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Music Programming 101

What Do I Play Next? – Music Programming 101

Whether you spin in an underground nightclub with 1000+ clubbers or at a local Pub with 100 inebriated college students, your objective is the same, to entertain the masses and augment liquor sales. If you can consistently please your crowd AND put money in the owner’s pocket, you will be in demand and should have no problem getting (and keeping) a steady nightclub gig.

When you get to a certain level in this business, you will find that everyone can beat mix; and lots of them will be smoother in their transitions than you are. But stop and listen a little closer (and watch the dance floor). Ask yourself what are they playing? Are they just taking random tracks and blending them together or are they actually taking their crowd on a journey? Are they banging hit after hit, without regard for energy management, or is each step a logical point along the way? This is what separates the men from the boys in the DJing game.

A good DJ has control of the crowd (and the energy level in the room) at all times; he brings them up and down but still maintains command of the room. His sets are structured like a symphony. They have an introduction, some engaging teasers (to keep the crowd interested) and a slow but steady progression towards a crescendo. It is not an aimless trip for the sake of driving. It is a calculated journey that follows a successful (and proven) formula, a formula that we will explore in this article.

Of course not all of these ideas will work for everyone (and they may not even work for you every night); But having the basic knowledge and understanding of how to program successfully will put you a step ahead of your competition and will make your job much more enjoyable.

Overview of Music Programming Principles

There are many factors that come together to make a complete DJ, but the single most important component is the ability to successfully program music. Basic programming begins at your first gig, when you learn how to read a crowd and make good choices about what to play next.

As you gain experience, your skills progress to knowing when to drop certain tracks (or styles of music) and how to build successful sets of music. DJ’s who reach this level have the skills to get steady gigs, keep their crowd happy and basically do a capable job. Beyond this however, there is a higher level of music programming, and reaching this summit should be the ultimate goal of a DJ. Simply knowing where you want to be is not enough, you need to have an understanding of how to get there to achieve this higher goal.

We are immersed in a completely “reactive” vocation. Although we wish for a great crowd every night, it doesn’t always turn out that way. If we consistently had an up-for-it crowd, climbing the walls, dying to hear the latest and the greatest tracks, our lives would be much easier and reaching that “higher” level of programming would be attainable on a nightly basis. This is the catch 22 of music programming.

Big name DJs like Josh Wink, Carl Cox, or Chris Liebing perform in venues filled with people who are not only there to specifically hear them, but are also open minded and adventurous. So not only are these DJ’s great programmers, but they have crowds that are up for a night of creative music, effects, edits etc. This is not often the case with the crowds that most local resident club DJs have to entertain. But the concepts and fundamentals of successful music programming remain the same no matter where you spin. Developing good habits and learning these skills at your local club, will help prepare you should you ever get that call from a larger venue or club in another city or country.

Getting Started

The title of this composition is “Music Programming 101” for a reason. While learning how to successfully program and build a set is the ultimate goal of this article, it is your MUSIC that actually plays the biggest part. Without a good selection of tracks (both old and new) to choose from, you will not be able to consistently bang out good sets over the long haul.

Every DJ that I know has a different routine when they look for new music. Many are in record pools, some subscribe to monthly services while others go to local shops or download their music from online sites. It really doesn’t matter how you get your music, just that you get it legally and get it often. As you grow and mature as a jock, you will start to learn not only what you like, but also what your crowd will like and what will work on your dance floor. Music selection is the single most important ingredient to successful programming, so developing a discerning ear is extremely important.

Continuing on with this for a moment, please take the time to learn the power of recurrent music. With the Internet making our world smaller and smaller, it is very easy for DJs in Rome, London and Chicago to get their hands on the same new releases at the exact same moment. This fact makes it important to understand that building a collection is not just buying the latest and the greatest from the Top 20 – but it is becoming aware of older tracks and how you can successfully incorporate them into your sets

Last point about your music is to make sure you learn your tracks inside and out.

Listen to them over and over, count the BPM, intro, outro, learn where the breaks are, what happens at what point (and if you want to get even more advanced) what harmonic key they are in. Listen to them until you know them like the back of your hand. This is extremely important, as it is not possible to become a proficient music programmer until you do your homework and are extremely comfortable with your music.

Putting your plan into action

So, the night has finally arrived and the room is filling up with customers who are waiting to hear what you have to say (through your music). People (especially drunk people) are easily led, but are also easily lead astray – this is what makes a DJs job difficult. They will certainly dance to the big songs, but you cannot give them big songs all night and therein lays the dilemma. This is where you need to implement your Music Programming strategy.

To continue with an earlier analogy, you have to approach your set as one complete work, from the introduction through the apex and onward to the conclusion. Like a fine meal, you begin with an appetizer that teases the palate and previews what is to come later. You continue through course after complimentary course until you have the customer just dying to see (or hear) what is coming up next. At this point, you pull out all the stops, dazzle them with a spectacular main course and just as they are becoming content and full, you clear the table, leaving them wanting more. You want to please them, yet still give them a reason to come back next week (and the week after that), and using this strategy is the prefect first step to achieving that goal. If you look at your night (in its entirety) as one composition, it will allow you to see where you have gone, where you are planning to go, and prevents you from getting too far off track.

Since most people don’t dance at the beginning of the night, a lot of DJs use this time to play their newest tracks and test them out on the crowd, I think this is a mistake. If you bore your crowd too much at the beginning, they won’t be around to hear your “big finish” later on, so make sure you mix in a fair amount of recognizable songs to make the early arrivals feel comfortable and set things up for the rest of the night. There is no correct ratio for this, but I usually play 1 to 1, new tracks vs. older tracks. Remember that this is the foundation of your night, make it upbeat and cheerful and you will put the whole room in a good mood. Make it obscure and too dark, and you will pay the price after midnight.

As the night goes on, you can increase the ratio of new to old, but remember to keep the ebb and flow of the dance floor constant and always remember where you are and where you are going. Selecting the next song is not enough; you have to have an idea what the next 5 tracks are going to be. And you constantly have to have a target. Not just a beginning and an end, but many Sub-destinations along the way. You want to get to this killer hot tribal track, but you are playing, deep vocal house at the moment, how are you going to get there? You pulled out this old disco track that you want to drop as the high point of this mini set, what would be a good transition tune? You want to hypnotize them with some trippy beats before you bang them over the head with that huge techno track you just purchased; but how?

These are the questions you have to consider and work out. This is the challenge of going beyond just playing one song after another and becoming an accomplished music programmer.

One last thing I want reiterate is this, no matter what your personal feelings are, ALWAYS REMEMBER that you are there to please the crowd, not educate them. There will be nights when you can play obscure white labels all night long and have your crowd eat it up. Conversely, there will be other nights when all they want to hear are the same 10 tired records you have been playing for 5 years now; that are (unfortunately) part of the job. I know way too many DJs that show up with a box full of new tracks and play a whole night for themselves and their other DJ friends. This is wrong! A DJs job is to entertain and a happy dance floor full of paying customers is what keeps us employed.

This attitude will also make you a better DJ in the long run. You will have the skills and experience to help you work (successfully) with any crowd you are faced with. This is something that many DJs fail to grasp; working a crowd is an ever-evolving process. You have to modify your ideas and format to deal with changes in crowd demographics, events, venues etc. Keep your attitude in check, your mind fixed on what your ultimate goal is and you should be able to handle any curve that may be thrown your way.

Variety and Change

Let’s assume that you just finished a killer set and are feeling ecstatic with every aspect of your performance from mixing to music programming. The crowd loved you and a bunch of DJs came up to shake your hand; you are on top of the world, so now what do you do?

Forget about it, and get ready for the next event!

Of course you need to understand what it was that made that night effective and try to do it all again tomorrow night, only this time, change it all up. You have to reinvent yourself from scratch in less than 24 hours; this is what it takes to become a good Nightclub DJ.

If this seems like a daunting task, there is one thing you have going for you. You are no longer just a record spinner or a human jukebox, you are now a competent music programmer, with a creative mind and a vast record collection and nothing can really throw you. You understand how to work a crowd and manipulate energy on the dance floor and instead of fearing the next night, you say, “bring it on”! It is just another opportunity for your skills to shine.

Dealing with the bumps.

There are a lot of things to deal with when you are DJing in a club. Drunk people, equipment failure, acts of god and incompetent managers and owners are constantly popping up to cause you undue stress and make your job more difficult than it already is. Add to these mixing, taking requests, remaining focused and dealing with detrimental decibel levels all night, and you can see why preparation is the only way to get by in the DJ booth. Having a plan set out ahead of time will allow you to cope with any distraction and still not loose track of where you were before being interrupted.

If it is any consolation, dealing successfully with these inevitable obstacles does become easier with experience; so hang in there and before long you will have “seen it all”.

Review of Main Points

For clarity sake, let’s take a moment to restate the main points of this article.

• No matter what, remember you are being paid to entertain your crowd, so every decision you make must be done keeping this fact in mind.

• You need to stay on top of not just new releases, but also remember recurrent tracks and how you can incorporate them into you sets.

• Don’t just aimlessly play song after song, make sure you have a beginning, middle and end to all of your sets, and keep track of where you are and where you are trying to go.

• Don’t pre-plan what song you are going to play…or what order you are going to play them in. When it comes to music selection, spontaneity is the friend of a good Nightclub DJ, so be sure to change up what you play, how you play it and when you play it often. Keeping your sound fresh is VERY IMPORTANT.

• Above all, don’t take yourself too seriously and HAVE FUN.

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Paul Dailey Boston, MA 781-856-3856
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