How to Prepare for Your First Festival Set

You’ve been killing it in small clubs everywhere—but now it’s time to step it up and play for thousands (okay, maybe hundreds) of people who may not know who you are, or are just out for a party. Here’s what you need to know to prepare for your first festival set and win over a ton of new fans.

GET A READ ON THE CROWD

crowd

Like any gig, it’s worth feeling out the crowd for a while before you go on. Hopefully you’ll be there well before your set—and why not? It’s a festival, after all—so give yourself some time to wander around and get the vibe of the place.

“In a way, reading a festival crowd is easier than reading a club crowd as most people are there on a common level en masse, and on the same ‘party clock’ or state of mind.

– Dave Aju ”

Of course, playing a festival can mean that you’re put high up on a stage, away from the close connection you might be used to with club crowds. So getting a read on the crowd when you’re down in it is important.

Our own Ean Golden suggests:

“You might consider checking out the other stages, and carefully reading the lineup for what will be played during your slot. If it’s all banging electro music, perhaps a low key house set might provide a welcome respite and pull a crowd from the larger stages. Bottom line, it pays to be aware and respond to the conditions on the ground. ”

PROVE YOURSELF EARLY

nina
Nina Kraviz playing to an early crowd at Movement 2012.

Whether it’s your first or 50th time onstage at a festival, there’s a good chance you’re not the DJ everyone came to see (usually)—so you’re going to need to prove yourself to win over the crowd. And early—at most festivals there are as many musical options as there are carnival distractions, so get them under your thumb as soon as possible.

“The crowd might not know who the hell you are, so you have to prove yourself within the first few tracks,” says Danny Clancy of London duo Krankbrother. That doesn’t mean breaking out your bangers right away (remember the basics of an opening set?), but make sure that your first few tracks are impeccable.

“You don’t have long before the crowd wanders over to the merch booth, so make it count.”

“Concentrate more on the sweet spot of the crowd and try your best to reinstall that connection and certainly not worry about the people on the peripheral edges—they are only half-listening anyway,” says Berlin DJ and Sub:tance resident John Osborn. “If you build a good connection with the sweet spot of the crowd, it will grow, dragging in the peripheral half-listeners and turning them into full-on hands-in-the-air ravers, if you drop the right tunes at the right time,” says Osborn.

TIGHTEN IT UP AND BRING THE PARTY

krankbrother
Krankbrother, in party mode.

It’s likely that whatever festival you’re playing, your set is going to be shorter than you’d usually prep for the club. “Festival sets are often shorter and during the day, and hopefully in the sun,” explains Osborn. “So the tracks I would select for a long four-hour set in winter in Panorama Bar just would not work in a sunny open-air field.”

“At a festival, people have paid to have an amazing weekend,” says Clancy. “You have to play a big party set, and interact and party with the crowd.” Enough said—prepare to rock it however you can.

Thanks to the shortened sets, multiple stages, and a wide range of distractions – no dj will have the rapt attention of a sun drenched crowd. Generally speaking this also means shorter mixes and quicker song transitions to keep people interested and present – especially in the US market where attention comes at a serious premium.

PLAY IT SAFE—BUT NOT TOO SAFE

daveaju
Dave Aju, suiting up for festival season.

Unless you’re playing some experimental festival (which you’re probably not), you’re tasked with keeping the party going.

“It’s always good to bring out a few hands-in-the-air numbers, and even the odd edit or big tune that people might know,”

says Clancy. “A lot of the time you’re playing daytime, too, so we tend to go on a more house and disco vibe and keep it bumping. I’ve got a whole section in my music collection dedicated to festival sets—classic house tracks and proper party shit.”

However, take some chances once you find your groove, as you don’t want to just sound like everyone else. “We usually find festival crowds far more forgiving than a club crowd—maybe less discerning and more up for it—so in our experience they can probably be an easier place to play than a trendy Berlin or London club,” adds Clancy.

“If it is an extended multi-day festival, you have consider that people have heard and been exposed to many acts before yours,” says Dave Aju. “So prepare to do some unique things that make you stand out.” Whether that’s playing a crazy party track or actually doing something crazy on stage is up to you, but figure out what works for you and make sure to be original.

“Likewise for DJ sets, in larger festivals with several stages there are many other DJs, and if everyone is playing the same tracks it can be quite boring for the audience, so stay away from the latest/greatest hits, unless you can make a special edit or exclusive remix to really personalize it somehow,” Aju proffers.

BE READY FOR ANY SCENARIO—TECHNICAL OR OTHERWISE

rain

Things can—and will—go wrong. The festival won’t have the adapter you need. It’ll start pouring the second you take the stage. A dust storm will pick up from out of nowhere.

You’ve got two issues to think about here, so hopefully you’ve already taken care of the first one, which is protecting your gear. But do you have a suitable set ready for any and all weather conditions? Consider that when you’re organizing your tracks. “You have to keep them dancing even though it’s raining,” says Clancy.

Just the same, if Arcade Fire is playing the main stage, you may end up playing to pretty much no one—but that’s no reason not to give it your all. You know what small, dedicated crowds are like from your club gigs, so veer in that direction and really show off what you can do for those few who stuck around to see you.

Read more: DJing in Extreme Conditions, How to Protect Your DJ Gear

RELAX, BE YOURSELF, AND HAVE FUN

tmbs
The Martinez Brothers taking charge at Movement 2012

Yeah, it’s the same advice that your mother gave you on your first day of high school—but who knows better than Mom, right? It’s not just the crowd that should be having a good time here. You’re all at the same festival, enjoying the sun (hopefully) and digging the incredible vibes that only outdoor gatherings can offer. “The atmosphere is totally unique at a festival and we love that,” says Clancy. “We also love grazing the amazing food stands at festivals before the show; you don’t get that at a lot of the gritty clubs we’ve played.”

Plus, you might just find yourself at an otherworldly location, playing for a crowd you never dreamed of before. “We’ve played at Burning Man a few times and it’s pretty hard to top,” Clancy adds. “The locations are incredible. Playing in the desert surrounded by mountains and stars is completely unforgettable.”

When it comes to festivals’ special atmosphere, everyone agrees, including Osborn: “It can be more relaxed, and when all the correct elements of the cosmos aligns itself correctly, the crowd energy can be more intense than any club!”

Dave Aju’s Black Frames is out now on Circus Company and Krankbrother’s Recollective is out now on Defected.

Have a great tip for playing festivals? Tell us about it in the comments below.

  • Kevin Reynolds

    love the Movement photos 🙂

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  • Galdu

    Hi , my name is Galdu and i am dj in france for 15 years i am 34 , i often play in club and litle festival but in september is my first big festival and i am playing from 7 to 10 in the morning , the festival is in france , i play techno and teck house , but as the first festival , can you tell me what is the best i can do , i use xone 92 and Native X1 and mashine and tracktor. In the club no probleme the crowd loves mixing , i am not a famus dj . this is my soundcloud/galdu . please tell me whats the best atitude to play at this time. cheers to all Galdu

  • Danno9999

    Good discussion – interesting article!

  • I had an awesome experience at a 750 person festy in the woods last weekend. Around 7am on sunday, dj still has 15 – 20 die hards on the floor in front of him, I was dancing my ass off having just finished playing my set on the downtempo stage. He waves me over, tells me he’s out of steam and I should grab my gear cause nobody else is showing up. So I grab my gear, plug in, and watch the dancefloor leave as he walks off the stage. Tried a few different tracks, just couldn’t convince them to get moving again. However, there were a lot of people still chilling around, so I decided to play for them… turned the volume down to a more appropriate level, and decided to go wierd… just really random, trippy, bizzarre stuff, tracks I didn’t know I own, tracks I’ve never had a chance to play. People standing around blazing? Dub… People drifting in to do some yoga? Switch to meditative Indian tunes… see some buddies you know are tripping balls? Play with their heads for a bit… I ended up playing for 5 hours, had an absolute blast, and the crowd loved it. Definately on the short list for best festival experience ever.

    I guess if there’s a tip in there, it’s this: even if the crowd isn’t dancing, you can still entertain them.

    Oh, and that water bottle your parched self is about to take a swig out of, just might be cleverly disguised moonshine.

  • FriendBeastYote

    These are some great pin pointers. But not all crowds and festivals are created equal.

    My first official performance, and gig at Roskilde Festival, was rather unprepared, except for the first 5 minutes and the ending. It was rather impossible to get an idea of the crowd initially, since this festival is rather diverse and international. But once you follow the last tip in this guide, you’ll get an idea of the crowd rather quickly, and you’ll have the time of your night.

  • Ed Paris

    much respect for john osborn!

  • Dvid Bckrs

    1) record your set
    2) put it on a usbstick
    3) plug the stick in the cdj
    4) press play
    5) ???
    6) profit

    crowdreading, bitch pls

  • Michael

    Great topic. Thank you for writing on it. I played a Festival the other weekend and agree with your points. Just to add a few bits:

    Time:
    When you are told, that your set will last 120 minutes – it might as well be longer or shorter. Especially when you have bands involved it might well be that their soundcheck takes longer than planned and that you lose some minutes due to their technical issues. In the end I had to skip some of my prepared tracks. In another set I was told to play longer than planned as the act coming after me was late. I was happy to have prepared a few extra tracks that I was able to throw in without making them obvious fillers …

    Audience: It’s must not be your fault if you are playing to just a few people. I was the first act of that day and a few minutes into my set I was told by the stage manager that the site had still not opened due to some issues on another stage. Doors opened 30 minutes later, so that was when people started soming around. Yet, it was still fun to play my tunes on a loud PA and get reactions from the stage staff and the bartenders around. There is always someone listening on these occasions – even if you do not see them..
    On the other hand the people in front of your stage might not be coming for you – but the act that comes after you. With the closing tracks I had chosen for my set I tried to somehow connect to them and what I thought was their taste.

    Tracks: Since I was booked for the last day of a three day festival I tried to omit songs that I thought would have had heavy rotation. Yet I included some tracks by bands that played the festival. Plus: I thought that people on the last day might be a bit tired and exhausted and maybe needed a small break. So instead of playing my favorite party tracks I went for a more relaxed approach – music for a lazy sunday afternoon. People don’t have to go crazy to enjoy a DJ set. Creating an atomsphere in which they can enjoy themselves – chat with friends, nod with their head or just lay in the sun – is a legitimate goal for a DJ set.

    Finally: Playing a festival was a complete new experience. It’s worth trying it – I learned a lot. And – what’s more important: I enjoyed it.

    • Toontown

      Good input! Congrats! What was the festival and what kind of tunes did you drop?

      • Michael

        Cheers, Toontown. I played at the Melt Festival

        http://www.meltfestival.de/acts/running-order/sunday-1.html

        It was a great honour, an important experience – and so much fun! Here is a re-recording of my set:

        http://www.mixcloud.com/michaelmuenz/michael-m%C3%BCnz-dj-set-melt-festival-20-juli-2014/

        In case you find the time: Let me know what you think.

        • Toontown

          Thanks for sharing! I bet it was cool to be able to get up and do your thing. Nice set.

          Looks like a great lineup. Portishead would have been a treat.

          • Michael

            Thank you!
            I did not see Portishead but I was told that it was very intense…

          • Sebastian Cavolina

            tale of us would have been awesome to see live. i wish i was there

          • Vlad TheSour

            the whole line-up was phat!

        • Vlad TheSour

          how did you get to play at melt?

    • ctoafn

      I agree with the stuff out mentioned about knowing where that punters heads will be but disagree with planned sets at a festivals. That’s a recipe for disaster. Have lots of variety of styles and mix on the fly otherwise you’ll risk going down a path the crowd don’t feel and your stuck in it

      Pre planning live sets ever is a personal no no. You can have tunes you know that go well but if you are good enuf to play out and get regular hugs you should be able to do it with a pre planned set IMO.

      Each to their own tho

  • reddread

    you want people to become good djs??? LET ‘EM FIGURE IT OUT ON THEIR OWN!!!
    giving them lessons on how to do it creates more half-ass djs doing it for the wrong reasons.

    • The Donis

      Some DJs only get one shot at a festival gig, and besides, listening to the wisdom and experience of your betters is good for any field. You sound like a hater.

  • killmedj

    Wife Beater: Check
    Cake: Check
    30 identical electro tracks: check
    Ok I’m festival ready!
    Where’s my check?

  • Scud

    Oh yeah, don’t smile for pictures anymore

  • Scud

    Cut your hair and dress like a preppy douchebag

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  • chris

    you should also not take too many drugs, and don’t seek to improve your newest record on the crowd

  • lanceblaise

    o_0

  • Great tips. One thing you missed is a sound check. If at all possible, take 10 minutes to test out some of your tracks on the sound system. If you are used to playing in small clubs you may be shocked how differently songs sound on a large outdoor set up.

    David Byrne had a great TED Talk about venue size and music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Se8kcnU-uZw