How to be a Curator, Not an iPod
A few months back, I cleaned out my closet. Literally. I came to realize that it was taking way longer than it should take for any dude to decide what to wear that day.
I came to realize that my closet was over halfway filled with stuff that I never wore, and had no real intention of wearing. I was just so used to seeing those articles of clothing that I never gave it much thought. It was just part of “my clothes”.
Recently, I've come to realize that the same applies to my music collection.
Quality vs. Quantity
As a DJ, it's important to be versatile. Especially if you play a lot of different types of events/venues, or if you serve varied demographics.
However, if you're like me, you've been scrolling or flipping past the same mp3s and records that you haven't played for 5 years. And you're just so used to it, because it's what you always do. It doesn't feel like a chore, it's just part of DJing.
The problem here is that the same thing happens with my “clothes in the closet” scenario. There's too much noise and not enough content. I don't wear half of my shirts, because the other half of my shirt collection is better. If I only had good shirts in my closet, I am guaranteed to only pull good shirts out when it's time to get dressed.
That doesn't mean that there's no use for so-called “filler”, or more understated tracks. I don't throw out every plain (but well-fitted) t-shirt I own just because I own a couple of nice suits. The idea here is to trim your collection of tracks that you've proven to yourself will never get played, so that it's impossible to get distracted by stuff you don't care about.
Less is More
It is, of course, important to recognize that there are different types of DJs. Someone who plays only at underground raves obviously has different music requirements than someone who plays weddings. If you're a DJ that takes requests, you need to have a sizable collection. But, that doesn't mean you need every track under the sun… it just means you need to cover most of your bases. DJ pools are designed to help with that sort of thing.
If I'm a techno DJ, it doesn't mean that I should acquire every single song that I think fits my genre of choice. I should have tracks on hand that make sense for different scenarios.
If you've ever seen the TV show Kitchen Nightmares, you have probably noticed a pattern. The failing restaurants on the show almost always have too many dishes on the menu. The owners think that throwing more selections on the menu will broaden the appeal of the restaurant, but it normally just results in crappy food and inventory nightmares. Gordan Ramsay's first step is often to trim the menu down to a small handful of items… a “do a few things and do them well” approach. He doesn't go straight to improving the current menu… trimming it down comes first.
Normally before a gig (especially one where I'm playing for an extended period of time), I will set some sort of rough playlist. But, I never think of it as a hard and fast to-do list. The last thing I want to do is to put my DJ set on rails.
The reason I like having a playlist available for a night is as a fallback. If I have done my homework, I probably have at least some idea of the type of music I will play. Sometimes, the energy in the venue is higher than I expected, or the crowd is enjoying unexpected elements of my music. I am always ready to pivot the direction of my set. Sticking to a strict playlist would void this ability, and gives no good reason for the venue to use me over an iPod. My playlist serves only as a cushion. It helps in case the promoter decides that he needs to talk to me for a few minutes, or I get too hung up trying to decide on a track to play at times that don't much matter (such as when few people have arrived in the venue yet).
If you spend more time preparing your (live) set than you do playing it, you're probably creating more problems than you're solving. If you're relentlessly trying to find the right songs for the night before you're even there to get a feel for it, you're going to be playing to your audience with preconceived notions. You may claim to be a perfectionist, but you're probably just wasting time on inconsequential details without knowing what's going to work with your crowd on that particular night.
“If you spend more time preparing your (live) set than you do playing it, you're probably creating more problems than you're solving.”
Do you have trouble finding that next track in a sea of mediocre ones? Do you obsess over what tracks to play before even getting to the venue? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!