Successful DJing is all about bums on seats (well, feet on dancefloors, actually). The audience is an essential half of DJing. If you want any kind of success, you take this to heart and never lose sight of it. It’s woven into what a DJ does. It’s fundamental to what we teach in How To Digital DJ Fast.
So where does that leave playing the music you like? Where does that put your tastes, your musical aspirations? How can you fit these things around keeping an audience happy? How and to what extent you do this depends on where you fall in “The DJ Quadrant”…
The DJ Quadrant
Let’s take our first look at The DJ Quadrant. OK, so this shows various types of DJing. All DJs fit into the quadrant somewhere. If you’re playing music, you fit into the quadrant. If you have an audience (whether it’s your sister’s birthday party or a superclub), you fit into the quadrant. This graphic represents an absolute fundamental of what DJing is about.
(I said “all DJs fit in the quadrant somewhere”. It’s not strictly true. If you’ve yet to play in public, or you choose to DJ at home to please only yourself, then of course you’re not on this map. But as soon as you do, the rules apply to you too.)
Looking at the quadrant horizontally, DJs in the upper half of the quadrant are DJing primarily for the music. It’s their driver. DJs in the lower half, however, are doing it primarily for some other reason.
But looking at it vertically, DJs on the left-hand side of the quadrant are keeping dancefloors full and happy. Conversely, DJs operating in the right-hand side of the quadrant are, for whatever reason, not – their dancefloors have voted with their feet and are empty.
However, good DJs can exist in every single quartile of the quadrant except in quartile iv. Yes, that’s right – you can be a good DJ in quartile iii, no problem. You can also be a great DJ in or around quartile ii. Quartile i certainly isn’t the only place good DJs are playing all over the world, right now, making great money and having a lot of fun.
Let’s explain by taking a closer look at the quartiles, and who fits into each of them.
Quartile i – “Full dancefloor, happy DJ”
What’s not to like? You’re at the height of your game, you’re where you want to be. Let’s take a look at the lucky types of DJ who live here:
- Superstar DJs – Well, at least some of them. These are people who’ve paid their dues, and whose audience has come to see them and them alone. The audience knows their music. These DJs probably got to where they are by making the music they and their contemporaries play. As long as they resist the temptation to go “off on one” (imagine Tiesto suddenly playing dubstep?) they remain firmly in this category
- Good specialist DJs – They’re playing in smaller clubs where the audience, again, has come either to see them or to enjoy the certain style of music that they play. Again, they’ve earned their dues. They’ve found the right gigs, maybe produced a few tracks, built an audience. They’re not all going to be tomorrow’s superstars, but tomorrow’s superstar DJs will probably end up coming from this group
- Mainstream DJs who love their music – Many DJs genuinely love the popular music of the day, and thoroughly enjoy DJing it. To them there’s no issue – they play the pop their audience wants to hear, they enjoy it and so get very good at it, and everyone’s happy. Make no mistake, though – being a good pop DJ is just as hard as being a good underground DJ
Quartile ii – “My music at all costs”
We’ve all seen it. DJs playing to empty dancefloors. DJs coming on who clear dancefloors. Two-room venues where the crowd are usually balanced, but tonight one room is over-full and the other empty. All over the world, DJs clear dancefloors. I’ve done it. If you haven’t, you will one day. Somewhere, someone is doing it as you read this. So why does it happen?
- You’ve been misbooked – You made the mistake accepting the gig, and now you’re living with the consequences. It’s just not your crowd, and there’s little you can do about it. You’re out of your depth
- You’re not watching your audience – If you’re ploughing through a pre-planned set with no regard for your audience, it’s like a one-way conversation – and you’ve got a megaphone!
DJing is a two-way thing, a collaborative process, a musical conversation. Fail to follow your crowd and you can easily drift into quartile ii
- “I’m an educator, not an entertainer” – Great DJs – and I mean really great DJs – can, at their best gigs, educate 50% of the time. The other 50% is entertainment. If you really believe otherwise, my only advice is to be very sure of your talent, because arrogance always empties dancefloors
- You’re not really a DJ – Musical passion does not necessarily make you a DJ. Producers, for instance, sometimes get pushed into the spotlight as DJs when they’re not comfortable with it. Or rookie DJs, who haven’t learned the ropes yet, think they can pack a crate of 100 tunes that they personally love and just play them, simply not realising that there is more to DJing than that. For these DJs, it’s just a case of accepting there’s more to learn, and setting to it
Quartile iii – “Fill the floor, whatever”
Despicable, huh? Playing music you don’t like just to keep the dancefloor happy? Not so fast, buster. That’s not fair and it’s also untrue. Let’s take a closer look at who lives in this quartile:
- Struggling new DJs – Most DJs who rely on DJing for a living play gigs that aren’t the best for them – some more than others. Needs must. While you may be an underground rising star, it doesn’t pay the bills, so you mobile DJ on the side. While you may be a bedroom producer who’s going to make it big one day, you DJ in your local mainstream club at the weekends to remain in the music business and to make the cash that supports you. But as long as you’re keeping your dancefloors full, and you’re personally happy with the plan you’ve made for the longer term, is this really a problem?
- Mobile DJs – Hear me out, mobile guys, as I have played 100s of mobile gigs, especially early in my career. It takes just as much skill, dedication and professionalism to do mobile DJing as any other type of DJing. That’s why good mobile DJs get rebooked, that’s why their dancefloors are full. But nobody goes
into mobile DJing because they have a burning desire to express themselves, their musical passion. It’s not the natural type of DJing for this, because the music mobile DJs are generally required to play isn’t individual enough for all that – they’re expected to play music across the generations that’s very familiar. Instead, mobile DJs pride themselves on suiting the occasion. While most mobile DJs don’t mind their tunes, and they certainly like some of them, musical expression is not their sole driver: They see a bigger picture. They get at least as much of their satisfaction from the other elements of the job – making people happy, the personality side of it and so on, as they do the music
- Some superstar DJs – Yup, you hear me right. You would not believe the number of superstar DJs who are utterly sick of what they play, or are doing it for the money. I know, they privately tell me. They’re trapped by the sound they are known for, and get good money to perpetuate it. For every superstar DJ who’s moved with the times and developed their musical passion along with their audience’s, there’s another who’s carried on pushing the buttons and taking the cash. Before you judge though, can you really blame them? If you’re good at your job and it pays you well, do you really have to love it as much as you do when you first started doing it in order to keep doing it?
Quartile iv – “I have nightmares about this!”
What could be worse than playing music you don’t like to an audience that doesn’t like it either? Yet it happens, and it’s the trap most DJs have nightmares about falling into at one stage or another. And before you say “that’s not me, I’d never let that happen”, take a look at these scenarios:
- You’re playing music you don’t like out of desperation – You’ve tried all your usual tricks, and they ain’t working. So you decide to go for broke and break out some tracks that you’re so not all about. And they fail. Bingo. You deserve better, but nonetheless you’ve ended up in the fourth quartile
- You’re a mobile DJ with a difficult crowd – There’s nothing more miserable than doing a mobile show when for whatever reason, people simply don’t want to dance. You can hardly throw in the towel and start playing your true passion (let’s say dubstep!) to please yourself, can you? So you have to plough on, and keep trying. Most times, you’ll crack it eventually. But not always…
- You’re playing ill-advised requests – Often this happens because you’re already in trouble and looking to the requests to dig you out of the doo-doo, but if someone’s “just play this and everyone will dance” proves to be a disaster, hello quadrant iv! (We can also include being made to play music by the management here, against your judgement)
Hang on, though…
So hang on, you might be saying, didn’t you say it’s possible to exist happily in all quartiles except in quadrant iv? What about quartile ii? That doesn’t look like a nice place to be, emptying dancefloors everywhere you go because of your music passion! How can that be a fun or profitable place to exist? Ah, but here’s where your musical passion comes in on your side – if you really do care about the profession of DJing, and about making people happy, as well.
Remember the great DJs I spoke of who educate and entertain? These people actually enjoy living right where quartiles i & ii join. Through their enthusiasm in the DJ box, their mixing skills and their clever programming, even their star quality, they can take a crowd in their hands and move it towards quadrant i, while playing music that lesser DJs simply couldn’t get away with.
They can switch between quartiles i and ii at will, until the quartiles blur into one, and until they have the crowd exactly where they want them – dancing wildly in quartile ii, to music they didn’t know they liked until this precise second. For many, that’s what DJing is all about. But it’s not easy, and there’s no short route to perfecting it.
Yet if you remain humble, always watch your audience, accept your bookings carefully, know when you’re compromising, and keep passionate about the whole art of DJing, not just the music, you’ll have gigs that are enjoyable – and that keep you out of quadrant iv!
So where do your gigs fall? Do you take and play shows in more than one quadrant? How do you combine your love of music with what your audience wants? How important is it to educate your audience as well as to entertain them? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.