How To Read A Crowd (And What Happens If You Don’t)

Michael May
Read time: 5 mins
Last updated 15 November, 2021

The Kids Want Techno
What happens when a DJ plays the wrong type of techno? DJ Mikey Four tells all…

A while ago, I spent the night in a warehouse club in east London watching a well-known, well-loved, and highly respected techno DJ completely clear a room down to just the bar staff, all the while resolutely ploughing his way through a set he had clearly planned for the night.

It could be said that he was being pioneering, playing music that the crowd didn’t get yet, but would in the weeks or months to come. That’s certainly not without precedent, but really he wasn’t, in my opinion. It could be said that the crowd were just luddites and not in the right club (you’ve not truly suffered as a DJ until you’ve been booked for completely the wrong club night) – but they had all come directly from a festival where the last few acts had been exactly like this guy and, actually, people had started dancing pretty much as soon as they arrived.

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No, this DJ simply got it wrong. Spectacularly so, I would say. Despite having a laptop (rather than a crate of unforgiving vinyl); despite having the benefit of watching the warm-up DJ get the crowd going; and despite having the time to read the crowd before even playing a single track, he still chose a set that was so dark and claustrophobic that people voted with their feet, and the party DJs in the other room suddenly found their room not just busy but holding two rooms’-worth of people desperate for a dance.

What went wrong?

This DJ forgot something many of us forget from time to time; as a DJ, you’re an entertainer. Your fee comes from the cash in the pockets of the people who have come to the club. And if you’re the headliner, as this DJ was, you’re also the main reason they’ve chosen to part with their money. To me, this is a contract that both parties enter into – the crowd have come to hear you, they should know what to expect and should receive you accordingly. But in return you should give the crowd what they want.

Fatboy Slim: One DJ who’s happily acknowledged that DJing is fundamentally about entertainment, not ‘art’. Pic: Dancing Astronaut

Now, I’m not saying a party hits set is the right way to go, or that a dark and claustrophobic one is the wrong way. Far from it. I can imagine any number of venues where one or the other set would be most (un)welcome.

But what I am saying is that you have a responsibility to understand where you are going to be playing and the crowd you are going to play to. As digital DJs we even have the luxury of not having to decide at home on these things: We can arrive with one set in mind, take a look at the crowd and pretty painlessly pull together a different one – so there’s even less of an excuse.

Getting the balance right

So, should you always play what the crowd wants? Hell no! Someone will always ask for Beyoncé, but that doesn’t mean you have to play it and suddenly switch to a set of commercial tunes. However, if you’re fielding a lot of requests for stuff like Beyoncé, what might that tell you? Is there a way you can turn this knowledge to your advantage by building a set that plays to their tastes while still representing the music you love and want to play?

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People are individuals, but a crowd is a collective. It’s an odd thing to believe until you experience it for the first time, but it’s true; people on a dancefloor share a common vibe. And, worse, it can change from night to night, even in the same club. The reasons can be impossible to fathom but if you learn to feel that vibe, to read the crowd early on in your set, you can use that shared connection to structure your set for maximum effect, while still maintaining your own style and track selections.

Are you going to keep your head down and play your pre-planned set at all costs, or do you want to give people a night out they’ll remember?

What you do when you’ve got a bead on the crowd is for another article, but today I’ll let you into a few tricks I use to get a feel for that vibe as quickly as possible.

Read this next: How DJs Always Know What Song To Play Next (Without Ever Panicking)

Working out what a crowd wants

So, what are you looking for? Well, the obvious thing is people dancing. But what if you’re doing an early set into a later one? People won’t be dancing when you start. In this case you’ve got lots of time to move around the tempo and styles you like and take a gauge of what works – but, again, what are you looking for? It’s definitely a gut thing, but things to look out for are:

  • Girls dancing – This is always a good sign, as girls are less inhibited and warm the boys up for dancing. Be careful though – that hen party crowd might not be the tastemakers you’re looking for!
  • Nodding heads, tapping feet and relaxed smiles – People might not be dancing but they are looking for reassurance that they’re in the right place for the night ahead. They’re practically willing you to play something they’re into
  • A move towards the dancefloor – If people are milling around the dancefloor it’s often a good sign you’re on the right track. People are feeling your music and responding, perhaps even subconsciously

As I say, it’s definitely an instinct thing too. A game I sometimes play with other DJs and promoters when in a strange venue is the “spot the problems” game, where we discuss what’s wrong with the night. Is the music off the mark? Is it too loud, or quiet? Are the lights too high, or too low? Are the security too brusque? Are the drinks too pricey or is the time to get served too long? (It’s kind of hard not to do after a while, in fact.)

But hold on, you might say: Most of those issues are not the DJ’s problem! Well, they are not the DJ’s fault, no, but they might be your problem, because they all change the vibe of the crowd.

Give yourself the best chance

So, you’ve got a booking coming up in the next few weeks? Congratulations! Now, on top of everything else you do to make the night a success, add these last few steps to your “to do” list and see if you find it helps you.

  1. Turn up early – Spend time in the room you’ll be playing in before you start. Try to get a feel for the crowd by being part of it
  2. Watch and listen – Learn how to read the signs of the crowd in this particular venue. (After all, even if you’ve hit the mark and they are going nuts for your set, you’re still going to need to know when it’s time to give them a change of style or rest)
  3. Speak to the promoter and other DJs who’ve played there before – They can help prime you before you even hit the venue

Here’s another story for you. At the start of the past weekend I watched a number of groups of people walk into a bar/club, pay their entrance fee, head to the bar and, in the time between that point and getting asked what they wanted to drink, decide they didn’t want to hear the rare groove DJ, and leave.

You want to make people feel welcome when they buy their first drink, not drive them away…

They had paid to get in, but it was a Friday and they had no care that the DJ was “building up to the party set”. It was gone midnight and it was time to party. The next DJ played a house set that was unashamedly commercial and the sense of relief in the room was palpable. People even started streaming in when they heard it through the doors on the street.

Steve Jobs used to say that people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. I’d add that people don’t know what they want until they hear it. But the truth is that unless you play the right set, they won’t know they are hearing it.

Want to rock every crowd? Learn to DJ with us: The Complete DJ Course

Have you seen DJs spectacularly fail in this way? Have you done it yourself? If so, what did you learn? Is it a DJ’s goal to please the crowd in front of them, or just to play whatever they want? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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