10 Secrets To Opening For Big Name DJs

| Read time: 12 mins
opening sets Pro programming warm-up sets
Last updated 28 March, 2018

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Empty dancefloor
Having an empty dancefloor is like having a blank canvas. The smart warm-up DJ applies his strokes carefully to get the background all set for the big-name guest to apply the bold, finishing strokes to.

Guest post by DJ Sean Gallagher, who teaches how to DJ with his blog and training programme.

There is no better opportunity for a new or intermediate DJ than to DJ warm-up sets for a superstar celebrity DJ in town. Think about it: having your name of the poster with any celebrity DJ will get you noticed around your city. And any time a big DJ is in town, the other promoters and DJs will usually stop by to see the superstar DJ in action. The promoters and other DJs will see you in action too and this will almost definitely lead to more gigs if you do it right.

Why? Because excellent opening DJs are rare. They are therefore respected and usually find great success in their DJing careers. Some of the top professional DJs in the world were great opening DJs. That’s part of the reason why they got noticed and became superstars. The challenge is that most DJs don’t know how to open properly for another DJ and as a result they miss a lot of opportunities for DJ gigs. So the big question is how do you properly open for a celebrity guest DJ?

Having become a bit of an opening specialist myself, here are my 10 secrets to being an awesome opening DJ:

1. Understand your role

Opening for another DJ is an art form. It’s a lot different than DJing at peak time when the party is going nuts. Despite what you’ll find at most of your local clubs, the opening DJ’s purpose isn’t to get the dancefloor going off. The opening DJ’s role is to invite people into the room, make them feel comfortable and lure them onto the dancefloor just before the big DJ shows up.

I’ve seen it so many times! The opening DJ starts banging out peak-time tracks trying to get people to dance early on hours before the big-name DJ is set to come on. But he doesn’t realise three things:

  • First, people don’t want to dance right away when they enter the venue. They want to take their time, chat with their friends, talk up a cute girl, have a few drinks, get into the groove and then get out on the dancefloor
  • Second, people can’t dance forever. They get tired quickly. So if you bang it out early you won’t be able to keep them on the floor until the big DJ takes over
  • Third, if you were a big DJ coming in to play peak time, you’d want to be able to pump up the crowd yourself. You don’t want a crowd that’s already peaked and tired. This is every big DJ’s nightmare: playing to a crowd that’s already danced like crazy. Why? Because they’re tired so they won’t respond to anything you play and that creates a weird energy in the room

So your job as an opening DJ isn’t to get people dancing like crazy, it’s to first get people tapping their feet by the bar. Then you want them nodding their heads and swaying a little. As the night gets busier a few brave souls will head out on the floor and dance.

And little by little you want to get more and more people out by building the energy in your music. By the time the big DJ comes on, everyone is on the dancefloor sort-of swaying, waiting for the track that will make everything explode. You literally warm up the energy in the room so that when the next DJ comes on he can spark the dancefloor off 100%.

2. Tone down the tempo

A song that is playing at a faster BPM (beats per minute) will always have more energy. So the easiest way to raise the energy of a room is to gradually bring the speed of your tracks up. You can’t do this if you start off out hammering your tracks at light-speed. Ideally you want the energy to be high right before the big DJ is about to come on. This means that you need to start out playing your tracks with a slower BPM earlier on and push the BPMs up as you get closer to the next DJ arriving.

120 BPM
Keeping a tight rein on your BPM is one of the most effective ways of harnessing the energy and increasing it at the correct rate as the warm-up set progresses.

Think about it. If you enter into a club at eleven o’clock and the DJ is playing his tracks slower at 120BPM, when 12.30am rolls around and he’s playing his tracks at 124BPM the music will have a lot more energy to it.

When I open a house night, for example, I know that the next DJ will be playing his tracks 126 or maybe even 128BPM for peak time. So that means I want to get up to 125 or 126 at the end of my set. I’m on for two hours so I start out slow at 120ish and leave it there for the first half-hour. Then I gradually pick up the pace as the room fills up. This creates an awesome energy.

Look at it this way: If you had two DJs playing the exact same song at 125BPM at the end of their opening set, which song would have more energy? The DJ who started out at 125BPM and had kept that pace and energy for the full two-hour opening set? Or the DJ who started off way slower and built up the pace?

Of course, the answer is that the DJ who started off slower would have created more energy in the room because his track at 125BPM sounds so much faster and has so much more energy than the tracks he was playing an hour before! Don’t be that guy who bangs fast music to an empty dancefloor at the beginning of the night.

It may feel slow having your tracks pitched down, but it pays off later in the night.

3. Choose your style of music carefully

A important factor in opening up for a big DJ is the style of music you play. As I said, the goal of the opening DJ is to first have people tapping their feet at the bar and around the dancefloor. Then you want to get people swaying and nodding a little bit. The best music to get people to sway and move towards the floor is by using more rhythmic, percussive, warm-sounding tracks. You don’t start out playing peak-time bombs from Steve Angello or Tiesto early on.

You want to play music that makes people feel like bobbing their heads and tapping their feet. Then you build it to more peak-time songs as you get closer to switching over to the bigger DJ.

4. Watch the room

When do you pick up the tempo or adjust the style of the music you’re playing as the night progresses? This all comes down to what the people in the room want: what the dancefloor wants. That’s, after all, what DJing is all about. Any monkey can play one song after another and beatmatch. But if you can choose the right song, at the right time to match the energy of the people in the room, you can create magic. That’s the art of DJing. No machine could ever do that. And it’s never more important than when warming up a room.

So make sure you lift your head up and start watching people if you don’t already. You’ll come unstuck as a warm-up guy otherwise.

5. Recognise the different phases of a night

When you start to watch people more, and in the specific way that all good DJs do, you’ll quickly realise that every night has distinct phases to it. Early on, people will be hanging out by the bar having drinks and laughing with friends. Your goal now is to see what type of songs get them bobbing and tapping their feet. Try a few different types of songs and see what they react to. If they react to something more techy, keep playing that style. If they respond to a vocal, then make a note of that and react accordingly.

Half-full dancefloor
As the night moves from phase to phase, try and recognise the stages: A three-quarters full dancefloor means you’re not far from the big-name, and by now you should know what you need to do to leave things primed and ready.

Then the night will reach a stage where there are people standing around the dancefloor, and more people will be watching you. The venue will be starting to fill up at a faster pace and you’ll even have a few blessed-souls taking to the dancefloor. Again, as you play different types of song, watch and notice what people react to. Notice how the songs you play affect the energy of the room.

Do people leave the dancefloor, or do they do the opposite and leave the bar to go dance? What types of people are dancing? Are people surrounding the floor just waiting for a few more people to dance so they won’t be the only one? What are the people at the bar doing? What are all of the girls doing?

Then as you get closer to peak-time the floor will be three-quarters full. Again, watch how the crowd reacts and play accordingly. See what types of songs fill the dancefloor more. By now you should know the crowd pretty well and you should have a good idea of the type of track you will need to drop just before the big-name celebrity DJ arrives to get the floor packed.

6. Don’t worry when you clear the floor

Empty dancefloor
When the dancefloor empties, you may feel the spotlight is firmly on you to do something about it – but in a warm-up set, an empty dancefloor can actually be a good thing. Pic: Loud DJs

As a newer DJ, you will probably freak out when you clear your first dancefloor. The dancefloor will be rocking away – half full – or even completely full and you’ll drop your next track. Sometimes the dancers aren’t feeling your song choice and they’ll leave the dancefloor.

Don’t panic. This is actually a great thing. First of all, dancers need a break. They need to re-fuel on booze and take a little breather so they can go harder later. I know a lot of DJs who will intentionally play the odd chill song in their set just to give people a breather before they pick the energy up to the next level. In some more commercial venues it’s actually demanded of DJs, in order to get people to the bar!

Clearing a floor is also one of the best ways to discover what the crowd wants to hear. You play a track and they put their hands up and scream. Sweet! You know what they like. Eventually you’ll have to figure out what they don’t like. Better to be experimental in what you play and find out earlier on. Knowing what the dancefloor responds to negatively will help you rock it even better closer to peak-time, when there are more people in and when it matters more.

7. Win the girls and the guys will follow

One of the facts of life for a DJ is that if you can get the girls on the dancefloor, you’ll have the guys following shortly. So when you’re watching the crowd, focus a little more on how the women react. Take mental notes on what gets them dancing. I’ll let you in on an old DJing trick of mine. This is top secret. Don’t share it with anyone! 😉

Once you start DJing in nightclubs or at raves it will be easy for you to develop a group of friends that are hot girls. It’s easy to convince them to come out to your shows because it’s easy to get hot girls on the guestlist for free. Ask them to come down early and you’ll buy them a drink. I’ve found that I never have to because other guys will do that for me! I wanted them there early so I could use them to help get the dancefloor going.

Girls on dancefloor
Where the girls go, the guys follow: Use this to your advantage.

I would wait for the right moment, when people were standing around the dancefloor and there were already a few dancers. I would drop a track with a vocal that people could sing along to, and at the same time I would give a secret hand signal to the group of girls to go and dance.

So what happens next? The girls hit the dancefloor and within two minutes there are groups of guys who have followed them. Now there’s a crowd on the dancefloor, so the few individuals and couples who were too embarrassed to go out on the floor alone now join as well. All of a sudden the dancefloor is half-full at the perfect time and the energy in the night is building nicely.

Having the hotties hang out in the DJ booth is good for your ego and all, but you’re best off using them to get the dancefloor started. Just be honest with them and they’ll be happy to help.

8. Choose and use your “singalong songs”

The dancefloor will get the point where it is half or three-quarters full and it needs a spark to take the energy in the room to the next level and pack the floor. Since you’ve been watching the room now for a good while, you should have a reasonable idea of what’s working. Roughly 25 minutes before the big name DJ is set to go on, you’ll usually want to drop a specific track that is more popular. I call them “singalong songs”. Even if there aren’t any vocals, they’re songs that the crowd knows and will be excited to hear.

A “singalong song” is what makes girls and guys at the bar say: “Let’s go dance. I love this song!” Maybe the song has a famous vocal in it that people get excited about. Maybe it’s an exciting new release from the sub-genre the big DJ coming on specialises in. Either way you’ll feel that the room needs a push, so it’s your time to hit the go button.

Girls on floor
A ‘singalong’ song doesn’t necessarily need to contain vocals – it just has to get people enthusiastic about joining the dancefloor.

This is where the opening DJ gets rewarded. He’s been patient in letting the dancefloor grow and now here it is at his fingertips. Dance puppets! Dance! Remember that you still need to leave the next DJ some energy and headroom. Your goal here isn’t to get people raging, it’s to get the bar stars who are still hanging around the edge onto the floor. You drop this song, people end up on the floor and then you have 10 to 15 minutes to work with until the big DJ arrives.

Fight your instincts to be a DJ hero and start banging out peak-time bombs. After the singalong song play two more rhythmic tracks that keep the energy in the floor but that don’t make it go wild. Now the big DJ will arrive and you’ve got a full primed dancefloor set up on a platter for him.

9. Match the style of the next DJ

Once you have a full dancefloor, your goal is then to match the style of the DJ who’s coming up. So you need to do your research ahead of time to know how the celebrity DJ starts off his peak-time sets. To do this just Google some of his recent sets and listen to them. Check out the track lists. See if you can find a few tracks in your collection that would set up well for the songs he starts off with. This will impress the celebrity DJ.

I always ask the DJ when he enters the DJ booth what he wants me to leave him off with. He’ll say “something slower”, “something faster”, “something more techy” or “this is great”. You then play the appropriate song, and you’re now one of the city’s best opening DJs, because you’d be amazed how few bother to do this.

10. Do not play one of the big name DJ’s songs

Full dancefloor
If the big-name guest slaps his first tune on and the dancefloor suddenly erupts like this? Well done, you’ve done your job right.

This is crucial. If the number one mistake of the opening DJ is playing to hard and fast early on, then the close second biggest mistake is playing the tracks of the big-name DJ who is about to come on. Nothing pisses of a successful DJ more than having some local DJ play all of the songs that his fans recognise and that (of course) he was going to play at peak time.

I’ve seen some awesome local DJs do a great job of teasing the crowd with little snippets of one of the big name DJ’s popular songs. Just a few words of a vocal over another song for example. But that’s it. And some big name DJs might not even like that.

So before you set out for the night make sure all of the tracks from the big name DJ you’re opening for are buried so that you don’t play them by mistake or get too tempted!

Bonus: Plan your tracks not your set

We’ve covered this before in 7 Set Planning Secrets Of Professional DJs, but please don’t ever pre-plan your set when opening. Opening for another DJ is about watching the crowd and feeling the energy to choose the next song.

That being said, it’s a good idea to choose a few songs that you may play at key points during the night: Three or four early songs, a few songs that will get people bobbing and their feet tapping, a few peak-time “singalong” songs, and some of the tracks you might leave the other DJ off with. This will get you well-enough prepared without putting you in the box of planning out an entire set.

Finally…

Opening up for a big-name DJ can be one of the most rewarding things a new DJ can do. Follow my points above and you’ll have people knocking down your doors to open for more celebrity DJs when they’re in town. Even better, if you’re opening when the big DJs come to town, you’re soon going to be playing peak-time sets at local nights yourself. Rock on!

• DJ Sean Gallagher has been DJing professionally for nine years and now teaches new DJs how to DJ through his online DJ Training website How To DJ Fast. Why not go see some of his videos?

Have you opened for big name guests? Have you seen people do it well (or badly)? Have you been asked to play an opening set and are nervous about it? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

DJ Census 2019