Not too long ago, I went to check out a good friend of mine spinning at a local club. The night was a success overall, but it was unfortunately marred by the opening DJ. My friend was distressed by the opener, and he was right to feel that way — the opening DJ did not do his job, and my friend fretted that he was going to have to tear everything down and start the party over from scratch when he got on, which he should not have to do.
Fortunately, it didn’t quite turn out that way–another DJ relieved the opener for the last half-hour of the opening slot and did a much better job of it, so my friend didn’t have to do the work of both opener and headliner, but the first DJ remained a point of consternation.
So it got me thinking: What are the rules for being a good opening DJ? If the guy who opened for my friend got an F (and he did), what would you need to do to get an A?
I thought this would be a list, but as I started writing, I found that there is just one rule and that all other guidance stems from that one rule. That one rule is:
You are not the headliner. Let the headliner do his job; you do your job.
Before I was the jaded old DJ I am today, I was a young, hungry DJ, too, so I absolutely understand the urge: You want to shine. You want to show and prove. You want to demonstrate that you can rock the hell out of the party and be a headliner, too. And the bigger the show, the more you want to shine.
But if you get stuck in that mentality, you end up not doing your job as an opener, and that makes you look bad, plus, it screws up the party.
Your job is to set the table. That’s it. The headliner is the one who serves up the meal.
So don’t go all-out at 10:30 — you have to leave the party space to grow. Restraint is absolutely crucial to playing a good opening set.
Besides, people aren’t showing up early ready to party right away. When they show up, they want to get situated, have a couple drinks, meet up with their friends, scope out the crowd, whatever. You need to take them from that state of milling about to a state of being ready to party with the headliner. You need to coax them away from the bar and onto the dancefloor, not play like they’ve already been on the dancefloor for an hour. You lay the foundation for the party; the headliner builds the house.
Or, if you want a dirtier metaphor: You’re the foreplay; the headliner is the home run.
(So metaphorically, the party is a meal, a building, and now sex. How about if we say a great party is like a great meal, followed by great sex, in a great house. Great!)
So that is the golden rule of opening DJs. There are several corollaries that stem from this rule, and here they are:
- Don’t play a bunch of obvious hits early in the night. First of all, it’s lazy selection to do that, and lazy selection is the hallmark of a poor DJ. Besides, the opening slot is the best time to be an adventurous selector (more on that below). Beyond that, you may be taking arrows out of the headliner’s quiver. Yes, everybody loves that hot new cut that’s tearing up the clubs. So then why waste it by playing it so early in the night? Leave it unplayed and let the headliner get to it at just the right moment where instead of liking the song, the crowd goes berserk for it. Understand that the headliner is going to be starting where you leave off, so if you’re already running a bunch of sure-shots, where is the headliner supposed to go from there? Build the energy up slowly.
- Play the appropriate music. My friend’s opening DJ was playing shrieky, fist-pumpy techno before the clock had even struck 11pm. My friend — not a shrieky, fist-pumpy techno DJ by any stretch — kept wondering, “Why doesn’t he play some Tribe Called Quest? Some James Brown? Get people loose like that?” And fortunately, the relief opener did just that, but that first DJ failed to tailor his selection appropriately, and the party suffered for it.In this day and age, there’s no excuse for not doing your homework on who the headliner is when things like Google and YouTube are right there at your fingertips. Learn about who you’re opening for and adapt your set to the headliner’s vibe. Versatility is the calling card of a quality DJ! A good opener should have some familiarity with the headliner and should be able to play a set that will allow for as seamless a transition from opener to headliner as possible.(Side note: Promoters bear some responsibility here as well, as they need to pick opening acts who are appropriate for the headliner. Don’t just put your homie on, promoters — put on the guy who’s qualified to do the job!)
- On the subject of versatility, treat the opening spot as an opportunity to showcase the depth of your knowledge and your music collection. Take the chance to play some great, obscure tunes that you probably couldn’t play to a packed, enthusiastic dance floor. To me, that’s one of the joys of being the opening DJ: You get to nerd out over music in front of a crowd and throw on those lesser-known cuts that you really love. Embrace that opportunity!
If you do your job and do it well, you will get noticed. The headliner will be much more likely to shout you out on the mic — “Give it up for my man DJ Blahdy-blah, he did his thing earlier!” And the promoter will notice, believe me, which can only work to your benefit. If you prove that you’re a capable professional, you will get put on, and the more you get put on, the easier it will be for you to be the headliner down the road.
As my friend put it, learning how to be an opening DJ is a DJ 101 thing, but everybody wants to skip that class and go right to grad school — headlining. But if you learn how to be an opener, your DJ skills and your career will only benefit.