F o r m a t t i n g TT i p s

 
"Pace the key songs, avoid burning out the dancers, rotate the floor, and build energy to a peak"
-- DJ Rob Wegner
 
"[T]he dancers are the stars of the disco [that] become a living theater with the customers as players, who themselves are the club's entertainment"
-- Doug Shannon [Off the Record (1985), p. 166]

 

(Photo Courtesy of DJ Shad)

Introduction

Roughly 25 years ago, it was rare to hear a DJ beat mix at a typical nightclub. Most mainstream nightclubs hired DJ's based on their ability to program music or format, which often included the ability to create energy and control an audience. A good speaking voice/presence was also required. While most of today's club owners and managers still consider formatting to be important, the popular culture and media have attached a great deal of importance to beat mixing, scratching and turntable tricks. But as you will learn, the nightclub "business" is based more on your dance floor energy and ability to generate drink sales (i.e., format) and less on impressing friends and/or other DJ's with advanced skills.

This tends to give experienced DJ's -- who have acquired an instinctive ability learning how to read an audience -- an advantage over newer DJ's (even if a new DJ exhibits superior turntable skills). Moreover, because DJ's can react to the crowd response and adjust the music accordingly, they generally have an advantage over live bands -- which often have fixed playlists (i.e., the audience must adjust to the band).

You should first consider dividing the evening into three parts: A beginning (pre-show), middle (show), and an end (afterhours, if applicable). Like sentences in a story, you select songs to construct paragraphs or "sets." For example, a disco "set" (or paragraph) would consist of 4 or 5 disco songs played back-to-back. If the dance floor clears, it may only consist of two songs; conversely, if the dance floor momentum increases, the disco set may lengthen. As a DJ, your job is to constantly monitor the dance floor to gauge whether the dancers enjoy the music that you're playing. So in a sense, the crowd is writing the story with you.

As discussed in the About Nightclubs section, if the club is filled with regulars, then the sets that you construct must interest them. Even if non-regulars approach the DJ booth and plead with you to play contrasting styles of music, you should always maintain the club's "sound" (which may also be your sound). A consistent music format is central to building a "following."

Pre-Show

The beginning of the night, or "pre-show," should consist of background-type songs played at a low volume. This is because you obviously don't want to play your best song at full volume (i.e., "blowing them out of the room") when most of the crowd is still arriving at the venue. For pre-show, you should play less intensive songs in a quasi-radio fashion.

It's this concept that many inexperienced club owners fail to recognize (even though, as the saying goes -- "if they're not dancing, they're drinking"). Instead of saving the best songs for later, the DJ will experience pressure to play many of the key "floor-packing" hits early in the night (for a few patrons that may want to leave early), peak early (i.e., burn them out), and run out of "key" songs when the majority of the patrons arrive. If the DJ repeats those hits later, the customers and employees may complain that the DJ lacks depth and plays the same tracks repeatedly.

As the de facto leader of the club's atmosphere, you control the dance floor. As you gradually ramp-up the tempo and volume of your songs, your first dancers should begin to appear. As the floor momentum increases with additional dancers, you will sense that it's time to shift the mood ... end of pre-show, it's showtime.

Show

The lights and volume will often increase to full intensity, you may speak on the microphone, and you may start playing key "hits" that - usually based on past experience - will get a packed dancefloor. It's at this point that you begin the soul of the story. You construct sets (see Table 1) and rotate your dance floor until (several hours later) you build to a peak -- or the climax of your story -- when you present the biggest hits in your record arsenal. This is when the club is at its busiest. After the peak, you let them down gradually (like an airplane) until the club closes, or afterhours begins.

Table 1 - Constructing Sets

Sample of Good Playlist

Sample of Bad Playlist

Note that the DJ has a method of controlling the flow and energy level 

Note that there's no set construction and little regard for the dancers. By the time people get into a groove, the DJ has switched to something else. 

Top-40 Song 1 (well known to get them on the floor; like an introductory sentence)

Top-40 Song 2 (less known, break a new song here - called "sandwiching")

Top-40 Song 3 (better known to get them back in case Song #2 didn't work)

Top-40 Song 4 (another hit to maintain the energy level and peak the set)

Top-40 Song 5 (close the set with a less known to introduce the next set). You may want to pick a transition song (like a transition sentence) that matches the style of your next set (i.e., a "crossover" hit).

House Song 1 (well known and matches the bpm and key of Top-40 Song #5)

House Song 2 (same bpm and energy as House #1)

House Song 3 (bring 'em down to get them to the bar and set up a hip hop set)

Hip Hop Song 1 (hope the change in bpm "rotates" floor; play hit to get them out there)

etc.

Disco Song at 112 bpm

Trance Song at 132 bpm

Hip Hop Hit

Latin Dance Hit

Hip Hop - Old Song

House Song at 120 bpm

Top-40 Hit at 140 bpm

Hip Hop Song at 103 bpm

Disco Song at 117 bpm

Trance Song at 135 bpm

Request for Top-40

etc.

End/Afterhours

Some nightclubs like to play a few slow songs at the end of the night. There are several advantages to this approach. First, because the slow songs change the club's mood, the mellow atmosphere hopefully alleviates potential trouble between inebriated and energized patrons. Second, dancing to slow tracks gives couples a last chance to "hook-up." Finally, slow songs should add a sense of class to an otherwise wild evening of partying (particularly, for an older clientele).

In most cities, afterhours entails spinning to patrons that want to dance more than drink. Generally, afterhours is relatively less stressful than the "show" of the night. For example, the afterhours DJ does not have to be concerned with "rotating" the floor to generate drink sales.

Depending on the club, an afterhours DJ may format this portion of the night like a rave DJ, whereas, even though the style may be constant (i.e., all hard house), energy levels build and decline (i.e., rotate) throughout the night. In addition, many rave DJ's like to take dancers on a "journey" (which is somewhat similar to the story writing concept discussed above).

You may want to consider that -- in light of the time of your performance -- customers generally are looking for an excuse to leave (particularly as time elapses into the morning). If you're trying to "hold" the crowd, try to captivate their attention by maintaining high energy levels and/or by keeping them in a trance (via the "journey" concept). Blend mixing tends to enhance the "journey" concept (i.e., dance music); whereas "slam" mixing augments high-energy (i.e., hip hop).

Music

What is "mainstream" music? The answer to this question usually varies from person-to-person. In the case of club owners, few perceive "mainstream" music as the same thing. For instance, a club owner in a college area may consider alternative-rock as "top-40"; while a different club owner (across the city) believes euro-dance is top-40; while still another owner may believe that it's hip hop.

This is why it's important to understand exactly what type of music the owner(s) desires. If s/he says "top-40," then you need to determine exactly what that means. While talking to the bartenders and waitresses will help, the best thing that you can do is "scout" other DJ's. Perhaps ask the owner if there's a DJ that they like and then go listen to him or her. Also, find out if there's a DJ that is disliked (and find out why?).

In terms of programming and purchasing music, consider building your own library (otherwise, you are dependent on the club and/or other DJ's to earn a living). Most clubs will either pay you extra for supplying records/cd's, or they will reimburse you. A record pool will supply the latest music, but you may also feel obligated to play music that doesn't fit your format.

Finally, be aware that many songs that are popular on the radio may not necessarily work in a nightclub. You should learn to distinguish a track with a good dance beat from a "listening" song.

Additional Considerations

* In the case of big events, some "superstar" DJ's prefer having an opening DJ spin pre-show -- or the warm-up set. Occasionally, openers are expected to play tracks in minor keys -- so that the headlining DJ's set stands-out when s/he plays tracks in the major keys.

* When opening for a headlining DJ, your role is to "set-up" the crowd for the headliner's set. If you attempt to "upstage" the headliner, it's very unlikely that you will be given similar opportunities in the future.


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