How To Play Bar, Club And Mobile Gigs
When you DJ in public for the first time, your gig will more than likely fall into one of three types: bar, club, or mobile. The boundaries between these broad areas are often blurred (a bar that turns into a club later on in the night, a private party in a public venue, or a DJ being booked to play a club-style mobile gig for a trendy crowd, and so on), but it’s good to consider these three types of event separately. Despite the crossover, they are distinct in many ways – not least the way in which the DJ approaches playing to the crowds.
Definitely read all of what follows, whatever type of gig you are to play, because there is valuable stuff for you to learn from any type of DJing, whether or not it’s the type you’re interested in or end up spending the majority of your DJ career doing.
How to DJ in bars
I DJed in countless bars before I managed to make a living as a club DJ. It’s an apprenticeship and an art in itself.
A bar gig will be in a venue where people come to socialise, and they usually don’t pay to get in. It could be a trendy lounge, a beach bar, a fun pub, a beer garden – anywhere where someone is playing records to replace the usual background music. It’s performing in public, but it hasn’t got the intensity of a club gig.
When you’re DJing in a bar, it is important to remember that you’re setting the mood for the patrons, most of whom probably haven’t come specifically to hear your DJ set. You’ll be louder than the usual background music, but not massively so, and people will expect to be able to hold a conversation even when you’re in full swing. The biggest trick when DJing this type of venue is, in both volume and musical style, to walk this line skilfully: be noticeable, but not overly so. Don’t expect huge responses or packed dancefloors; you’re looking for smiles, feet tapping, heads nodding. Your job is to add a human element to what would normally be playing in the background at the venue, delivering just enough of something extra that people say, ‘Hey, it’s good here! let’s buy another round of drinks…’
But as well as the constraints, you have freedom. To start with, you’re usually playing the whole night, not just a pre- determined (and often short) time slot as tends to be the case in clubs. You don’t have to fill a dancefloor and keep everyone there, which means you can play a broader choice of music. Bar gigs – especially when you’re playing to a ‘clubbier’ crowd, maybe in an urban venue where people move on to clubs later on – are a good place to try out music you wouldn’t dare play at peak-time in a packed club, or music you love but that isn’t hugely dancefloor- oriented (after all, there is much more music you can dance to out there than dance music, whatever the latter means for you and your crowds).
Bear in mind when DJing this type of set that your crowd will be drifting in and out of the venue throughout, so there’s less of a defined beginning, middle and end. Rather than playing a warm-up section, followed by a peak-time part of your set, followed by some kind of closing sequence where you bring it all together, you’ll be playing more cyclically. let’s say you’re DJing at a beach bar where you’ve decided the music is going to be laid- back deep house, funk, reggae and soul. What you’re looking for is everyone to get a taste of what you’re about, whatever time they turn up and, within reason, for however long they stay (one drink, two drinks, the whole night…). Therefore look to play a bit of everything every twenty to thirty minutes, because otherwise, you run the risk of being thought of as a reggae DJ, or a deep house DJ, or a funk DJ, when really you’re a curated blend of all of those things.
Rather than sorting your set list by genre or energy level, then, it is a good idea at bar gigs to look for good transitions using other methods. Sorting your music by BPM is one such way (you can jump around the genres wildly, but if you’re keeping stuff at around the same tempo, it’ll likely sound like you’ve thought about it). Another favourite is to sort by key, either within the BPM constraints or outside of them. Again, with simple, functional mixes between tracks that have the same overall vibe but may be in completely different genres, the glue that holds them together could be matching keys.
Finally, bar gigs, more than any other, are about flexibility. The place may quickly fill up for some reason, then be empty half an hour later. You’ll have to adjust the volume and content of your set accordingly. You may be called on (often by phone) to start earlier, or the whole thing may be called off at the last minute (beach bars and rain don’t mix, for instance). The bar owner may decide to turn on the TVs and pump the commentary from a big sports event around the venue right in the middle of your set, and you have no choice but to wait until afterwards to continue your job (may as well grab a drink and enjoy the game). You may end up with people dancing, or get sent home early from a quiet night.
But if you can make unpredictability and variety your friends, take pride in learning how to create a vibe that rises above automated pumped music, and do it regularly and professionally (‘That guy who plays Tuesdays at the bar on the corner is good…’), bar gigs can be both a stepping stone to greater things and an end in themselves.
How to DJ in clubs
For many DJs the first real club gig is a rite of passage – despite the fact that it’s very likely to be a warm-up when there’s nobody there apart from you and the bar staff. Just the chance to flex your muscles on a big sound system in a real DJ booth is enough to give any self- respecting bedroom DJ goosebumps, and rightly so – in nightclubs, more than anywhere else, people come for the music, and you’re expected to get them dancing.
Unlike in a bar or at a mobile DJ event, in a club you’re unlikely to be playing the whole night. Some of my best nightclub gigs have been doing just that – playing regularly from 10am to 4pm in front of a home crowd – but it’s rare. Usually, you’ll be given a slot, and hopefully you can get one of a couple of hours at least, although the one hour or even forty-five minute slot is common (and it’s not a new phenomenon, either – rave flyers were stuffed with dozens of names way back in the early 90s when it all began for my peers and me). Frankly there’s little you can do in such a short time, but who’d turn it down? So let’s look at how to play it.
If you’ve been given a warm-up slot in a club, your job is to soothe, tease and nudge the dancefloor from empty to being ready to take off. It’s harder than playing the main slot, but can be even more satisfying because you see progression. (You can get hooked on warming up, and to this day a decent-length warm-up slot remains my favourite type of DJing.)
Musically, you’re looking for slower, melodic, familiar tunes that don’t go past mid-energy; this isn’t the time for club bangers or end-of-night floor-fillers. You can afford to slip in a few weirder, riskier tracks, but equally you can play old favourites, both of which you may shy away from later on when only the latest cuts or a narrower selection of music is usually necessary to keep the club close to boiling point.
The key to playing a great warm-up, though, is patience. When people arrive at a nightclub, they do not want to dance. They are almost avoiding the issue; there’s stuff to do with coats, there are drinks to buy, a new environment to get used to. It’s a time to shake off the stresses of the day and relax, and that doesn’t happen in five or even thirty minutes. Only later does dancing come on to the agenda. Your job is to gauge that and raise the pace accordingly – too slowly, and you’ll bore people; too quickly, and you’ll scare them off. If you do accidentally move too fast, rein it back a little for twenty minutes and then slowly raise the pace again. When you do move up a notch, don’t go for the full throttle; hold things there for a few songs before another subtle shift upwards. Again, gauge and move back if you’re doing too much, too quickly. And keep cool. Keep smiling. Play the longer game. A warm-up takes time.
Luckily, you have one secret weapon that will help you to do this every time: girls.
The truth is, girls like to dance more than boys do. The dancefloor is one of the few places where women’s behaviour tends to be less inhibited than men’s. Girls don’t seem to have the ‘I look ridiculous’ block that prevents men from expressing themselves this way, at least until everyone else is. Groups of girls dancing together are normal; groups of men aren’t. Girls will encourage each other, whereas boys will be more likely to snigger and put each other’s efforts down. Men tend to dance to show off to girls; girls just tend to dance. Whatever, the smart DJ – especially the smart warm-up DJ – grasps the fact that appealing to the girls is essential to get things started. If you can get the girls on the dancefloor, the boys will follow.
So how do you do it? You play tracks that appeal to the female half of your audience. Think tracks with vocals, great basslines, and enough familiarity in them to go straight for the feet of females. But more importantly, watch the girls in your venue. If you can get a small group of girls interested, work out what you played that did it, and find a bit more of the same. You’ll soon discover the magic tracks that appeal to your female audience, and they’ll become your friends. ex-Haçienda DJ Dave Haslam, along with two other Manchester DJs, Jason Boardman and Elliot Eastwick, ran a club night called Yellow, and they had one simple rule: if any track they played cleared girls from the dancefloor, they’d never play it again. Herbie Hancock’s seminal ‘Rockit’ failed the test, much to the disdain of whichever of them tested it out, but in the bin it went. The night was hugely popular, running every single week for seven years.
If the DJ following you is a known name and has hits of their own, never play any of their music in your warm-up set. You may convince yourself you’re paying homage, but to them it’s highly annoying and the height of bad manners. This is another reason to lay off the obvious big tunes of the moment, full stop; leave them for the next DJ. Far from passing up on a chance to steal the glory, you’ll win a lot of friends this way – other DJs, managers, promoters and crowds never forget a good warm-up DJ. Get good at doing the above well, and doors to main-room peak-time sets will open for you.
So let’s talk about peak-time sets. In a way, they’re easier. The dancefloor is full. The boys are dancing now (safety in numbers, crowd mentality, and hey, the girls are all on the floor). Your job is to manage that energy, and the way you do that can be summed up in two words: tension and release.
Great DJs know that if they can build the dancefloor up to breaking point and then finally give the crowd what it wants, they’ll keep everyone happy. This ‘tension and release’ happens within individual tracks (most big dance tracks build to some kind of anticipatory break, then a big full-on moment), but you can do it cyclically throughout a peak-time set, too.
Space out the huge tunes that you think everyone will love. Try and weave in equally energetic but less obvious tunes in the gaps. experiment at least once in every set with something you’re not sure people will like; you may be pleasantly surprised, and people will forgive you if you come back strongly. even though it’s peak-time, don’t play at full pelt; always leave yourself somewhere to go and dial back regularly, giving at least some of your crowd a breather and a chance to head to the bar. Try and rotate people, too (the rule being that if the bar makes money, you get booked again, and anyway, no dancefloor is big enough to fit absolutely everybody on it). There is probably only one single point in any well-programmed night where you can really let rip and go for the jugular, so pick it wisely; after all, once you’ve hit your peak, where have you left yourself to go but down? Good DJs play just under full-on, always with a suggestion of something around the corner, always preserving some of the tension that keeps dancefloors electric.
How to play mobile gigs
Mobile sets – to remind you of our definition, gigs where you turn up with all the gear, lights, and everything else – call for true versatility from the DJ, because more than any other type of gig, mobile gigs come in all shapes and sizes. like bar sets, you’ll be playing all night. But like club sets, there will be dancing – although this may only be for an hour or two at the end. You may well start off playing a bar type set (many mobile DJs even have auto playlists for the start of events) as people eat food as part of the event, and only later will you be turning the lights on, the volume up and performing for the masses.
Despite the fact that mobile DJs are sometimes looked down on by the cool club guys and trendy bar and lounge jocks, playing mobile is hard to do well. Your audience can often be several generations deep, their tastes hard to predict, so the music will have to cover a lot of bases. It will always be commercial rather than niche, underground or trendy (remember a lot of these people do not come to places where music is played loud or dancing happens often). Mobile DJs have to carry big collections that cover several decades, and be ready for (and able to fend off tactfully) all types of requests. They often need to be diplomats as much as DJs, and while the cliché ‘people person’ can be used for just about any job where you have to interact with the public, it really is true for mobile jocks. Having a genuine empathy for everyone on your dancefloor is essential if you’re going to play everything from the Beatles to Notorious B.I.G. and make it work.
The structure of a mobile DJ set will vary hugely depending on what the event is – a wedding is very different from an eighteenth birthday, for instance, and to an extent, the rules for club DJing as regards warming people up also hold true here – but a good additional rule when faced with a varied crowd is to play for the older people first (and the children if you’re expected to entertain kids in the daytime section of your booking). Play for the more usual dancing crowd among your audience later when the majority of the older folk have had enough dancing or have left. An easy way of doing this is to play through the years in your collection, only bringing the music bang up to date for the final section of your show.
One calculation I always make when booked to play things like birthday parties is to work out the year when the oldest significant section of my expected crowd first went out dancing themselves, and bring music from then forwards. So if I’m playing a fortieth birthday, I’ll take twenty-three years off the current year (going back to when most of the crowd were first going out themselves) and bring big hits and great dance music from that year forwards to today with me, basing most of my set around those songs. (of course, you have to consider parents and grandparents if it’s that type of event too, but you get the idea.)
Mobile DJing isn’t about your mixing skills. Most mobile DJs don’t really mix music, not least because many simply never learn – it’s not in the remit. One thing they can and will be expected to do, though, is interact with their audience by talking on the microphone. Whether introducing the music as they move through the decades, basically as a mixing method (take a cue from radio DJs here: talking between every two or three tracks works), egging the crowd towards the dancefloor, conducting party games, or giving shout outs (think announcing birthdays, calling last drinks at the bar for the manager), using the microphone is inescapable for anyone who wants to play mobile gigs.
Indeed, using the microphone is something all DJs need to do at one time or another. I once saw a big festival-type DJ/producer, playing in front of tens of thousands of people, plug his headphones into the microphone socket on the mixer, something that took me full circle. It was a trick I first pulled when I was still at school: we’d forgotten a microphone for a charity gig I’d organised, and – much to the amusement of a local personality radio DJ who I’d booked as our guest – we had to conduct the entire gig mumbling into an old pair of Sennheisers. (Pro tip: this works fine. Plug ’em in and shout into one of the ear cups. Only one of them will work, though, so try them both…)
Whether you’re shouting into your headphones, or – far more preferable – into a proper microphone (go for a wired dynamic mic), the trick is to lower the volume of the music when you’re talking (often there will be a ‘talkover’ function on your gear to do this automatically for you). Hold the microphone close to your mouth and speak much more clearly and slowly than you’d normally feel comfortable doing, all the time avoiding the dreaded feedback, that piercing high-pitched noise that happens when a microphone is too near to a speaker that’s amplifying it. (If you do struggle with feedback, turn down any monitor speakers near to you, turn them away from you, turn away from them, move the microphone closer to your mouth and turn it down, or try altering the mic eQ on the mixer.)
More than any other type of gig, mobile is where you’re likely to be asked to play requests. Dealing with requests is often one of the hardest parts of DJing because ultimately you’ve been hired to know what music to play, not to be pushed around, playing what a vocal minority of people want. If you were to note down and find a way to play everything those few people asked you for, two things would happen: they would do it more, because they’d work out quickly that if they ask, they get, and your DJing would suck. You’d be a human jukebox playing ill-considered music that pleased fewer people than would have been the case if you had followed your training and instincts. It’s a lose/lose.
That isn’t to say you should be rude, or ignore requests. Remember, a big part of your job is to inject positive energy into the room, not be moody with the very people you are meant to be getting on side. While this is often an exercise in diplomacy (‘Have you got something we can dance to?’; ‘Can you play my track now, we’re going in a bit?’; ‘I’ve got it on my iPhone here! Surely you can plug it in and play it?’; ‘Can you play something good?’), requests will be useful as they’ll help you gauge what an unfamiliar crowd wants. The trick is to remember that they are just that: requests. And requests can be turned down. DJing is about programming, so don’t let inappropriate requests throw you off your general plan for the event.
A good rule is to tell the person asking that you’ll play the song a little later (if you intended to anyway – but feel free to make it look like it was their idea, they love that stuff). If you have a requested track and would consider playing it but you’re not sure, ‘I’ll play it if I have time’ works well. And if you don’t want to play a track, or you don’t have it, ‘Hmmm, I’ll see what I can do’ or ‘Sorry, not tonight’ depending on the person in front of you can be appropriate.
In this step of the process you’ve learned all you need to know to make a success of your first public DJ gig. Hopefully you’ll come out of the other side enthusiastic and ready for more. The next and final step of the process contains all the information you need to promote yourself successfully, turning that first gig into a string of gigs, whether you are aspiring to DJ occasionally, doing it as a part-time job, or even full time.