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9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Party DJs

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Where would a wedding or a bar mitzvah be without the DJ? Disc jockeys provide more than the playlist—they set the mood, get people dancing, and sometimes even emcee the reception. But there’s plenty of work that goes on behind the scenes, too. We talked to a few DJs to find out more about how they work, what they do and don’t want to see at a party, and what to know before you hire one. 

1. DJS PUT IN A LOT OF WORK BEFORE THE PARTY STARTS. 

Although some people think that DJs simply show up to an event with a laptop and press play, being a DJ actually requires a ton of work behind the scenes. DJ Jeffty, who spins at parties in the San Francisco Bay Area, explains that paperwork tasks such as drafting contracts, processing venue/vendor agreements, getting gate codes and parking access, and filing tax and insurance forms is a time-consuming requirement. 

“A lot of what I do is involved with pre-planning, and curating the playlist for each event,” he says. “For a wedding, pre-planning can be anything from site visits, lighting design, being involved with the rehearsal, coordinating/sound checking with performers, or practicing pronouncing the names of the bridal party!” 

DJs must also arrive early at the venue to coordinate any extras such as lighting, props, dancers, and video projectors. Setting up, and later breaking down, equipment can also take a significant amount of time and effort. 

2. SO THEIR FEE MIGHT BE HIGHER THAN YOU WERE EXPECTING.

The fees for DJs are all over the map, from a few hundred dollars to more than a thousand. Most DJs stress that you get what you pay for—a cheap DJ may only work a few gigs per month and not have quality equipment. More expensive DJs usually have more experience, professional equipment, a large music library, and are licensed and insured.

3. MOST DJS HATE CARPETS, BRIGHT LIGHTS, AND DRY EVENTS.

DJs prefer working in venues with a wood or tile dance floor, rather than carpet, because carpet isn’t conducive to dancing—it just feels awkward. DJs also like to spin in a dark room, since most people are too self-conscious to bust their moves in glaring lights. Finally, alcohol loosens people up so they hit the dance floor without inhibitions.

4. THEY HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT TAKING REQUESTS. 

The last thing DJs want is a dead crowd. To encourage people to dance, DJs play a variety of well-known songs, switching up the genre and time period frequently to appeal to the most people. Good DJs also intuitively sense any lulls in the crowd’s energy and play a different song to get the party back on track.

Some DJs are loath to take requests because they know that certain songs will kill the vibe on the dance floor—and after all, they’ve already spent a bunch of time putting together the perfect playlist. However, other DJs will encourage requests.

“I am well aware that many DJs do not like to be approached while they are working an event,” DJ Jeffty says. “But personally, I believe that requests are essential to getting a read on what the crowd likes. I don't play every request I receive, but I do welcome the interaction with the crowd. In the end, the event is not about me ... it's about my clients and their guests.”

5. KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PART- AND FULL-TIME DJS. 

For some DJs, spinning is not their full-time gig. These DJs may work as a freelance contractor for a company that takes a percentage of the fee. Because big DJ companies rely on volume for their business, you may have little say over which DJ you actually get for your event. Other DJs are independent, working for themselves or running their own company. For most successful independent DJs, it’s their full-time job—they spin at parties on the weekends and evenings, and they run their business during the day. Price points and levels of professionalism vary, so you should speak with potential DJs to get a sense of how well they would fit for your event.

6. THEY WANT FOOD, BUT WILL PROBABLY DECLINE A DRINK. 

Party etiquette dictates that the photographer, videographer, and florist should get a meal during an event … and don’t forget about the DJ. Whether or not they’re emceeing your party, they probably also need to eat at some point. However, they may not want to drink.

“I think that every DJ should get a meal … Please feed your DJ! As far as drinking, I choose not to drink alcohol. I want to always put my best foot forward for my clients,” DJ Jeffty says. 

Vaughn Wooster, a.k.a. DJ Von Woo, a DJ in the Bay Area, stresses that every event is different, and in some cases it may be acceptable for DJs to discreetly eat their vendor meal at the booth, “in case any unforeseen changes in the music happen.” 

But because alcohol can hinder a DJ’s ability to perform at his or her best, Jerry Laskin, a DJ and owner of Jerry Laskin Enterprises, which serves New York and surrounding states, says that alcohol “should never be an option for the DJ or entertainers booked.”

7. THERE’S MORE MONEY IN BAR MITZVAHS THAN IN WEDDINGS.

2015 data compiled by job listing website Thumbtack showed that on average, DJs charge 32% more for bar and bat mitzvahs than weddings. According to Joel Macht, president of SpotlightLA, the DJ/emcee for a bar mitzvah “will be out and involved with the crowd, running games, setting up the photo montage, explaining how the candle-lighting works, and so on.” Entertaining a group of young teenagers requires more interaction, energy, and skills than entertaining adults. Bar mitzvahs are also more likely than weddings or birthday parties to feature dancers, special lighting, and audio/visual techs, which all add to the cost. 

8. TAKE THE AWARDS AND REVIEWS ON SOME DJS' WEBSITES WITH A GRAIN OF SALT.

The wedding services industry brings in $60 billion of revenue annually. To differentiate themselves from the competition and attract eyeballs, some wedding DJs put awards on their websites. Russ Messick, a DJ who specializes in weddings, writes on his website that DJs who pay for advertising get an award to display: “It's quite the joke. DJs love to tout their ‘awards’ they claim they have been bestowed … A bit misleading, but brides and grooms don't know it.” 

Messick also reveals that he spends $800 to $1400 per month to be featured on wedding sites, while other DJs post their own fake, positive reviews on wedding sites to try to get more clients. “There is no real way to know for sure whether reviews are real or fake,” Messick says.

9. WORD OF MOUTH IS THE MAIN WAY THEY GET MORE GIGS.

DJs who have done a great job spinning at parties say they get more and more clients via word of mouth. Former clients will recommend DJs to their friends, and every guest who attends a party is a potential client. Laskin says his company’s best recommendations come “from former satisfied clients as well as repeat customers, venues, caterers and decorators who have enjoyed our work, as well as event planners and orchestras. A smaller percentage comes from our online ad campaigns and social networking blogging and channels.”  

All images courtesy of iStock

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Pop Culture
How Jimmy Buffett Turned 'Margaritaville' Into a Way of Life
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Few songs have proven as lucrative as “Margaritaville,” a modest 1977 hit by singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett that became an anthem for an entire life philosophy. The track was the springboard for Buffett’s business empire—restaurants, apparel, kitchen appliances, and more—marketing the taking-it-easy message of its tropical print lyrics.

After just a few years of expanding that notion into other ventures, the “Parrot Heads” of Buffett’s fandom began to account for $40 million in annual revenue—and that was before the vacation resorts began popping up.

Jimmy Buffett performs for a crowd
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“Margaritaville,” which turned 40 this year, was never intended to inspire this kind of devotion. It was written after Buffett, as an aspiring musician toiling in Nashville, found himself in Key West, Florida, following a cancelled booking in Miami and marveling at the sea of tourists clogging the beaches.

Like the other songs on his album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, it didn’t receive a lot of radio play. Instead, Buffett began to develop his following by opening up for The Eagles. Even at 30, Buffett was something less than hip—a flip-flopped performer with a genial stage presence that seemed to invite an easygoing vibe among crowds. “Margaritaville,” an anthem to that kind of breezy attitude, peaked at number eight on the Billboard charts in 1977. While that’s impressive for any single, its legacy would quickly evolve beyond the music industry's method for gauging success.

What Buffett realized as he continued to perform and tour throughout the early 1980s is that “Margaritaville” had the ability to sedate audiences. Like a hypnotist, the singer could immediately conjure a specific time and place that listeners wanted to revisit. The lyrics painted a scene of serenity that became a kind of existential vacation for Buffett's fans:

Nibblin' on sponge cake,
Watchin' the sun bake;
All of those tourists covered with oil.
Strummin' my six string on my front porch swing.
Smell those shrimp —
They're beginnin' to boil.

By 1985, Buffett was ready to capitalize on that goodwill. In Key West, he opened a Margaritaville store, which sold hats, shirts, and other ephemera to residents and tourists looking to broadcast their allegiance to his sand-in-toes fantasy. (A portion of the proceeds went to Save the Manatees, a nonprofit organization devoted to animal conservation.) The store also sold the Coconut Telegraph, a kind of propaganda newsletter about all things Buffett and his chill perspective.

When Buffett realized patrons were coming in expecting a bar or food—the song was named after a mixed drink, after all—he opened a cafe adjacent to the store in late 1987. The configuration was ideal, and through the 1990s, Buffett and business partner John Cohlan began erecting Margaritaville locations in Florida, New Orleans, and eventually Las Vegas and New York. All told, more than 21 million people visit a Buffett-inspired hospitality destination every year.

A parrot at Margaritaville welcomes guests
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Margaritaville-branded tequila followed. So, too, did a line of retail foods like hummus, a book of short stories, massive resorts, a Sirius radio channel, and drink blenders. Buffett even wrote a 242-page script for a Margaritaville movie that he had hoped to film in the 1980s. It’s one of the very few Margaritaville projects that has yet to have come to fruition, but it might be hard for Buffett to complain much. In 2015, his entire empire took in $1.5 billion in sales.

As of late, Buffett has signed off on an Orlando resort due to open in 2018, offering “casual luxury” near the boundaries of Walt Disney World. (One in Hollywood, Florida, is already a hit, boasting a 93 percent occupancy rate.) Even for guests that aren’t particularly familiar with his music, “Jimmy Buffett” has become synonymous with comfort and relaxation just as surely as Walt Disney has with family entertainment. The association bodes well for a business that will eventually have to move beyond Buffett’s concert-going loyalists.

Not that he's looking to leave them behind. The 70-year-old Buffett is planning on a series of Margaritaville-themed retirement communities, with the first due to open in Daytona Beach in 2018. More than 10,000 Parrot Heads have already registered, eager to watch the sun set while idling in a frame of mind that Buffett has slowly but surely turned into a reality.

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#TBT
The Time Freddy Krueger Became a Nightmare for Will Smith
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Fans of Will Smith’s music career may think they’ve heard every album and seen every music video from the actor’s days as one half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Thanks to one ill-timed and poorly conceived effort, however, there’s one performance that aired only a handful of times before being permanently pulled. It has never resurfaced on compilations, on MTV, or even on YouTube. And the fault lies solely with Freddy Krueger, who used something even more dangerous than his razor-fingered glove: a small army of lawyers.

A promotional image of Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger
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Back in early 1988, Smith and his musical partner Jazzy Jeff (a.k.a. Jeffrey Allen Townes) released their second album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. It would eventually go platinum, selling 2.5 million copies through 1989 and spinning off the duo’s most successful single, “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

In late 1987, Townes composed another single, “Nightmare on My Street,” that played with the premise established by the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. In the song, Smith’s dreams are haunted by a scarred bogeyman named “Fred”; a voice modulator mimics the raspy delivery of actor Robert Englund, who portrayed slasher movie icon Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street films. After his run-in, Smith tries calling Jeff to warn him of the threat but it was too late: The killer has gotten to his partner.

Zomba, the parent company behind the album's label, decided the song might be of interest to New Line Cinema, the studio behind the Nightmare film franchise. With the fourth installment, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, due to hit theaters in August 1988, Zomba executive Barry Weiss approached New Line with the possibility of collaborating and forwarded a tape of the song.

Weiss’s timing was spot-on. New Line had recently conducted research that indicated that 40 percent of A Nightmare of Elm Street's audience was black, and they felt that tying Krueger into the burgeoning rap and hip-hop industry would help cement his appeal to the demographic. But New Line and Weiss couldn’t come to a financial agreement. Instead, the studio went with The Fat Boys and granted permission for the song “Are You Ready for Freddy?” The video, complete with an appearance by Englund (in character), was released just a few months prior to A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 to raise awareness of the sequel.

Although New Line found their collaborators, Zomba didn’t appear willing to give up on the idea of a Freddy takeoff. “Nightmare on My Street” remained on the album, and Smith and Townes recorded a video intended for distribution on MTV. In it, Smith is stalked by a Freddy-like character who appears in a trench coat and has a wrinkled face. Smith’s lyrics make overt reference to a Krueger-esque appearance. (Fred is “burnt like a weenie.”) The eerie house Smith calls home even bears a passing resemblance to the house in the original Nightmare film.

If Zomba thought they could declare the song and video a parody and be safe from legal action, they were mistaken. Almost immediately, New Line's legal team sent a stern letter demanding the music label recall all copies of the song. When that didn't happen, the studio next sought a preliminary injunction to prevent “Nightmare on My Street” from being aired on MTV or elsewhere, citing copyright infringement and a concern that the video would detract from their collaboration with The Fat Boys.

"We own both a character, Freddy Krueger, and the theme music from Nightmare on Elm Street, both of which are protected under the copyright laws," Seth Willenson, New Line's senior vice president of telecommunications, told the Los Angeles Times in August 1988. “By using Freddy in the Jazzy Jeff song, they've infringed our copyright. We're protecting our rights the same way that George Lucas does, because as far as we're concerned, Freddy Krueger is the Star Wars of New Line Cinema."

Weeks before the release of the film, a judge in New York’s United States District Court would have to decide whether Zomba was entitled to a fair use exemption over a fictional child murderer.

Will Smith appears at the Grammy Awards
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To Zomba’s dismay, judge Robert Ward didn’t buy their argument that “Nightmare on My Street” was nothing more than a Weird Al-style satire. Screening the entire first installment of the film series and the music video, Ward noted that the latter drew considerable influence in tone, mood, and characteristics from the feature. Fred’s voice was scratchy like Englund’s; his glove, though it featured phonograph needles instead of razors, was obviously meant to invoke Krueger’s weapon of choice. Where Zomba saw parody, Ward saw little more than a derivative work of a copyrighted property.

“It is in this month that many individuals will make their decision whether Nightmare IV is a film that they are interested in viewing,” wrote Ward in his decision. “Thus, the telecast of the lower quality DJ Jazzy Jeff video with the somewhat silly and less frightening Freddy could dissuade an unspecified number of individuals from seeing the film.” The injunction was granted, with a full hearing to be held at a later date.

That didn’t happen—both parties settled out of court. While the song remained on the record, it began to ship with a disclaimer that it wasn’t associated with New Line; the video, which had aired only briefly on MTV, was pulled, and the court ordered that all copies be destroyed. Whether or not that happened is hard to substantiate, but if the video is lurking in storage somewhere, it has never been excavated. “Nightmare on My Street” has never resurfaced.

If Smith and Townes were bothered by the outcome, they didn’t voice it publicly. Smith even dressed up as Krueger in a 1990 episode of his sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But there is one additional bit of film trivia to come out of the case: In seeking to resolve the issue, New Line offered DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince a two-film option. If they accepted the roles, their salaries would be deducted from the settlement payout. One of those projects was 1990’s House Party, which the two declined. The roles eventually went to Kid ‘n Play.

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