By Stu Chisholm
How a look back can reveal the road ahead
The realization that I’ve had a very long career is sometimes driven home in surprising ways. A long relationship with clients and their families is one of them. Just before I began my DJ career, there was a little girl in my apartment complex who played with my girlfriend’s son. She was one of many kids in the complex I got to know. Flash-forward about a decade, she’s calling me to entertain at her wedding! So there we are, and she’s a foot taller than when I’d last seen her, looking adult and beautiful in her wedding gown, a child no longer. Flash-forward again by nine more years and she’s calling me about her 30th birthday celebration! (Her “little sister” would call me soon after for her 25th.) The reason I’m recounting this particular family relationship is because the “little girl” called me again a few days ago…to spin the music at her [ital] daughter’s [ital] Sweet 16 Party. Like a family doctor, I’m not needed often, but they wouldn’t trust anyone else with their special life events.
THE VENERABLE LOG…
Over the same week I met with my friend and her daughter, I’d begun the tedious project of digitizing my old program logs. Today they’re Excel files, but for years they’d simply been handwritten lists, and over time those lists filled a couple of file cabinets! Since my living space isn’t getting any bigger, it was time for the paper to go. But I knew that this project was going to be long-term; something I’d do when the important stuff was done. Or I’d tackle them at lunch and between projects: less fun, but more productive than playing Mafia Wars.
I’d gotten in the habit of keeping a program long back in the 80s, when it was a job requirement at the nightclub where I worked. I immediately realized their utility. By noting what is played, in order, noting the response and jotting down any special notes, I’ve built a record of my events and, over time, a history. If there was a dispute (“You didn’t play…” or “You never did…”), I could point to the log and tell them that yes, I did indeed play that song, and what time I played it, and what kind of response it got on the dancefloor. That response could alert me to a song that would soon catch fire, or maybe a tried-and-true floor-packer that was starting to outlast its welcome, helping me to fine-tune my programs. In a nightclub setting, this can be critical. For weddings and mobile events, a longer-term benefit has also become apparent.
…FINDS A NEW USE
When playing multiple events for the same family or group, I would bring the program logs from their previous parties. It’s a graphic way to see what worked best and what was less successful. Things like birthdays and anniversaries were noted, and my program matched their tastes more precisely with each event. Over time, it’s as if I became a part of the family. It’s about as close to being psychic as you can get!
Today, a lot of DJs depend on the automatic logging systems built into their DJ software. Yet that software doesn’t note if a song was a request from a guest or from the list provided by a wedding couple. It doesn’t note the time it was played, or any dedications that might’ve accompanied the request. In short, they lack detail. A separate log, recorded on the spot, is by far a better way to go.
TIMES AND TASTES: REMEMBERING ‘88
Keeping detailed logs over time can not only help with future programming-and make a career DJ feel long in the tooth-but it vividly shows the patterns of popular music, and how we sometimes use it in surprising ways. A good case in point was the year 1988.
22 years ago, many of the “usual suspects” were there; “Celebration,” “Old Time Rock & Roll,” “Y.M.C.A.” and “Lady In Red”-already established classics that we still play today and will be spinning for many more years to come. Trends appear and those songs and artists that couples couldn’t live without, that seemed so important at the time also appear. One artist that I noticed on almost every list that year was The Jets, a Latin-American group who had a ballad called “Make It Real,” and a dance track called “Rocket 2 U.” The former was even an oft-used first dance at weddings! But it’s doubtful that anyone would want to hear those tracks today outside of a class reunion or anniversary.
On a more personal level, I could see how I began to assemble some of the sets that have become my show staples, and how they’ve evolved as well. We all have our sequences and sets we like and, try as we might to be versatile and fresh, we always show off that perfect mix when given the opportunity. Gazing through the telescope of time, I noted the first time I mixed “Brick House” with “Play That Funky Music” back in 1984. “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen, previously a huge favorite among the sock hop set, was replaced by “Some Kind of Wonderful” by Grand Funk, or “Twist & Shout” by the Beatles as a follow-up to Bob Seger’s iconic hit. By the way, I also noticed that in 1985, live mixing during a reception cocktail hour and dinner period was a standout when other DJs were just playing a background tape. By 1988, the movie [ital] Dirty Dancing had breathed new life into songs like “Do You Love Me” by the Contours, “Cry To Me” by Solomon Burke, and gave us the destined-to-be-classic “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life,” which every bride, it seemed, wanted to be the final song of their event.
A Study in Contrasts
Indispensable groups from 1988 that are never (or seldom) heard at receptions today include: Exposé, Debbie Gibson, Taylor Dayne, The Whispers, Pebbles, Johnny Kemp, Pretty Poison, Tiffany, Lisa Lisa & The Cult Jam, Klymaxx and Paul Young. “Dance Little Birdie” became “The Chicken Dance,” the Emeralds version replacing The Tweets ‘81 hit. Still going strong: Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, Bob Seger, The Village People, Bon Jovi and Billy Idol. Activities have changed, too. At least in my locality, the tradition of the bride dancing with her father first, who then ceremoniously “passes” his daughter to the groom has all but disappeared. So did the dollar dance, for a while, but it has been slowly making a comeback in recent years. The biggest casualty, however, has been the Grand March, which used to follow the bride and groom’s first dance and the introduction of the Bridal Party. The couple would lead their party around the room, a bit like a party train or conga line, but when they returned to the dance floor, they would turn and face one another holding hands and everyone behind them danced under their “arch” did the same. Soon everyone was dancing through a “tunnel” of friends and family members, kissing everyone along the way! On the extremely rare occasion when a couple opts for a Grand March today, there’s absolutely no kissing, except, hopefully, for the wedding couple!
So what does all this mean? Most immediately it means that program logs give you a way to gauge many things about your performance, clients, music and trends in both the short and long term. This information can be useful, sometimes in unexpected ways! When perusing Facebook and some DJ websites, I’ve often wondered why DJs who don’t offer photography still snap lots of pictures and post them online. Then I realized that, aside from a bit of promotion, it’s a way to touch base with reality and affirm that we actually did something! It’s a tangible piece of an experience that’s gone like a puff of smoke. I remembered having the same feeling about my first program logs. Armed with that information, I could virtually re-create the entire event. It was somehow more [ital]real. I could also also answer the party guest who called days or even weeks after an event asking, “What was that great song they used for their first dance?” Or, a request to “play all of those great tunes you played at my sister’s wedding” was suddenly possible. And knowing when to STOP playing “Rocket 2 U” kept my program from becoming stale and might’ve even prevented a loss of business! Years from now, your own logs might also make you look back, as I have, and say, “What a long, strange trip it’s been!” (Now where have we heard THAT before?)
Until next time, safe spinnin’!
Filed Under: Issues from 2010, Music, Profiles
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