Updated November 12, 2017
The Personality Traits of Great DJs
In a day in age where a budget DJ controller and an iPhone can play a functional gig, DJing is as accessible to the masses as it’s ever been. As the technology continues to develop, it’s become more and more difficult to play a blatantly bad-sounding DJ set.
However, it’s insanely easy to boring. Average. Mediocre.
Push play. Sync. Mix 32 bars.
Let’s face it: there are lots of DJs these days. And that’s great! But, that also makes it harder to stand out. Being “good at beatmatching” is no longer enough.
Empathy vs. Apathy
The job of the DJ is to find a musical common ground; to provide a soundtrack that enhances the existing atmosphere and the vibe of the crowd.
The most bull-headed DJs won’t consider the feelings of their audience. We want to make a connection with the actual humans on the dance floor! And if you can’t relate, you can’t deliver.
A happy crowd leads to a fulfilled DJ. Put yourself in their shoes, and take note of what’s working for them.
It’s easy to impose our musical agenda on a captive audience. But the greatest DJs are able to recognize how their music is affecting others.
In my book, it’s one of the most helpful traits that any DJ could have. The very idea of crowd-reading depends on empathy, and it allows you to pivot if what you’re doing isn’t working.
Helpfulness vs. Greediness
Hate it or love it, modern DJs wear a lot of hats. We often find ourselves operating as our own PR, promoters, booking agents, web designers, event planners, etc.
This can be frustrating, and leads to that “jack of all trades, master of none” feeling. This is why it’s crucial to make yourself a resource to others… and to nurture your own network.
Busy-bee DJs are a prerequisite for building a healthy and vibrant scene. When you do good things for those around you, it doesn’t go unnoticed, and people are more apt to help you out when you’re in a bind. This sort of positive collaboration only serves to push everyone forward.
The DJ that only cares about themselves is rarely satisfied, rarely connects with their audience, and ends up being a caustic element in their local music community.
You’ll quickly find that a “take, take, take” attitude is unsustainable. The most successful and fulfilled DJs realize that a generous and uplifting attitude, whenever possible, gets them much farther than drawing lines.
Persistence vs. Flakiness
Building an audience. Gaining momentum. Scoring better gigs. Connecting with the right people. Developing your sound. Branding yourself. Garnering local support.
These are all things which require consistency. Steady work. Constant delivery.
Without a solid and steady approach to self-promotion, you’re basically hoping to win the lottery.
The smart DJ realizes that they’re not going to win them all. We’re gonna play our share of empty rooms. If you promote shows, sometimes you’re gonna lose your ass due to poor attendance. Be prepared to fail. It’s part of the game.
The DJ with a lot of heart, and willingness to push through the boring parts, has a better chance of winning the numbers game.
The DJ who knows when to hold back, and understands subtlety, is worth their weight in gold. It’s not always GO-GO-GO… it’s let’s go somewhere together.
Great DJs know when to hold back. They know when to stop building energy, and plateau for a bit. They know when a little holding back will pay off in the big picture.
Banger, after banger, after banger, can be both exhausting and boring. If you want to be a great DJ, you need to learn when to fall back, and when to strike!
Sasha and John Digweed are my go-to examples for patient DJing. We spend some time exploring this in Episode 112 of the podcast, Digging For Bedrock:
There are always times when it’s appropriate to stand your ground, but making everything all about you is a fantastic way for people to stop paying attention.
A stubborn DJ will be plighted by stunted growth.
Nothing is certain: crowds change, venues change, moods change… hell, even entire scenes change. Having a fluid approach allows you to make adjustments towards what’s working… allowing you to be an effective, memorable music selector.
There are a lot of things that can affect the vibe of your dance floor, and the overall climate of the dance music scene. The key is finding how to relate to your audience.