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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.”  

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‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ Could Have Been a Meat Loaf Song
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Imagine a world in which Bonnie Tyler was not the star performer on the Royal Caribbean Total Eclipse Cruise. Imagine if, instead, as the moon crossed in front of the sun in the path of totality on August 21, 2017, the performer belting out the 1983 hit for cruise ship stargazers was Meat Loaf?

It could have been. Because yes, as Atlas Obscura informs us, the song was originally written for the bestselling rocker (and actor) of Bat Out of Hell fame, not the husky-voiced Welsh singer. Meat Loaf had worked on his 1977 record Bat Out of Hell with Jim Steinman, the composer and producer who would go on to work with the likes of Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand (oddly enough, he also composed Hulk Hogan’s theme song on an album released by the WWE). “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was meant for Meat Loaf’s follow-up album to Bat Out of Hell.

But Meat Loaf’s fruitful collaboration with Steinman was about to end. In the wake of his bestselling record, the artist was going through a rough patch, mentally, financially, and in terms of his singing ability. And the composer wasn’t about to stick around. As Steinman would tell CD Review magazine in 1989 (an article he has since posted on his personal website), "Basically I only stopped working with him because he lost his voice as far as I was concerned. It was his voice I was friends with really.” Harsh, Jim, harsh.

Steinman began working with Bonnie Tyler in 1982, and in 1983, she released her fifth album, Faster Than the Speed of Night, including “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It sold 6 million copies.

Tyler and Steinman both dispute that the song was written specifically for Meat Loaf. “Meat Loaf was apparently very annoyed that Jim gave that to me,” she told The Irish Times in 2014. “But Jim said he didn’t write it for Meat Loaf, that he only finished it after meeting me.”

There isn’t a whole lot of bad blood between the two singers, though. In 1989, they released a joint compilation album: Heaven and Hell.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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17 Electric Facts About MTV Unplugged
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Michael Stipe of R.E.M. goes Unplugged.
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Making its debut in 1989, MTV Unplugged—in which famous musicians perform stripped-down arrangements of their biggest hits—was a hit for both the cable network and the music industry, particularly in the early- to mid-'90s. Though it lost its regular time slot in 1999, in the near-20 years since, a handful of artists have popped in for brief revivals. But now it looks as if Unplugged is ready for a reboot; MTV has announced that the series will be back beginning on September 8, 2017, with Shawn Mendes as its first guest. In the meantime, here's a look behind the scenes of the music series that became a phenomenon.

1. OPINIONS VARY ON WHO CAME UP WITH THE IDEA.

Singer/songwriter Jules Shear has said that he came up with the concept for MTV Unplugged to promote his acoustic album, The Third Party. In 1992, The New York Times wrote that Shear was inspired by Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora's two-song acoustic set at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards.

That's all well and good, but producers Jim Burns and Bob Small claim they got the idea for MTV Unplugged after Bruce Springsteen treated the two—and the thousands of other fans at one of his concerts—to a final encore featuring just himself and his acoustic guitar. (Springsteen would find his way onto Unplugged in 1992.)

Executive producer Joel Gallen has referred to Unplugged as his "baby" as well and, like Shear, was inspired by Bon Jovi and Sambora's VMA set, which he called a "jumping off point." In I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Small said: “Please do not credit Bon Jovi for creating Unplugged. Jon Bon Jovi thinks he was the inspiration for it. He wouldn’t even do the f***ing show until almost 20 years later.”

2. BOTH HBO AND PBS SAID NO.

HBO passed on Unplugged when Shear proposed the concept to the pay channel. Burns and Small pitched the series to PBS after MTV initially said no. PBS simply echoed MTV and HBO. It was only when Burns and Small ally Judy McGrath got a promotion at MTV that a pilot got a greenlight.

3. IT WAS A CHEAP PILOT TO SHOOT.

Bob Small said he had just four hours to set up for the Unplugged pilot, with another four hours to film it—and all on a budget of $18,000. "I couldn't get money to hire a director," Small said. "They said, 'You direct it.'"

4. THERE WAS A HOST FOR THE FIRST 13 EPISODES.

None other than Jules Shear was the undisputed master of ceremonies for the first season. He also joined in on some songs.

5. THE FIRST GUESTS DIDN'T QUITE GRASP THE CONCEPT OF UNPLUGGED.

Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford from Squeeze were the stars of the first episode, which aired on November 26, 1989. But they were unprepared. "Chris and Glenn showed up for rehearsal with electric guitars," Alex Coletti, who would end up producing the show through 2001, recalled. "I said: 'Very funny, guys. Where are the acoustics? It’s Unplugged.' They looked at each other and went, 'Riiight… Make a phone call, quick!'"

6. PRODUCERS SCRAMBLED TO GIVE JOE WALSH ACTUAL FRIENDS.

"The fifth episode was billed as Joe Walsh and Friends, and Joe showed up with only one friend—Ricky, his bass player," Coletti remembered. "We thought it meant his famous friends, but apparently that got lost in translation." Walsh had been a member of The Eagles, who had an infamous falling-out, but Walsh's claim of buddies gave MTV employees false hope. Producer Bruce Leddy found Dr. John recording at a neighboring studio and convinced him to come on and be Walsh's "friend."

7. DON HENLEY WAS NOT HAPPY THAT WALSH PLAYED "DESPERADO."

Walsh's former Eagles bandmate wrote "Desperado," as well as a three-page fax explaining to MTV that he didn't want Walsh to play it and he was refusing permission to air the performance. It was after the fax that the network invited Henley to come on the show himself to perform it. Henley was the first artist to get an entire half-hour on his own as the only artist, which quickly became the status quo for Unplugged. In 1994, when The Eagles reunited, they appeared on an MTV Unplugged special.

8. LL COOL J HAD NEVER WORKED WITH A LIVE BAND BEFORE.

The first Unplugged featuring rap artists took place in 1991. Pop's Cool Love backed LL Cool J, MC Lyte, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest. “[It’s like] you drink milk for 10 years and then [you have to] drink fruit punch,” Quest's Q-Tip said about performing with the band. “It’s not that the fruit is bad, but you have to get used to it.”

But LL seemed able to adapt. "We rehearsed the night before and LL Cool J had never worked with a live band," Coletti said. "Before long, he was calling the shots like he'd been doing it his whole life."

9. LL COOL J KNOWS YOU SAW HIS DEODORANT.

"People have teased me about the deodorant for years, but I love it," he said. "It was raw! It was nasty! At least you know I wasn’t stinking.”

10. PAUL MCCARTNEY WAS THE FIRST ARTIST TO OFFICIALLY RELEASE HIS UNPLUGGED SET.

Before Paul McCartney, no other Unplugged artist body had thought to release their acoustic set as an album. But after he performed in 1991, the former Beatle was worried about it getting out to the masses illegally. “I figured that as Unplugged would be screened around the world there was every chance that some bright spark would tape the show and turn it into a bootleg, so we decided to bootleg the show ourselves," he admitted. "We heard the tapes in the car driving back. By the time we got home, we’d decided we’d got an album—albeit one of the fastest I’ve ever made.” He even titled the live performance collection Unplugged (The Official Bootleg).

11. ERIC CLAPTON WAS HESITANT TO RELEASE HIS SHOW AS AN ALBUM.

"Slowhand" performed to acclaim in 1992, but he initially didn't think it was good enough to be released officially as a CD. So naturally, his live album Unplugged won the Grammy for Album of the Year. His "Tears in Heaven" performance in particular won Song and Record of the Year. Two years later, Tony Bennett followed suit, winning the 1994 Album of the Year prize for his time on the show.

12. NEIL YOUNG WALKED OUT ON HIMSELF.

Neil Young's Unplugged was supposed to have been taped at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York on December 12, 1992. Instead, on that night—at that venue—the audience saw something they would probably never forget: Neil Young walking out the door after numerous mistakes. The "stunned" crew members managed to get him to come back to try again that night. Young opted to junk the performance entirely, and tried again two months later—this time with a band, and with much more success.

13. TORI AMOS WALKED OUT, TOO.

Amos was thrown off and "couldn't harness the energy." But unlike Young, she was able to walk back onstage, perform, and not have to try again with another set on a different night. As the singer/songwriter remembered it, she and her manager paced "beneath the MTV thing" backstage thinking about the problem. "Then my [lighting director] came down and said, 'Something just doesn't feel right. I can’t put my finger on it,'" Amos told Worstgig.com. "For 700 shows over the five years (prior to that), I'd played with the lights down. So all the lights were up to catch the audience and I felt like somebody was watching me take a shower. So they dimmed the lights, I felt better. By that point because I'd made the choice to stop it and make some changes, I felt like I began again. And I turned the whole show around."

14. ALEX COLETTI FOUGHT TO CUT "THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD" FROM NIRVANA'S EPISODE.

"Maybe I shouldn't give this secret away, but I built a fake box out in front of the amp to make it look like a monitor wedge," Coletti admitted to Guitar World in 1995. "It's an acoustic guitar, but he's obviously going through an amp," he added, talking about the now iconic David Bowie cover. "I actually fought pretty hard to leave that song out [of the final edit of the show], because I felt it wasn't as genuine as the rest of the songs. But I'm a huge Bowie fan, so I couldn't fight too hard against the song."

15. DAVE GROHL WAS ALMOST UNINVITED TO NIRVANA'S SHOW.

The Nirvana drummer remembered that it was a minor miracle that the band's Unplugged performance went so well. “That show was supposed to be a disaster,” Grohl said. “We hadn’t rehearsed. We weren’t used to playing acoustic. We did a few rehearsals and they were terrible. Everyone thought it was horrible. Even the people from MTV thought it was horrible. Then we sat down and the cameras started rolling and something clicked. It became one of the band’s most memorable performances.”

As Coletti told it, Kurt Cobain was thinking of just replacing Grohl behind the kit, or maybe not using a drummer at all. “What I didn’t know was up until the day [of the Unplugged performance], there was talk of Dave [Grohl] not playing at all in the show,” the producer revealed in 2014. “Kurt wasn’t happy with the way rehearsals were going; he didn’t like the way Dave sounded playing drums with sticks."

But Grohl turned up the day of filming, and Coletti gifted him some brushes and sizzle sticks to give his drumming a softer sound. "I was afraid Dave would just roll his eyes, like, 'Oh great, the a**hole from MTV is trying to be my friend,'" the producer remembered thinking. "But instead he opened the package and said, 'Cool, I've never had brushes before. I've never even tried using them.'" The album Unplugged in New York won the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album in 1996. It was the band's lone Grammy win.

16. YES, THEY TRIED TO GET ROBERT PLANT AND JIMMY PAGE TO PLAY "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN."

The Led Zeppelin bandmates reunited in 1994 for the Unplugged special: No Quarter: Robert Plant and Jimmy Page Unledded, which at the time was the highest-rated episode of the series ever. MTV suggested they film it in Queens, New York. Plant suggested Morocco and Wales because it was where he wrote "Kashmir" and "Down by the Seaside," respectively. Network executives explicitly requested "Stairway" but were shot down. "I think we're in a disposable world and 'Stairway to Heaven' is one of the things that hasn't quite been thrown away yet," Plant said in 1994. "I think radio stations should be asked not to play it for 10 years, just to leave it alone for a bit so we can tell whether it's any good or not."

17. LIAM GALLAGHER HECKLED HIS BROTHER.

Oasis lead vocalist Liam Gallagher backed out of the Royal Festival Hall gig in London at the last minute due to a "sore throat," so songwriter/guitarist/brother Noel took over the vocal duties. Noel would later disclose that Liam in fact appeared an hour before showtime "sh*tfaced," and when he tried to sing it sounded "f**king dreadful." Liam watched the performance from the balcony and at times jeered the band. Noel told him to shut up. Coletti thought it was all for the best. "There's something when the songwriter himself sings it. Maybe he's a little more connected to the song."

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