With Halloween approaching, we thought it would be a good time to round up 13 fears and nightmares that stalk us DJs, creeping up on us when we least expect them.
More importantly, we’ll talk about simple things you can do to avoid these happening to you. So, let’s turn and face 13 of our deepest, darkest fears together. With our best Vincent Price laugh, let’s begin…
- Nobody dancing/clearing the dancefloor
- Not having the right music
- Equipment failure
- Hassle from the audience
- Nobody turning up
- Messing up a mix
- People saying you suck
- Having to use the microphone
- Not having enough music
- Other people laughing at your gear
- Not being up to date with your music
- Playing explicit versions of songs by mistake
13 DJ Fears & Nightmares
1. Nobody dancing/clearing the dancefloor
People will dance when they’re ready. Sometimes, they’re never ready. But good DJs learn to be patient. Sure, there are skills to playing a warm-up set (hint – don’t think playing all your “bangers” will work, because it won’t), but ultimately, it is about patience.
And if you clear the dancefloor? Firstly, wait to see if it fills up again – there’s a difference between clearing and “rotating” a dancefloor, the latter meaning letting a different set of people come and dance.
Second, depending on the type of gig and how bold you are as a DJ, clearing a dancefloor may be just the ticket. (DJ Harvey reckons all good DJs should do this at least once in a night.)
And finally, you can just make sure you’ve always got a track ready that you know will fill your dancefloor again, and practise mixing it in quickly. Having “mix out” cues set on all your tracks – cues that are at a safe mix-out point that you can jump to in as hurry – can be a good tool for this.
Laidback Luke once told me about how he was playing a big festival and literally nothing he tried would get people dancing – nothing. Being the pro that he is, he didn’t panic, and ended up having to use Queen’s “We Will Rock You” to kick things off. That’s a pro’s way of dealing with this situation, right there!
2. Not having the right music
“But we wanted R&B.” “Have you got anything commercial?” Etc etc.
This error is down to lack of research and/or not properly talking to the person who booked you. But it can also be due to a different crowd than anyone was expecting turning up at the venue, leaving you caught out.
Read this next: How DJs Always Know What Song To Play Next (Without Ever Panicking)
The best DJs work hard to avoid this by collecting a broad range of music that covers every possible eventuality in their particular part of the DJing world. If there is any possibility at all that at any point you may have to play a country set as a pop DJ, or hip hop as a house DJ, or whatever, it is much better to acknowledge and plan for this in the safety of your own home than to get that cold realisation at a gig.
DJs often love “crossover” tunes, tunes that can work for two or more crowds due to their uniqueness. Also, think remixes of tunes that are big in one genre, but remixed into another. Especially look out for these when building your collection. And work on playlists in genres you don’t usually play. Just in case…
3. Equipment failure
“Blue screen of death” or “beachball” on your laptop. Somebody spilling a drink into your controller. Your OS deciding now is a great time to run a 30-minute update, when you’re about to DJ, or in the middle of a gig. Etc, etc.
There probably isn’t a working DJ in the world who hasn’t had some variation on equipment failure at one point or another, and the way to deal with it is always the same: Have a plan B that you’ve practised, and don’t panic when something goes wrong.
If you can take a deep breath and give yourself time to think about the right next move, just at the moment when the music has gone off and everyone is ironically cheering, you’re one of a kind for sure – but preparing for the situation will make it more likely you’ll manage it.
Read this next: What To Do If Your DJ Gear Breaks Down At A Gig
Exactly what your plan B is depends on the gig. Highly paid event DJs may have a complete backup system, whereas for bar DJs, a mix on your phone plugged into the mixer may be sufficient. But have one, practise it, and stay calm. It’s not what happens, but what you do next that counts…
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4. Hassle from the audience
Persistent/inappropriate requests. Drunken asides. Threatened or actual abuse. For many DJs, it’s the interaction with other people that’s the biggest nightmare of this whole job.
Perhaps it’s no surprise. A surprising number of DJs would describe themselves as introverts. For them, music is their key to the world, and sharing that music is their conversation with the world. Having to have, you know, real conversations along the way? That isn’t part of the deal!
But it has to be.
When it comes to requests, having tactics is the best thing. (We talk in a lot of detail about dealing with requests in this article.) But you can also practise how to deal with people asking you things or shouting things at you that you don’t want to “hear”. (I like putting my headphones on fully, avoiding eye contact, and simply waiting for them to get bored and go away!)
Ultimately, you’ve been hired to do a job, but the truth is that as the “leader of the party”, part of your job is to at least be diplomatic towards the people who are, after all, paying your wages.
Nobody should ever need to suffer threatened or actual abuse, though. If it worries you too much, have a frank conversation with the venue management beforehand to know what to do should this happen – in clubs, security can be called.
I’ve even seen Calvin Harris stop the music entirely and call the perpetrator out on the mic, to the rest of the club. This is a high risk move, for sure, but you do have it as an option!
5. Nobody turning up
Many years ago, I was DJing a party where 20 people max came, and we had five people left at 1pm. My house mate at the time, who didn’t exactly encourage my DJing at the best of times, was there, and he wandered over to me and said, “Time to give it a rest, Phil.” My heart sank.
The fact that I remember this 25 years later is a testament to how deeply a party with no people preys on my mind – and probably yours, too – as a DJ.
But the truth is that all DJs have this at times, and it’s going to happen a lot, lot more at the beginning of your career. Whether or not you promoted the event yourself, whether or not you could have done anything about the attendance, it’s just one of those things. You have no control over what else is on in your town that night, for instance.
I used to treat it as an opportunity to try out tunes I wouldn’t normally get the chance to play. You should also treat it as an opportunity to play your music on a better sound system than you’ve probably got at home.
As long as you stay cheerful, have a positive conversation with the person putting on the party as to what they’d like you to do, and look on the bright side (after all, a coach-load of party-goers may turn up in five minutes…), you should be OK. It’s all about seeing the glass as half full, not half empty (or, let’s be honest, totally empty).
6. Messing up a mix
It could be a beatmix going wrong. Or chatting away to someone, only to realise you’ve got 10 seconds left on the playing track and nothing cued up. Or the currently playing track actually finishing – maybe when you’re not even in the DJ booth (you nipped to the bathroom, and the queue was too big).
All count as messing up. You were meant to bring in the next tune smoothly, like a pro, and you failed.
A few thoughts though. Firstly, it’s not gone wrong until you admit it’s gone wrong. Laidback Luke again: “If I make a mistake, I do it four times, and now it’s how I meant to do it!”
Another tactic: If you let a track play out, and the room goes silent, kill all the lights, then drop in the biggest anthem in your box. Who’s to know you didn’t intend it all along?
The point in both cases is, if you appear like you’re in control, people will forgive or even doubt errors – so never flap or panic.
And ultimately, if you’re just not happy with your mixing, remember that you notice your mixing more than anyone else does, and that in the end, it’s the tunes that count, not how you mix them. Try your hardest, because not only will you improve over time, but you’re not as bad as you think you are right now.
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7. People saying you suck
They’re probably other DJs, and they’re jealous that you’re DJing. In other words, you’ve already won.
Or, they may not like the music you play, and are using “suck” to mean “you’re not into what I’m into”. But it’s you that’s in charge of the music, not them, and it’s your job to make the right decisions as to what to play. What’s happening here is that they’re trying to influence you unduly. So you need to ignore them.
Really, it is highly unlikely that you “suck”. You’ve learned how to use the gear. You’ve put a huge amount of time into preparing your music. You’ve practised your skills probably more than necessary.
You may not be perfect, but you don’t suck.
So stick with it. Have faith. Smile, through your teeth if you have to. Believe in yourself. Not only do you NOT suck, but every gig is teaching you more and more. You’ve got this.
8. Having to use the microphone
Some DJs pretend that they’ll never have to use the microphone. “Oh, I’m a deep house DJ, not a mobile DJ. I’ll never have to use the mic. I’m too cool for that.”
But you will. Everyone does, at some point. So you may as well practise. Because practising is what alleviates the fear of having to use the mic. Sure, learn about how to do it properly (we’ve got an article here to help you). But practising – recording yourself, even recording yourself on video, is the way to go.
If you’re playing a gig where you know you’ll have to talk lots but you’ve not done it before, the best bet is to do it early. Like anything you don’t want to do, the longer you put it off, the harder it gets.
One bit of good news: Done right, getting on the mic can generally hype up any crowd – however cool. Just practise what you want to say, know how to work the controls technically, and break the duck!
9. Not having enough music
This used to be 100% real back in the vinyl days. What vinyl DJ can’t remember a gig where the next DJ didn’t turn up, and they ended up playing B-sides and so on? (Often, it has to be said, discovering some great music in the process.)
But this can also be very real for new DJs, today. If you’ve only bought 50 tunes, what happens if you’re literally DJing somewhere and you’ve played all 50, for similar reasons?
So here’s how to avoid this. Firstly, make sure you have at least twice the amount of music you need. This means you effectively have a whole “second set” with you, so you can go off on tangents and not stick to a strict playlist or run out.
Secondly, consider subscribing to a streaming service. Most DJ systems nowadays have the ability to hook into Beatport, Beatsource, SoundCloud Go+ and/or Tidal. Voila: All the world’s music at your fingertips, in case of emergencies.
Read this next: The Best Music Streaming Services For DJs
In today’s world where abundance has replaced scarcity and digital has replaced physical, there’s really no reason to ever “run out” of music at your gigs. It’s all about preparation and foresight, so you can deal with the unexpected should it happen.
10. Other people laughing at your gear
“We just want our DJs to be comfortable, so we’d prefer them to use whatever gear they are used to when they DJ here.”
Those words were not from the manager of some two-bit bar in a no-hope town. They were from the chief sound engineer at none other than London’s Ministry of Sound, as interviewed by me in one of our DJ courses.
If Ministry of Sound don’t care what their DJs use, do you really think you ought to be concerned about what some random thinks about the gear you choose to use?
Sure, some gear is better suited to pro use, but nearly all gear can be used to play a perfectly passable DJ set nowadays – even the mobile phone in your pocket.
Now, especially when it comes to event/mobile DJing, it is true that appearances can count. After all, somebody is paying you to DJ, and in their mind, part of what they’re paying for could well be “equipment hire”.
One trick in this situation is simply to put your gear in a hard flight case. Even the most humble DJ gear, when cased in wood with big metal corners and a solid lid, looks pretty impressive.
The ultimate truth is that if you’re doing your job OK, nobody will care what you’re DJing on once you’ve got the party started.
11. Not being up to date with your music
This is sometimes a subtle one, and can run deep. It can simply be “I’ve not bought any new music recently” – if it is, you know what to do!
But it can also be, “I’m getting old, and I’m out of touch with what people like.” When it morphs into this kind of thinking, it can border on the existential (“should I even be DJing any more?”).
Of course, there are different types of gigs. If you’re a cutting edge underground DJ in a certain scene, you’re going to live or die on the exclusivity and upfront nature of the music you play – but that isn’t most of us.
Read this next: You Don’t Need More New Songs, You Need To Be More Organised!
In truth, what you play – what most DJs play – changes slowly. New music doesn’t so much replace older music, as augment it in the popular psyche. Putting it another way, there are only so many stone-cold classics released every year, and collecting them over the years is not so hard.
As long as you’re taking the time to listen to new music (if you’ve got kids, this isn’t hard to achieve), and adding at least a few tracks to your collection every month, you’ll more than likely keep up.
12. Playing explicit versions of songs by mistake
Has happened to us all. Who doesn’t know the sinking feeling of a track coming on on Spotify when yours or someone else’s kids are in earshot? At an actual gig, with a big audience including minors, when you’re being paid to choose the music, it’s that, magnified.
It’s f***ing annoying at the best of times 😉
Look, it happens. Figure out why it happened, and learn from it/take steps to stop it happening again. Apologise to the right person or people. And take heart from the fact that, 99% of the time, the kids you’re trying to protect from any given language already know that language anyway!
Finally on this point, a story for you. A DJ friend of mine was once booked to play a party at a club called Sankey’s Soap, in Manchester, England. The party was for a Christian association of some type, for adults, but he was politely asked to avoid any swearing in his music.
Him being him, he didn’t take well to this suggestion/being told what to do, so he decided to open his set with the part from the beginning of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack that goes, “I’m gonna murder every last motherf***ing one of you!”
13. Zombies massacring you, and everyone else too
Sorry, I can’t help with that one. Maybe never play Halloween gigs?
In all seriousness, you worry about these things because you care. Even now, over 30 years since I started DJing professionally, I have DJ nightmares. (For the record: I have the wrong music with me, and there’s nobody at the gig.)
If you do something – anything – worth doing, at some point you’re going to mess up. As I said earlier, really it’s not what happens, it’s how you deal with it – and what you learn from it.
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Good luck with your gigs this Halloween, and at every other time of the year – and don’t let your fears and nightmares get the better of you.