The Underdog DJ: Finding Joy in the Warm-Up Set

A lot of promoters are guilty of booking amateur DJs who want nothing more than to steal the spotlight.  This is annoying and frustrating, not only in how it relates to personal manners, but in how it wrecks the flow of an evening.  Everyone wants to be a rock star.

Warm-up slots should be treated with the respect and care of any other time slot… including the headliner’s.  This respect should be held by both the person organizing the event, and the person playing it.  But many DJs feel annoyed when they get stuck playing early time slots.

A skilled warmup DJ, who is able to tune-in to the desires of both the audience and the promoter, is worth his or her weight in gold.  So, what is it that keeps people from excelling as an opener, and enjoying it?  Here are some common gripes:

“There are fewer people to play to.”

Most nights start out empty/slow at the beginning, and build towards an eventual climax.  The starry-eyed DJ is only happy playing to a crowd of 1000+ people at peak hour… even if it’s a goal which will never come to fruition due to this very attitude.

But you know what’s cool about playing to the “early birds”?  Those people are down.  They got there early, either because they love the music that much, or they are willing to provide that level of support.

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Of course, the ideal scenario would be to be playing to thousands of people that are your raving fans.  I get that.  But this post isn’t one of those over-inflated “here’s how to become a superstar” gullibility posts.  It’s a “stop and smell the roses” post.

Warm-up Tip: if you’re only playing to a room of 20, 10… even 5 people, make it a point to talk to every single one of them.  Especially if they were dancing, head-nodding, or giving you any sort of indication that they were paying attention to you.  Thank them for listening, and for their early support.  Even if (nay, especially if) you’ve never met them before.  I guarantee that, even if you absolutely crushed it and played the best set they had ever heard… people are more likely to remember you if you acknowledge their importance to you.  Not only is this great for networking, but it gives some people reason enough to pay attention to you in the future.

“Early gigs don’t pay well (or at all).”

Off the top of my head, there are three scenarios which allow for a DJ to make a good living playing opening gigs.  One, you’ve scored a consistent (and nearly exclusive) residency at a large club in a major city that books large acts.  Two, you have (probably through some connection or another) managed to pair up with a major act and tour with them as their opener.  Three, you are an exceptional promoter (again, probably in a major city) who also plays warmup slots at your own shows.

That’s not to say that you cant make money unless you’re a headliner.  I’m simply saying that this complaint is most often used by people who DJ as a hobby or side job… the largest DJ demographic.

So what about those who haven’t been lucky or proactive enough to square away lucrative gigs with that kind of consistency?  Well, then what you might actually need is a shift in perspective.  What other value do these opening gigs provide to you?  Because there are easier ways to DJ for money than going the big-room club route.

For someone who just DJs for the love, and wants to play out occasionally… warmup gigs can be your therapy, or a way to support an artist you admire.  For someone who is trying to “come up”, it’s a marketing opportunity… a chance to sell yourself.  (Hint: being known in your local scene as a “good warmup DJ” is not necessarily a bad thing… ask me how I know.)

And, then there are people who aren’t interested in blowing up anyway… they just like setting the tone for a night.

All-in-all, disregard your weaknesses and focus on your strengths.  Know what you’re good at, do it well, and do it in the right places.  Here is another way to look at it… the earlier your gig, the more likely that those who matter (promoters/early adopters/club owners) will have a chance to pay attention to you.

Warm-up Tip: Rome wasn’t built in a day.  While it is possible for you to nail down “just the right gig” and to impress “just the right person”, this is not a common or likely route to success in clubland these days.  The trick is not to finally impress the right person… it’s to be impressing people so often that you’re hard to miss.  If you want to turn this into a lucrative opportunity, you’re going to need groundwork first.. and that groundwork usually consists of proving yourself to professionals who are trying to build their community while treating this thing like a business.  Either that, or you’d better crank out that hit record.

“It’s hard to get people/friends out early.”

It’s also hard to lose 50 lbs.  That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.

I get it, though.  You want everyone that has ever met you to “support” every single thing that you do, because that’s what homies do.  But the simple reality is that people have bigger fish to fry than to see your 2 or 3 monthly nightclub gigs over and over again.  It’s reasonable to have a few people that are down to support what you are about and what you do… but it’s not reasonable to expect your 20 closest friends to go clubbing every weekend.  It’s just not scalable.

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If your goal is to grow your DJ career, you will need to realize that it’s not about spamming your friends and family to death for years until you break them down.  The real trick is to take that insane level of support that you think people owe you… and hand it to other talented, driven, like-minded individuals.

In other words, sometimes you need to take off the headphones and start focusing on what you can do to build your scene as a whole.  Maybe that means doing grunt work for other promoters, or helping a venue head up a street team.  The value that you provide to others in your network by doing this will not go unnoticed, unless you’re wasting your effort on someone that’s completely dense.

What you’ll find is that a lot more people are suddenly willing to support you, when you’ve been bending over backwards to support them.  And that can do wonders for those early time slots.

Warm-up Tip: Just because it’s unreasonable to expect your closest friends and family to support you in your every move, it doesn’t mean you should disregard them.  Focus on being the best warm-up/guest/resident DJ you can be, and take advantage of the experience it provides.  Don’t be afraid to invite friends, post your latest event on Facebook, etc. but keep it reasonable.  Do not pester the people that you most want support from.  When that extra special gig comes along (like playing before a mega superstar, or a self-promoted show that you are highly invested in), set aside an afternoon or two to call some friends and invite them to come with you.  And I mean call them.  You know, with a phone.  Remember that?

“The music I play is too hard/fast for an early slot.”

If someone said this to me, my gut reaction would probably actually be to thank them for realizing that energy and tempo matter when it comes to putting a night together.  It means they understand building energy over the course of a night, rather than cramming the loudest/hardest over-compressed garbage into your earholes before the sun is even done setting.

But I admit, there’s a part of me that would immediately wonder why they aren’t versatile enough to play any time slot at that show.

Early gigs are not simply a place for you to plan out an hour or two of your favorite bangers, and fade them into each other like a robot.  It’s a time for you to explore.  Experiment with reading your crowd.  Dip your feet into a new genre that you’ve been exploring.  Take it as an opportunity to spread your wings a little bit.

Know who your headliner is, and try to have an idea of what they play.  You are setting them up, not trying to outshine them.  Look them up the night before on SoundCloud or YouTube if necessary.  It’s worth it to do a few minutes of research in order to properly ease in to your venue’s peak hour.  And you might find that doing this a few times has actually increased your versatility, and therefore value, as a DJ.

Warm-up Tip: If you are dead-set in your sound, and are unwilling to bend here and there to find common ground, that is your prerogative.  Do what makes you happy… there’s little point, otherwise!  However, in this case, your best bet is to be much choosier about the gigs you play.  Sometimes, less is more.  Playing 12 sets a year that fit your sound is probably better than playing 100 that don’t.  Which looks more professional to you?

“I get ‘stuck’ playing early time slots.”

Congratulations… the curse of being a decent opener has befallen you!

In all seriousness, if you’re being called on constantly to warm up club nights, it probably means that someone has noticed some level of professionalism in you.  They know you can be relied on, that you won’t play music that’s inappropriate to the time/place, and that you are easy enough to get along with.  I’m not convinced that this is entirely bad.

If you are hoping to read something in here about how to become a superstar and only play the two-hour peak slot at every festival across the country, I’m sorry that you’ve made it this far into the post.  But it’s good that you did, because, reality check: success has little to do with having that one killer inside tip that will catapult you to success.  It has everything to do with hustle.  And not just as it directly relates to your DJing.  What other skills do you have that you can use to demonstrate your value?

(Hint: I learned that I can write, and I have an IT background… so I started a blog and podcast to talk about such things.  And yes, this blog has helped me score gigs and put me in touch with some influential people.  It’s not because I tricked them… it’s because I gave them a reason to notice me.  Turns out, I’m a pretty good DJ too.)

If your level of effort doesn’t match your level of desire, you will not be successful unless you are lucky.  Personally, I’m not willing to bet those odds.

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Bonus Tips for Opening DJs

Now it’s time for the lightning round.  Here we go:

  • There is no infallible DJ rulebook or bible, but as a general rule when opening for a big name: don’t play any tracks made by the headliner.  Not only is this painfully obvious, but it’s basically stepping on your main talent’s toes.
  • Stick to your time slot, but be prepared for anything that might crop up.  I have had to start early, to play later, and to even double the length of my set due to no-shows.  Showing that you can handle these scenarios without anxiety will do wonders for your professional image.
  • Be accommodating and polite.  You never know who is paying attention.
  • You are not the whole night.  Always remember that you’re part of a bigger plan, here.
  • Enjoy warming up a crowd.  There’s an art to it, which you are now mastering.  And then let that enjoyment show on your face… people will appreciate it.
  • Play few, if any, tracks that have large peaks or breakdowns.  Make it consistent.  Learn to tease.
  • Have patience.  Building a following is not a sprint.  It’s a marathon.

Final Thoughts

So why do I refer to happy, motivated openers as “underdogs”?  Because too many people assume that the way to success is by finding that one connection that will set them up for a life of fame and fortune, or that getting that one top ten hit will solidify their career.

The truth of the matter is that overnight success rarely happens… those are just the stories we hear about and sensationalize most often.  You’re much better off putting your time and energy into the slow burn that is craftsmanship.  These are the DJs that will get ahead.  Make yourself useful, do your best, and don’t give up.  Or do, but don’t be disappointed with your results.

The worst case scenario is that you will enjoy the climb.

Do you have any other advice for warmup DJs?  I’d love to hear your tips in the comments section below!