Dear Secret DJ: I’ve been booked for my first festival gig as a DJ! It’s a lunchtime set and not a particularly big arena but I’m pretty stoked. Any tips and tricks? How can I lure people away from the queues for pulled pork baps and charging stations and onto my dancefloor? ‘The Voice of Q’, UK
Hello Q. Congrats on the gig! I’d say straight off the bat that festivals are funny ones, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being the background music. A gig is a gig, and they all need to be taken seriously. When you are capable of treating a gig in a restaurant with the same gravitas you would headlining a rave, you’re approaching DJ zen.
I honestly believe that if you go about things with a pure intention and try to match the vibe of where you are, then people will feel it and respond positively to you. When you’re head down, boshing out completely inappropriate 2AM genre music in the middle of a sunny field at lunchtime, you are the grand onion in the custard and liable to attract only some pie-eyed, peaked-too-early remnants, goons and vagabonds whose facial contortions will drive away a potential crowd rather than catalyse it.
Despite the control at your fingertips as a DJ, there’s always an element of fitting-in with and complementing your surroundings, whether it’s a highly credible club or a mate’s house party, or anywhere in between. Knowing your place in the vibe is no different from having the chops to do a good, solid, and subtle warm-up set. A bad warm-up can literally destroy a night, with everyone knackered before midnight because someone’s ego demanded they spew out their bangers immediately, like a confetti cannon full of spanners. There’s a whole night ahead, and you’re just a part of it. This applies even more stringently to festivals. They start earlier, and people have often been there a couple of days already with very little proper rest. For many, daytime is for wandering around in a daze, checking out stalls and getting their bearings.
But people will gravitate to you if you match the overall vibe. If you’re playing music that suits the weather and the feeling, they will come. Once you have a small gathering the rest is a case of Basic DJ Skills 101: coaxing them into a groove and building an atmosphere. Then passers-by will see this and join in. DJing done correctly is always a subtle thing, even if your tunes aren’t. You always have to start cleverly or you will have nowhere to go, so reel them in, don’t smash them over the head.
I learned this the hard way when I did a big outdoor event in the very early days of DJs being part of festivals. I arrived early to find a curfew had been imposed on the soundsystem because its ‘racket’ was ‘spoiling the vibe’ of the rest of the event (electric guitars and hippies selling magic fungi, in the main). I had to play for the next 12 hours (it was a different time; there weren’t enough DJs in existence to have 20 of us doing half-hour sets) but there was strictly no dancing allowed until the sun went down, on pain of disconnection and expulsion by the organisers. After many hours of doing my best to be ambient, laid back, old school or basically anything I could muster that wasn’t danceable, I had about 500 people in front of me sitting on the grass. It was a new thing. I really liked it. I’d managed to be inoffensive, but not disappear. People stopped to listen; they got comfy. I should point out that it was by no means background music. They were listening, not talking.
Then, completely by accident, I put on ‘Love Hangover’ by Diana Ross, for the sole reason that I was running out of suitable records. As any fan will know, it has a very long, soulful first half – but I’d forgotten that it morphs into a full-on disco tune. One by one, people started to stand up, a small cheer erupted and I saw people start to run towards us from the further edges. The sun was just going down, and it was genuinely magical: a moment I will never forget. It was almost as if I’d meant it.
I went on to play for the rest of the night, the next day and the following night non-stop. We had formed a unit: the people, the DJ, the workers. We’d lived through the ‘crisis’ of the curfew and knew what to do when it came around again. Everyone was happy, especially the organisers. We went from sitting down and listening to classical, ambient and vintage pop through disco and funk and eventually into house and techno through the night. Together.
My point is this: understanding your place in your surroundings is key. Being a part of it, not imagining you’re the focus, shows the humility required to excel at this job. Because it’s never better when you’re all in it together – that is a party’s purpose. That’s what we’re for, as DJs. It’s a party and a celebration, not a concert. When you DJ at a festival and start to think that everyone is there for you, you’re lost. You are there for everyone else, as is everyone. We’re all in the house together. Or the tent.
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