Etiquette is a word many people associate with stuffy dinner parties and posh restaurants. But every corner of life has some sort of “rules”, best practices to avoid offending or upsetting people, and to make a good impression of yourself. Understanding them can help you avoid looking foolish in front of promoters and fellow DJs, and increase your chances of repeat bookings.
First things first – these are not hard, fixed rules. And there may well be regional differences that I’m not aware of. But, based on my 20+ years of DJing around the world, these guidelines to your behaviour should help you make the right impression! These are based around club bookings – wedding & function DJs, for instance, have a very different set of circumstances to consider.
Turn up on time
I never cease to be amazed by how many DJs cannot turn up on time. We have one of the best jobs going. At any given event there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of people who would like to take our job. Its our hobby – and we are getting paid for it! Why on earth would you be late to that? Something you don’t want to do – sure. But playing music to people for money? What is making you want to miss the beginning of that?
Being late is going to annoy the people who booked you, and possibly the DJ you are replacing on the decks, if they’ve got somewhere they need to get to. Busy DJs often have multiple sets in one night, and might need to keep a very strict timetable – if you are holding them up from getting to their next gig, you’ve annoyed your booker, that DJ, and then they will go to the next venue and blame you for why they are late!
To compound things, a lot of DJs think – “Ah, I’m supposed to be on at 10pm. It’s 10.10pm. I’d better text them to tell them I’m running late”. Errrrr… I think its safe to say that this isn’t especially helpful. If you think you might be running late, let them know as soon as you realise it is a possibility. Give them plenty of warning so they can tell the DJ that is on (they can then pace their set appropriately, or make arrangements if they are in a rush to get a subsequent gig), and then if you manage to turn up on time you’ve flipped it, so it seems like a positive that you’ve done the single easiest thing in the entire universe.
Check out the end of the DJ’s set before you
Even better than simply turning up on time is to to turn up a little bit of time before your set starts. This gives you the chance to say hello to the DJ on before you if you are taking over, or time to make sure the DJ booth is set up right for when you start (NEVER assume that everything will be perfect when you arrive!). Have a walk around the venue. Listen to the sound, any louder or quieter areas, check out the clientele, try to get a sense of what they will be into.
If there is a DJ already on ahead of you, notice what they are playing. If they are up for it, you could even ask to look at their play history. It is amazing how many times I’ve had a DJ turn up a minute or two before they are due on, hurriedly put a USB in, and proceed to open with a song I played about 5 minutes before. Sure, that opening song does go great with my last song… that’s kind of how this song came to be on… And I will admit to having done the same myself; quickly got a song playing, only to have the DJ say “Oh, I just played this”, with lots of confused looks from the dancefloor. VERY embarrassing.
Ask how they want to do the changeover
So you’re in the booth, the DJ before you is killing it, and your set time is approaching. Generally there’s a “one or two more?” conversation a few minutes before. When it gets to their last song – its not a bad idea to ask if they want you to let the song play out a bit, as DJs often make their last song something a bit special which they think deserves hearing in full.
This etiquette cuts both ways. If you are scheduled to finish at 1am, don’t stick an epic 9-minute remix on at 12.59am and demand they play it in full!
Depending on the situation, you might want to fade the music down or let the song play out, and then lead a bit of applause for the DJ before you, then start your set from that point. This used to be pretty unusual, but with the advent of DJing on stages more, and DJs having greater celebrity status, this is now quite common. DJ sets are almost like band sets – they have a very defined beginning and end, and sometimes bear little relation to what came before or comes after.
In some situations it might be better to smoothly mix out of their last song, especially if you are mixing house or techno. Keeping the groove going is far more important in those kinds of situations than at many other parties. Also – this can sometimes lead to impromptu back-to-backs, which can be great fun, and if you are an up-and-coming DJ, playing back-to-back with a big name is a great experience, and can generate some fantastic social media content!
If the headline DJ is there with a fair bit of time before they are on, it might be worth asking “do you have any tempo you want me to leave it at for when you take over?” Generally, I find that DJs just say “do your thing!” and encourage me to express myself without worrying about teeing them up, but it shows consideration to do this, and sometimes they might have a preference.
Understand your role
Are you the warm up DJ? Are you the headline set? What is the promoter or venue looking for from you? What sort of crowd has come along tonight? When does the night normally peak? How much of the event is left after you finish your set?
There’s a whole heap of questions you should try to know the answers of when you get on the decks. That’s not to say that you should bombard whoever booked you with all of them directly – which could risk making you look nervous or amateurish. A few key questions here and there is fine, but it is often better to try and get the answers you seek in a more oblique way, either from observation, from asking open-ended questions, or from looking things up online ahead of time.
If you are the warm up, play the appropriate style set – and the key here is to understand what the party and the person paying you wants. Some places want you to do the traditional “slow and steady, build the atmosphere” type sets. Other events, they want it high octane from the moment the doors open. If there is a big producer/DJ on after you – don’t run through their tracks and remixes!
Is your job actually more about soundtracking a vibe, rather than getting the place hype? Smashing out massive festival bangers at a restaurant gig might not be the best approach!
Look the part
I can understand the mindset that it should solely be about the music you play. I used to fully subscribe to it. But the reality is that presentation matters. At some gigs, having a DJ on is an aesthetic choice as much as it is about the music you play – think of sets at malls/shops, restaurants, fashion shows.
By all means, interpret this your own way. Different scenes and different regions will have their own styles to reflect. There’s a balancing act to be found between standing out and fitting into the look of wherever you are. When I do corporate and private shows, I make sure to find out if its a smart or casual affair. I then pick an outfit out that fits that – but make sure that it is distinctive enough that when I walk in, the event organiser can probably work out that I’m the DJ! Ultimately, we DJs are performers. Embracing that side of things makes total sense. Use your own judgement though – some underground scenes can be a bit snobby about people dressing in ways outside the norm! Good luck finding any men in a techno gig DJ booth that aren’t in a baggy black t-shirt!
Be friendly, be helpful
A smile and helping someone can go a long way. DJing is actually sometimes a surprisingly solitary endeavour – all those people out having a party, and the DJ there, but separate, their head necessarily in a different space. Striking up a good rapport with other DJs is a great way to help with that, and then when you bump into each other in another city there’s a kind of “old buddies” camaraderie you develop with DJs you’ve played with before, even if you’ve actually not spoken to each other that much.
If you want to make positive memories, one incredibly handy thing I once did, and which I now just do as routine… headphone adaptors. For some reason, DJs are forever losing them. It is crazy really, but its definitely a thing. Well, you can buy them for almost nothing on Amazon – maybe a buck or two. Certainly a lot cheaper than a drink. Every so often I buy a load, and then by the end of the year I’ve saved a load of DJs necks. They are eternally grateful, I’ve helped out the night and the other DJ, and everyone thinks I’m a total hero. Sounds insane, but there you go!
But as a general point – see other DJs as your colleagues, not your rivals. You are on the same team, and the goal is to give the audience a good night. Achieve that, and your career will look after itself.
Be VERY wary of loose trash talk, even if you think another DJ sucks. For a start, you never know who they are friends with in the club, and you might end up saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, and losing a connect. I love this old joke – “How many DJs does it take to change a lightbulb? 10 – 1 to change it, 9 to stand around saying they would have changed it better.” We have a reputation for thinking we are great and nobody can do it like we can… Do you really want to live up to a negative stereotype?
Don’t leave this to chance. Don’t make assumptions. Find out what they have, and let them know what you prefer to use. It may or may not be possible for your preference to be set up – if that is the case, make yourself familiar with what you will have waiting for you (YouTube will be full of info about any unfamiliar equipment). If you want to bring a controller to plug in, run that by the club – first off, they might simply not want you to (as most people tend to just stick the controller on top of a Nexus set up worth $6000-7000). Using thousands of pounds worth of delicate DJ equipment as a table is not ideal… So, maybe they can make space, maybe they can arrange to have stuff moved for during your set.
If your preference is to use vinyl and Serato, they need to know. Likewise if you prefer CDJs and don’t bring needles/serato vinyl, let the venue know ahead of time – I’ve had that happen before, turned up to a gig and they had assumed that because I scratch I would want Technics installed!
And treat the equipment as if it is your own. For god’s sake don’t put drinks on them, and don’t wave drinks around over them! Accidents can and will happen, and it is very easy to simply avoid creating the situations where they are most likely.
This can be a weirdly awkward thing. It is customary for a DJ to get a few guest list spots, and maybe even some drinks tokens for their guests. But it is a good idea to clear up exactly what the deal is when you confirm the booking. Bigger venues DEFINITELY appreciate having the guest list confirmed well in advance – when I was resident at Ministry of Sound, they asked for all guest list names for Saturday night to arrive by 5pm Friday, so that the office could process the requests. Sometimes I could get late people on the list – sometimes I couldn’t, it depended on the circumstances.
If you are on an early set, the promoter may well be happy for you to have 40 people free on the guest list, if it means a busy dancefloor from the moment the doors open. Its more likely that they will offer you some free, and some on a discounted paying list.
Find out the protocol to get in on the guest list – relay that information to your guests. Make sure any mates who aren’t on the guest list understand that they aren’t, as it is not a good look to have a load of people arguing at the front door with security and club staff, your name on their lips!
If your friends are joining you in the booth, make sure they are respectful of the space, and anybody else in the DJ booth. In particular, make sure they understand not to wave drinks around the equipment, touch any of the kit, and let the DJ do their thing!
Similar to guest list, this minor detail can get tricky if you aren’t on top of it. Find out if you get a drinks rider, and if so what it is – some places will give you tokens, other places a tab of a certain amount over the bar. If the latter, be careful – they might not cap it when you reach your limit, and then you end up getting a bill at the end of the night. Being drunk, then surprised with a bill for drinks after you’ve just been performing can create some awkward stand-offs, I’ve seen them get pretty heated!
It might be that you get your drinks brought to you in the booth in an ice bucket – maybe vodka and mixers, or a load of beer bottles. This is great – until random people start drinking your drinks. Annoying right? Well, imagine that you turn up and you or your guests start drinking the other DJ’s booze. Great way to make a bad impression!
All this free booze though, fantastic! Well – yeah, kinda. But having a litre of vodka in the booth carries some pretty obvious risks! I’ve got into some terrible states in the DJ booth. Usually its been fine – maybe my mixing was a bit sloppy, I looked a bit dishevelled, but nothing too bad happened. Other times… yikes! The low point would be that time when I literally put my headphones down at the peak time of a set and staggered out of the DJ booth, out the fire escape, and somehow made my way home. To this day I have no memory of any of that!
Don’t add to the problem pile
I like to think that most of the above is pretty common sense stuff really. I’ve broken many of the “rules’ I have talked about above, and seen most of them broken every month, every year of my career. One thing won’t end your life as a DJ – but you can really help yourself by being easy to work with, and a pleasure to be around.
Ultimately, much of it boils down to good, clear communication. Getting details worked out before the music is deafening and the lights are flashing! And in my experience, being reliable, professional, friendly and competent goes a really long way.
Every job exists to solve a problem. The more complex and responsible a job, the more problems they have to solve. When a venue books a DJ, they are solving the problem of entertainment. They want someone to come in there, play music, and entertain their clientele. DON’T ADD TO THE PROBLEM PILE!
If you show up to play your set and immediately start throwing your weight around and making more problems for the promoter, the manager, the owner, the other DJS… thats not going to fly unless your name is worth a lot of ticket sales!
You want to show up, do your thing to the best of your ability, make friends with the people you cross paths with, establish a rapport with the people who booked you, and the audience on the night.
Do the right things and be a bad-ass DJ, and you have a decent chance of making progress when we properly get back to clubbing. While we are waiting for normality to return, go get the hottest tracks over at the Heavy Hits Pool, and follow me over on Instagram.