Should Warmup DJs Hold Back Or Play To The Crowd?

Almost every DJ has heard the passionate arguments for why opening acts should show restraint and only exist to serve the headliner’s set. But what if they’re wrong? What if opening DJs should play to the crowd and not to the headliner’s personal preference? Read some great alternate viewpoints from experienced DJs in today’s article from guest contributor Steven Maude.

The Traditional View On Opener DJs

This article is supposed to be about warm-up DJs, but the more I think about it, the more pointless it seems. There’s a prevalent “shared wisdom” out there that says the role is well-defined:

It seems that everyone agrees: warm-ups should know their place and stick rigidly within that set of well-defined boundaries. With these ideas so commonly propagated, sometimes with outright hostility towards warm-ups, seems like my job’s easy: agree completely, hit submit, then watch the likes, retweets and page views roll in. OK, thanks for reading!

In Defense Of Warmup DJs Playing To The Crowd

Hold on, wait. There are some dissenting voices too. Sometimes even influential DJs, in their own words, “stand up for the little guy”. Being in the business for longer than many DJs have been alive, Fabio and Grooverider are two of the most important DJs in crafting the sound of UK jungle and drum and bass. So, when they talk, it’s not just entertaining, but often an education. Their discussion about warmup DJs (skip to 1:40:00 in the above Soundcloud player) is worth taking the few minutes to listen to as they fire off several arguments that go against this grain:

1. Big name DJs usually start out as warm-ups

Of course there’s the odd exception where an unknown producer unleashes a hot new track, bumping them to the top of the bill (regardless of whether they have any DJ credentials). Otherwise, just like Drake, most DJs start from the bottom.

How are competent DJs meant to progress beyond an opening slot, unless they somehow stand out? Maybe you have a producer sideline and can hope that your talent on that side, along with some luck, will eventually bump you up the bill? If not, then it’s your DJ performances alone that will make you. Or not. As Fabio says:

“You get your chance… you got to take it, it’s simple as that.”

2. Why stop the warm-up from playing big records?

If this is the dancefloor when a warmup DJ is playing, then big tracks aren't appropriate. (photo credit: Marcelo Páez Bermúdez on Flickr)
If this is the dancefloor when a warmup DJ is playing, then big tracks aren’t appropriate. (photo credit: Marcelo Páez Bermúdez on Flickr)

Fabio and Grooverider are not impressed at the idea that certain records shouldn’t be played by the warm-up either, just because they are too big. Prescribing what anyone should or shouldn’t play doesn’t seem right to me either.

If the warm-up DJ’s competent, they’ll know what’s right or wrong for the moment themselves. No hand-holding required. Of course, playing big tunes while the dancefloor’s empty would seem odd. But what about later in the set, if the moment happens to be right? It’s the context at a specific instant that’s all-important, and not following dogmatic rules.

Plus, if you are a headliner, aren’t you going to have the bigger records? Grooverider puts it more combatively:

“If you’re going into a party and playing the same tunes as a warm-up DJ, you should be a warm-up DJ too.”

You could say that the main act’s tracks should be certainly off-limits, and you’re obviously not going to make friends with anyone doing something like this:

But, if the headliner’s had a long, illustrious career, maybe a warm-up asking to play one or two of their older tracks isn’t an awful idea? It certainly makes for a nice segue into the headliner’s set. Surely working with the warm-up rather than battling against them is a better way to go?

And, even then, so what if the warm-up completely screw up and play a bunch of big songs? Grooverider is straight to the point on this:

“what, you can’t find another twenty tunes to play?”

3. The headliner is in the main slot only because they are great performers

 “If you’re a big DJ getting X amount of pounds for an hour’s session, how are you fearing the warm-up DJ?”

A warm-up can make a headliner’s job easier, but a big name should be able to professionally cope with the unexpected, otherwise why is their name up there?

The worst cases where the warm-up manages to pull off a major faux pas and ruin what the headliner has planned, yes, that’s a bad move, but the headliner should have the talent and experience to brush it off and get the show back on track. Sometimes with more theatric productions with advanced visuals and lighting FX this might be more difficult – but for most situations with an opening DJ, you’re going to be in a club or traditional venue, not a festival stage.

Plus, a lively warm-up set might actually push the headliner to perform an even better set, and not perhaps sitting back a little. Again Grooverider makes the apt comment:

“I want the warm-up DJ to be smashing it out, because it makes me have to go and do my job.”

So What’s An Opener DJ To Do?

Photo credit: Rasmus Andersson on Flickr.
Photo credit: Rasmus Andersson on Flickr.

Personally, if the warm-up takes some risks and succeeds, then I’m interested in what they’re doing in future, am going to be more hyped for the headliner and am more likely to have had a more enjoyable night. Everyone’s happy. No-one loses.

Not all club nights have to adhere to the same rigid schedule of progressive buildup through the night to the headliner. The idea of a journey, ebb and flow, tension and release is often mentioned when discussing programming DJ sets. Why can’t that happen over the course of the entire night, providing it’s curated properly?

For small, intimate shows, I’ll concede that slowly creating the right atmosphere is absolutely crucial. Nonetheless, compare that to larger events with multiple rooms, or festivals, perhaps even spanning completely different genres of dance music. Then, it’s harder to consider a show as hermetically sealed. People are wandering in and out all the time and may not have any idea of what’s gone on before or any expectation of what’s to follow.

Opening DJs undoubtedly do have a role, but one that’s perhaps more fluid than is often regarded. And like this great Resident Advisor article states, they certainly deserve more than they are often given.

One of the best summaries came from DJ Shiftee – who shares in an interview a great thought that takes into account the demands of everyone involved, clubgoers and promoters, warm-ups and headliners:

“If you don’t turn heads with your set, what was the point?… stand out, but do so appropriately!”

Header photo credit: Rene Ehrhardt on Flickr

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