How to manage the audience as a DJ

You’ve heard the phrase “Fake it until you make it”?

No, I’m not going to suggest anything underhand! But I am going to explain the thing that happened to me that was responsible for teaching me that I could manage an audience – and what I was learned was that audience management was about my mind, not about how experienced I was.

As an inexperienced DJ, I used to hang out and study the professionals in my area. One DJ in particular – actually, and sadly unusually, a young woman – took pity on me and began to befriend me, mentoring me a little. She would chat to me in-between tracks, checking out whether I was able to explain back to her why she had made particular sequencing choices; asking me what tune I would be planning to play three records ahead; or getting me to tell her which segments of the audience that were not dancing at that moment she should aim some tunes at within the next 20 minutes or so.

(You do think in these ways yourself, don’t you, when running your set? A pro-DJ should be highly audience-aware, and be planning ahead to ensure that as many segments of the audience as possible get to hear tunes that suit them. That’s good business. It also takes a lot of gigs to get your antennae working effectively!)

Anyway, what happened is this: one night, in a moderately busy club at about 1 p.m., my mentor popped to the toilet. Except she didn’t pop; she disappeared altogether. I was standing there waiting for her to return as the track – “You’re putting a Rush on Me” (what a joke!) – neared its end.

Suddenly, I knew exactly what she had done. I knew this was a test; I knew she was watching from somewhere in the club. I also knew that the club’s staff, and the regular customers, had got used to seeing me nearby or alongside the DJ, and that they would assume I was taking over while Susie took a break.

So I did. The next record was ready, and I faded it in; and for the next 30 minutes I was in heaven. I picked a selection of tunes to play, with a plan for moving from some slightly mellow tunes to a more frenetic phase – oh, and I did my best to look as though this was just routine to me. Do you know what? When Susie came back after half an hour later, just as many people were dancing as had been when she pulled her stunt!

Apart from making me adore Susie even more than I already did, what did I learn from this?

Authority, composure, being in control, professionalism, even coolness – they’re in the eyes of the beholder. The audience and staff that night treated me like Susie’s deputy, and so I was. I even treated myself like it!

It’s as though there is a real you and a cartoon you. The audience sees the cartoon you, not the real you. Keep this idea with you, and utilize it: the cartoon you – the stage DJ – can have a different persona to your private self.

Even if (like me) you’re actually a bit shy, the cartoon you needn’t evidence any shyness.

If you act confident then your confidence is basically a matter of fact. After all, how does your audience know you’re nervous unless you transmit that to them?

That lesson was scary at first, but actually I think Susie was very clever – if she’d built up to it so I knew it was coming, I’d probably have crumbled into a bag of nerves. She helped cure me of my fears about performing.

By the way,if any of you are involved in training, or even in the same situation that I used to be in and you have identified a mentor – the type of interaction I described earlier is, I now have learned, one of the most powerful and enduring training methods known in the business world. Most people don’t get that sort of detailed, specific, practical, real-time mentoring. If you can organize it for yourself from a pro DJ you admire, rip his or her hands off!