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As the year comes to a close, I’ve been reviewing some of the questions I’m most commonly asked on Reddit and Twitch, and more than any other, the topic I’m always addressing is music organization. I know that subject matter has been addressed here previously, but that was before my time at Heavy Hits, and today seems the perfect day to offer some in-depth suggestions for keeping your music library organized. Late December and January are typically the slowest time of the year for DJs, which makes it a fantastic time to restructure your virtual record crates.

I use Serato when I DJ. It’s the industry standard, and, at least in my mind, far and away the best DJ software. if you use something else, you can still use the organizational methods I’m about to suggest, but you will need to go through a few extra steps. Feel free to ask any questions about how to do so in the comments section of any of our social media channels if you need more information about doing so.

The first thing to be aware of when setting up record crates, whether those that contain actual records or virtual crates of digital files, is that less is more. This is best illustrated by thinking of a traditional vinyl DJs crates. When wax was the only show in town, a DJ was limited in what he could bring to a gig, whether by space, effort, or budget. For many reasons, it was impractical, and often impossible, to bring more than four or five physical crates of records to a gig. As each crate holds about 70 records, that meant that at most, a DJ had access to 350 songs for an entire night.

I’ve seen DJs playing from a single playlist that contains more than 350 songs, and most DJs show up with 3,500 or more songs— often closer to 35,000 or more— at every show. While there are merits to having access to that many songs, it can also be detrimental. The human mind simply cannot keep track of that many songs at once. Moreover, it isn’t necessary. DJs played successful shows, and entertained large audiences, pulling from only a few hundred songs during a night. Even open format DJs were able to do this. I speak from experience. In the early ‘90s, I played at college parties, and at that time students wanted to hear a wide variety of music. I had to play all the current pop hits, along with indie rock and new wave hits, and the then-still-under-the-radar hip hop music, but the majority of what they wanted to hear were oldies. 75% of my sets then was music from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, along with a smattering of ‘80s music. I also had to bring hard rock, country, swing, jazz, reggae, Motown, and other music. College kids then wanted to hear literally everything. I managed to pull that off with 5 crates of records, and I never disappointed.

I hope I’ve made my case, but if you still think you need 5,000 or more songs at your fingertips, fear not. My method allows for that. So without further delay, let’s dive into the process.

Let’s look first at the big picture. We’re going to create a series of nested crates using smart playlists in iTunes. We’re going to limit the size of each individual crate to about 75 to 125 songs. Doing so is going to allow us to have very manageable crates to play from, but with the ability to pull out one or more levels and combine crates. That way, we aren’t playing from a list of 500 or more songs, because at that point it’s no longer a record crate, it’s a music library. We want a short list of songs that we know well, and that integrate well with the songs around them. If we need to change up the vibe, or transition into another style, we can pull back and see a combination of the crate we’re currently playing from and some related crates. This is the best of both worlds— a manageable crate to play from with the ability to instantly shuffle in another crate. Vinyl DJs never had it so good.

I can’t stress enough that no crate should have more than approximately 100-125 songs in it, and 50-75 is better. It should be easy to flip through a virtual crate the way I used to flip through a crate of real records. Once there are more than 125 or so songs, it’s hard to work with them as a whole. An ideal create is one where you can quickly visualize everything in there, and make instant mental connections and decisions about what to play, and when to play it, in relation to every other song in the crate.

Sometimes I DO want to view a few crate’s worth of songs at once, especially if I’m working in a particular BPM range and want either to cross over into a different genre, or jumble up styles for a bit. To facilitate this, I nest my crates in iTunes. So, for example, I have a crate called “Dance Pop,” and within that crate are two sub-crates, “Pop and Rock” and “Soul Disco.” Each of those two crates holds its own sub-crates: “Pop and Rock” holds “’80s Dance” and “Indie Dance.” Within those two crates are 7 more crates, some in the ’80s crate, some in the indie crate. That way, if I really want to, I can pan out, so to speak, and look at the entire “Pop and Rock” crate, and see all 7 crates folded into one mega-crate. Or I can go down one level and view the “’80s Dance” crate, and see two crates together, etc.

The basic idea is that most of the time I want about 100 songs in front of me. Sometimes I want to pull back and see 200 songs, or maybe as many as 700 songs, but only for certain transitional moments.

How do we accomplish all of this? We start by creating a series of smart playlists in iTunes. Choose “New” from the file menu, then choose “Smart Playlist” and make sure it looks like this:

Creating a new Smart Crate in iTunes

Instead of “yourtag” you will enter the tag that indicates a song belongs in that playlist. This part is up to you, and depends on what sort of music you play. I play weddings, parties, night clubs, and all sorts of events, so I need a variety of music. My keywords include 80s dance pop, indie dance, edm, rnb, britpop, country, and a lot more. Keep in mind that keywords can be more than one word, so 80s dance pop is a single keyword.

Make a note of all the keywords you use as you create your crates, and make sure iTunes is searching the comments ID3 tag for them. Once you’ve done that, the next step is to go through your music library and enter the appropriate keyword, or keywords, into the comment tag of every song you want in your crates. This can be a time-consuming process, and in truth it is a never-ending process. I’m constantly moving tracks around and fine-tuning crates. Also, realize that songs can live in multiple crates. Many of mine do. All you have to do is enter the tag for each crate in the comments field, separating each with a comma.

For example, in the comments of “The Humpty Dance” I’ve entered, “80s rap, 80s dance pop, dance favorite.” That means it will show up in all three of those crates. This is a very powerful function of this method, and something vinyl DJs can’t do without buying multiple copies of the same record.

As you fill in your crates, keep in mind that you want to limit the size of each crate to about 100 songs, and try not to exceed 125 songs. If you find yourself going over that limit, you probably need to split that crate into two crates.

Once you’ve built your crates, the hard part is done, but now comes the crucial step: nesting them. This is the massive advantage to this method that I alluded to above, and something vinyl DJs are unable to do. In iTunes, you will create a series of folders into which you will place various crates. There will be one master folder– I call mine “DJ Crates”– into which all other folders and playlists go, and as many subfolders as you need.

If you play pop music, you may want to organize songs by decades. For whatever reason, people like to group music that way. You’d create folders called 70s Dance, 80s Dance, 90s Dance, and so on. Within each folder you’d place the applicable crates. In your 70s Dance folder you may have the following crates: Disco, 70s Pop, Glam Rock, 70s Funk, and maybe some others that you use. That way, any time you need to dial in and play a set of, say, disco, you can go to that specific crate, but if you want to play a set that encompasses all of the 70s, you can pull back and choose the 70s dance folder itself. Each folder is in fact a crate of its own; a crate that contains all the songs in all of the crates it contains.

You can also nest folders within folders. Maybe your disco and ’70s funk playlists are in a folder together that you call “Funky Disco” and that folder is in the 70s Dance folder. Now you can pull back and see just funk and disco songs together, or pull back a second time and see all the music of the ’70s in one place. All of the nesting is up to you. I can tell you how to do it, but you have to decide for yourself which playlists you’ll want to combine, and create the various levels necessary to do so.

Here’s a picture of my own crates:

Nested Virtual Record Crates

Note how I have the ability to see certain playlists alone, combined with one related list, combined with 3 related lists, combined with 10 related lists, and so on up, to the point where I can see every playlist I have combined into one massive playlist. This is the goal.

The final steps are easy. Once you have an iTunes folder with all your crates in order, check the box in your Serato settings that reads “Show iTunes Library.” It’s that easy. Best of all, every time you start Serato it will refresh your crates, so you can make changes in iTunes whenever you want– I’m constantly updating and altering mine– and you will always have the most recent iteration of your crates when you launch Serato.

I hope you find this helpful. I am confident that this is hands down the easiest and most effective way to DJ using digital media, and would love to hear from anyone who has suggestions for how to improve my method, or wants to share what they believe to be a better method. And again, do not hesitate to ask any and all questions in any of the comment sections of any of our social media channels. I’m happy to help you get your crates in better shape for 2022 and beyond!

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