Ask any DJ what skills are necessary for a good live set, and after possibly giving a few answers related to technical skill, he or she will almost inevitably respond with “reading the crowd”.
This is brought up often because it is important (probably the key factor that defines how good of a DJ you really are), but it gets recycled over and over again to the point where it just kinda becomes noise. Almost every DJ thinks that they read the crowd, but it often seems like lip service.
Yes, the basic idea behind crowd reading is to watch what people are doing. But, just as all with all things, collecting data and not using it is mostly just a waste of effort. It’s like studying about a topic for a test, but giving a completely wrong answer regardless because your answer better suits your mood. If you think this seems obvious, I’m not going to disagree with you. You have to use the information you gather to alter the direction of your set on the spot. That’s the best skill you can have as a club/mix DJ. It’s not rocket surgery.
Reading the crowd becomes much easier if you do your homework beforehand. But you can’t always predict what an audience is going to be in to, and you should be prepared to test different things to see what works in order to perform a course correction on your musical journey.
One of my other interests outside of DJing is entrepreneurship, and my favorite book on the subject is called The Lean Startup by Eric Reis. In the book, Eric basically preaches the idea that you don’t want to go “all in” on a business venture before you have the appropriate market data. The whole concept relies on something called validated learning.
“The principle of validated learning is defined as a process, where one learns by trying out an initial idea and then measure it to validate what the effect was. From each iteration of trying something is learnt and the next try will succeed better”
Essentially, the lean startup model involves starting with an idea before you become too invested, gauging your market (audience) reaction, and then acting accordingly. If the market (audience) eats it up, you know you’re on the right track. If it flops, you can pivot your vision and try again… until it works.
I’m sure you see what I’m getting at, here. DJing should also rely on validated learning. This may require you to let go of your ego a bit. If you had a general idea (or maybe even a strict playlist) that you planned on playing beforehand, and it’s not working, the worst thing you can do is to strictly adhere to that list… especially if the set you had in mind is all pretty much along the same general sound or concept. Start trying new things, and see if it’s working.
It doesn’t mean that you have to jerk your audience around from one extreme to another. Many of the most effective things that affect the synergy of a dance floor (or general atmosphere) are quite subtle. Pay close attention to the tracks you are playing. What are the basslines doing? Are they cold and mechanical? Try introducing something that’s got a bit more funk (syncopation) to it. Are your tracks giving off a very happy vibe? Maybe this crowd would do better with something that has a little dirt and grime. Are the songs very percussive and layered? Try slipping something with a melody in. Gauge reactions, and start taking note of what works.
Being able to do this requires you to know your music, as well as have a varied and versatile musical selection. It’s important to have enough varied styles of music to “pivot”, but not so much that you’re overwhelmed and can’t remember what tracks are what.
If you’re a traveling DJ, it’s harder to check out a particular night and venue beforehand. Crowd reading is even more important for you. Really, if scoping out a venue is part of your homework, crowd reading is part of taking the big exam.
This is where the most fun is to me when it comes to mixing records to an audience. If you’re good at it, it becomes a bit of a psychological game. I love testing a hypothesis live. Sometimes a smile, sudden movement, or a tapping foot is all it takes to pick up on someone’s enjoyment of a particular element. It’s all about introducing subtle elements and observing subtle results. Remember, this is not just about you… and this is an excellent way to find the middle ground between what you wanna do and what they wanna hear.
While I would argue that DJing is (or can be) an art, it’s primary purpose is entertainment. We’d all do well to keep that in mind.