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How To Programme A DJ Set

Introduction

DJ sets come in all shapes and sizes. They are as varied as the venues, crowds, equipment, music, and events where people dance to pre-recorded music. They can be planned or impromptu, performed or pre-programmed. They can be for a handful of people or a festival crowd of tens of thousands. And, as we know, they can be played on everything from a smartphone to a pro DJ set-up.

But the chances are that wherever in the world you’re reading this right now, nearby someone will be stepping up this evening to play music that people will end up dancing to, and – despite the amazing variety of DJ gigs out there – the large majority share a lot more in common than differences. Music gets played. People dance to it. Hopefully someone gets paid for that, and this chapter and the next one are about exactly what to do when that person is you.

As you’ve practised many times to get to this point, the only difference between this type of DJing and that which you’re used to is that, finally, you’re doing it in front of other people. This is scary and exciting… and it’s also the whole point of DJing. Ultimately, it’s not about BPM, or phrasing, or anything else. When it comes down to the final judgement, DJing is really about one thing only: what you play next.

What you actually end up playing in any given DJ set is the pinnacle of the Playlist Pyramid, the only part anyone else sees. But it’s all the work that’s gone on beneath it that makes it all seem so effortless to your audience.

Knowing what to play next is a lifetime’s work, and it’s work that’s never done. even if you’re one of those people who thinks about their DJing all the time – and you most definitely should be if you want to become truly good at it – it’s a question you’ll never find all the answers to. You’ll smile to yourself, remembering times you knew a song would work, and it did. You’ll look for reasons why something worked really well when you didn’t expect it to. You’ll try to decipher why a certain tune that smashed it one week fell flat on its face the next. You will – and I promise you this is true – come up with great mixes in your dreams, mixes that you’ll simply have to try out on waking up. But you’ll also replay over and over as you try to fall asleep the times you thought you had a winner to play next only to clear the dancefloor with it.

So if the above has put the fear into you, it’s time for me to pull you back from the brink and share some tactics that’ll stop you freezing every time you need to make this decision – which, let’s face it, is going to be every three to six minutes throughout your DJing career.

The good news is that you are already set up to make great choices about what to play next (you’ve practised lots, and you’ve actually packed a set for your gig beforehand), and so from this point, you can do a decent job simply by remembering the seven guidelines that follow. At the end of this chapter I’ll share some pitfalls to avoid which will give you confidence that even though music selection is the most important part of DJing, to be ignored or taken for granted absolutely at your peril, it is something you are perfectly capable of mastering.

Seven ideas for choosing the perfect next track

  1. Play the song instinct is telling you is right – You’ve done an awful lot of practising. You’ve recorded countless mixtapes. You’ve listened back to your efforts plenty of times away from the decks through the ears of a listener. And with the work we’ve done on simple, clean transitions, you know that you’re capable of successfully mixing it in, one way or another. So yes, that song in your head is probably the right song to play next.
  2. Pick something in a similar BPM, genre or key. In order to carry on the vibe you’ve created, use the power of digital sorting to arrange or filter your set list by BPM, genre or key quickly and pick something similar to what’s currently playing. Try doing all three – look at only your house music, sort it by BPM, then choose a track in the same or a compatible musical key (you may have to enable the column that displays musical key in your software or on your equipment, and read up in your manual about the exact system your set-up uses for analysing and displaying songs in compatible musical key to you). Now you’ll have a song that stands a good chance of carrying on the vibe and that you stand a good chance of being able to transition to easily.
  3. Pick something totally different in tempo, genre or key. Sometimes, the exact opposite of the above is what’s required (i.e. a change of BPM, key or genre), but playing randomly without thought is very different to doing so for a reason. Maybe you’ve been playing as per the point above for a few songs and the energy level is now flagging a little. This is one circumstance where a change of tactic can work really well for you. The point is to be aware of how you’ve been playing in order to have a sense of whether such a change might be appropriate.
  4. Pick something that’s worked before. Let’s not overcomplicate things or make them harder than they have to be here. If you’ve got a song that’s worked well for you before in front of an audience, either when played immediately after the currently playing song or generally, it’s got a much higher chance of working well again for you. There’s nothing wrong with playing the tunes you know, your audience knows, and everyone likes, over and over. While you’re rarely going to want to play the same tune twice in the same night, you can expect to play your most popular songs countless times over the weeks, months and years. Hint: any ‘History’ section in your DJ software is a great place to look back and remember what’s worked for you previously.
  5. Play something you’ve never played before. In direct opposition to the above, at times you are absolutely going to have to take the risk and drop into something nobody knows. Today’s new tracks are tomorrow’s hits, and part of the job of the DJ is to educate as well as entertain. After all, you are hearing more music sooner than most of your audience, so it’s only natural that you’re going to pick up on great new tracks a bit earlier than the majority of them will. Have the balls to play them! A good tip here, though, is to know what you’re going to play next before doing so, just in case the new song doesn’t work and you want to move smoothly into something else a little quicker than you’d planned.
  6. Pick something that lyrically matches the moment. This is one area where DJs will always win out over automated playlists or jukeboxes. It could be playing songs that refer to the current weather, or contain the name of the town or venue where you’re playing, or have lyrics that encourage people to dance, or reflect the current mood in your town or city (songs about togetherness after bad events; songs about being champions after your big local sports team wins something). We all know songs where the lyrics really reflect how we feel, right? What songs do you have that can do this for a whole venue?
  7. Play a hit. I’ve left the most obvious till last, but big tunes everyone knows generally fill dancefloors, and to a lesser or greater extent every DJ is expected to do some of this. You don’t automatically have to go Top 40 here; a classic tune that fits the moment may be exactly the right thing to play, or a big new song that everyone knows from a current film or commercial may work, too.

Five programming pitfalls to avoid

DJs who make it past their first few gigs have an unwritten code of survival beaten into them by the journey. While the tips above contain plenty of ideas to help you develop your ability to find great tune after great tune effortlessly, what follows is a list of rookie mistakes to avoid. Some of them may seem reasonable, possibly advisable, and even those that you can see are wrong you can probably sympathise with, but they’re wrong, nonetheless. Do the above and avoid doing the below, and you’re 80% of the way there.

  1. Don’t start every tune search in your master collection. Want that classic laptop DJ look: hunched over your laptop, eyes frightened and staring as you browse through hundreds and hundreds of tunes, unable to pick the next one through analysis paralysis? Simple – play your sets from your master tunes list. Otherwise, it’s a complete no-no. Much better to do what I suggest (and what many new-to-digital DJs learn the hard way), which is to pack a crate of music carefully before your gig and play from that. less is more. The restriction will force you to prepare well beforehand and make your sets sound better on the night – plus it will take an awful lot of the strain off your shoulders.
  2. Don’t start the search for each next record with the question: ‘What do I have that will mix with this?’ Instead, find the right track to play next and then find a way to transition into it. In this book are several failsafe ways of performing perfectly acceptable, clean and simple transitions that will work with any next track you may have planned. Aim to get track choice after track choice perfect, and let the mixing take care of itself. Or to be harsher, your inability to mix like a seasoned pro just yet shouldn’t ever deny your audience the chance to hear the best music for right now, and the only way to develop those ninja mixing skills is by challenging yourself with the correct tracks in the first place.
  3. Don’t reach the last few seconds of the currently playing track with nothing ready to play next. Bad for obvious reasons, but common, leading to the DJ throwing anything at all on to the other deck and mixing it in poorly to avoid radio silence. The solution is simple: line up the very first track that occurs to you as a reasonable choice to play next immediately. Once it’s ready, you’re then free to go off searching for something better, knowing your back is covered should you end up finding nothing.
  4. Don’t play every request you’re asked for. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing! It’s so cool the audience is requesting stuff! They’re really helping me out of a hole here,’ said no good DJ, ever. Don’t get me wrong, requests are often great (anything that tells you about your audience is valuable), but the best use of requests is to confirm your instincts about what you’re planning to play (in which case: ‘Nice choice, I’ll play it later for you’ is the appropriate response) or to remind you of a current style or a big hit you’ve temporarily forgotten about. The rest – to put it politely – are usually best ignored. Always remember that you are there because you spend more time and money on music than your audience does, you’ve studied dancefloors and DJs and you know a bit about what goes into a well-structured, well-paced DJ set. You are there because all this has given you style and taste above mere mortals. Don’t let inappropriate/frequent/insistent requesters blow your ship off course.
  5. Don’t panic! Despite your best efforts, sometimes (and probably at least once in any DJ set) things go wrong. You play a tune that clears the dancefloor. You regret the tune you’ve just put on, even though it doesn’t clear the dancefloor. You accidentally load the wrong song (the one next to the one you wanted in the list, usually) and only realise the fact when you mix it in. You play a tune the DJ before you played, only you weren’t around then to know that. You build up to a big tune you’ve been dying to play only to discover you forgot to bring it with you There is only one response: move on calmly with a smile. Style out the inevitable few minutes until you can play another great tune and all will be forgotten. It will, trust me. This is DJing, not open heart surgery. Nobody’s gonna die. Be cool.

‘How do you make a statue of an elephant?’ someone asked a sculptor once.

‘Easy,’ he replied. ‘Get the biggest granite block you can find and chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.’

Choosing the tracks that will make the perfect DJ set for the people in front of you right now is both as simple and as difficult as that. This chapter has given you some of the tools and guidelines. Your audiences will give you the rest.

But while every audience is different, one thing great DJs have is a finely honed knowledge of the nature of the audience at certain types of gig – rules of thumb that can assist in programming choices. So to end this step, in the next chapter we’ll take a detailed look at how to approach programming your sets specifically for three of the most common types of gigs: bars, clubs, and mobile.

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