by Alex Cosper
Mobile Disc Jockeys have been around almost as long as there have been sound systems and recordings. They can be the best providers of affordable music and entertainment at weddings, reunions, corporate events, house parties or any kind of function that utilizes sound for crowd enjoyment. I have done hundreds of these events, mainly in the 80s, 90s and 2000s. I've also done radio shows and even though radio has a bigger audience and more industry credibility, I've actually had more fun doing live events.
Unlike radio, mobile sound is in direct touch with the crowd and you can see people's reactions instantly, whereas in radio you have to wait three months to get a ratings report that doesn't even tell you if people liked your show or not. Also unlike radio, the mobile DJ can take instant requests and isn't bound by a strict pre-determined playlist, usually concocted by someone that looks at statistics instead of actual live crowds. While radio stations have to follow uniform playlists that repeat around the clock, the mobile DJ has much more freedom to say and play whatever seems right at a particular moment, either by reading crowd reaction or simply injecting surprises into the mix.
Mobile DJs actually make more money than radio DJs believe it or not, if you look at average pay per hour. In big cities radio morning show hosts can command six figures but most other jocks around the clock are lucky to make $10-$15 per hour. Prior to the mid-nineties radio personalities in big cities made much more money but corporate consolidation of the industry along with cheap voice-tracking has lowered the pay scale across the board as corporations look to cut costs. Meanwhile, Mobile DJs can make $100 per hour. The downside is that mobile gigs tend to be just on the weekends (mostly Saturdays), but that's still good part-time money for having fun. Mobile DJs who run bigger companies that book several DJs on the same day can make several thousand dollars per weekend.
Building a mobile dj business isn't easy at first, unless you already know a lot of people who throw parties. Marketing is important to any business, but word of mouth is the best. Advertising in the phone book can be expensive and should not be relied upon as the only source of leads. People getting married like to know that the DJ is professional and not just some kid with a cheap sound system, so they usually turn to friends for help or to someone they picked up a business card from at a wedding they attended themselves.
One big problem with the mobile sound industry is that it is flooded with novices in every big market. Some novices do a decent job faking it, pretending to have a good time, who say dumb things on the microphone to pose as entertainers and happen to have a quality sound system. But a great DJ is someone who creates a memorable crowd-pleasing atmosphere, without forcing phony personality. Of course, it's usually all about the music, but personality goes a long way too. If the music is great and everyone has a good time, there's still a chance no one will ever remember the DJ. But if the music is great and the DJ adds geniuine character to the event, that DJ will get a lot of people asking for his or her business card at the end of the event.
DJ equipment is important, but it doesn't make or break the event, unless it's pure garbage. All that matters is that it works and it doesn't add noise to the content. Any speaker or mixer with a loud hum is either trash and should be replaced or needs to be fixed prior to the event. Sound problems at an event are an instant credibility-burner. The worst thing a DJ can do is allow loud feedback or noise to be heard through the system. Sometimes, though, weird stuff happens and the DJ has to turn into a technician and fix the problem right away. Usually it's no big deal if everything was checked before the event. But if an amplifier or speaker blows, the DJ will look like a fool to a lot of people if there is no back-up equipment ready on deck.
Music knowledge is important even though these days clients are more aware about making their own selections or crafting their own playlists. Still, if someone knows as much about music as a mobile DJ, they should think about becoming a mobile DJ themselves. It used to be most DJs just had to know the current hits. But since the advent of multiple musical generes that touch the mainstream DJs need to be aware of a lot of styles and a lot of time periods. Unless the gig is focused on young people who want to hear just the latest dance songs, chances are a crowd that spans a wide range of ages will want a buffet of music that includes swing from the 40s, rock and roll from the 50s, Motown and rock from the 60s, disco, funk and rock from the 70s, a little 80s new wave, pop stuff like Madonna and Prince, a few techno songs from the 90s, a certain amount of rap, hip hop and r&b, Latin music (Salsa, Merengue) spiked in and maybe even a little country from various eras. Of course, love songs are big crowd-pleasers despite what the most hyperactive DJs try to dictate. This wide variety can be pulled off by the DJ who understands music flow and which styles work best back to back.
Crowds need to be warmed up over time. Forcing a crowd to dance when they aren't ready to dance is a mistake and creates an awkward embarrassing atmosphere. Very few events begin with instant dance craze. Many mobile sound events begin with background or dinner music. Usually the best music for this period is jazz, lounge music or some form of easy listening music that allows the conversation level of the people to dominate the atmosphere. Then as the event progresses the tempo picks up people become more relaxed and warmed up to dance. Many dances begin with ballads, since they are the easiest songs for dancing. A wedding reception tends to start with socializing then lunch or dinner followed by the bride and groom's first dance as a married couple, which is almost always a love song.
After a few more ballads the DJ breaks the ice either by gradually moving up the tempo or just jumping into a faster tune that seems right for the crowd based on demographics and energy level. Once the pulse is pumping the DJ can either go the beatmix route and keep tempo steady while gradually shifting through peaks and valleys or just reading the crowd and taking requests. Whatever it takes to keep people dancing is all that matters. Sometimes everyone will clear the floor unexpectedly, but the experienced DJ knows what the good comeback songs are. For an 80s crowd it might be something like "Celebration" by Kool & The Gang and for a swing crowd it might be "In The Mood" by Glenn Miller. It's up to the DJ to keep the crowd on the dance floor. In cases where no one wants to dance the whole night, chances are it's just not a dancing crowd and more of a scene where people want to socialize.
In my experience I have done a lot of gigs where everyone was screaming at the end of night for "one more song." I love those gigs the most. But in cases where dancing is sporadic or even non-existent, I know it's still my job to play music that people in attendance like, and everybody likes music, no matter who they are. I find out what people like by talking with them. If they don't come up to me, I come up to them. Sometimes it turns out all they want to hear is good background music, and that's fine with me. But it's those raging crowds that raise the energy level to the maximum that get people talking how good of a DJ you are.
So always go for craze unless the situation demands otherwise, because you can always fall back on good listening music. The idea is to outdo the radio, which is just an average presentation. Be the memorable event by playing what the crowd tells you to play either with their requests or body language. But also have your own treasure of surprises and let them know that you are with them, not above them. Share the spotlight by creating a scene that makes everyone feel like a star.
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