Ever watched a DJ on a festival stage, and wondered how much they are really “reading the crowd” from up there? You already know that DJs are meant to change how they’re playing based upon what the audience is enjoying or not enjoying, but how exactly do they do it when there are so many people?
Also, DJing a regular gig, at a venue you know, is one thing – but what about when you’re playing at a new venue, maybe in a new city – or even a new country – for the first time? And, what if you’re booked to play a genre you’re not so familiar with?
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While it is indeed possible to “read” a crowd from the elevated DJ stages of festivals (Laidback Luke, one of our tutors, talks about how he does it, in our Laidback Luke’s Creative DJing Course), just like it is at any gig, big or small, one of the secrets of seemingly getting the music right, effortlessly, every time, is nothing to do with what you do when you’re actually performing.
Instead, it’s all about what you do before the gig – what another one of our tutors, James Hype, calls “pre-reading” the crowd. And in this article, I’ll talk you through what it means, and why you should also be doing it for your gigs.
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What is pre-reading a crowd?
It’s basically everything you do to prepare your music for the gig. We’re not talking about setting cue points and all that stuff, but rather, what you do to choose the music you’re likely to play.
You see, DJs don’t tend to play from their whole collection – that would be crazy, as there would simply be too much music to choose from. Instead, they pack a crate or playlist from which to choose from at their gig.
A good rule of thumb is to pack twice the amount of music you’ll need, so in effect, you’ve got a whole “other” set to play. If you play 20 songs an hour and you have a two-hour set, that’s 40 songs played, so you’ll “pack” 80.
Of course, you’ll still have all the rest of your collection with you – but instead of DJing from that collection (not like back in the vinyl days…), you’ll be mainly DJing from your 80-track playlist.
This discipline forces you to think about what music you’re going to pack – and gives you enough music to alter your set depending upon the mood, but not so much that you get “analysis paralysis” – really not knowing what to play, due to having so much choice.
The question is, how do you choose what to “pack”? That’s where “pre-reading” your crowd comes in.
5 Ways to Pre-Read A Crowd
1. Research what people in that city/country like
Especially if you’re playing in a new city or country, it’s a great idea to do a bit of background research. One of the best places to do this is Shazam. The reason for this is that Shazam knows the tracks real people care about enough to whip their phones out and do an ID on, and it knows this info for practically every city on the planet.
Go to the Shazam website, click “charts”, and select a country. From there, you can drill down by city, and you also get two lists: Top 200 (the hits), and Discovery (the more underground, up-and-coming sounds). Get listening! Frankly this is such a game-changer, it’s worth doing weekly for your very own city, too.
2. Speak to the person who booked you
There’s absolutely no shame in asking the person paying your wages how the events have been going, which DJs have done well, what music their crowds loved, any DJs who played “different than normal” genres who did particularly well or badly there, and the like.
No, you don’t want to come across as somebody who hasn’t got a clue, but I am sure you can think of ways to slip questions into conversations that give you great pointers – and as the person booking you is likely to have many of these answers, it’d be silly not to ask.
3. “Online stalk” other DJs who’ve played there recently
We all know DJs cannot help but share clips online of themselves performing at their gigs, and they’re likely to share the very best bits – so research DJs who’ve played where you’ll be playing, then use their Instagram Stories, Facebook posts and videos and so on as a “secret window” into what’s been working there.
Of course, if you can actually attend an event at the venue yourself, that’s the very best, but if not, this is the next best thing – real footage and feedback from real DJs, playing to the same or similar people, at the exact venue you’ll be playing at. Depending upon your relationship with any DJs who’ve played at the venue recently, you could even ask them personally what worked and what didn’t.
4. Get there early
Is this pre-reading the crowd, or simply reading the crowd? Well, it’s a bit of both! Whereas some DJs like to just rock up five minutes before gigs, do their thing, and leave right afterwards (I saw Armand van Helden do that once, years ago, and to his credit, he rocked it), equally it’s a good idea to get there early, to catch the vibe before you play.
This accomplishes a few things. It shows the promoter you care (and, indeed, the audience). It gives you a chance to confirm or revise your idea of the types of tracks that you feel are likely to work. And it also gives you the knowledge of what the previous DJ has played, so you don’t lower the energy by inadvertently playing a tune or tunes that have already been spun that night.
Once you’ve had your final thoughts, you can maybe even pop into the DJ box a few minutes early, and make some last-minute tweaks to your setlist on your laptop at the back, if you really want!
5. Try the “dartboard method” at the start of your set
This is an old trick lifted from the playbook of wedding DJs. Good wedding DJs know that the best way to rock the dancefloor at the end of the evening is to actually DJ the earlier part (usually the dinner) – a time when lesser DJs may just put on a playlist.
The reason they do this is that they can deliberately play a bit of everything (“throwing darts all around the dartboard”), and carefully observe the crowd to see who likes what. Smiling, looking at the DJ, tapping feet, nodding heads, chatting to each other about the music… these are all things people do when they like what they hear, even if they’re simply sat down eating a meal. Then, later on, the wedding DJ will favour the genres he or she observed as working well in the warm-up.
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If you’re really not sure – even after your research – exactly what a strange crowd may or may not like, then you can do this: Make your first 15 or 20 minutes a mix of all the possibilities you’ve identified for tonight’s music, and base the rest of your set on what you learn.
In reality, this isn’t an either/or. It is, of course, the DJs job to read the crowd as much as is possible. But equally, pre-reading the crowd can mean you turn up properly armed and prepared for the event, with a much better chance of getting the music right, than if you just started playing and hoped your in-the-moment DJ skills would be enough to carry you through.
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Do you pre-read your crowds? Do you prepare music before gigs? And how do you cope when playing in new places? Please share your thoughts in the comments.