Music Programming For Nightclubs By: Paul Dailey

April 8, 2008 by Mobile Beat Staff Writer

Although this article will focus on Music Programming for Nightclubs, many of the elements and ideas discussed here are applicable for mobile parties and events of many types. Whether you spin in a Nightclub with 1000+ cutting edge clubbers or at a local Pub with 100 inebriated college students, your objective is the same, to entertain the masses (by keeping the music upbeat and positive) and augment liquor sales. If you can consistently please your crowd AND put money in the owners pocket, you will be in demand and should have no problem getting (and keeping) a steady nightclub gig.For the purposes of reading and comprehending this article, I am going to assume that you have read Clubs 101 and Beatmixing 101 and have a rudimentary grasp of DJing basics. If you have not mastered the fundamentals, STOP, go back and do that before you continue as this article will only stand to further confuse you. If however, you have a good grasp of the basics, then you are ready to progress to the next step, Music Programming.

When you get to a certain level in this business, you will find that everyone can beat mix; and lots of them will be smoother in their transitions than you are. But stop and listen a little closer (and watch their dance floors). Ask yourself what are they playing? Are they just taking random tracks and blending them together or are they actually taking their crowd on a journey? Are they banging hit after hit after hit with no regard for energy level management? This is what separates the men from the boys in the DJing game. A good jock has control of his crowd (and the energy level in the room) at all times; he brings them up and down but still maintains command of the room. His sets are structured like a symphony. They have an introduction, some engaging teasers (to keep the crowd interested) and a slow but steady progression to the climax (or crescendo) of the night. It is not an aimless trip for the sake of driving. It is a calculated journey that follows a successful (and proven) formula, a formula that we will explore in this article.

In “Clubs 101”, John Anthony touched on a variety of subjects including music programming, however in this feature, we will break down the subject in greater detail. We will focus on Music Programming techniques and how you can implement them successfully in your Nightclub. Of course not all of these ideas will work for everyone (and they may not even work for you every night); But having the basic knowledge (and understanding) of how to program successfully will put you a step ahead of your competition and will make your job much more enjoyable.

Overview of Music Programming Principles

There are many factors that come together to make a complete DJ, but the single most important component is the ability to successfully program music. Basic programming begins at your first gig, when you learn how to read a crowd and make good choices about what to play next.

As you gain experience, your skills progress to knowing when to drop certain tracks (or styles of music) and how to build successful sets of music. DJ’s who reach this level have the skills to get steady gigs, keep their crowd happy (most of the time) and basically do a capable job. Beyond this however, there is a higher level of music programming, and reaching this summit, should be the ultimate goal of any Club jock.

Having said this, we have to face facts. Simply knowing where you want to be, or even comprehending what it takes to get there is only half the battle.

We are immersed in a completely “reactive” vocation. Although we wish for a great crowd every night, it doesn’t always turn out that way. If we consistently had an up-for-it crowd, climbing the walls, dying to hear the latest and the greatest tracks, our lives would be much easier and reaching that “higher” level of programming would be attainable on a nightly basis. This is the catch 22 of music programming. Big name DJs like Sasha, Digweed and DJ Dan work in clubs that are filled with the hippest, most cutting edge punters that are not only there specifically to HEAR them, but are also open minded and adventurous. So not only are these DJ’s great programmers, but they have the crowd to do it. This is not often the case with the crowds that we (the regular resident club DJs) have to entertain, but the concepts and fundamentals of successful music programming remain the same no matter where you spin. So work hard developing your skills at your local club and when you get a call from some super club, you will be ready.

Getting Started

The title of this composition is “Music Programming For Nightclubs” for a reason. While learning how to successfully program and build a set is the ultimate goal of this article, it is your MUSIC that actually plays the biggest part. Without a good selection of tracks (both old and new) to choose from, you will not be able to consistently bang out good sets over the long haul.

Every DJ that I know has a different routine when they look for new music. Many are in record pools, some subscribe to monthly services while others go to local shops or buy off the Internet. It really doesn’t matter how you get it, just that you get it and get it often. As you grow and mature as a jock, you will start to learn not only what you like, but also what your crowd will like and most importantly what will work on your dancefloor. Music selection is the single most important ingredient to successful programming, so developing a discerning ear in the record shop is VERY IMPORTANT.

Continuing on with this for a moment, please take the time to learn the power of recurrent music. With the Internet making our world smaller and smaller, it is very easy for DJs in Rome, London and Chicago to get their hands on the same new releases, at the same time. This fact makes it important to realize that understanding your music is not just buying the latest and the greatest off the wall of your local record shop, it is becoming aware of older tracks and how you can successfully incorporate them into your sets

Last point about your music is to make sure you learn your tracks inside and out.

Listen to them over and over, count the BPM, intro, outro, learn where the breaks are, what happens at what point (and if you want to get even more advanced) what harmonic key they are in. Listen to them until you know them like the back of your hand. This is extremely important, as it is not possible to become a proficient music programmer until you do your homework and are extremely comfortable with your music.

Pre-Gig Planning

You have your music ready, your mixing skills are up to par and you are ready to go, but before you walk into the club, even if you are the weekly resident, you should take some time to prepare for your performance. Stop for a moment and review the demographics of the crowd. Review the new tracks you are planning to add to the mix this week and make sure you know all of their nuances. Also spend some time with older tracks, pulling out a few “gems” to place at the back of your record box. These can be used as filler tracks (if the crowd is hell bent on new jams all night long), or as your secret weapons of the night.

Do a quick check of your headphones and make sure you always bring your own cartridges. Nothing hurts vinyl more than old, worn-out needles so do yourself (and your records) a favor and bring your own. If you play CDs make sure you have a CD Laser cleaner, a CD Cleaner/repair kit and make sure your CDs are in good shape. No matter how well you can mix or program, skipping records or CDs will certainly kill your night and make you sound like an amateur. Do your prep-work ahead of time, run through a checklist and you will be prepared for anything.

Prior to the night, there is a lot of preparation that goes into making a successful nightclub event. Ordering the liquor, hiring staff, design, decoration, etc are all extremely important. But the night of the event the most important person in the club is the DJ. I am not saying this to scare you or put undue pressure on you, it is just a fact. Carpe Diem, seize the moment, take that initial fear and turn it into positive energy.

Putting your plan into action

So, the night has finally arrived and the room is filling up with customers who are waiting to hear what you have to say (through your music). People (especially drunk people) are easily lead, but they are also easily lead astray; this is what makes a DJs job difficult. They will certainly dance to the big songs, but you cannot give them big songs all night and therein lies the dilemma. This is where you need to implement your Music Programming strategy.

To continue with an earlier analogy, you have to approach your set as one complete work, from the introduction through the apex and onward to the conclusion. Like a fine meal, you begin with an appetizer that teases the palate and previews what is to come later. You continue through course after complimentary course until you have the customer just dying to see (or hear) what is coming up next. At this point, you pull out all the stops, dazzle them with a spectacular main course and just as they are becoming content and full, you clear the table, leaving them wanting more. At the risk of making you hungry, let me conclude this metaphor and say that I assume you get the point. You want to please them, yet still give them a reason to come back next week (and the week after that), and using this strategy is the prefect first step to achieving that goal. If you look at your night (in it’s entirety) as one composition, it will allow you to see where you have gone, where you are planning to go, and prevents you from getting too far off track.

Since most people don’t dance at the beginning of the night, a lot of DJs use this time to play their newest tracks and test them out on the crowd, I think this is a mistake. If you bore your crowd too much at the beginning, they won’t be around to hear your “big finish” later on, so make sure you mix in a fair amount of recognizable songs to make the early arrivals feel comfortable and set things up for the rest of the night. There is no correct ratio for this, but I usually play 2 newer tracks for every well-known or recurrent track. Remember that this is the foundation of your night, make it upbeat and cheerful and you will put the whole room in a good mood. Make it obscure and unfamiliar and you will pay the price after midnight.

As the night goes on, you can increase the ratio of new to old, and play more hot “of the moment” tracks; but remember to keep the ebb and flow of the dancefloor constant. In my club, I try to start my first energy build at 11:00 p.m. or so, and peak (that first build) at 12 midnight. Take things down a few notches until 12:15 and then start another pre-climax build until 12:45 a.m. My final build starts around 1 a.m. and I pull out all the stops, just killing them with energy and beats until just before closing time. I customarily then take them down, someplace smooth and send them home chilled out and begging for more. Although many DJs do the exact opposite, there is nothing that will damage your club more than sending your crowd out the door all charged up. This is where fights and other problems occur, so do yourself a favor and chill them out a bit before you send them home.

In implementing this strategy successfully it is important to always remember where you are and where you are going. Selecting the next song is not enough; you have to have an idea what the next 5 tracks are going to be. And you constantly have to have a target. Not just a beginning and an end, but many Sub-destinations along the way. You want to get to this killer hot tribal track, but you are playing, deep vocal house at the moment, how are you going to get there? You pulled out this old disco track that you want to drop as the high point of this mini set, what would be a good transition tune? You want to hypnotize them with some trance before you bang them over the head with that huge techno track you just got; but how? These are the questions you have to consider and work out. This is the challenge of going beyond just playing one song after another and becoming an accomplished music programmer.

One last thing I want reiterate is this, no matter what your personal feelings are, ALWAYS REMEMBER that you are there to please the crowd, not educate them. There will be nights when you can play obscure white labels all night long and have your crowd eat it up. Conversely, there will be other nights when all they want to hear are the same 10 tired records you have been playing for 5 years now; that is (unfortunately) part of the job. I know way too many DJs that show up with a box full of new tracks and play a whole night for themselves and their other DJ friends. This is wrong! A DJs job is to entertain and although we may be sick of the Vengaboys or Fat Boy Slim, it is the clubbers that pay our salary and keep us employed, so bite the bullet and do the right thing.

This attitude will also make you a better DJ in the long run. You will have the skills and experience to help you work (successfully) with any crowd you are faced with. This is something that many DJs fail to grasp; working a crowd is an ever-evolving process. You have to modify your ideas and format to deal with changes in crowd demographics, events, venues etc. Keep your attitude in check, your mind fixed on what your ultimate goal is and you should be able to handle any curve that may be thrown your way.

Variety and Change

Lets assume that you just finished a killer set and are feeling ecstatic with every aspect of your performance from mixing to music programming. The crowd loved you and a bunch of DJs came up to shake your hand; you are on top of the world, so now what do you do?

Forget about it, and get ready for the next event!

Of course you need to understand what it was that made that night effective and try to do it all again tomorrow night, only this time, change it all up. You can’t repeat that same house classic or those same vocal drops; and that last half-hour when you killed them with those 3 trance smashes; forget it. You have to reinvent yourself from scratch in less than 24 hours; this is what it takes to become a good Nightclub DJ.

If this seems like a daunting task, there is one thing you have going for you. You are no longer just a record spinner or a human juke box, you are now a competent music programmer, with a creative mind and a vast record collection and nothing can really throw you. You understand how to work a crowd and manipulate energy on the dancefloor and instead of fearing the next night, you say, “bring it on”! It is just another opportunity for your skills to shine.

Dealing with the bumps.

There are a lot of things to deal with when you are DJing in a club. Drunk people, equipment failure, acts of god and incompetent managers and owners are constantly popping up to cause you undue stress and make your job more difficult than it already is. Add to this mixing, taking requests, remaining focused and dealing with detrimental decibel levels all night, and you can see why preparation is the only way to get by in the DJ booth. Having a plan set out ahead of time will allow you to cope with any distraction and still not loose track of where you were before being interrupted.

If it is any consolation, dealing successfully with these inevitable obstacles does become easier with experience; so hang in there and before long you will have “seen it all”.

Advancing Beyond

There are many other ideas and concepts you can incorporate into your music programming; these are things you will pick up on your own, over time.

There are various mixing techniques (like harmonic mixing, which will be discussed in a future article here at DJU) and doing your own mixes/edits using music editing programs and a CD recorder. Your creativity is only limited by your desire (or lack of desire) to learn. If you have an inquisitive mind, a thirst for knowledge and a love of dance music, you will find a million ways to continually improve your proficiency as a Nightclub DJ.

Review of Main Points

For clarity sake, lets take a moment to restate the main points of this article.

No matter what, remember that your are being paid to entertain your crowd, so every decision you make must be done keeping this fact in mind.
You need to stay on top of not just new releases, but also remember recurrent tracks and how you can incorporate them into you sets.
Don’t just aimlessly play song after song, make sure you have a beginning, middle and end to all of your sets, and keep track of where you are and where you are trying to go.
Don’t pre-plan what song you are going to play…or what order you are going to play them in. When it comes to music selection, spontaneity is the friend of a good Nightclub DJ, so be sure to change up what you play, how you play it and when you play it often. Keeping your sound fresh is VERY IMPORTANT.
Above all, don’t take yourself too seriously and HAVE FUN.

Mobile Beat Staff Writer (371 Posts)

This is the general editors account for Mobile Beat Magazine and Website. Who reads Mobile Beat online and in print and attends Mobile Beat events? DJs, VJs and KJs to start with, especially those who own and operate mobile entertainment services. They provide music, video, lighting and a myriad other entertainment choices for corporate events, wedding receptions, dances and innumerable other gatherings.

Filed Under: Mobile DJ Performance Tips