First, I have to tell you that the Playlist Pyramid strategy for building a great DJ music collection is not going to be right for all DJs.
It is only for you if you are a DJ who is into DJing to discover, play and share the music you absolutely love. Music that defines you. That makes you different. That you are truly passionate about. It isn’t for “identikit” DJs.
Also, it’s not really for you if you are lucky enough to have all the time in the world to collect music. Frankly, if you have all the time in the world, you’ll always get to the good stuff in the end, and you’ll have a thoroughly good time doing so.
But if you’re a busy person (job, family, other commitments…) who DJs as a hobby, basically because you’re crazy about the music you love, the Playlist Pyramid method of building a great DJ music collection is definitely for you!
It is packed with DJ mixes, which are overwhelmingly full of brand-new music that I’m passionate about.
I manage to find this music while doing a full-time job (CEO of Digital DJ Tips – and no, I don’t get to listen to music all day at work!), being a dad, and indulging in my other hobbies – running, photography, cooking, since you ask!
If you want to know how I do it, and how you can do it too, read on.
It’s all based on the Playlist Pyramid. Here it is:
It is something I first shared in my book on DJing, Rock The Dancefloor!. It illustrates how a DJ should go from “all the world’s music” (at the bottom of the pyramid) to playing a perfect DJ set (top of the pyramid).
(The section where I talk about the Playlist Pyramid in my book is here, if you’re interested in learning more.)
But for now, all you need to know is that this is a proven method of hearing, shortlisting, buying and learning a small, cherished collection of music that you’ll be proud of today, tomorrow, and forever.
Small, I hear you query?
Yup, that’s the first of the golden rules of DJ music collecting I am going to share with you now, before diving into this system with you. Here they are:
Less is more – A carpenter only carries the tools he or she needs. More tools does not make you a better carpenter. Same with music. Even a superstar DJ like Laidback Luke, who’s been DJing for decades, only has a few thousand tunes in his entire collection,. (We know, because we made his DJ course with him.)
Build a collection that is unique to you – You need to be laser-focused on discovering new music for yourself, not just buying top 100s or tracks you hear other DJs playing
Stop worrying about hearing everything – There is far too much music released nowadays for you to do that, so chill! This system means you’ll hear the stuff that matters
Lean heavily on pro curators – You do not have the time to listen to piles of unfiltered music. So lean on pros who do, and let them be your “gatekeepers” – we’ll show you how in this article
OK, so let’s recap. You’re now clear that this is for you, and you understand the rules. It’s time to dive into the method.
To follow this system, you’ll need the worksheet
First, download and print off the PDF worksheet, or open it in a PDF viewer that lets you annotate or write on it – you’ll be filling this in and it will become your own, personal “Playlist Pyramid” method. Once you’ve done that, we can start.
1. Streamline Your Existing Collection
If your existing music collection is a mess, if you suspect you have too much music in it (hint: you probably do), then let’s get control back before we move on.
Even if you are quite happy with your existing collection, it is worth doing this anyway – few DJs won’t spot something they can improve by following this process.
Remove all music from your current collection that is not DJ music. Your DJ collection is no place for albums, or tracks for home listening. Keep that stuff somewhere else
Remove all music from your collection that you haven’t played/listened to in the last 12 months – This music is cluttering up your collection, your thinking, your search results, and your hard drive. If you are bold, bin it. If not, put it on a hard drive and stick it in the top of your wardrobe
Remove all music from your collection that you don’t think you’re likely to play/listen to in the next 12 months – Be honest with yourself. Again, this music is just getting in your way
Make sure your metadata is as you want it for all the music that remains – I’d suggest a minimum of artist, title, year of release, genre, and artwork (if you like to have artwork for your files)
Hint: For big, sweeping metadata changes and fixes, you can use apps outside of your DJ library. I like Metadatics on the Mac. Beatunes is also great (Mac/PC). Many Windows users swear by MP3Tag.
2. Set Up Your New Day-To-Day Music Discovery System
One of the rules of this game is that you need to hear more music than the general public in order to be able to call yourself a DJ. This is all about hearing the RIGHT music from level one of the Playlist Pyramid, “All the world’s music”.
This section details how you will do it, while still having time for your job, family and so on. We’re about to set you up with a music streaming service and some radio to listen to.
A streaming service is going to be your number one way of finding new music. They rule supreme when it comes to algorithms that can uncover the gems for you, and they have the best people stockpiling playlists that you can listen to for ideas, too.
You could do ALL your music discovery on a streaming service, and still build an awesome collection!
So if you’re not already subscribed to a music streaming service, you need to be. This is a powerful ally in hearing lots of great music easily.
Firstly, decide what your primary music streaming service is going to be. Most people use Spotify or Apple Music, but if you also want to DJ from your music streaming service, you can choose between SoundCloud Go+, TIDAL, Beatport and Beatsource.
SoundCloud Go+ has lots of overlap with the others, but lots of unreleased music too. TIDAL is the closest of these four to Spotify. Beatport is all electronic/dance music, and Beatsource is more open format. (The latter two are not really music discovery services, as they don’t have phone apps or algorithms, so should be seen as things you could have in addition to a music discovery service.)
It’s important to have a music streaming service “just for you” – don’t share it with other family members and so on. You will be relying on its algorithm to throw up great tracks for you. It’s OK to listen to non-DJ music on your streaming service, though, because it’s all what you like at the end of the day!
Now, find three playlists on the service that you like. Make sure they are popular, frequently updated playlists. They may well be ones made by the streaming provider themselves. Follow them/like them/add them to your library. These are playlists you’ll be listening to regularly to search for tunes. Add them to the worksheet.
So here’s the key to using music streaming services: When you’re listening to your streaming service, you must click “like” on tracks that interest you. This lets it build great “custom” playlists for you.
(Additionally, if you find yourself “liking” lots of songs by the same artists, then like/follow those artists too. This will throw up more music by them specifically.)
Your final job is to identify the personal playlists your streaming service builds for you each week.
On Spotify, for instance, you get “Discover Weekly”, “Release Radar” and six “Daily Mixes”. There are similar lists on other services.
Every week, you are going to listen to the made-for-you lists that feature predominantly new music (in this case, “Discover Weekly” and “Release Radar”). We’ll talk more about building in time for this later on. For now, though, that’s your streaming service set up! Time to move on to the next set-up step.
ii. Choose a podcast, radio show or mix show to listen to regularly
In addition to a streaming service, you are going to find one music “show” somewhere to tune into regularly. It gives you some variety, and also gives you the chance to hear people talking about the music you love.
There are loads of places to look for shows that appeal to you, the obvious first choice being radio stations.
You’re not only limited to your geographical area nowadays, of course, because apps like Radio Garden and TuneIn give you access to stations all over the world.
BBC Sounds has a host of stations and shows and Mixcloud is packed with great radio, too – a personal favourite of mine (due to my love of all things chill out) is Melodica, but you’ll find something for you there, for sure.
But whether it’s a show on a radio station, a show on an app like BBC Sounds or Mixcloud, or a music podcast, find a show to tune in to each week. Note it down on your worksheet.
3. Build Listening Into Your Daily Life
Having found and groomed your streaming playlists, and located a promising radio show, your day-to-day job is simply to listen to them, as often as possible. This fulfils the part of the Playlist Pyramid called “Music you’ve heard”.
One of the mantras of busy people is to try and fulfil two tasks at once. The beauty about listening to music is that it is easy to do it when you are busy doing other things.
But also, when you’re trying to figure out which tracks you genuinely are interested in, this is actually the best way to do it. It is impossible to concentrate on music when it is playing all the time, so instead, you’ll find yourself tuning out – until a tune grabs your attention. That’s the time to hit the”like” button…
Here are some ideas for where to build music listening into your busy life:
When exercising – I have a Garmin Forerunner 245 Music watch. It syncs with my choice of Spotify playlists. Using that with a pair of sweat-resistant Powerbeats Pro headphones, I can listen to several hours of music a week when exercising (I run around 30 miles a week). When I get back, I open Spotify on my phone and “like” all the tracks that grabbed my attention
When cooking/doing housework/doing yard work – Loads of speakers have Spotify Connect (there are similar systems for other streaming services) that connect to your WiFi and play Spotify for you. Or, Bluetooth your streaming service to a portable speaker from your phone. I have a Roberts Stream 94i radio in the kitchen, which has a battery pack for moving outside, too, and connects directly to Spotify, displaying track artwork and titles on the screen. I get several hours a week of listening done on this
When driving, travelling, at work etc – Basically anywhere you have your phone with you, you have your streaming service and can potentially be listening to and liking tunes. Again, the trick is to fit it in when you’re busy doing something else. Not only will this let you hear more music, but you’ll naturally “tune in” to good stuff, and tune out of so-so stuff, as mentioned above
Again, all you need to do is be ready to hit “like” on songs you like (or Shazam them in the case of radio shows) – that’s it. No real “work” yet. That comes next…
Finally, of course there will be other times you discover music, from club nights out, to tracks playing in bars, to tracks on TV, to tracks played by DJs in livestreams, even music in shops when out shopping. Shazam those tunes, too. But do the above for your streaming service and your radio show, religiously, too.
4. Schedule A Formal Weekly Listening Session
You’re getting somewhere! You’ve wrestled your existing music collection into shape, and you’ve set up a streaming service, researched some music radio to listen to, and – just as importantly – hacked your life so you actually listen to several hours of new music each week.
Now we’ve reached the “Music You’ve Shortlisted” part of the Playlist Pyramid. This is where you need to get organised a little, because we’re going to formally audit that music, dig around in other places for extra new tunes, and buy the tracks we want to add to our collection.
Put aside time every week to sit down and “just” listen to music. I’d recommend a minimum of two hours, and I do this on a Saturday morning in headphones sat at the living room table.
Whenever you choose, though, put it in your calendar and “make an appointment” with yourself. You’re going to do this religiously. Set reminders, tell your significant others. This part is essential to the success of the system.
There are three, potentially four tasks to complete this step:
i. Listen to your “liked” songs and buy the ones you want
This will take the biggest part of your time. You’re now going to properly listen to the songs you’ve been “liking” in your streaming service, and decide if you want to buy them or not for your collection. You have three choices for each track you’ve “liked”:
Buy it – you like it! Buy it, and remove it from your temporary “liked” list
Bin it – Nah, you don’t really like it. Again, remove it from your “liked” list
Not sure – Leave it on the list till next week
Some people (me included) like to have a “Tunes to buy” list. It allows you to have a second “just to be sure” listen, and by using a service such as Tune My Music, it makes it easy to transfer the playlist into Beatport to buy them more easily, if Beatport is one of the stores you use (more about places to buy music in a short while).
ii. Listen to your “Shazams” and buy the songs you want
When you’ve been out and about, or even just been listening to the radio or TV, you should have been Shazaming tunes on your phone. Check the Shazams.
If you’re smart, you’ll have linked Shazam up to your music streaming service, and they’ll all be there in a neat playlist for you. Again, decide if you want to buy these tunes or not, and manage that list whether in Shazam itself or more easily inside your music streaming service.
iii. Crate-dig on music stores
You need to be registered with at least two music stores – a specialist, and a mainstream store. Specialists include Beatport, Beatsource, Traxsource and Juno Download. The biggest mainstream stores are Amazon Music and iTunes.
Register with one of each, and you’ll be able to buy the vast majority of the tunes you uncover. You may also want to register with Bandcamp, a fast-growing direct-to-artist store.
Music discovery in download stores
Bear in mind that while ultimately download stores are places where we’re going to buy our tracks from, they are all good places to go hunting for tunes, too, when you have some extra time.
Explore their charts, new release sections, genre sections and so on, to give you more music to add to your shortlist.
These stores normally have “hold bins” or similar where you can add tracks you’re interested in to listen to again, or just find tracks you uncover on your streaming service and add them to your liked list there.
iv. Crate-dig on a DJ download pool
Serious DJs and working DJs often find it useful to join a DJ download pool, like BPM Supreme, DJcity, Digital DJ Pool, MyMP3Pool, Promo Only, Club Killers, Franchise Record Pool, zipDJ, Direct Music Service and others.
These pools let you download unlimited upfront music, often in club-friendly versions that are hard to find elsewhere, for a single monthly fee. Fees start at around $30 a month but can be considerably more. You are meant to be a “working” DJ to join, but the criteria are very relaxed – often just saying you are a working DJ will do the trick. If not, sharing a link to your DJ Facebook page should suffice.
The idea is that you give feedback on the tracks you use in your sets (which theoretically gets fed back to and assists the record labels) in return for getting access to all those upfront tracks.
Such services tend to err towards the more commercial side of dance music, but there are specialists. For instance, zipDJ is good for house, and there are smaller, specialised pools for Latin and so on, too.
v. Buy your new tunes and add them to your collection
At the end of your shortlisting session, you’ll have a list of tunes you want to buy. Locate these tunes in your download store or stores of choice, and get them downloaded to your laptop.
As I said earlier, as you buy tunes you found in your streaming service, remove them from the “liked” list, but add them to a “bought” list. This tells your streaming service you still like them! If you decide you don’t like them, unlike them. Not sure? Leave them where they are for next week.
In the case of a download pool, “bought” tunes means the tunes you choose to download. (Or, if your habit is to download everything and listen “offline” to what’s new from your download pool, then these are the tunes you’ll add to your “real” collection.)
Now, this isn’t an article about music organisation and preparation, but as a minimum you’ll want to check the metadata on your tunes (artist, title, genre, year, artwork if important to you) and put them where you store your music, then import them into your DJ software – and don’t forget to back up your collection as part of your weekly tasks, too.
The end result is that you’ll have some new tunes to play with! It could be one, or 10, or 30 – and it could even be none. Don’t set yourself a minimum or maximum number of new tunes – quality beats quantity or quotas. Just buy the tunes you’ve discovered that you love, and get them added.
I end up buying maybe a third to a half of the tunes I “like”, or listen to again.
5. Schedule Music Library Time
Buying great tunes is only one part of having a great music collection. Because if you don’t spend time with that collection, you’ll forget what you’ve got. And if you don’t know what you’ve got, you may as well not have those tunes in the first place.
DJing is all about making connections between tracks that others maybe don’t spot, and then using that knowledge to weave together the tracks at your disposal into something greater than the sum of its parts. And the way we do that is by listening to and DJing with that music.
I am going to suggest three things to you here. Which of them you do, and when, is up to you. It depends really on what you’re doing in your DJing at any given time.
For instance, as I personally release a new hour-long mixtape and do an associated livestream every fortnight, with brand-new music, I tend to do more of the first and last of the three things I am about to suggest.
The important thing, though, is that you set time aside to either listen to your bought music, or – probably more fun – DJ with it at home. Or both. So here are the three things you should do:
Listen to/DJ with your new tracks – It’s time to get to know the tracks you’ve bought! So play a set with them, or at least listen to them properly in your DJ software. Now could be a good time to add cue points, and figure out good transitions. Get to the point where you feel you know them like old friends
Listen to/DJ with your existing tracks – Don’t neglect this part. Firstly, you will forget some of the tracks you own otherwise. Secondly, it’ll help you to spot good transitions or links between the new tracks you’ve bought and your existing collection, helping you to “integrate” your music together. A great DJ can quickly go from brand new to years old in a set, and the way they do this is by knowing ALL of the collection well, not just the new stuff
Make playlists – You can make playlists for mixtapes or livestreams. You can (indeed, should) make playlists for your gigs. (Hint: “pack” a crate of twice the music you think you’ll need for any given gig, and DJ from that, rather than from your “whole collection”.) Or you can just make playlists, big or small, for fun (“dirty disco tracks”, “dubby bass house”, “tracks I have forgotten about” etc). Anything that helps you to learn more about your music is good
And by the way, while I don’t really DJ with my older tracks (as there is no call for it in my current DJing life), that’s not to say I neglect them. All of my sets going back years are on my Mixcloud, and I tend to listen to those sometimes – it’s great fun hearing old sets and remembering tracks that had slipped your mind.
Also, my car has an SD card slot where the CD slot would have been a few years ago, and I have an SD card there with a copy of my entire “bought” DJ music collection on it. When I am in the mood, I can just hit “shuffle” on that and randomly listen to my DJ music. It often throws up a gem or two that I then try and weave into my sets.
Remember that nowadays, it is not only you who has no chance of ever hearing everything that’s released – even the most musically knowledgeable of your audience is in the same boat, too. So it’s just fine to drop well-chosen older songs into a DJ set, even if you want to be known as an upfront tastemaker – for many in your audience, that’ll be the first time they’ve heard whatever track it is.
And even if you play familiar older music, by following this method, you’ll be playing it because it fits in perfectly with the newer stuff. Far from you appearing like you’re “falling back on the classics”, you’ll instead be seen as giving a nod to your influences and inspirations.
I’ve explained this in some detail to you, but it really is pretty simple:
Listen to new music all the time
Put time aside to listen again to the tunes that interest you, and buy the good stuff
Familiarise yourself with and practise with the music you’ve bought
With this method, if you can put four or five hours a week aside to work on your music, and find a way to listen to lots of new music at other times, you can have a collection that over the months, years, and indeed decades, can and will build into something you can be truly proud of.
And revisit it every month or two. In the worksheet, I get you to detail your streaming service, radio show, favourite playlists, practise times and so on. As your tastes and other commitments change, and as cool services, shows and music styles come and go, you’ll want to revise this.
That’s cool, indeed, that’s exactly how it should be! But it is always better to have a plan that’s constantly evolving than to have no plan at all.
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Phil Morse is the founder of Digital DJ Tips. His DJ career has taken him from a 15-year residency in Manchester, England, to the main room at Privilege in Ibiza - the world's biggest club. He is also an award-winning club promoter, and has taught music tech and DJing since 2010. He regularly speaks at DJ seminars and events worldwide. His book, “Rock The Dancefloor!”, is a global best-seller on how to DJ.