The More Things Change…

June 1, 2016 by Randy Bartlett

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Over the last 20 years, the mobile DJ profession has changed in some pretty significant ways, but in others, it’s very much the same.

recycle-vinylCertainly the technology has changed from when I first started in 1988. My first sound system had a cassette deck, two CD players and a single Technics 1200 turntable. (Pretty dumb for me to buy one of those, with no earthly idea of how to beatmix or even what that was, but that’s the “record player” they told me to buy, so I did.) I powered my EV speakers with the old Soundcraftmen shoebox amps I was using in my home system. I was carrying with me crates of records, cassettes, cassingles, and CDs.

Today, of course, everything is on MP3, but the concepts remain the same. It’s easier to find music, even at the event, as well as prior to the event, but it still goes through a mixer (or controller for most of us) and goes into speakers, most of which now have the amplifiers built into them, although I only switched to powered speakers a year ago. Over the last 20 years, we’ve used cassettes, CDs, consumer CD players, Discmans, mini-discs, DAT, MP3 and even iPods.

One of the biggest differences has to do with options, such as lighting, monograms and photo booths. Back in the day, if DJs provided any sort of lighting, it was usually on a speaker stand or truss with some cheap “spin & pukes” on it and maybe a mirror ball or fog machine. Today, in most markets, the DJ is expected to provide uplighting and sadly, most DJs haven’t figured out that this additional service should be an additional charge. It’s reminiscent of the old joke—Q: How do you get a $1,500 A/V rental for $500? A: Add a DJ.

Photo booths have also become a nice add-on for many DJs now, with DJs understanding their entertainment potential. Unfortunately, as more and more DJs have gotten into adding photo booths, many markets have become glutted and the prices many can charge have tumbled accordingly.

Maybe the biggest difference has to do with how our clients perceive what we provide to them. In those early years, if they wanted music at their event, they had little choice but to hire a “professional” DJ, because most people couldn’t possibly have the kind of music library we had. Today, any 14 year old with an internet connection can do that. So 20-25 years ago, we were their music source, without much attention paid to the other parts of our job. We had to educate the client on the concept of the DJ as a Master Of Ceremonies. Today, that’s usually expected, although some DJs still haven’t caught on to the big picture.

Today’s wedding client expects a certain level of professionalism from their DJ, to help organize and direct the flow of the day. Sure, there are still the hobbyists who shows up in inappropriate attire with sub-par gear and little or no talent or skill, but the typical DJ today provides a much more professional level of service than we did 20 years ago. However, it’s still the rare breed who goes the extra mile with their performance skills, who attends conventions like Mobile Beat in Las Vegas, who belongs to the ADJA or who regularly avails themselves of continuing education in their chosen profession.

There has been a major change in how DJ conventions are produced, led by the complete overhaul of Mobile Beat in 2015 and continuing on this year, back at the Tropicana. Long gone are the days of hastily convened panels of DJs to talk off the cuff about a subject. Now the presenters are more carefully vetted and most are incredibly well prepared for a professional presentation.

Twenty years ago, there were precious few opportunities for ongoing training for mobile DJs, outside of their own companies. Today, there are a number of DJ coaches, workshops, DVDs and resources for the DJ who wants to improve his or her performance. Among these are Mark Ferrell, Peter Merry, Mike Walter & Joe Bunn, Mitch Taylor & Vicki Musni, Bill Hermann & Jason Jones, Ron Ruth, and of course, The 1% Solution by this writer.

And then of course, there’s the internet. First came the “chat boards” like ProDJ.com and DJ Chat, which eventually evolved into Facebook Groups. And there are now countless other Facebook Groups just for mobile DJs. DJ Idea Sharing is the largest, with many more targeted groups, including The 1% Solution Group. While these groups are great for sharing ideas, they aren’t truly training resources and too many DJs still have never attended any sort of professional training classes.

But of all the changes that have occurred, the one that really brings it almost full circle is how clients find a DJ. In the late 80s and early 90s, most people relied on the Yellow Pages, which is all but gone now. However, today’s Yellow Pages has become the internet. At least with the Yellow Pages, you were required to have a business phone line in order to be listed. Now, anyone with basic computer skills can create a powerful and impressive web presence that can make the most minimally talented DJ look like a rock star.

Today’s wedding client is typically a millennial, who eschews talking on the phone, let alone meeting with someone, at least not until the final stage of hiring. He or she is likely to look online, probably on their smartphone, for a DJ and be easily impressed by pretty pictures. It’s amazing to me how many wedding couples hire their DJ without ever meeting with them, and without seeing any video of their performance. They simply meet their DJ at Starbucks and base their hiring decision on who has the best web design skills, rather than the best wedding DJ skills.

Back in the days of the Yellow Pages, the client had to begin with a phone call, so they could get a vague sense of the communication skills of their wedding DJ. Today’s bride will seldom make a phone call when an email or text asking for a price list to be sent can get the job done.

One thing that hasn’t changed as much as I had hoped when I first started networking with other DJs is the lack of cooperation among us. Too many DJs operate with a base emotion of fear and skepticism, rather than of helpfulness and cooperation. I’ve heard of so many DJs who don’t go to their local ADJA meeting or any convention because they’re afraid their competition will steal their ideas, or because they think they are so much better than everyone else. We still get only a couple of thousand DJs who attend any convention each year, when the number should be 25 times that amount. DJs think nothing of spending a few hundred bucks on the newest blinky light or shiny gizmo, but dropping that same amount to improve their skills? No chance, because that would require enough humility to admit that they don’t know it all.

What will the next 20 years hold? One hopes that we’ll learn to work together, to truly understand that we’re hired to bring out the emotion of the day and that music is only one tool to reach that goal. One hopes that we’ll evolve into live performers who care about the client and the emotions that we can bring out the day of the event.

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Randy Bartlett Randy Bartlett (5 Posts)

Randy Bartlett has been a full-time mobile DJ since 1989. Since then, he has performed at thousands of events, specializing in weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs and corporate parties. He regularly commands a fee two or three times higher than his market’s average, making him one of the highest paid wedding DJs in the country. His business has been self-sustaining with no advertising for several years. He is a regular presenter at all the major DJ conferences and for many local groups. He is best known for his powerful series, The 1% Solution, where he applies the idea that “very small, easy to implement changes which will result in a vastly improved performance” to all aspects of DJing. (http://dj1percentsolution.com/)


Filed Under: Business, Issue #170, Performing