Many would argue that an opening or “warm-up” DJ set takes just as much skill as a headlining set. As a DJ tasked with an opening time slot, it’s up to them to set the mood, ambiance, and overall success of the event. To add to this pressure, many opening sets are performed by — you guessed it — beginner DJs. So, oftentimes DJs with very little experience have to jump on and hit the ground running. We’ve done a bit of research and talked to a few DJs about their experiences as an opening DJ. Below are some of the biggest challenges they faced, as well as some tips to overcome these challenges.
Challenge 1: How do I play to an empty room and/or a sober crowd?
Whether you have 20 or 200 people in the room, embrace the crowd. If there are only a few people you’re playing to, play your heart out to those few. In other words, don’t half-ass your set. Stay focused and show enthusiasm for the tracks you’re choosing. Remember, your energy is infectious. Keeping energy levels up will help earn you more respect from other DJs, promoters, and guests, which certainly won’t hurt your chances of being booked more often.
Challenge 2: How do I build an atmosphere and vibe?
Creating an atmosphere or a vibe for the night is crucial. A good opening DJ has their finger on the pulse of the crowd from the moment they walk into the room, until the transition to the main act’s set. You need to progressively build energy on the dance floor while at the same time inspiring the expanding crowd to buy drinks at the bar. Having an extensive selection of music will come in handy here. Maybe you’ll want to pull from a selection of classics or switch to a different genre after getting a feel for the room. Either way, try to avoid the current top hits and strategically shape your set according to your time slot, the DJ(s) coming on after you, and the energy of the crowd. Remember, it’s your job to get them warmed up and ready for the main event.
Challenge 3: Do I keep it low key or bring the energy?
Being the opener requires a certain balancing act. You have to keep people dancing, but you can’t get them too tired out. Don’t be boring, but keep the right level of excitement in your set. It’s a delicate game to keep the balance. If you notice things are getting too dull, kick it up a notch. Most importantly, don’t worry too much. You will get better at it. Just stay focused and keep refining your skills.
Challenge 4: Should I play similar or different music than the headliner?
The opening DJ should typically plan their set according to the style of the headlining artist, while at the same time carefully selecting music that they would never play in their show. This is where doing your homework and communicating with the headliner or the promoter can come in handy. Days or even weeks before the event, begin your research on the headliner, get to know their style, listen to their mixes, and get an understanding of the story they try to convey in their sets. After that, begin to prepare and curate your own set list while keeping in mind tracks that will provide a good intro for the night.
Challenge 5: Are there tracks I shouldn’t play?
The last thing you want to do is make the headliner, promoter, or venue manager angry or annoyed. After all, doing this could result in never get booked with them again. So how do you avoid this? First and foremost, it’s considered a major faux pas for the opening DJ to play any tracks produced by the headliner or tracks they are affiliated with in any way. This ties back to Challenge 4 and doing your homework. Second, think about the event as a crescendo, or a progressive increase in intensity. Every party starts out slow then gradually climbs to an apex. Don’t play hit after hit with no regard for the DJ coming on after you. Sometimes opening DJs see the gig as an opportunity to show off what they’ve got and then make the mistake of going too big, too fast. Instead, build your set in a tasteful and considerate way. Remember, practice makes perfect and preparation is key!
In the end, it’s up to the opening DJ to set the mood for the event. You can look at it as a daunting task or you can embrace it. The latter will help refine your skills in reading the crowd, earn you respect from more established DJs, and eventually get you more bookings.
Let us know if you’ve ever faced a situation similar to these. How did you handle it? What is your best advice for rocking a killer opening set? We want to hear from you!