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Shopping for a DJ – Words of Advice from a Pro

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Bill Spencer of Bill’s DJ Service in Cheyenne has LOTS of years of experience in the entertainment industry – and he’s compiled his list of tips for how to pick your perfect wedding DJ. Lots of good ideas follow – this is one to bookmark and refer back to often as you process your choices!

How to Choose a Disc Jockey

By Bill Spencer,

In this era of Disc Jockey entertainment, internet music downloads and IPods, chances are you’ve heard horror stories about “a terrible DJ” that performed for a party or reception. Now that it’s your turn to hire a DJ, you can avoid making the wrong decision. Hiring a mediocre or bad DJ can be avoided if you ask the right questions and take the correct steps. Read this article all the way through; then go back and take notes on the points most important to you.

From East to West, ALL DJs come in 3 varieties: bad, average, and outstanding. For every 10 Disc Jockeys – 4 are bad – 5 are average – and 1 is outstanding. These statistics show why the Disc Jockey field is proliferated by hundreds of horror stories. There are simply more average and mediocre DJs than outstanding ones. They may seem great to certain people who don’t get out and party much, but when compared to the performance of an outstanding DJ, the differences are very obvious.

MUSIC CAN MAKE OR BREAK YOUR WEDDING! Surveys have consistently shown for the past 30 years that 2 out of 3 guests agree that music can make or break a wedding or party. Everyone’s heard that famous saying before, but when it comes down to decision time, why do some brides still throw common sense out the window to save a few hundred bucks? The dirty little secret is that most brides seldom hear complaints about the terrible or “cheap DJ” they hired…simply because her friends and relatives don’t want to embarrass her by giving her HONEST feedback. After all, that may be considered rude.

So, now that you’re ready to DJ shop, you need to define your situation: Do you want to really IMPRESS your guests, or, just give them a human jukebox that spits out songs and requests? In most cases, YOU WILL GET EXACTLY WHAT YOU PAY FOR. Never look at your purchase of a DJ like the purchase of a tangible item like catering costs or the rental of a hall. When any of your guests look back on your wedding reception six months from now, are they going to talk about the food, the cake, the photographer…OR are they going to talk about HOW MUCH FUN THEY HAD!! And this is where quality DJ entertainment comes in. Bargain shoppers always seem to get the disappointing results they pay for.

Some DJs stay in business not because they are talented but simply because they are born salesmen. You see, Bad DJs can impress you with slick telemarketing tactics and “sweet talk” you into paying a premium rate. They are ready to take full advantage of you by setting up a face-to-face appointment because they know all the pressure tactics to use in “closing the deal.” They may have even paid for and attended special Disc Jockey seminars that specialize on training DJs to extract the maximum payment they can get out of a bride’s wedding budget.

On the other hand, not all good DJs are the best salesmen. The average cost for DJs for prime time Saturdays in larger population areas is about $900 to $1,750 for a four-hour period (overtime going for $150-$250 per hour.) In smaller population centers or rural areas, like Cheyenne, Wyoming, this price range will be more like $600 to $1,000. The popularity of some good DJs commands a higher fee, whereas less experienced or more average DJs fall in the lower levels. Test question: how good is a DJ if he is the cheapest rate out of a market area of 100 advertised DJs?

HINT: It doesn’t hurt to ask for a discount if your event is on any other day other than Friday or Saturday. Most entertainers’ calendars are more flexible during other days of the week, therefore, they are more willing to discount their rates.

Don’t get sidetracked into a discussion of hourly rates. This is a trick most often used by shady DJ agencies with multiple DJs up for grabs. Or it’s a common ploy used by the newer DJs who are greener when it comes to price quotes and packages. DJs should be booked as a package… just like live bands. EXAMPLE: Plumbers charge by the hour because they can easily fill their day with appointments making quick house calls. They grab a toolbox, jump in the truck and off they go! DJs don’t have this flexibility with all the equipment they have to lug around and the lengthy time requirement for set-up. If a DJ charges for only two hours, then how will they make up the three hour difference in income for that same day? Most brides book weddings for at least four hours. DJs know they can base their overhead costs and profit on this average.

So, unlike a plumber making a quick service call, the DJ faces a much higher level of equipment logistics. And while considering this fact, smart DJs know it just isn’t feasible to discount loading time, labor costs and other operating costs since those costs are always fixed. Most good quality DJs have an overhead expense obligation of about 25-45% before they earn their first dollar of profit! If you get a price quote that seems extremely low, then this tells you how little value that DJ places on his operation overall.

Now…with all this information how do I find the best DJ?

Use the guide below when interviewing DJs. Be careful not to come off sounding like an interrogator. Instead, ask the following questions in a friendly and relaxed, easy-going manner… Remember he or she can decide not to take the job.

HOW IS YOUR DJ VOICE! How do you make announcements?

Somewhere along the line, people often forget one of the most important requirement to ask the DJ: Do they have a trained announcer’s voice? While speaking to your DJ on the phone or in person, do you feel confident that your guests will be impressed with your choice of DJ? Remember, he or she will be your official representative when making announcements! Is their VOICE rich and resonate …enunciating clearly and commanding attention? Or, does their voice sound average…like any other person who does not entertain. Try a flash quiz on your DJ candidate: “Can we hear a sample of how you will ask guests to be seated for dinner?” Or ask them, “How will you announce our grand entrance coming into the reception hall?”

Will you be the DJ who performs, or will it be someone else?

Always talk directly to the actual DJ you are contracting. An agent or sales rep is okay for paperwork details and contracts, but don’t sign anything until you have talked to your actual DJ. Be wary of major “bluff” tactics or stalling techniques that many larger DJ companies use to change the subject at this point. If the DJ you originally wanted is not available to see, meet, or at least speak to on the phone, then BEWARE! And watch out for this famous tactic: A “great DJ” you had hoped to hire might not be available for your event date. Sometimes, even Great DJs can refer a bad DJ if the booking commission or “finder’s fee kick-back” is the right price.

How many shows have you performed and for how many years?

If you are dubious of the DJs answer, politely request if the DJ has documentation to back up his claims. You can explain that you hear from DJs all the time that claim they are established veterans with hundreds or thousands of shows on their resume. So to get more information, you might say, “How can I tell who is telling the truth”? If the DJ balks at your request for evidence – or puts up a smoke screen… pass. There are other DJs out there with more integrity and experience.

Do you have references that I can talk to?

Check out former clients who have hired the DJ: catering managers, hotels, resorts, booking agents, photographers and videographers. These businesses see hundreds of DJs every year and know who the good and bad ones are. But even here, you must be careful. Unfortunately, there is a growing trend of professional event vendors who get paid “finder’s fees” or kick-back commissions for referrals.

Or, another popular trend is for a collective group of event vendors to form their own little Wedding Associations where they try to establish credibility for their group by designing a logo and clever catch phrase, and then they give each other glorious awards and trophies every year so they can all have bragging rights in their advertising that they are “award-winning” wedding professionals! In reality, they are a closely-knit clique of a limited number of vendors in each category, such as DJs, photographers, cake makers, videographers, wedding coordinators, caterers, etc.

Any event professional who is being paid a kick-back will have no objectivity. Move on to another vendor or reference. For example: the chances are slim that one DJ will have “sweetheart kick-back deals” with EVERY photographer in town! And don’t forget to call three or four former customers the DJ has performed for and review thank you notes that have been sent to the DJ. Fake actors pretending to be brides are usually obvious during a phone call if you ask the right questions. There will always be sneaky people who try to use their wife, sister or friend to pose as a former bride and client of a DJ. Especially if they have a bad reputation from other sources!

DJ’s business manner:

Any DJ you hire should have a positive, nice personality. He should also be prompt in returning emails, phone messages and showing up on time for meetings and appointments. And finally, does the DJ exude a confident, professional attitude? Or, is he or she arrogant and stand-offish? Ego-maniacs will really turn off your guests! Also, peculiar personal hygiene will be noticed by your guests and will reflect directly on you and your tastes in hiring your musical representative.

What does your equipment consist of? What does it look like?

Basics should include: (1) digital music players such as computers, laptops or compact disc players that operate like open turntables. (Plain old home-styled CD players are very limited in functions, and will prevent the DJ from doing beat mixes with other songs.) (2) high-quality professional amplifier(s), (3) a professional mixer for microphone inputs and music source inputs, (4) at least two speakers capable of filling a dance floor with a clean sound without distorting, (5) at least two microphones (one should be a high-quality wireless mic for toasts, etc.).

TURNTABLES: Any DJ that uses turntables and records in today’s world is either too cheap to buy contemporary digital equipment and music, OR they primarily focus on vinyl records that are still made for rap, hip-hop, techno, rave, house or alternative music. Not many brides want their wedding receptions to be turned into a single style of music. If you hire a DJ that has mostly records and likes these styles – then that is what you will mostly hear, regardless of him saying he plays “a variety.”

Can you send us a song list so we can view your overall music selection? Can we make requests? How many? Can we specify what you SHOULD NOT play?

Ask to review the DJ’s library – again without sounding testy or like an interrogator. Contemporary DJs have computerized lists of their song library. With the access of digital music in today’s world, 20,000 songs is a good starting point for a DJ music inventory – as long as this includes the variety of ALL MUSIC STYLES. Better music inventories will extend up to 100,000 or more. If the DJ has no way to show you their song library in a print out or on a computer screen, then this is not a good sign they have an adequate music library. And if their song lists are disorganized or confusing, then this is also bad omen, so steer clear of that DJ, no matter what their excuse is.

Smart DJs categorize their music by decades, then the style of music within each of those decades. Inexperienced or Dumb DJs only alphabetize their music by song or artist which does not help at all when mixing music during a frantically paced dance party! Some DJs are in business for only one primary reason: they try to force their musical tastes onto their audiences. This is like the typical dork who loves to play loud, thumping rap music on their car stereo while you and he are waiting at the same traffic light. Imagine that same guy’s ego and attitude forcing their favorite brand of music on guests at your wedding reception or party.

Can I control the volume?

No DJ should ever have any problems with this minor request.

Do you mind if I ask…what is your age?

No legal violations here…you’re not hiring a Government employee. You are simply renting a contractor for a few hours. Age affects music bias. We all know the difference between growing up with certain music as opposed to learning about music styles from the internet, TV or the MOVIES. Note: younger DJs lean more towards rap, hip-hop, progressive rock, hard rock, techno and alternative. Older DJs are less knowledgeable about the latest song releases for these newer styles, but they are usually more experienced with the balance of all other music from popular charts in the last several decades.  If you’re hiring a company who has several DJ ask who will be my DJ and how old is he.

Does your price include lighting? What kind?

Conservative is better for weddings. There are finally newer type computerized lighting effects available that are considered in good taste for wedding receptions. Wild crazy lights and extreme effects are better for certain types of parties and themes. It’s all according to your taste.

Do you arrive self-contained, or do we need to provide anything?

Pros arrive self-contained and don’t need a thing except a space to set up and at least one (1) 115-volt, 20 amp electrical outlet (2 separate 115 volt circuits are better if using more lighting effects). For extreme lighting shows and audio visual set-ups, a separate power “drop box” may be required which involves discussions with the maintenance staff at your venue.

What does your equipment set-up look like?

Note the cosmetic appearance of the DJ’s equipment. Some DJs are tasteful and creative and have a clean, modern look. Amateur DJs still make the caterer or banquet hall provide a six or eight foot folding table to set equipment on. You should not be hiring this type of amateur, but if you do…then you are stuck making arrangements for the DJ’s personal equipment table. Most DJ folding table set-ups do not look professional, but are sloppy with twisted, rats nests of electrical cords hanging everywhere off the edges of the table. Remember that big banquet tables eat up more space.

Do we have to pay for your driving time or set-up time?

30-60 minutes’ drive time is the average for most DJ gigs. You should not have to pay them for travel time to any venue that takes a half-hour to drive to! But, for hour-long trips, there might be a fee of an additional $25 to $75 for gas, bridge toll and driving time reimbursement. EXAMPLE: Do you charge your boss for the time it takes you to prepare for work in the morning? OR, do you get paid for driving to work every day? Enough said! I don’t care how good your DJ might be: he is not a movie star or the President. By the way: you should not be charged labor for the time a DJ sets up their equipment. The exception to this is when you are paying for more equipment upgrades, such as bigger speakers, AV equipment, or additional sound reinforcement for wedding ceremonies in the same or other locations. Average set-up time for most DJs is one hour for load-in and set-up. It will be longer for large hotels with elevators and multiple events going on simultaneously.

Do you use an assistant(s)?

Some DJs use an assistant to help out. If so, verify who this assistant is by name, and what they will wear and what they will do during the reception. Do you want the assistant to eat food as well as the DJ? Or what if the assistant dances with your guests? A pretty female assistant may be good to get men to dance, but often this can backfire as wives and girlfriends get jealous or offended. The same is true if a male assistant asks female wedding guests to dance. Single men in attendance might be offended that they don’t have a shot at asking that nice single lady to dance. So be sure to clarify with the DJ exactly what the assistant’s role will be throughout the reception.

Can you go overtime if everything is going well?

Discuss this in advance. If so, how much is the cost and who gives the official “OKAY” at what time to keep the dance music going. When does the overtime money get paid, by whom and in what form (cash, check, travelers check, charge, etc)?

Will you let us use an extra microphone?

Normally microphones are provided for toasts, singers, or announcements. DJs do not allow random grabs of their live microphone by guests. They know they are personally responsible for every word being said through the sound system. The only exception is for the bride and groom to give approval of any such comments from guests over a microphone in advance (but within reason – not for silly drunks or fools that can tend to be rude, obnoxious, or ruin the fun mood on the dance floor).

What type of background music do you play for cocktails or dinner?

Make sure it’s not all the same type or style of music. No one wants to hear all jazz, all classical, or too much Kenny G, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, or Barry Manilow. Avoid single music style marathons, please! You will bore your guests otherwise.

Besides announcements, how much do you talk? What type of things do you say?

Your DJ needs to know when to talk and when to SHUT UP!

Can you give me some examples of how your experience helped you “ad-lib” when an emergency arose?

Try him or her out on this one: It will tell you how experienced and professional they are.

What will you wear? A tuxedo?

Happy hunting! I hope all of this information helps you on your “Disc Jockey Quest”!


Bill Spencer






Copyright 2014 Bill’s DJ Service

5401 Walker Road Suite B

Cheyenne WY, 82009

Phone: 307-514-0955

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