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How To Pack The Perfect DJ Set


One of the great things about my job running the world’s biggest online DJ school is when people get in touch with me to tell me how much I’ve helped them. One person who comes to mind here is David Dunne.

David is a DJ/producer and radio presenter who’s DJed all over the world for Ministry of Sound, and who also worked as head of music for MTV UK. He’s an old friend who actually gave me my first break in radio, guest DJing on his Kiss radio show back in the 1990s. And he spoke to me because I’d just fixed an issue that had been plaguing him ever since he switched to digital DJing.

‘Your advice about how a DJ should only take exactly twice the music they need with them to gigs changed everything for me!’ he told me. ‘It’s so obvious, but I hadn’t been doing it since switching to digital, and that one simple change put me back in charge of my DJ sets. I can’t believe I forgot that.’

David believes in my idea so strongly he physically copies the tracks he’s decided to take with him to his DJ laptop for every gig, and removes all other music. I don’t actually recommend you do this (unless you’re truly old school like David is), but I do recommend you ‘pack a crate’ which you will play from at each and every DJ gig in preference to your master collection.

Packing a crate is the fifth tier of the Playlist Pyramid, and one of the biggest secrets of smooth, seemingly effortless DJing once you get to your gig.

Why do this?

For the new DJ, the idea of leaving behind most of the digital music he or she has spent months collecting can sound crazy. Yet counter-intuitive though it may seem, carefully packing a set of possible tunes to play at your DJ gig is an essential step in preparing for it.

When you see a DJ really in the zone – when the tunes are all perfect, the order is amazing, the crowd is loving it, and she seems to know what to play next, effortlessly pulling gem after gem from his or her collection – it’s because she has packed a good crate for that event using all the secrets I’m going to give you in this chapter.

Putting it another way: ever seen a DJ with a facial expression somewhere between scared and petrified hunched over a laptop, eyes fixed like a rabbit’s in headlights, paralysed, the only thing moving a constant scroll of data entries on their screen? That DJ’s panic as they try to find a tune – any tune – to play next in their set is precisely what happens if you don’t pack a crate for each and every gig.

So here’s why it works:

  • It forces you to think hard about every tune you take. When you’re only taking twice the amount of music you need, thinking about what to take and leave behind makes you consider your gig in great detail. You picture the people who you think will come and you’re honest about what you think they’ll like… and not like. You ask yourself, ‘What would I do if…?’ and bring a few tunes to cover different eventualities. You learn to respect the hard-working tunes that always seem to work while limiting the number of riskier tunes you pack.
  • It gets you in the habit of formally preparing for your gig. Establishing a practice session where this is all you do improves your performance once you get to your gig. If you were asked to speak in public you’d run through your speech several times the night before, and in the same way preparing your DJ set gives you the chance to run through your music. This last minute revision has all kinds of benefits, from reducing nerves and raising your confidence to getting you excited
    about sharing all that great music.
  • It helps you to perform better. Knowing you’ve already packed a great set will give you confidence, poise and swagger as a DJ. It’ll make you appear to your audience like you not only know exactly what to play next, but you know it with very little effort, having the time to dance, laugh and lead the party, too. That’s the kind of DJ people get behind; the kind of DJ who makes great parties happen. And it’s largely down to packing a great selection of tunes to bring with you in the first place.

How to know what to take

In David’s case, once he had remembered this fact, with all of his experience the old skill of packing the perfect record box kicked back in and he was away. But for the new DJ, especially in the digital age when this skill is optional, some assistance is required.

We’ve already covered the basic ideas way back in the ‘How To Choose And Buy Music’ chapter. This is how to build on that work before your gig to make sure you get it right for a particular event.

Start off with the following model, which shows you three distinct sets of views about what music to play on any given DJ night. It frames both what you can and can’t do, as well as showing you a sweet spot of tunes that are going to be the stars of your show.

At the top we have the person who is in charge of the event, whether that is the venue owner, the promoter, or the party organiser. This person will definitely have ideas about the music, ideas that you need to know. If the event is a wedding, you’d better talk to the bride well ahead of time. If it’s in a club, there may be music styles the club simply has a blanket ban on because they attract the wrong crowds. If the person in charge is a promoter, he or she may have booked you to play a certain type of music. You need to know this because if you play music you weren’t booked to play, no matter how much you and your audience like it, you’ll probably get kicked off and maybe sent home without payment.

Next we have your audience. They are a different beast. Just because a father who’s booked you for his eighteen-year-old daughter’s birthday party doesn’t want ‘any of that rave nonsense’, she and her mates might think differently. Just because the bride and groom give you an exhaustive list of every song they’ve ever kissed to, it doesn’t mean all their friends want to dance to that stuff all night. Within the confines of the absolute dos and don’ts, you’ve got to consider your audience as a huge priority here. And, of course, you don’t know exactly who’s going to turn up, but you have to try and work this out. Disregard the audience and only play what is asked of you (or what you like), you’ll have empty dancefloors. If you’re booked to play at a venue that already has DJs and you don’t know the venue or the crowds it attracts, go there and observe – you’ll be glad you did.

Finally, you! Great DJs do not play music they don’t like. The whole reason you got into this is to be able to play the music you love and feel passionate about, right? So it stands to reason that you need to think of yourself in all of this. Far from being a selfish trait, this is in fact one of the most selfless decisions you can make (it’s the ‘gas mask’ moment – you know the advice on planes: ‘Put your own gas mask on before helping other people’). If you’re not having fun, nobody else will. Nobody. else. Will.

‘DJing,’ one of the DJs from Manchester’s legendary Haçienda nightclub, Dave Haslam, told me once, ‘is about the transfer of energy from DJ to dancefloor. And I’ve seen many DJs where the dominant emotion they’re transferring is boredom.’

Luckily I’ve taught you to work with music you love, but at this set packing stage, you need to double check that’s true about each tune you admit to your set list for the night.

As you’re packing your DJ set, you need to be asking three questions about every single track: Is it what’s expected? Do I think the audience will like it? Do I want to play this in public myself? The more tracks you can say yes to all three questions about, the better. If you say no to any, at least be aware of that.

Here are some reasons for no answers that could lead to you taking the track anyway:
‘It’s brand new, but I know it’s going to be a big hit and I want to play it. I’ll make the audience love it!’

‘I know I’m not meant to be playing drum & bass, but it’s a big remix of a huge hit…maybe I’ll play it at the very end when everyone’s happy with what I’ve done.’

‘OK, it’s a huge song. I’m not sure if I like it, but I’ll give it a go. Maybe seeing the audience reaction will make my mind up for me about it.’

Five steps for packing a great set

I was once called back off holiday at the last minute to play a special DJ set to cover for a very sick colleague. It wasn’t any old DJ set, but a sold-out ‘classics revival’ night, playing underground house music from the late 80s and early 90s, and I was the only person in our circle who had the tunes people were expecting. That said, I hadn’t played that kind of set for months. I had done no preparation, and not packed a single tune.

Rushing home, I threw piles and piles of vinyl into bags and boxes, and flew out of the door to the venue. Once I got there, I sat on the dancefloor, my girlfriend handing me records as I flicked through them one by one, deciding if I wanted each for the night or not. The tunes that I wanted, I arranged in piles in a semi-circle around me – little mini- sets of warm-up tunes, floor fillers, diversions into popular genres from the time, someday/maybe tunes, and so on.

I cut it so close to the wire that people were actually walking into the club as I was finishing and there was no music on at all! Yet I still did the preparation, knowing how important packing a crate is to playing a decent DJ set. And the planning paid off. From me being thoroughly annoyed at having my weekend off spoiled, that gig turned out to be one of the most memorable of my life.

I managed to pull that gig off with far-from-ideal set planning through years of experience, but you can do it too if you follow the guidelines I give you here before each and every gig:

1. Pack twice as much music as you need

Say you’re planning on playing in a local bar for three hours. You’re a pop DJ, and you guess the average length of each song you want to play is three minutes. That means about twenty songs an hour. So you’ll probably end up playing sixty songs in your set. Therefore, the crate you pack should contain 120 songs. Why? Because any fewer, and you run the risk of playing a fixed playlist and running out of options for reacting to what the crowd is or isn’t enjoying. Any more, and you’ll likely be blinded by choice and get analysis paralysis. (Having more to choose from actually makes the task harder. Think of extensive restaurant menus.)

2. Pack in sequences

Part of being a DJ is the joy of working out what tracks follow each other. It is not really anything to do with the way you transition or mix between those songs, rather it’s the fact that they just go well together. As you become more experienced as a DJ, you’ll learn by trial and error what does and doesn’t go with what, but even at the start of your hobby or career, you’ll have a few ideas. Indeed some DJs swear by organising all of their music in twos, which if you think about it halves the job of knowing what to play next. I prefer looser mini sets of two, three or four songs that tend to find each other in my collection. Keep in mind the idea of clustering your songs together, though.

Visualise your DJ set as you do it. Picture yourself standing behind your decks wherever it is you’ll be DJing, and picture the people in front of you near the start of your DJ set. How loud is the music? How busy is the venue? How interested is the crowd? Are people dancing, or relaxing at the bar/seating area? How is this going to change as the night moves on? Asking these types of questions will help you to judge ahead of time the music that may or may not work. It will also give you something to compare your thinking with after the gig to see if you imagined right or not. Next time you’re packing a set, you’ll have learned from that, and your ability to picture your audience will improve.

3. Pick your extra tunes wisely

As you’re going to be packing twice the amount of music you will need, you’re going to be aware that you’ll end up playing only half of the tunes you pack for your gig. But don’t fall into the trap of padding out the tunes you really want to play with any old stuff. No DJ ever sticks to his or her set-list (unless you’re playing a short choreographed festival DJ set, complete with pyrotechnics and visual, and frankly if you were, it’d probably be pre-recorded anyway).

No DJ can pre-guess the makeup or mood of their audience entirely. What you want to play to them may not work. So you will at some point in your set need a plan B, or several plan Bs. By ensuring that as well as taking all the stuff you’d like to play, you also take the same number of tunes again to offer you alternatives should Plan A not work out, you’ll get all the benefits of the discipline of set- planning while insuring yourself against misjudging your audience. And a strange thing about DJing from a finite number of tunes is that you tend to find the stuff you couldn’t get away with earlier in your set often works well
later on.

4. Arrange your set in some kind of order as soon as you’ve chosen the tunes

Of course it makes sense to keep your mini-sequences or pairs together, but packing all of your night’s tunes into a rough order takes some of the strain off you when you are ready to perform. DJs traditionally packed from the front to back of their record boxes, with warm-up tunes at the front of the crate, and the set developing further back. With digital playlists, you drag the tunes into a rough order with the front of your crate being the top of your playlist. Most software lets you return to this order even if later on you rearrange the list by genre, BPM or whatever.

This needn’t be hugely complicated once you get into the habit. After you’ve played a few DJ sets, a great way of packing a crate is to look back at your last few gigs and see what worked and what didn’t. You can then borrow whole chunks of your DJ crates from gig to gig. (Remember, this is a crate, deciding what music to take. It isn’t carbon copying what you do every time.) You’d then typically throw in a handful of new tracks you really want to play, and balance that with some safer stuff you know you can fall back on. As you get more experienced as a DJ, set planning can be that simple – but all great DJs still make time to do it.
of course, music isn’t the only thing you’ll be taking with you to your gig. let’s find out in the next chapter what else to pack.

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