Sympathy For The DJ, The Lowest Form Of Life

DJing in a bar seems like a great gig. To get to play your favorite music to a roomful of supportive friends and lubricated strangers, and get free drinks in the process — what’s not to like? But it’s not all jams and Jameson’s. There is some downside. Namely, the lubricated strangers.

Invariably, at some point during the evening the DJ will be approached by someone who needs to hear one specific song — what they really wish was that you had cued it up the second they came through the door like it was their personal “Hail To The Chief.”  But the DJ will almost never be able to accommodate them.

Some (most) people seem to have a hard time understanding how it’s possible that someone who is playing music in public would not have their favorite song at the ready, but think about it:  There are somewhere around nine hundred quadzillion songs in roughly eight hundred quadzillion genres in the history of recorded music, of which even the best DJ is likely to be missing at least six hundred fifty quadzillion. When you ask a DJ for one of them, the odds are really not in your favor.

But no matter how patiently a DJ explains that she does not have the song a bar patron is requesting, the bar patron will ask at least five more times. All of which is to say that as a species, a bar DJ must be possessed of infinite forbearance.

It is also not easy to be confined behind a set of turntables while working through a whole night of free beers. You must be pure of heart and iron of bladder.

But mostly, you have to deal with requests, and it gets old fast. I remember one time, about 10 years ago, I was playing records at a nightclub that had its turntables in a closet behind a curtain. As I recall, I had a Sly and the Family Stone record playing, and I was taking off a Marvin Gaye record and replacing it with Stevie Wonder. (60s and 70s funk and soul is where I live.)

As I’m doing this, a young lady comes through the curtain like it was in her living room and asks if I have any Tupac (2Pac?). I did not have any Tupac. She asked if I had any Missy Elliott. I did not have any Missy Elliott. I told her that I pretty much had 70’s funk records and not much else (this was the truth). She asked if I had any 50 Cent. I did not have any 50 Cent.

I will never forget her reply: “Don’t you like any black music at all?”

The ten-minute argument that followed was not, incredibly, the weirdest or dumbest that I ever got into while trapped behind turntables.

I remember another time I was playing funk records in the lounge at a very busy bar. I had everybody dancing. I even had myself dancing. This dude stepped up to me and said in my ear in a cadence that reminded me of Dennis Miller on Weekend Update: “Little tip for the deejay.”

He paused, withdrew from my ear, almost made eye contact with me but didn’t.

“Don’t get so excited about the records you’re playing.”  
“What?”
“Be cool. Don’t dance around so much.”
“Why not?”
“Cause it looks like you love the records you’re playing.”
“I do love the records I’m playing.”
“You shouldn’t act like it though.”

I thanked him and got rid of him somehow, and even though I was (indeed, am still) astonished by the total stupidity of what he was saying, I think I know where he was coming from. And where the girl who doesn’t consider Stevie Wonder to be “black music” was coming from. They wanted to be the DJ — everybody wants to be the DJ — but since they weren’t they wanted the DJ to do what they would do if they were.

A person’s taste in music is sacred to them; in many cases it’s the thing a person holds most sacred in their whole personality.  Turning people on to music is like letting them in on your taste, and by extension who you are. When a DJ plays something you like, you feel affirmed in your taste, and like it could be you up there grooving everybody. When a DJ plays something you love that you never would have thought of yourself, it’s like she is somewhere in your head that you can’t even get to, and you will love her for it. On the other hand, When a DJ gives you a puzzled look when you ask for your favorite song, it’s like she’s rejecting your taste. Like she’s rejecting you.  

But that’s really not the way to look at it. Someone once said “You wouldn’t worry so much about what people think of you if you knew how little they did it.” That’s a good thing to remember when you encounter a DJ who’s not quite doing it for you. Don’t take it personally. She’s not playing music you hate — she’s playing music she likes. Save yourself a little stress and keep your requests to yourself. If you absolutely must make a request, have the good grace to take no for an answer because remember: the odds are not on your side.

All of this is not to say that the DJ is a saint — there are far more bad DJs than good ones, and oddly enough this is seldom measured by what music they play. A good DJ is a great and rare thing. The best way to be a good DJ, and to get a regular gig and to get a little more leeway on your free drinks, is to make the bartender happy, and as luck would have it I have a few tips to offer in that regard.

A good DJ understands that while he can drink for free all night, that does not mean that he should invite nine of his friends to huddle around the turntables and order free drinks for them. In the event that the bartender does give you and your gang some freebies, leave a tip! Some DJs tip and some don’t, and that’s not really a big deal either way, but the DJ’s friends enjoy no such exception.

A good DJ reads the room: if there are seven people including the bartender in the room, that is perhaps not the right time for the superloud uptempo party jams. That is the time for the semi-quiet background-to-conversation jams. Inversely, when you have a packed room on their feet, it might be better to leave the free jazz record, or the novelty disco record, in the bag.

A good DJ knows that he cannot take the crowd by force. If you are playing dance music and the people aren’t dancing, there are a number of reasons why that might be, and “it’s just not loud enough” is somewhere near the bottom of the list.

A good DJ promotes the gig. When you are hired to DJ in a bar, what you’re really being hired to do is bring people in to spend money on booze. The music you play while those people are spending that money is at best a secondary concern. If 40 people bring their wallets to see you spin records, you can play Klezmer music for all the bartender cares. Inversely, you can have the sweetest, flowingest set ever and if nobody comes to hear it, you probably won’t have that gig for very long.

A good DJ changes it up. This one is important enough to say twice.

A good DJ changes it up! You are being paid to drink beers and play records. You owe it to yourself and the to bar staff (mostly to the bar staff) to keep it fresh. Don’t play the same stuff in the same order every time you DJ. The bartenders, no matter how much they may like you personally, will turn on you if you get on their nerves, and playing the exact same stuff every single time gets on their nerves. This habit is slightly more understandable if you play vinyl records, which have to be purchased with money (bar DJs don’t get paid a lot) and transported around (usually with multiple folding handcarts), but in the age of MP3s and Serato and iPods, when it is possible to bring upwards of two hundred fifty quadzillion songs anywhere that has a pair of speakers at a weight of six pounds and a cost of zero, I can think of no logical reason a DJ would decide on a set list and then fix it in amber and play it exactly the same way every week for months, nay, years in a row, and yet in the course of my long (long) bartending career I have lost count of how many DJs I have seen do exactly this. It does not matter if I like the music or I do not like the music; if you play the same music every time, I will tire of you quickly. Inversely, if you play different music every time, I will like you as a DJ, even if I don’t like the music you’re playing.

A good DJ changes it up. (Once more for good measure.)

A good DJ knows when to stop. At last call, when the lights go on, the bar staff wants one thing and one thing only: for the customers to leave so they can count up and close out in peace. There are two things that slow that process: keeping the lights low, and keeping the music on. Turning the lights on makes drunk people scatter like cockroaches, and cutting off the music has the same effect. So when the lights go on, STOP THE MUSIC. Nobody cares how awesome the song you’ve chosen is; we just want it quiet so they’ll leave. Some DJs think they can clear the room even faster if they play annoying music; this gives drunk people too much credit. They linger when they should be leaving, while the bar staff is subjected to annoying music at the very moment they want quiet the most. As long as there is music on, the people will think the party is still happening and they will not leave.

Ah! I see the lights are on, and the music is off. I’ll take that as the clear cue that it is.

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