The night’s young and the club’s empty – this is the domain of the warm up DJ. Your job is to prime the pump, set the mood for the evening, and guide everyone’s energy to the point that it’s just about to burst before the headliner comes on. This is all achieved through a mix of careful song selection, thoughtful crowd reading, and almost otherworldly patience building up a dancefloor from zero.
Here are seven ways to execute opening like a boss…
7 warm up tips
1. Find out what the music policy is
You can’t go in and play warm up without knowing what the crowd and venue expects. You can play the calmest of drum ‘n bass breaks, and it still wouldn’t sound like a proper warm up for minimal tech house.
It may sound obvious, but it’s really easy to overlook if you’re playing a venue for the first time. Doubly so if you’re opening for a DJ you’ve never heard of (don’t tell him that). Do your research and find out what the club’s usually like on that night, and then find out what kind of music the headliner’s playing. Once you’ve got that, go through your library and prepare accordingly.
Pro tip: If you’re opening for a touring DJ, find out where she / he has DJed prior to your night, and see which DJs played warm up for those dates. Find some of their mixes online through Mixcloud to get a feel for what the headliner’s used to, and then try to integrate some of those ideas into your set. The headliner DJ is the star of the show – the more familiar and comfortable he is during your set, the more he can bring his A-game.
2. Go early to check the gear and chat with staff
Showing up at the venue 10 minutes right before your set is a bad idea because it doesn’t give you enough time to get in the right mindset and get set up properly, especially if you’re not bringing your own gear (ie you’re using the club’s CDJs). A bunch of other things can also go wrong: one, the venue may not have a proper booth monitoring system and you’ll need to do some tweaks to get it to your liking, and two, the club gear may or may not even be in good working order. In this case, it’s better that you know ahead of time so you can adjust accordingly (ie if you brought a backup controller and you need to connect it).
This could be mitigated with a properly listed and illustrated tech rider in your DJ press kit, but you really can’t tell how good (or functional) the gear is until you’ve actually spun on it. It always helps to be at the venue extra early to make sure you get to iron out all these little details. You’re the first DJ to go on, after all, and if there are kinks in the kit you’ll want to sort them before your set, not during it.
Our Pro tip: Going early comes with a slew of bonuses too – this lets you chat up and get cosy with the bar staff so you can begin building a relationship with them that can come in handy during and after your DJ set. I also recommend communicating with venue security and asking about “security calls”, which are a set of codes that you can speak into the mic in case of untoward incidents such as a fire or a brawl on the dancefloor.
3. Get the particulars down (eg dress code, fees, door charges)
Asking about money can be a tricky issue in the beginning, especially if you’re generally shy, but you’ve got to learn to talk about it up front. DJ fees are a big part of your contract, and should be negotiated way before you even get in the DJ box, not when you’ve already done the job and someone else is benefitting from your “pro bono set”.
This also goes for the dress code – find out if the venue has one. Don’t show up in anything less than what’s required, so don’t show up in tank tops and bermuda shorts (unless you’re in Miami).
Our Pro tip: A good rule of thumb to follow would be to dress up one notch higher than the club’s usual clientele, but don’t go overboard.
4. Prepare twice as much music as you think you’ll need
Never plan out a DJ set in its entirety. You should leave tons of wiggle room for the unexpected – sure, you can maybe plan out your first handful of songs to help you get comfy behind the decks, but after that you should rely on your crowd reading. It’s the only way to hone your song selection intuition, which is the meat and potatoes of a great DJ, whether warm up or headlining.
Pack enough music to enable you to go on tangents, as every crowd (and every night) is going to be different from the last. I recommend preparing at least two times the amount of music you’ll be playing, so if you’re doing a 60 minute warm up, pack in two hours’ worth of tunes, minimum, all prepped, tagged in your library, and ready to go.
Pro tip: Build dynamics into your set. While the energy and vibe should build up towards the headliner, you can also drop it ever so slightly during the course of your set just to “ease” the floor if it’s starting to get too rowdy.
5. Develop a warm up DJ’s mindset
You’re setting the mood for the night. It’s not about you, it’s about the headliner! That means shifting your mental state from being “star of the show” to “guy making the star of the show even more of a star”. Trust me on this – if you can get the crowd ready to pop and you make the headliner look good, you’ll be the night’s secret superhero.
Pro tip: Begin with the end in mind – your primary job is the hand over a crowd that’s ready to pop. It’s OK to visualise a packed dancefloor, but make sure that it isn’t going bonkers just yet: Again, the hero in this story is the headliner, and you’re the herald.
6. Find your mark, then hone in on them and play to them
Build a connection with your crowd. Patience is key – don’t aim to get everyone on the floor just yet. All should build towards the headliner
The usual metrics to DJing success for headliners (a packed floor, kids going mad for it, and so on) don’t apply to the warm up. Opening DJs have a different yardstick – creating an atmosphere that invites people to dance can be the difference between a good night and mind-blowingly great evening out that gets word-of-mouth raves and social media mentions. It’s like building a house – a strong foundation is where it all begins, and it’s on that foundation that the evening’s dancefloor is built.
Pro tip: Find your mark, and play to him / her. If you’ve got an empty floor, aim to get a handful of people by the bar dancing, because when this group moves on to the dancefloor, it acts as an icebreaker of sorts for everyone else to jump in. You do this by honing in on that person or group, reading their movements and reactions to your selections, and planning accordingly.
7. Tech prowess is secondary to your song selection
You’re going to need more than just your technical prowess to make you a great warm up DJ. Selection, selection, selection is the name of the warm up game, time and time again. You can cut, scratch, and mix four decks like Carl Cox, but if your tune choices are off, you’re not doing your job.
Pro tip: Feel free to express yourself fully, but don’t do it just because you want to impress, especially if you don’t know how yet – pretending to be a DMC champ when you’re not to please your cute date or performing a cue point juggle when you don’t even know what that means won’t get you a call back.
Many think that warming up for a DJ is a piece of cake, but make no mistake: Warming up is a complex endeavour that needs to be refined through constant practice and active music library-building. To some it may look like DJing to an empty floor, but it’s actually the most delicate part of the night that needs to be in the hands of someone who cares about how it’ll go. Getting the crowd ready for the evening ahead is crucial, and not many can do it properly. If a club or promoter gives you a warm up slot, consider it a compliment!
Have you ever played a warm up DJ set? What was that experience like? Any tips you’d like to share with the rest of our readers? Let us know below.