If there is one thing that unites DJs, it is that we have all, at some point, had to deal with super-drunk people asking for songs. How we handle these moments can really change the way we experience a night, and so it is a good idea to have some strategies and techniques for dealing with them.
Of course, there is no right way, and no wrong way, of handling this. Its a personal choice, and often depends a lot on the sort of party you are spinning at, the sort of crowd, and a million other variables.
But, with that said, he are some ideas that I have settled on from over 2 decades of DJing all over the world, from clubs like Ministry of Sound and fabric, through to weddings and corporate Christmas parties! Hopefully they will help some of you when this pandemic is finally over, and everyone is back to partying every weekend!
ALWAYS BE POLITE
No matter what, try to keep your cool. Drunk people will often say things in a very blunt way, often not realising that they have accidentally insulted you. Or they might be insulting you very deliberately. That doesn’t matter – ALWAYS keep the moral high ground, always stay calm, do not get angry, do not get into an argument. There is zero benefit to you if you do this, and if you let it get personal, you massively increase the chances that they will complain to management or leave a bad review of a venue.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Drunk customers screaming in your ear while you try to mix can be extremely annoying.
If you can, try to create simple, firm boundaries – politely let them know that you’ll be with them once you’ve done the mix you’re in (I generally hold a “with you in 1 minute” finger gesture up – no, not that finger gesture…). What is hilarious here is how often they get bored within maybe 20-30 seconds and just wander off back to their friends, usually just as I’m finishing up my mix. Don’t let them come into the DJ booth. Definitely don’t let them hold drinks ANYWHERE near the decks, and especially not in the airspace over them – drunk people spill drinks ALL THE TIME! If you can make sure a member of the security team is by the DJ booth to act as a firewall, even better!
HAVE FUN WITH IT
There’s a suite of standard DJ requests that every long-time DJ has heard a million times. Some of these used to really get under my skin. But over time, I’ve learnt that it is far better to have a bit of fun in those moments.
When people say “Can you put something good on?”, a lot of the time they have no idea that they are implicitly saying “because this music isn’t good”. My standard response to that request is this – “I’m afraid not, I’m not allowed to put anything good on. Orders of the management. Only allowed to play really terrible songs, its the house rules. Honestly, it would make my life so much easier if I could put good songs on, but I’m just not able to”. About 80% of people get the joke, and realise how rude they’ve been, and we have a laugh, and its all good. The other 20% are OUTRAGED at this crazy policy, and it is genuinely hilarious to have a conversation with someone that stupid about a concept so ridiculous.
When they as “Can you put on something we can dance to?”, I have a great line I picked up from another DJ friend,- “you start dancing, I’ll mix something in to your dancing”. Usually gets a laugh. I used to point out that if they want to dance to whatever is on, they can, but this line of conversation never got me very far, so I don’t tend to do that now.
When you’ve been playing out for a while, you get to know what are the things that people will say to you a lot, and you can work out the best responses for you and the crowds you play to. And remember – the crowd are your friends, you aren’t trying to be mean, you want to have a laugh with them, not get into a confrontation! They just want a fun night, and you want them to have a fun night – but drunk people in clubs aren’t always the best at expressing themselves!
THE BLANKET YES/NO
These two options are quite popular. The blanket no is a bold strategy, and isn’t something I would tend to advocate for in most situations. Sure – if you are Carl Cox, and people have come to see you specifically, paid $50 a ticket to see what you are going to play, then I think its reasonable that you aren’t expected to field requests. But if you are just the DJ who happens to be on in that venue on that night, and the crowd in there is coming in to the venue (rather than specifically to see you DJ), I would generally say that at least listening to requests goes with the job. Obviously, lots of people have differing views on this, and it all depends on the context.
But with a blanket no, it is very straightforward – no requests, just play what you want, when you want. Some people put signs up or wear ostentatious t-shirts to make the point, but chances are that you’ll still get people trying it on. You just have to stick to your guns and hope that the choices you make keep them happy!
The blanket yes is a lot more sneaky! Basically, they ask for whatever they ask for. You say yes. They go away, you play it or not, whatever, its as if the request never happened. I’d guess that 90% of those requesters never come back to the booth. And old co-host of mine used to swear by this approach (RIP DJ Remy), and always used it. I sometimes say yes to requests, then simply forget to play them – then realise that they never came back to complain. So, it does work.
The big risk here is that you give a yes to something you don’t have or would never play, and they keep coming back persistently – at a certain point you might have to switch that yes to a no, and then deal with the fall-out!
KNOW YOUR ROLE
I’ve alluded to this already. There’s all sorts of DJs, and all sorts of parties. At a cool underground party, or one where you are the special guest that they’ve flown in, specifically to hear YOUR style of DJing – requests are much less of a thing. Chances are you’ll still get a few, but there is much less expectation to play them.
At a wedding? An office party? A late bar drinking/dancing spot on a Friday night with a really mixed, commercial crowd? All of these places and more will be full of people expecting to hear the hot songs from the radio, the classics from their youth, etc etc. In my opinion, it is just part of the job to handle requests at these sorts of gigs, and do so with good grace and humour.
I personally am happy to listen to requests. If its a good song, and fits the party, I’ll say “yes, I’ll try and work it in”, and add the track to my Serato prepare crate. Often a “yes” will be followed with a hopeful “play it next!” – I draw the line at people dictating when and how I mix through styles and genres! I like to play all sorts of music, but I want my sets to make musical sense – so a yes to a request might still mean that they wait for a couple of hours to hear the song.
PRIVATE FUNCTION? DO YOUR HOMEWORK!
One of the best tricks I have learnt for wedding sets is a deceptively simple, and surprisingly important, one. I speak with the bride and groom in advance, and try to get a “Definitely play” and a Definitely do not play” list – with the latter one being the one I emphasise. Usually couples haven’t even considered this, but some songs have painful memories attached, or might be associated with a previous partner. They might have a certain singer who’s voice they hate, or a genre that makes their skin crawl. On their big wedding night, you want to avoid nasty surprises like that!
If I can, I like to get at least 15-20 songs that they REALLY want to hear (and if choices are maybe not very “party” I will double check with them – most couples just want that you make the dance a fun night, and play music they enjoy!), and build the set around that on the night. It gives you a great idea of how to structure things, what will make them happy, and so on.
The “Do not play” list has the benefits outlined above – but also stands you in good stead when the drunk uncle comes over saying “you know what would really set this party off….” and asks for something that you know the happy couple would hate!
Similarly – if you are going to play at a corporate party, try and find out if there are any songs that absolutely mustn’t be played (All hell broke loose when I played a request of Blurred Lines at the Xmas party of one of the big tech firms, and every subsequent party I was instructed in the contract to not play that one song!). Try and find out if they have any tunes which are big for the company, kind of inside jokes or anthems from previous parties – little things like that creating special moments will do wonders for repeat bookings!
For all private functions – check in advance if they want you to play clean versions of songs!
CREATE A HURDLE
If you don’t really want to have to speak to requesters all night, one trick you could try is to make it a bit more difficult.
For example – one thing I have seen is a sign explaining “For requests please do an Instagram story, tag DJ @XXXXX and club @YYYYY, and enter your request on the story”. The club and DJ get a bit of social media content, and most people will simply not be bothered enough to jump through those hoops.
If you are feeling really cheeky (and organised!), maybe set up a premium text service and charge people to text in their requests!
MAKE IT SIMPLE
Or go the other way – get a pen and pad, and let people write their requests down. Upside – you don’t have to talk directly to people, and generally they will wander off after they’ve written their request and waved it around a bit. Downside – party people don’t often write very neatly, and the drunker they get, the bigger and messier the writing gets, until eventually you’ll be lucky to even get one request per page.
THE “SKIP THIS SONG” PEOPLE
These ones are the worst – and a pretty recent phenomenon. Generally, they stand in the middle of the dancefloor making that sort of throat-slash/cut gesture, or the rolling-hands substitute sign, staring straight at the DJ. Honestly – I think this one is just amazingly narcissistic. I’m usually play long sets, covering dozens of genres and eras. No person in the building is likely to be into every single song I play, and that’s fine! But the idea that “I don’t like this one, skip it!” is an acceptable response while others are having a good time… sheesh…
My response is generally quite petty, but whatever – I basically take my headphones off and make a real show of stepping to the back of the booth, or the edge and chat to a friend, and let that song play to the very, very end. If they’ve done the hand-roll gesture I sometimes pretend to think they mean “play it to the end” and mime the words back with the same hand gesture “play it to the end, sure!” A DJ’s job is literally to put the next song on, and these days most open format DJs rattle through songs rapid-fire. So this one is a particularly stupid form of request, and deserves to be treated as such!
SHAPE YOUR MINDSET
Its very easy to get negative about requests – they can be annoying sometimes! But you have it in your power to flip anything into a positive. If you are getting a steady stream of requesters all night, that means you have plenty of customers in the venue. It means you have a way of hearing about songs you might not have checked out otherwise (even if they turn out to be rubbish!). It means you have endless opportunities to create a good rapport with regulars – which will help you solidify residencies. It means you have a chance to practice your patience with the more difficult ones…. Basically – you’re going to get people coming and talking to you when you DJ, thats a fact of life, so flipping your perspective to think about it positively is a very sensible approach to take.
Its very easy to forget – at a party, the DJ leads. You have to be sensitive to what the crowd wants, but you shouldn’t be following them, they should be coming with you. Often there is a particular type of person who comes and make requests, and often they aren’t the most polite. They’re just the loudest, the one prepared to go and demand what they want. Never feel like you have to change the party just because a handful of loud people are hectoring you – look at the bigger picture. Is the dancefloor full, is the venue busy, are people smiling and having a good time? I’ve been told SO MANY TIMES that I need to change the music, nobody likes what I’m playing, and its like I’m in a parallel universe to these people – I just point at the hundreds of happy people having a great time and make the point “I’m not sure that’s true”
SOMETIMES ITS OK TO BE BLUNT
Occasionally someone just doesn’t get the message. I always try to avoid getting angry with people, or swearing, or anything else like that. But sometimes, you just have to say it like it is, and even then you can dress it up a bit – “Look – I play here every Saturday, and they pay me pretty well. I’m definitely in the right place, they like what I do. Maybe you aren’t in the right place?”, which effectively translates as “I think you should leave”
Sometimes people annoy me to the point where I explain that any song they request I will deliberately not play, even if I was going to before they mentioned it. With incessant requesters, I sometimes stop them and say “OK – this is the last request you can make tonight, after that just enjoy the music with your friends!”
I’m sure there will be some who disagree with things I’ve written above – these are just my opinions, and some things that work for me. And there isn’t a “correct” way to do this.
You get better at it with experience – I struggled early in my career, and young DJs I’ve mentored have often said that they struggle with requesters, and that it can knock their confidence at times.
There is something lovely about being able to completely make someone’s night simply by putting a song on for them. I’ve had times where I’ve said no to a request, then realised I actually have the song – the look on those peoples’ faces when they recognise their song coming on is so heart-warming! And there are moments of genius from customers occasionally – where you just think “that is brilliant, and perfect!” and put it straight on! And I absolutely love it when people make a request and I can silently point at my screen, because the track they are asking for was already loaded up to come on next, through some psychic connection!
Try to do everything with a smile on your face. If someone says something stupid or rude, don’t let it get you down – make a mental note of it, and you’ve got some fresh content for your social media – I find that people love funny DJ booth stories about this sort of stuff!