You can learn how to scratch, beatmatch, loop, use FX etc, but if you don’t ever learn how to read a crowd, your DJ career may never get started.
So how do you read the crowd as a DJ?
Reading the crowd is how you make a judgement about what music the clubbers may or may not want to hear. This can be done by talking with people, observing their body language or by physically interacting with them (getting on the dance floor and giving out a few high fives!)
Like any skill, reading a crowd requires practice and you will not master the art of it overnight. However, if you take the following tips on board, it could help you to know what to look for and when.
(1) Research the venue
If you have been booked to play at an event, make sure you are familiar with the venue prior to playing there.
If the venue is local to you, make sure you visit it at least once before the date that you are scheduled to play. The things that you will want to know are:
- Where is the venue? Some venues are tucked away down a side street.
- What venues nearby provide the most competition?
- What kind of venue is it? A bar? A lounge? A club?
- What kind of crowd does it attract? Young? Old? Mixed?
- What are the people there for? Dancing? Drinking? Socialising?
- What time does it open and close? Which are the peak hours?
If the venue is in a different city or it is a last-minute booking, meaning you don’t have
- Take a look at the social media channels of the venue. How active are they?
- Do they have a website? Does it offer much information?
- Do a Google search of the venue. What kind of reputation does it have
? Whatkind of events have they put on in the past?
If you answer most of the questions above, you should have a good idea of what to expect from the venue before you even arrive. You will be able to gauge what sort of crowd they welcome on various nights and prepare a folder of music in advance of your debut.
(2) Arrive early
This doesn’t only apply to the first time that you play at a particular venue, this should become part of your preparation for each and every set you play.
If you arrive at the venue early, you will have a chance to listen to what the warm-up DJ is playing and how the crowd are reacting to the music.
If there isn’t a warm-up DJ, the venue will most likely have some background music playing which will give you an insight into the type of vibe that they are looking to create.
Get yourself a drink, have a look around and speak to a few of the guests who are already there. If they are regulars, they may be able to provide some valuable information that gives you a heads up in advance of your set.
(3) Study the shadows of the club
If you are the only DJ playing on that particular night, or if you are playing the warm-up set, the likelihood is that there will not be many people on the dance floor.
This doesn’t mean that you cannot start to read the crowd, nor does it mean that you shouldn’t.
In the first couple of hours, you are trying to set the mood for the rest of the night. You should be letting people know what they can expect later on to keep their interest levels up, but not so much that they enter the dance floor too early.
When people arrive at a venue, the majority of them will head to the bar and get themselves a drink (yes, there will be the occasional person who enters the venue and immediately starts dancing like an excited kangaroo, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule!)
Watch the people stood at the bar and at the sides of the dance floor and see how they are reacting to the music. Are they nodding their heads? Tapping their feet? If there is some kind of movement, then they are probably enjoying the music.
(4) Start to focus on the dance floor
Once the night starts to gain a bit of momentum, you will want to place most of your focus on the dance floor.
While you shouldn’t neglect the other people in the room, the people on the dance floor are going to be the ones who will help you to build the atmosphere and entice the others to join them.
If you have been changing between different styles of music, remember which style or styles have worked best and which tracks have had the best reaction. You can always test out some other styles and return to the previous style if they didn’t work.
Remember, you should never start playing the big anthems of any genre too early.
(5) Remember that the crowd are reading you too
This is when you need to show the crowd on the dance floor that you are enjoying the night as much as they are.
Don’t be afraid to jump, dance or clap your hands. Make eye contact with the people who are showing the most energy on the dance floor and engage with them. Doing this can have a positive effect on your crowd.
Moreover, it is important to note that if you don’t interact with your crowd, it can have a negative effect.
If you spend more time looking at your laptop, your controller or your decks than you do
It might not affect that particular night, but if guests don’t have a positive experience overall, it is unlikely that they will return to the venue again.
“A good DJ is always looking at the crowd, seeing what they’re like, seeing whether it’s working; communicating with them. Smiling at them. And a bad DJ is always looking down at what they’re doing all the time and just doing their thing that they– Fatboy Slim
practicedin their bedroom”
(6) Encourage requests
Some DJs love receiving requests, other DJs hate it. Personally, I welcome them.
If you are comfortable using the microphone, start giving the occasional shout out (even if no-one has requested anything). If you give a fictitious shout out and people in the crowd start cheering, you know that they are going to be even more lively later on!
Also, by giving those early shout outs, it will encourage people to approach you and ask for their own requests. Once you have a few requests, you will start to get an idea of the music that the customers want to hear and this will help you to read the crowd.
(7) It is a request, not a demand
Further to the above, you should remember that a request is exactly what it says – a request.
Receiving a request from a customer doesn’t mean that you have to play it immediately, even if they say “we are leaving soon”. If they are leaving, it means that they are not going to be participating in the remainder of the night, so they are not high on your list of priorities.
From time to time, a customer will request a track that fits perfectly in your set and you may want to play it straight away.
If that isn’t the case, it is probably best to leave it a little while before playing it. The reason for this is if you play their track straight away, they will feel like they have some connection with you and will bombard you with requests for the rest of the night!
If you have to decline a request, always be as polite as possible. The last thing you want is an angry customer starting an argument with you and distracting you from the rest of the crowd.
(8) Keeping the dance floor full
At some time in every DJs career, they will very quickly lose the dance floor.
Sometimes it can happen for no particular reason. At other times it can be because the DJ became complacent.
Potential reasons for this happening are because the DJ:
- Changed the style of the music to accommodate a request, but the crowd were enjoying the style that was already playing
- Started to use the microphone or FX too often
- Transitioned too quickly, not letting enough of the track play for people to fully enjoy it
Of course, there are many other reasons in addition to the ones above why this could happen.
If this happens to you, the most important thing is to try and figure out why it happened so that you don’t make the same mistake again.
(9) The end of the night
It is my belief that the DJ should be one of the first people to arrive at the venue and one of the last people to leave.
Assuming you have done a good job, there will be a lot of people wanting to talk to you at the end of the night. Take this opportunity to network with these people.
Find out what they liked about your set. Find out what they didn’t like about your set.
If you have some mix CDs with you, give some away. Exchange social media follows. Build your fan base.
Obviously this won’t help you to read your crowd, but it will help to build your crowd and hopefully tempt them to return the next time you are playing at the venue.
Even the most experienced of DJs will sometimes encounter a crowd that are difficult to read, that is just the way that things go sometimes.
Hopefully these tips will help you to prepare for your future gigs, make a judgement of how to read the crowd and how to change things up if you feel that is what is required.
What experience(s) have you had with difficult crowds as a DJ? I would love to hear from you in the comments