working with a laptop and it’s got iTunes open on it. You decide to hang around a bit and have a listen.

Two things stand out: you’re not hearing any smooth mixes from one tune to another, everything is a bit jagged at the starts and ends of the songs. The songs are coming out at wildly different volumes, too – some loud, some soft, even though everything that he’s playing is bangin’ club dance tunes. Not that it matters much, though… because no-one’s dancing yet. Oh well, maybe everyone needs a drink to loosen up. Anyway, the lights look good with the smoke machine going, it all looks proper professional what with the gear and all the cabling and stuff. As you leave to head back to the bar you trip on a cable and almost go face-first into the floor. Clumsy! Maybe another drink isn’t what you need just now after all?

Another hour on, and your guests are still sitting chatting; no-one’s dancing. Someone tells you it’s really not loud enough, someone else wants to know when the DJ is going to play some decent music, another complains that when they went up and asked for a tune he hadn’t got it and hadn’t got any of the others they suggested, either.

Generally, they’re getting a bit tired of “cutting edge tech-house” and just want to party. You go and have another chat with your mate, ask him if he can’t sort it out and maybe download a few tunes if he hasn’t got them with him? After a trip to the bar to get the WiFi password for him (he “can’t leave his laptop”) you hope that things will improve, because this is starting to feel like a very lame event and you’re starting to get a bit embarrassed by it all.

Fair play to him, after another 30 minutes he’s sorted it out; the volume’s finally where it needs to be (although you did notice him on his phone while he was doing this and you’re pretty sure others did too – was he “phoning a friend” for the answers?) and he’s playing music that people recognise. Some of your guests are dancing and it looks like you can now relax a bit. You give your mate a wink and he raises a beer to you in return.

Redlining
There are so many nuances to DJing that come as a result of hard-won experience in the wild rather than in the safe, controlled confines of a bedroom.

Fifteen minutes later there’s one of those brief flickers to the power that you sometimes get. It’s nothing that your DJ mate has done, it’s just one of those things – but it does knock his laptop out and everything goes silent. It takes ten minutes for him to reboot and get some music back on, by which time he has to go through the whole process of warming the dancefloor up again. But he gets there, eventually. To add atmosphere and show off the lights he pumps plenty of smoke into the room.

And then the fire alarm goes off.

Nothing’s actually on fire, but the room has to be cleared and the venue manager demands that the smoke machine be turned off for the remainder of the evening.

Eventually the party re-starts, but this time it takes a little while longer to get up and going again.
Eventually things get back on track and once more people are dancing, more enthusiastically as the night wears on and your mate seems to be getting the hang of it at last. There’s a brief moment where the music cuts to what sounds like a radio ad (turns out your mate is streaming any requested music that he doesn’t have to hand from Spotify through the venue WiFi) but he gets that under control pretty quickly so all is well.

The dancing carries on and gets a bit wilder until, suddenly, there’s a crash and a cry and the lighting dims – the stand that some of the lights are on has toppled onto the dancefloor and hit someone on the way down. Fortunately, the venue has a first-aider on their staff, but one of your guests ends their night being taken to A&E. The venue manager, who you’ve already seen shaking his head in your mate’s direction a few times this evening demands to see your DJs PLI (whatever that is). Your mate just looks baffled and, because he’s had a few drinks himself, attempts to laugh it off.

At this point the venue manager pulls the plug – party over, pack your stuff and get out, son. Your mate, upset and a little bit drunk, packs up furiously. Whilst doing so he trips on one of the trailing cables and one of the PA speakers crashes to the floor. At least no-one was in the way this time.

Over the following week you get a letter from the venue manager politely asking you to take your DJ and your business elsewhere in future. You get a text from the friend who was hurt – they ended up with a concussion and five stitches to the head and were lucky to get away with just that. You’ve noticed a few “worst party ever” comments turning up on social media, along with videos of the fire alarm and lighting incidents that people took with their phones. And your mate has been in touch asking for £100 towards the lighting that got broken and another £100 towards the damaged PA speaker – he’d borrowed all of the kit and the owners are furious.

How did it all go so badly wrong?

First off, you weren’t getting your service from just one provider. You thought you were, but in fact there were two other “suppliers” involved that you knew nothing about but from whom you were, essentially, hiring equipment. Your mate didn’t necessarily get hold of all of the gear until the very last minute and wasn’t experienced enough or familiar enough with any of it to set it up properly. In the case of the lighting stand (which he didn’t set up to have a wide, stable base) this had a painful and potentially serious outcome for one of your guests.

When it came to music, the key thing was that your mate brought his music along – which wasn’t necessarily the music your guests expected or wanted. He had no plan in place to deal with this and had to resort to free streaming services to fill in the gaps. Generally, when things went wrong there was no “plan B” and no effort to mitigate these problems in advance of them happening – for example, a conversation with the venue about their smoke alarms before switching the smoke machine on would have made all the difference. Similarly, taping trailing cables down would have prevented all those trips.

When the power was briefly interrupted he had no backup device in place ready to take over from the laptop. During his “set”, your DJ mate was unable to properly mix or level-match any of the music because he wasn’t equipped for it, much less do any creative mixing or keep the tempo flowing from one song to another.

The most serious part, of course, is that someone got hurt as a result of an entirely avoidable mistake. Had it been more serious, your mate and you could have found yourselves with some very serious and complicated legal matters to attend to, with no insurance in place to cover the cost.

Twenty quid for your mate to do it still sound cheap?

The best party ever…

Pro Set-up
Of course a pro DJ will arrive with the proper set-up and equipment, but more than that he’s bringing his / her experience and preparation to the table.

Let’s see what you could have won… let’s re-run that night with a pro at the helm, someone you hired (let’s say on recommendation from a family member who’s used their company, too).

Two weeks before your event he meets with you to discuss your event, get the contact details for the venue and hand over copies of his Public Liability Insurance (which, he explains, is to provide protection to himself and your guests in the extremely unlikely event that anything dangerous happens as a result of his work or equipment).

This sounds like a slightly alarming thing to have, but he also gives you copies of all of the electrical safety tests that his equipment has been through and the license that grants him permission to play recorded music from his laptop in public. He’s also got a Health and Safety document that describes how he works and a document that states all of the risks involved in his job and how they’re managed, but these are really meant for the venue unless, of course, you want copies?

Next, you discuss music. Your pro DJ asks what you’re into, what your friends like, what makes you dance. So far so normal. But then he asks you: “What’s the song that would destroy your evening?” This hadn’t occurred to you; you soon draw up a short no-play list of tunes. After a brief conversation about the age range in your guests and the genres of music that you grew up with you’re feeling really comfortable – this guy knows a lot about a lot of music. After a bit more chat, a signature on the booking form and a deposit payment, the meeting wraps up.

The night arrives and you rock up at the venue. Your pro DJ has been there for about 45 minutes and is pretty much all set up – when you arrive he’s on his hands and knees, taping the last couple of cables down to the floor. The whole setup is really slick and tidy; the DJ has brought along a complete booth with a really clean, minimal look. There’s not a cable to be seen – everything is neatly tucked away or taped down. Most of the lighting is on a beam that’s held up near the ceiling on really solid-looking stands. The stands are positioned as far back as they can go from the dance floor so that nothing sticks out for people to trip on. Each of the speakers are in two parts – a bass speaker at the bottom and another speaker above, joined by a short, thick pole – again, nothing to trip on. The whole setup looks bomb-proof solid.

Preparation
A professional mobile DJ will be there way ahead of any guests just to set-up properly and efficiently. He sees himself not as the “star of the night”, but as a supplier or contractor whose job happens to be getting the crowd to party.

You watch while he warms up and tests everything, switching through lighting settings, adjusting the sound. He plays three songs from wildly different genres, constantly adjusting the speakers and the sound controls, jumping back and forth from one tune to another and listening quietly from lots of different points in the room. Finally, he puts on a hard dance tune, turns the system up loud and walks over to the bar. After checking with the bar staff that they’ll still be able to hear customers, he comes back to the booth and backs the volume down a bit again. You notice that he seems to know the venue manager already; later you find that this is because he’s already been here the week before to hand over his documents and check the place out.

Next he switches on a machine that gently trickles a small amount of haze into the room, not as overwhelming as a smoke machine but just enough to show the lighting to good effect. He explains to you that although you’d agreed that he’d supply a smoke machine, he’s learned from the venue manager that the fire alarm system in the venue is sensitive to large volumes of machine smoke, and that this “hazer” is the more appropriate machine to use. Checks completed, your DJ is ready to start bang on time.

As the first of your guests arrive, your DJ puts some chilled-out grooves on and sets the lighting to a soft, moody glow, spot on for welcoming people and chatting. Within an hour, though, he’s moved on to some classic soul-funk and the dancefloor is in business already. Gradually, he’s gently lifted the volume as the audience moves in and he’s started throwing in some of the feature lighting.

There’s a definite vibe starting but the dancefloor contains a nice mix of people across a pretty broad age range and everyone’s having fun. People are going up to the booth and asking for tunes, and they’re coming back smiling – he’s got what they want. Steadily, the tempo lifts but every song is mixed smoothly into the next one and even though he’s jumping from one genre and decade to another, nothing jars, it all sounds smooth. There’s an occasional little flourish from a sound effect or a bit of scratching.

None of the tunes stand out as being too loud or too quiet. For the most part, no-one notices any of this as all the transitions from one song to another are so natural and tidy that there’s nothing to notice – you’re dancing to one song, and then to another, and nothing seemed to happen in between. There’s an occasional cheer or shout of “TUNE!” from the dancefloor – people are enjoying this and you’re relaxed and enjoying yourself too.

Fifteen minutes later there’s one of those brief flickers to the power that you sometimes get. It’s nothing that your pro DJ has done, it’s just one of those things – but it does knock his laptop out and everything goes silent.

For less than two seconds.

There’s a crackle, and a beep, and then an astronaut-style voice informs the room that “Houston, we’ve had a problem”, while what sounds like a record slowly winds up to speed in the background. And then we’re off into the music again, this time some classic ’90s floor-fillers. Your DJ briefly leaves the booth to confer with the venue manager, but then he’s back and whatever the problem was seems to have been solved.

For the rest of the evening the DJ expertly manages the dancefloor, bringing the evening to a crescendo for the final 30 minutes. Everyone in the room has been up on the dancefloor at least once or twice, and it’s been comfortably full for the whole night. Everyone has had a great time and you’re complimented on your choice of DJ and the music a number of times. You notice that he’s been approached by several of your guests and has given business cards to them and the venue manager.

When you’re settling up, you realise that you’ve not visited your DJ once during the evening. You apologise for not doing so or getting a drink in for him. “Not a problem,” he replies, pointing to a side table with several empty soft-drink bottles and a large bottle of water, “The bar looked after me, I don’t drink at work anyway”.

During the following days you’re pleased to see how many of your guests have posted photos and videos of themselves having a great time at your party on their Facebook and twitter pages. The DJ has tagged himself in where appropriate and thanked them for having him along for the fun. About a week later you get a call from your DJ, to thank you for the business and ask for any feedback that you might have.

Preparation… it’s what you pay for

Party starter
A pro DJ doesn’t just start working when it’s time to make people dance – the job starts soon as the booking has been made. Preparing music, ensuring all gear is available and working, and synergising with the venue for a smooth set up and strike down are all hallmarks of a pro DJ at work.

So what was going on to make this so different? One word: preparation.

Your pro DJ is prepared to the hilt. He knows his gear inside-out. He’s set it up in a hundred different rooms and knows how it’s meant to sound and look. He knows music and he knows people’s reactions to it really well. He knows all of the outside influences that can interfere with the show and how to mitigate them. He’s got the top 500 most-requested tunes of all time at his fingertips, probably catalogued by genre, age-group and tempo. He’s got the current chart and all the set-pieces. He gain-matches every tune, never exceeds the volume threshold that he’s agreed with the staff (this is their working environment, remember), mixes subtly and smoothly, uses all of his skills and experience but doesn’t show off. This guy is an absolute ninja at what he does.

And he’s got back-up gear. Remember that blip in the power, which stopped the amateur dead in the water? Our pro DJ was ready for that. Within a second of the laptop crashing, he’d hit “play” on the fully-charged iPod connected to the mixer under his table. That mixer is completely independent of the laptop, so it carried on working. The iPod contains his “get-out-of-jail” card; a brief, comedic nod to the fact that something’s gone wrong, followed by some pre-mixed music so that he can focus on fixing the problem.

Our DJ now knows that he’s got up to 40 minutes to solve the fault or go and get the CDJs, discs and mixer out of the case in the car. On this occasion, after checking with the venue manager that there was no wider fault, he was able to just re-boot the laptop and mix back from the iPod to his set. He’s practised getting back from the “get-out-of-jail” mix to being back under manual control over a dozen times, just in case something like this happens. Your guests noticed there was a (really brief) problem, but they didn’t notice how quickly it came back under control or even when it came back under control.

That’s the key thing about the pro; the same stuff can go wrong for him, but he’ll have already planned for it and, in most cases, minimised that risk by planning it out of the equation altogether. He firmly intends to hold that PLI policy forever and to never have to use it.

The main difference between the amateur and the professional, in DJ-ing as in so many other things, is that the professional actively and continuously builds quality right into the fabric of what he does – he knows that quality isn’t an optional extra that you can just bolt on afterwards.

Finally…

I’m not saying that every “mate-with-some-skills” is going to turn out as badly as the picture I’ve painted above. Neither am I saying that every pro will always avoid errors – I’ve committed the smoke-machine one myself (although on that occasion, the venue management were new to the venue and didn’t know what effect smoke in the venue would have, either). If you’re lucky, your mate will turn in a really good job – but why would you trust to luck when you can just pay a pro to almost completely remove luck as a factor?

Yes, pros charge more – but that’s simply because they’re doing so much more than an amateur would ever think to do. Most of the time, you’ll never even notice it’s being done. And that’s exactly what you want – to hand your event to someone who has the capability and track-record to do the right things with it, and to leave you free to enjoy your party with your guests.

• Find out more about Morocco Dave at his website and on his Twitter account.

Do you see the truth in this story? Have you been that pro – or that amateur? How can we as DJs better demonstrate what people are paying for when they book us? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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