Every once and a while I DJ a wedding. I’ve done several recently. They tend to be among the most stressful and challenging gigs out there, so I don’t search them out. I also don’t advertise myself as a wedding DJ, although I am more than qualified. The first wedding I did was the Summer of 2001, and I was very nervous because I had none of the standards: no “YMCA,” no “We Are Family,” no “Celebrate,” etc. It’s not that I liked these songs, or wanted to play them, it was just that I was nervous that I would be expected to have them by members of the bridal party or their guests. I was so nervous that I didn’t have the right wedding music that I had the bride and groom come over to my house and look at my records to make sure they thought I would be alright for the gig. I expressed such hesitancy that they had several friends and relatives bring piles of music for me at the wedding, to bulk out my collection. I had recently acquired a DJ CD player, in addition to my turntables, so I was able to play their CDs. One friend brought some of the most hideous wedding cheese, with extensive notes on every CD, about how I was to play “Unforgettable” and “I Will Always Love You” (Whitney Houston version), and dozens of noxious others. The notes must have taken hours, and they enthusiastically (exclamation points abounded) demanded that all sorts of horrible songs from various television and movie soundtracks must be played. I didn’t touch anything in her pile. (I did discover “Sweets For My Sweet” by the Drifters from the father of the bride’s collection.)
The groom played in a rock band, and they played before me. They totally got the crowd going, and their finale actually cued a lot of people to leave. I went on and began bombing on stage, trying to play songs that people would know, but that weren’t super over-played. I watched a mass exodus to the waiting shuttle buses. Finally the drummer of the band, who was also a DJ, and seemingly none too happy that he didn’t get this gig, reached into his bag, pulled out an Aretha Franklin CD and said, “Play ‘Respect.’” “Oh man, that song is so totally overplayed,” I thought. “Oh well. What I’m doing isn’t working.” I put it on, and the dance floor went crazy. I had an epiphany. Weddings are about playing the most overplayed songs ever. Now, this might seem obvious to people who attend a lot of weddings, but up until this point in my life I had only attended two, and only one where a DJ performed. To this day I have only seen two wedding DJs perform, so I only have other people’s recollections to go on, to get some sense of how other DJs handle these gigs. Not that I am curious to emulate them, I am just curious what the norms are. I remember reading a how-to wedding DJ book, and of the 500 songs they said I must own, I had maybe two. I have since bought hundreds of these “standards” but I still don’t have any country other than Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.
I thought I had lowered my standards enough by what I brought to my first wedding. I learned that the trick to DJing weddings is lowering your standards until you couldn’t possibly lower them any more, and then lowering them even more, until there are no standards, except that of popularity, and familiarity. At this first wedding gig I found myself searching my mind and my collection for the most unbearably overplayed and obnoxious songs. Each one worked like a charm. As I stood there mortified by what I was playing, I realized that I was getting more money for DJing this gig than I had ever received, and it was the least challenging gig imaginable. I didn’t need to have any obscure music, or specialized DJ knowledge; just the opposite. All I needed to know was what the most overplayed songs in America are, and play them. Most of my time DJing house parties (my standard gigs before this wedding) had been spent thinking of the coolest or most obscure song I could get people to dance to. Even though many times I would have to play party standards, I would take pride in a set where I knew that no one knew any of the songs, or if I had to play popular songs, they were obscure covers or remixes. Here I was aiming for the lowest common denominator, to delirious success. It wasn’t about songs I liked, it was mostly about songs I didn’t like, but knew were popular.
“But wait a minute, earlier you said that weddings were the most challenging gigs, and now you are saying that playing music for weddings is the least challenging thing imaginable. Why the contradiction?” you might ask. Well, playing no-brainer songs is not the difficult part, it is dealing with all the personalities involved: the bride and groom, their family, friends, drunk family, drunk friends, the venue staff, the wedding coordinator, the caterer. There are so many unpredictable personalities the DJ has to navigate. I try to be really careful about whose weddings I DJ. I will avoid any couple if I get an unpleasant vibe from them. I am not desperate for gigs (the advantage of maintaining a day job) so I will turn down any couple that don’t seem friendly and likeable. Weddings have such built-in expectations, and I want to work with people who have reasonable expectations that I think I can fulfill. Even though I screen my couples carefully, I don’t know until I show up for the reception what the rest of the constellation of personalities that I will have to deal with for the evening are going to be. Some people are controlling, or rude, or completely misinformed as to what my job is, or what has and has not been run by me before. I have talked myself out of many wedding gigs. I have talked potential clients out of hiring me. When I play to hundreds of people at a club, I might upset some of them with my performance, but they are only invested a few bucks, and they are some among many. When I am hired for a wedding, I am being handed an ass-load of money for someone’s “very special” night, and I don’t want to blow it. Ultimately, there are only two people I have to please (even if their enjoyment is tied to whether everyone else has a good time), and only one person is writing the check.
I did a wedding recently where minutes after I arrived to set up I had multiple people demanding a microphone from me that could be used by the singers who would be performing during the ceremony. 1) I was only told to bring a mic for the toasts and announcements. 2) I was told that my performance would not be starting until hours after the ceremony. 3) I was not told that I would be doing live sound for multiple singers. I had just arrived and was suddenly told that not only was I going to be doing live sound, but that my equipment needed to be set up immediately, hours before my performance was scheduled to begin, since the singers wanted to begin practicing on my system before the ceremony. Oh, boy. This sort of confusion is typical. I never know what I will be walking into when I agree to perform at a wedding.
I take my wedding gigs very seriously. I spend far too much time and money trying to track down bride and groom requests, most of which never get played, due to lack of time. I try to cater my music to the couple and their guests as much as possible. I ask a lot of questions, and I try to bring as much music as possible, from as wide a collection of time periods and genres as possible, to please as great a number of attendees as I can. I have done several weddings with a lot of people in their 50′s and 60′s, so I am used to bringing all sorts of music from the last 55 years to my wedding gigs. When I showed up at this wedding the first person in my face, before the ceremony even begun, was an elderly gentleman who inquired about what music I had for 80-year-olds. Wow. I have a lot of swing music from the ’20s to ’40s, but that was never a part of my conversation with the bride and groom, so I had brought very little from before the rock’n’roll era. He referred to some “jamboree” that he goes to every year in his home town, and I tried to imagine what music an 80-year-old that attends some jamboree every year would want to hear. I had a very aggressive woman (seemingly an older family member) in my face telling me to make sure to play “Celebrate.” Right. The groom’s mother then comes over to tell me to play Earth Wind and Fire. Sure, got you covered. All of this is well before my performance is even scheduled to begin.
Once I do start playing, I am bombarded with insistent requests for the most diverse and contradictory set of songs/genres, while trying to navigate a list of forty-some songs that the bride and groom wanted me to play. Most couples leave me on my own to play what I think is best, with maybe a request or two at most. This particular couple gave me the longest song list I have ever received, which was about three times longer than what I would actually be able to fit into my performance time. On top of that, most of the songs didn’t seem likely to inspire anyone to dance. They weren’t good uptempo dance songs, and they weren’t good slow-dancing songs either. I start with some ballads. An old lady approaches me, asks me if I have “World War II music.” Hmmm. I play “September” for the mom. The “Celebrate” woman comes back, angrier, more insistent. I play “Celebrate,” and “We Are Family” a bride and groom request. Wow. I have never played those three songs together at a gig before. Never played “September.” Maybe played “Celebrate” once. Maybe. Never played “We Are Family” ever. That trifecta created a new DJ low for me. Afterwards the bride was very complimentary, and said that one of her friends was a big fan of mine, and very impressed that they had hired a DJ that always plays such great stuff. How embarrassing. They probably weren’t expecting me to play that collection of songs, based on seeing me at my club appearances. At a wedding I try to play the best music that I can, but I am pretty ego-less about trying to do what the bride and groom and their friends and family want from me, which means that as long as I think people will dance to a request, I will play it, to hell with my own taste and quality control standards.
While I am getting disco requests, and “Word War II music” requests, a tiny boy who doesn’t even come up to my waist requests “rap music.” Hooo, boy. I only have “dirty” versions of hip-hop songs, and not the “clean” ones, so the bride and groom had requested that I leave hip-hop for the end of the night, when the older and more sensitive family members had left. – I had noticed that the ceremony was highly religious, containing multiple Bible verse readings. – I tell the kid I’ll try to play some later. His mother comes back with the kid. “Can’t you play some rap music for my son?” Wow. This is not some young mother. This is the last person in the world you would expect to be requesting “rap music” whether for her son or anyone else. “I’m sorry, but due to language concerns, the bride and groom requested that I save rap for the end of the night,” I explain. “Well, can’t you play some old-school rap music?” she asks. Wow. I am shocked that the woman standing before me even has the phrase “old-school rap” in her vocabulary. I am floored. “OK, I’ll see what I can do.”
Every time I DJ a wedding I spend hundreds of dollars on music that I am convinced I must have in order to do the best job at the wedding. Anjali always questions my decision to spend so much in preparation, and I always tell her that I won’t have to do it next time, only to find myself convinced of all the music I didn’t have at the last wedding, that I really need, in order to do a good job at the next one. After every gig I always tell her, “You know, now that it’s over, I realize I didn’t need to buy any of that music to DJ that gig.” She reminds me of this every time, and I reply, “I know, but I really need to buy this stuff for this gig.” Yeah, right. Ah well, the same thing happens every time. But I know, that no matter how much I try to anticipate requests, and bring everything I could possibly need to play to a wedding, I will always get requests that no matter how many months I have spent preparing for a gig, I never could have anticipated. This time I got a doozy.
After I played her Earth Wind and Fire request, the mother of the groom comes back and requests Ween. Yes, WEEN. I’m speechless. “Ween? I didn’t bring any Ween.” I never, never, saw that one coming. I have since asked many Ween fans what song she might have thought I could play to a wedding dance floor. They always sit there stumped for a while and then half-heartedly suggest a couple remote possibilities. Yeah, that request takes the cake. You just never can know.
Oh, if you do hire a wedding DJ, please consider tipping them, no matter how much money they charge. If they did a good job, they deserve it.
Sometimes Wedding DJ for Hire
PS Thanks to the Nick, for being such a stellar roadie.
PSS The Nick reminded me that in addition to being a stellar roadie he managed to get smashed, dance all night, AND win the garter toss. Way to go, roadie!