One of my favorite ways to ensure that a crowd is receptive to my music is to get there as early as possible. I consider this part of doing my homework. I always try to spend time in the room I'll be playing before I start. Not only does it help to get your equipment set up and ready beforehand, but it gives you a chance to watch and listen in order to start reading the signs of the crowd.
This doesn't just apply to headliners. Regardless of your time slot, getting there early and being prepared is a very professional way to handle yourself. If someone is playing before you, it gives you a chance to see what the crowd (if there is one) is digging. If you're like me and you live in a small town, the venues are usually pretty empty until well into the night. Is the current DJ slamming out his biggest big-room dance tracks to 10 people that are simply sitting at the bar having their first beer? He's probably annoying them, but luckily the room has no momentum to worry about killing at this point. You have a chance to reset things. When it comes to your turn, let the DJ run his last track out, and then start somewhere that you feel is more appropriate to the time and venue.
What if you show up and there's already a crowd rocking? Maybe the DJ playing before you spins a completely different style of music than you… and they are loving it. Ever been in this situation before? You probably shouldn't suddenly cut over to ambient after seeing a crowd go nuts for some 130 BPM breakbeat tracks. That's not to say that you can't pivot the musical direction that has been taken thus far. It just means that if you make a massive immediate change, only the most forgiving of crowds are going to let you get away with it.
“If you make a massive immediate change, only the most forgiving of crowds are going to let you get away with it.”
However, maybe you've been listening to this DJ for a while and you've noticed some things about his tracks that you can relate to, even if your styles are massively different. Maybe you noticed that in one of his breaks tracks, there was a bassline that had a low, infectious groove. Maybe the crowd went nuts for this bassline. Maybe you have tracks in your arsenal that have a similar hypnotic quality put forth through its bassline, only it's a funky deep house track… but you don't feel that it would work well following what you're hearing now. That's okay… this is why you're a good DJ. Start thinking about how you can get there.
I've managed to gain a lot of experience with this sort of thing, because I am a DJ who often plays deep house or nu disco, in a town where big room electro house and dubstep rule the roost. If I just slam into whatever I feel like playing, I'll clear a dance floor faster than a drunk b-boy doing a windmill. Remember, while it's true that you shouldn't have to compromise or water your sets down… you're an entertainer first. You have a job to do, and you should be dedicated to doing it well.
I've managed to learn how to handle situations like this fairly well, mostly as a product of preparedness. This is one of the big benefits of using a digital system. I have songs which I would never play if I were simply playing by myself for 6 hours. But I keep them in my virtual “crate” because they are tools which can help me get to where I want to be, while keeping the crowd with me. I have a couple of higher-BPM breaks tracks with good loop points, and a bunch of percussive techno tracks with varied levels of energy. These help me go from a higher level of energy down to a lower level without losing people.
Conversely, I have energy “builders”. Maybe the crowd is bored when I arrive, and I want to step it up a notch. Rather than smash them in the face with a wall of sound, I have a series of tracks which may be low BPM but have undeniably strong basslines or groovy percussion. Just think of where the music is now, where you want it to be, and how to get there. If that question is too hard to answer, you might want to read point one in my Becoming a Better DJ Through Passion and Purpose article, which discusses playing the right gigs in the first place.
That being said, the more varied types of events you play, the better you will get at getting from point A to point B without stalling or annoying your audience. Getting there early will give you some additional information to make those decisions with. If this is a regular night (say, a weekly or monthly event), attend on a different night and see what people enjoy or dislike on the regular. Try to get a feel for the crowd by becoming part of it. You owe it to your audience to get a feel for what they want to get out of the night, in order to properly incorporate it with what you want to put into the night. This is part of being a professional. If you notice that a crowd is oriented around scratching and beat-juggling, and you aren't a turntablist, you're in for a world of hurt!
Any DJ who walks into a night with a pure “screw the crowd, I'm gonna educate them with what I like” attitude is just being a snob. Being able to put your own spin on something that makes a crowd happy is where the real skill is. But if what works for that night is just too far off from what it is you like to do… reconsider your bookings.
But, becoming part of your crowd before you play to them is one more tool to add to your bag of tricks in order to better serve your “customers”. And, who knows, you just might enjoy yourself!
What kind of tricks do you like to incorporate in your sets to go from one genre (or energy level) to another? Let me know in the comments section below!