I just DJed another eight-hour marathon DJ set, playing from 9pm until 5am the next day. It was exhilarating to put it mildly: When you play for that long to a packed venue, your musical knowledge, crowd reading abilities and technical skills are put to the test because you are the opener, headliner, and closing act all rolled into one.
Here are eight tips to survive a marathon DJ set, whether you’re just starting out or you’re pushing for sets with double-digit lengths…
1. Map out the musical flow of the evening
The first tip to making it to the finish line in a marathon DJ set is to plan how it’s going to go down. Sure, you can just turn up and drop bangers all night ’til kingdom come, but it’s not an elegant (or sustainable) way to do it. Remember that since you’re the only DJ all evening, you’re basically the opener, headliner, and closer all in one – cracking under the pressure yet?
The key is to have a general idea of how the set will pan out. This will ultimately depend on the style / styles of music that you want to spin during the evening: are you planning to do a multi-genre party set, or will it be a house and techno affair until the small hours? Whatever you plan on playing, it’s worth splitting the night into three segments: opening, primetime, and after hours.
How I did it: My set was an open-format all-out party from 9pm to 5am, so I started out with some Rnb and hip-hop classics. I gradually transitioned to faster, uptempo pop and chart tunes for my primetime set around 12 midnight. For closing, I shifted to house and indie dance before ending with some slower tunes to cap off the night and send everyone home smiling.
2. Pack several playlists, and then pack some more
The most obvious preparation that you’ll be doing is packing more songs than usual – but don’t just throw them onto a thumb drive! Based on your musical flow map, create two or more playlists specifically for your opening, primetime, and after hours segments, and fill them up with tunes.
Depending on the style of music you’ll be playing, you may want to DJ with a laptop instead of USB drives – if you’re picking out tunes from a wide variety of genres (and from a sizeable collection of playlists), it’ll be easier to search for tracks quickly using a physical keyboard. It’s also faster to drag and drop tracks onto decks instead of using a scroll wheel on a CDJ.
How I did it: I spun a total of 149 tracks during my eight-hour set, and a handful of those were requests that I did not include in any of my playlists. DJing with a laptop lets you edit and make changes to lists while you’re spinning, so you aren’t stuck with pre-made playlists in your thumb drives.
Many things can happen during an eight-hour set, especially with requests coming in from guests. Personally, I’d rather have that flexibility throughout the evening instead of sticking to a rigid set of playlists.
3. Get some sleep the night before and eat clean
Friends and family used to think I was lazy because I love sleeping in and I get cranky when I don’t get my seven hours. As I’ve got older, I realised that high-quality sleep is absolutely essential if you want to create meaningful work in your life. Apart from my youthful glowing skin (naturally), getting enough sleep is directly proportionate to the amount and quality of my output, and that includes how long am able to stand behind the decks for while making good song decisions.
How I did it: I slept in all Saturday and had a calm afternoon of reading and mindfulness. I got back to my workout routine the weeks leading up to it, which include 5km runs every other day and free weights. Also, the biggest tool that’s helped me do longer DJ sets is a standing desk – it’s like training your lower body for extreme DJ hours even though you aren’t DJing (ie you’re at work).
4. Pack a few long tracks / edits for bathroom breaks
You’ll undoubtedly feel the need to go to the toilet at one point – when this happens, put on a long track to give you enough time to make it to the restroom and back. I’ve got a few tracks in my playlist that are special edits of two tracks that I’ve mashed together, and I put them on when I need a bathroom break or I’m prepping for a big mix that’s upcoming.
How I did it: The venue was jam packed, hot and humid, plus I don’t drink alcohol so there was very little need for me to go to the loo, except when it was all over at 5am. I still created a playlist of edits and long tracks just in case.
5. Realise that crowds come in waves
Normally, you’d turn up for a DJ set knowing exactly what role you’ve got to play and what time slot you’re going on. This gives you a clear indication of how to execute your set. If you’re the sole DJ all evening, however, there are differences not just in your approach to your performance, but also in your expectations of the crowd.
Unlike you, your audience doesn’t have to be on the dancefloor or in the club for the full duration of your extended set. In fact, a majority of them may only be there for your primetime set, and even then you could find that the crowd comes and goes during that period.
This is a crucial element to understand because it means that while you’ve been keeping track of your musical selections all evening, members of your audience haven’t, simply because your audience keeps changing. That means that playing a big tune twice (or even three times) is acceptable, long as the spins are spaced out enough so that your audience make-up is majorly different each time you play it.
This “crowd waves” theory also gives you more elbow room to clear the floor – and you should. Since you aren’t tied to a typical 60-minute set, you may find that your audience is more patient than usual, allowing you to get more creative with layering and playing out tracks in full. It also lets your dancefloor have a smoking / drink / toilet break.
How I did it: Be conscious of how both longer blends and shorter mixes affect your crowd. I usually keep a frenetic pace when doing my open-format sets because I want to play a lot of tunes during my slot, but it makes for one tired dancefloor. If you want to keep the floor pumping all night, you’ve got to give your audience a chance to catch their breath. For smaller clubs and bars, this is even better because it allows your dancefloor to shift bodies as tired feet move out and fresh faces pile in.
6. Manipulate the crowd’s perception of time and energy
The more I DJ, the more I realise that DJs have this ability to manage the way time flows on the dancefloor. Think of the last time you were in a dark club that had very long blends of repetitive techno or minimal tunes – before you knew it, a couple of hours had already passed since you went in (and it’s probably daylight when you get out). It’s like you were put under a trance and lost track of time.
Contrast this to “shorter”, more immediate forms of electronic music like EDM and big room that have build ups, breaks and drops every other minute, and you can’t help but feel time move differently.
How I did it: Your audience experiences time flow differently from you: longer mixes and blends can lead to drawn out periods of energetic contemplation, while short / quick-hit mixes can get you euphoric results like 1-2 dopamine punches. Use both to your advantage to give you the ability to weave and evening that shrinks and inflates time.
7. Have refreshments at the ready
If you’re playing in a hot club, you’re gonna sweat. A lot. Have a stash of cool drinks in the DJ booth, and make sure that you’re drinking enough water during your set. I made the mistake of just drinking two bottles of water during my eight-hour stint and I woke up the next day feeling like I was hungover, even though I hadn’t drank any alcohol!
How I did it: I have a tech rider that I send out to the promoter / bar staff / event organiser before every show that outlines my gear set-up and technical requirements, as well as my preferred beverages, meals and other hospitality needs. Tech riders have been a huge help for me, and are often the difference between DJing with my requirements met and spinning on top of milk crates with a sore back.
8. Get ready to stay in bed all day next day
This goes without saying: there is a fitness condition known as DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) where your muscles feel raw two days after an intense workout. This happens in DJ sets too, especially very long ones, and I can for a fact say that my legs are still quite sore from all the jumping and my neck from all the head banging.
How I did it: I slept almost all of Sunday the following day, and had a nice pizza and pasta dinner to cap off the weekend. Oh, and I wrote this article too, which was a nice way to mentally unwind and “debrief” myself.
There is no rush like DJing for an entire evening. It’s a demanding task that pushes you to your physical, mental, and emotional limits. It’s not for everyone, and that’s one of the reasons why marathon sets are a great way to set yourself apart from other DJs.
When properly executed, a marathon DJ set makes for a memorable evening that won’t easily be forgotten by your audience, and is an excellent opportunity to showcase your technical abilities and varied tastes outside of the conventional DJ set.
What was your longest DJ set ever? What did you like most about it? Are you preparing to play a marathon set soon? Any tips you’d like to share with us? Go ahead and share your thoughts below.