The Art of DJing: Tips for Opening DJs

Once again we revisit one of our most popular discussions – the art of DJing. This time, we’re focusing on the warm-up set, with advice from some Dubspot friends and veteran professionals such as DJ Dan, Josh Wink, Mike Huckaby, Endo, Hector Romero, and DJ Shiftee.

As a rule before any gig, you should find out who is playing before and after you. In addition, always show up at least one hour early before your set. Doing so not only enables you to feel the vibe of the room but gives you an opportunity to make sure you do not repeat any tracks the previous DJ has played. Since you have an idea of what the DJ is playing before you, pick a great track to transition and leave the next DJ with a great starting place. Again, you will know what that DJ will be playing so you can choose something that will be easy for them to flow into. This approach is just common respect for the crowd and the next DJ. If you play an earlier set, make sure you play a set that is groovy and does not rinse the energy out of the room, especially when there is a headliner on after you. The key to a good DJ is knowing how to pace the energy of the night. I guarantee you will get way more compliments if you play appropriately to your time slot. The one mistake I see up and coming DJ’s do that is never cool is to bang the shit out of it before the headliner goes on – as if to impress the next DJ. That is not cool. If you really want to impress the next DJ and the crowd, play appropriately and sexy to let the night have a nice build. If you are in a headlining position, go crazy! Again, though, make sure you leave the next DJ with something they can flow out into. Lastly, be respectful of the space you are working in. Most booths are small, so have consideration for where the next DJ will be putting their gear. You can start moving your stuff a bit towards the last couple tracks in your set so the transition can be easier for them. Oh, and never play the headliner’s new big tune in your set. I know this seems like common sense, but you’d be surprised as to how many times I’ve seen this happen. - Dj Dan

I think that everybody who is a DJ needs to know how to be a warm up or opening DJ. It takes awareness and patience to do so. An opener DJ sets the mood of the venue, and this is SO important! A DJ is someone who entertains, educates, and creates aural atmospheres. I love opening, as I get to play deep and moody music, creating a special feeling that gradually builds. - Josh Wink

An opening DJ should always remember the role that has been delegated to them for the night. You are opening up for another DJ. Your role is to set the tone for the headlining DJ. Often, the opening DJ will try to outdo the headliner by playing strong cuts way too early in the night, and trying to get peak hour crowd responses. A good opening DJ will always remember the role they are playing within the night. The opening DJ should also be compatible to the headliner, and know his style of DJing as well. - Mike Huckaby

Endo_3

Being an opening DJ can be very tricky. It takes true skill and talent to be a good opener. You have to keep people dancing, but not too hard. You want to keep people going to the bar without clearing the floor. Playing to an empty room is also a skill. You also need to know when to pick things up as an opener. If you bore people with too much atmosphere, people might leave. As far as opening DJ etiquette goes, know what the person after you is going to play and build up to that. Also, keep your levels out of the red! If you have the mixer buried in the reds, the next DJ will not have enough headroom to mix with their levels. Opening up a night is a great opportunity to play those mood-setting musical records you wouldn’t get to play at peak time. - DJ Endo

Ah, the opening DJ set. To me, it seems like a lost art form. It is an art form because it takes a special kind of DJ to handle a crowd that comes early to the club and not bore them but yet not bang it out like it’s 3am.  I feel that the opening DJ’s set is as crucial as the prime time set. In my opinion, you’re actually a good opening DJ if you can rock a 10pm-1am set and not really play any major hits! And it’s not impossible. There are loads of amazing tunes that work during those early hours; you just have to put the time in and find those gems that work. - Hector Romero

Dj Ceiba

All’s fair in love and DJing until somebody feels like their toes are getting stepped on. That said, there are a couple of rules to abide by. Setting for an opener is akin to getting the energy of a room to simmer not boil. This is a different skill set than party rocking. You can’t drop ALL the fire right before the opener’s set by playing your best bangers and then handing it over to the next act. The other rule is that you can’t let your EGO get in the way. The folks that hired you are often business people – so think long-term. You are a walking business building relationships. Don’t do the headliner’s job if you want to get more work. - Dj Ceiba

rx5

If you were a person attending the event, what would YOU want to hear at that moment? Always keep the audience in mind because after all, neither you or the superstar DJ after you will be anywhere without them. Most of the time it’s just meeting people’s expectations, then surprising them. If it’s a Top 40 night, don’t play esoteric material, and if it’s a cutting edge party, don’t play obvious tracks the audience is sure to know. And please, please, PLEASE don’t “Madison Square Garden” as I like to call it, i.e. playing the most peak hour material of the evening to an unengaged, small audience without looking at them. Finally, people notice. Even if people are getting drinks or talking with their friends during your set, you can win them over if you read them well, pace yourself, and have just as great of time (if not better) than they are. Honestly, I love doing opening sets: less pressure and the world needs more awesome opening DJs that compliment the night. - Rx

Matt

Feel out the room and crowd and play something appropriate. Don’t over plan, and try not to stick to a pre-planned set that is not appropriate to what’s actually happening. Better yet, know what you’ve got as options to play and don’t plan at all! Don’t play banging shit to an empty dancefloor while people are still filing in and getting their drinks. It’s called the warm up slot for a reason. Know your role, fulfill it, and you’ll be invited back. - Matt Shadetek

Martín Perna

Get set up right away and make sure everything is working smoothly before you get a drink. If it’s a paying gig, find out who’s paying you, how they’re paying you, and at what point in the evening you can expect to be paid. It might be up-front, or you might have to wait around until 4am. Know this in advance. Go to the bathroom before your set starts. There’s nothing worse for the headliner than DJing in a puddle of urine left behind by the opener. Know the music that you’ll be playing. Don’t try to make a bold statement just yet, especially if nobody is listening. Make sure before you start your set, that you know when you are on and off. If the following DJ is there, work out with him/her how the transitions should happen (both musically and technically). Bring extra music to play in case the later DJ is a no-show or starts late. Be conscious of your place and function in the movement of the evening and know your role, whether it is to provide background music, to warm up the crowd, or to create a context for the music that the later DJ(s) will be playing. - Martín Perna

I agree with everything everyone has said, BUT I still think it’s important for you as an opening DJ to try to stand out and make your mark on the night. If you don’t turn heads with your set, what was the point? Respect of the headliner is great, but ultimately you want more work, which comes through fans and the promoters remembering who you are after your set. Here are a few little suggestions to get into people’s heads:

  • Talk on the mic and say your name throughout your set. I call this “Castanza-ing” (shouts to people who get my specific Seinfeld reference).
  • Drop surprising songs WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF THE NIGHT. Play tracks that people will go “ohhhhh” too, but only within the style of the night and your role of the opener as described by everyone else. These can be throwback songs, silly songs, or songs that seem like they don’t belong in DJ sets.
  • Make little flashy routines (that work within the context of the night as already described).

In short, stand out, but do so appropriately! - Dj Shiftee

 


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