How To DJ Warm Up Sets (And When To Break The Rules)

| Read time: 7 mins
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Last updated 16 February, 2014

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Warm-up DJ
Club’s open, people are arriving… so how do you play it, and is it ever OK to bang on the big tunes?

Standard DJ etiquette says DJs playing the warm-up set should, you know, warm up. They should hold back, leaving it for the main guest or guests to drop the big tunes and thus raise the energy level to the roof. Tease the crowd, make the dancefloor seem less hostile to people who’ve just walked in. Get things starting to move – but don’t grab the glory.

Certainly, so the rules go, you shouldn’t turn the volume up, banging on all the tunes the crowd knows. Try all the tricks to get everyone hanging from the rafters before the big-name guest DJ hits the booth. That’s just bad manners, right? Well, actually, as we find out today, it’s not always so clear cut…

The classic job of the warm-up DJ

I was part of a successful club night where generally, I warmed up, my DJ partner ended, and we had a guest in the middle. We had a “formula” for the night. We only really booked guests who “got it”. They had to played by our rules both musically (we had a proper “beginning-middle-end music policy”) and timing wise (ie get off the decks before the end, we finish the night!). This is, to me, an ideal situation.

If the promoters of any regular night you’re warming up for are musically savvy, they’ll already have successfully “zoned” the music. They’ll have developed a music policy for their event that’s above any individual DJ, like we did. You’ll be one of the trusted resident DJs, and the promoters will be booking guests who “get it” and play their part too.

Everything will flow and it won’t really matter who’s actually playing any particular week; overall, the formula will hold. People will be loyal to the event, coming whoever’s playing because they know what they’re going to get. In this classic club night scenario, yes, as a warm-up guy you should be setting the vibe, slowly raising energy, starting a little quieter than it’ll be later on. You’ll be teasing, playing dubs instead of full versions, operating at a lower BPM, slowly and carefully raising the energy level without blowing the roof off.

Funkademia
Funkademia, one of the longest-running club nights in my home city of Manchester, England. DJs who play there know what’s expected of them thanks to its tight, defined music policy.

You may be testing new material and you won’t be in such a hurry to “perform” or “show off your skills”. Mood-setting is a subtle art, not one of big gestures.

Look at it this way: Say it was you playing the whole night, on your own. How would you handle it? Would you bang out the biggies in the first hour? Course not. You’d be careful to plan the night’s musical journey carefully, to build to a peak, maybe take a twist or turn, and then to close with purpose.

Working together for the greater good of the event: That’s what the DJs who have slots within such a night ought to be doing. That’s what tends to happen in established, music-led club nights of the type we’ve so far been talking about. And the warm-up guy has a pretty clear role in all of that.

But it’s not always like that. And there are times when the rule book goes out of the window…

1. When the guest DJ playing next is a musical risk

Say you’re DJing at a house night, and the regular crowd are all in, expecting their big-room house as usual. But the promoter, in his wisdom, has booked a techno guest DJ. (Happened to be in town, has a Beatport Top Ten track right now, got him for a good price. Promoters often rock to their own beats on this stuff.)

In this instance, knowing the crowd as you do and guessing the techno guy is not going to spin what they’ve paid for, you can make the judgement call. You can choose whether to bang on some of the crowd favourites early, so they’re more forgiving to the music coming up, music that you’re guessing otherwise may just annoy them all.

They may even end up enjoying the techno guy once they’ve heard a few of their favourites, albeit heard them a bit early. And if the guest does bomb? Your decision ensured it wasn’t a total washout for the regulars. In this instance too, there’s less chance you’ll play tunes the guest would otherwise have played (one of the reasons for warm-up guys to keep it a little obscure), because the styles are so different.

2. When the night is a one-off

I used to DJ a club classics event. We held them on public holidays, irregularly, and they were always themed. We might do a classic progressive house night, an Italian house night, a breakbeat night. They were massive fun – an excuse to dig through all of our old music, and wind back the clocks “one time only”.

Classics night
At classics or ‘old school’ nights, the rule book can go out of the window, with often massively fun results…

There was actually no way you could warm up such a night. As soon as you started playing, people started dancing, smiling, coming up to you with their stories and high fives. Before you knew it, you had a full-on rave on your hands. The queues were round the block, and “warm up” basically meant “how long it takes to get everyone in”.

There’s something about one-off nights – be they themed events, a novel venue, a special occasion (New Year’s Eve being an obvious one) that means sometimes, the rule book goes out of the window. People seem to have more energy, and DJs are more forgiving to each other for the party starting earlier and taking its own, one-off course.

That’s not to say it’s wrong to try to play a traditional warm-up, but if events sweep you on, it’s forgivable to go with it. Especially in the case of classics nights, of course; there, it’s harder play stuff people don’t know. (Although I used to try hard to find those never-famous gems nonetheless…)

3. When all the DJs are guests

Sometimes you’ll be booked as a guest DJ to play at an event where every DJ is a guest. You know the type of event – 12 one-hour slots or something similar.

It could be because the event is based around a certain style of music and the promoter wanted to get everyone involved in that scene on one flyer. It could be because the promoter wanted to get all the city’s DJs on for one massive party, whatever their styles. Or it could be because the event is part of something bigger and the venue is obliged to put on as many DJs as it can.

Whatever the reason, with this type of event any notion of warm-up, peak and closing is out the window. You’re pretty much expected to “do your thing”, whatever your slot (of course, everyone wants the later slots, but someone’s got to open).

Think of it this way. You go to a music festival, with 10 bands playing between 12pm and midnight. The first band are hardly going to play mellow beats for an hour just because the gates just opened, are they? No matter that apart from a drunk dude who’s not slept yet and a stray dog, the arena is empty! No, they just bang through their set anyway and curse their time slot.

And in this instance, you should probably do the same. Who knows, it may fill up half-way through and you’ll get half an hour of full-on action you weren’t expecting.

4. When the guest DJ is playing late

At last year’s BPM, we ended up in Gatecrasher on the Saturday night, where Paul Van Dyk was headlining. He didn’t come on until 3am, but by 12pm the club was full. So what’s the warm-up guy to do there? Play five hours of warm-up music? Hardly. He had to raise the energy level, but still keep something back so Paul Van Dyk had somewhere to take it when he came on.

Paul Van Dyk
So you’re warming up for Paul Van Dyk, but the club is already full and he’s not on for another three hours. What do you do?

Here’s what he did. After the traditional warm-up early doors, the DJ who was playing the couple of hours before Paul Van Dyk settled into a sound system-flexing session of Adam Beyer-style techno. It was big beats, massive basslines, tight builds, but much more minimal than the more song-structure style that he knew Paul Van Dyk would play next.

It didn’t tread on Paul Van Dyk’s toes, but it also moved past “warm up”. It was kind of a “semi warm-up”, music related to but different from the headliner’s. You can borrow this trick too if your guest DJ is playing late or delayed. Raise the energy, but take a musical detour. Might give you a chance to play a style you don’t normally play, as well…

Remember…

People mistake the warm-up slot as being one where you’re banned from playing good music, banned from keeping people happy, and where you have to treat any DJ that follows you with total reverence. That’s a common misunderstanding.

It is actually harder to play warm-up than main set, in my opinion, and you still absolutely have to play music people like and keep people happy. You’re subtly signalling to them that it’s OK to be here, that the DJs overall tonight know what they want, and that it’s going to be delivered. You’re telling your crowd that they’ve come to the right place. You’ve got to be on the right road, yet you aren’t allowed to speed down it. And that’s a hard call.

When people are still outside, still putting their coats in, still sizing up the venue, and still waiting on their first drink, it remains true that in most cases, the warm-up DJ should be doing just that: Warming up.

Yet done properly, believe me a decent warm-up set can strike fear into the next DJ. To slowly raise the energy level and have people in the palm of your hand while not quite giving them exactly what they want is a rare skill. Handing over a full dancefloor that’s still not had it fully “given to them” is something to be proud of.

But as we’ve seen, it is sometimes appropriate to break the rules. If you do, though, remember there are some things that remain sacrosanct.

Don’t play tracks made by any of the DJs that follow you. Stick to time slots. And always be polite – at the end of the day, you’re all trying to give the crowd the best time possible.

Even if you do step on each others’ toes (in a calculated way or inadvertently), today’s rival is tomorrow’s friend and DJ partner. Don’t close doors for yourself with people over something as silly as how hard you choose to play a particular DJ slot. Make your decision, do your thing, and learn from how it went.

If you’re interested in learning more about programming DJ sets, there’s plenty of material in our 1000s-selling How To Digital DJ Fast online video course.


 

• Thanks to Si BooGie, Digital Kw3rty and Bru over on the Digital DJ Tips Forum for their contributions in Etiquette or Guns at 10 paces?, the thread that inspired this post. Join the Digital DJ Tips Forum for free now.

What do you think? Should a warm-up guy always hold back, or are there times when it’s OK to bang it out? Have you seem warm-up guys do a great job and the guest who follow them bomb, or vice versa? Please share your thoughts in the comments.