When Things Go Wrong: How to Recover from Your Worst DJ Fails

It’s comforting to think that with the right amount of preparation you can avoid making mistakes in front of other people when DJing. But there’s a cold undeniable truth — you can’t. It’s going to happen, it’s just something people don’t like talking about.

It takes bravery to admit this truth, which is what made Tiga’s Instagram post from 2018 so compelling, memorable, and well-received.

“Here’s something nobody talks about; how about when you DON’T kill it. How about when you are what is actually wrong with the party. Your programming is lazy, your decisions are ill-informed, you vacillate between confidence and cluelessness. Your records sound slow. You can’t maintain a connection. The center cannot hold…And just like that, for a few hours, the magic is gone…”

Tiga

Knowing that everyone makes mistakes can also be liberating, because that means you’re not alone, and you’re not a failure. What is vastly more important is how you handle a less-than-ideal situation when it does arise. 

We hope this article normalizes some common undesirable scenarios for DJs. Keep reading to learn specific tools and ideas to help you recover quickly when they do happen!

So let’s get our hazmat suits on and start digging through some dumpster fires full of train wrecks and shoe-filled dryers, shall we?

Fail #1: You’re not connecting with the crowd.

It may be a new booking, or it may be the same place you’ve played dozens of times before, but for whatever reason, people aren’t feeling it. This can be very deflating when your one job is to make sure people are having a good time. Often times you can triage the situation by reflecting on how you’re approaching song selection for your set:

  • If you didn’t plan your set and find yourself “winging” it, you may have yourself a bit of a continuity vacuum. There’s a certain amount of flow from track to track that people need to get into a groove on the dance floor, so maybe it’s time to pull up some old playlists and planned sets that you know have worked in the past. And next time, consider having a bit more of a roadmap to fall back on when the scenic route isn’t working. 
  • If you’re working from a more planned set but the crowd isn’t feeling it, check and see if you’re playing what you THINK they should like, rather than paying attention to what they ACTUALLY are liking in the moment. Preparation is key, but if you get to the moment and all of your plans aren’t translating to a successful reality, the best thing to do is change course. Start by experimenting with groups of songs you know work well together and see if any resonate — maybe they’re just looking for a different vibe than the one you thought they wanted. 

How can you tell if the odds are starting to turn in your favor? It can be something as subtle as seeing people start to tap their feet, and getting one more person on the dance floor is definitely a victory. You’re not going to go from an empty floor to a hyped crowd instantly, it’s a hard won battle for each person, moment by moment.

Fail #2: You have no idea what to play next.

Ah yes, that moment of panic when you realize that your track is almost done and you don’t have a new one selected.

If you’re suffering from TSP —Track Selection Paralysis — you’re not alone. The condition affects thousands of DJs every year, and we totally made up a name for it for this article.

The most important thing is to snap out of the paralysis as quickly as possible. First off, don’t beat yourself up — this happens to everyone at some point and self shaming will keep you from starting to fix the problem. 

  • If you have a few minutes to search for the next song, start by scrolling through tracks that are in the same or complementary key as what’s playing. It will create a narrower list of songs that are much more likely to fit nicely together (see: harmonic mixing). 
  • I find a lot of luck in taking a chance on selecting music that I enjoy but wasn’t originally considering to play. As long as your selection isn’t completely out of left field (generally don’t go straight from house to say, banging dubstep), if the crowd sees you enjoying what you’re playing, it may begin to resonate with them as well. 
  • If all else fails, just pick a song, go with it, deal with the consequences. The sooner you decide, the more time you will have to think about the next track, and the next, and how to get back to where you want to be on the journey. More times than not you’ll get back on track faster than you think. 

One final pro tip: don’t be afraid to set a loop at the end of a track during an outro. With a bit of active EQing in time with the track and FX use, you can often a few valuable more seconds out of a track before it expires. This might give you a few more moments to get your next track mixed in smoother – just don’t let that loop run for too long!

Fail #3: Your beatmatching starts to go off the rails.

Double tapping the Sync button can sometimes save you, or sometimes make it worse

Ah yes, the proverbial trainwreck. Your beatmatching isn’t holding up and the rhythm on your two tracks are drifting apart, making that dreaded shoes-in-a-dryer-type sound. What do you do?

First, assess how bad it is. Are the beats slowly drifting apart or are they wildly off?

  • If they’re slowly drifting, attempt a slight course correction. Oftentimes, when you’re practiced, a quick pull or push of the platter/jogwheel will be enough to get the beats back in sync. But beware — overcorrecting may make things worse. If things are getting worse by the millisecond, there’s one more thing to try before giving up and going to the next track — using the sync button (if your setup has it). 
  • Toggling the sync button on and off quickly should reset your tracks to be back in time. There is a big caveat to this strategy: be sure your songs have correct beat grids set on them. Otherwise, resetting sync may put things wildly out of time and things will go from bad to worse.
  • If your beatmatching suddenly goes wildly off (for example, if your hand slaps the platter on a CDJ) might be better to just cut to the next track and move on as quickly as possible, either by a hard cut or doing a quick FX transition.

Now, most of the time the average listener will NOT notice. But clients, promoters, or fellow DJs you may be wanting to impress may hear the sloppy transition. They will also notice how quickly you recover from your mishap. If done quickly and skillfully, it actually may be a net positive experience. 

Fail #4: A massive mixing fail that people definitely notice.

Here’s a few common mishaps that can put you in this category:

  • Your beatmatching goes so wildly off that it turns the head of everyone in the room.
  • You accidentally restart the song by hitting the cue button on the track you’re currently playing instead of the one in your headphones. 
  • You forget to turn the volume fader down and everyone can hear the track you’re cueing as well as the one you’re playing. 
  • You forget to turn off the FX or filter after you’re done.
  • Your setup freezes and you’re trapped on emergency loop, or worse, your setup crashes altogether.

The list goes on and on. The Beat Junkies recently did a whole hour-long podcast on DJ fails, starting off with this gem from Melo-D (go to 8:00 if the video doesn’t jump automatically):

It’s a very uncomfortable place to be in, but if everyone in the room notices that you just stank up the place, the best course of action is to own it with a sense of humor. Embody your inner shrug emoji guy: ¯\_(?)_/¯

Most people appreciate honest vulnerability with a dash of levity mixed in, and it can get you out of a lot of sticky situations. The more you’re down to earth, the more your audience will be able to relate to you, and the more forgiving they’ll be. 

Once the awkward moment has passed, do your best to leave it in the past. It may take a bit to get the energy back into the room, but most of the time it will come back if you’re able to keep your head in the game.

Fail #5 — The sound cuts out.

If the sound stops, and it’s not your fault, be ready for a few awkward moments.

Oftentimes there are mishaps that happen beyond a DJ’s control. If the sound cuts out on your watch and it’s not your soundsystem, that doesn’t mean your job of being a DJ is over. Actually, it’s more important than ever.

  • First off, make sure to flag down the nearest sound guy or club employee or have a friend tell someone about the situation immediately. Do NOT assume that they hear what’s going on until you have evidence suggesting they actually do.
  • If the sound partially fails, keep DJing and use whatever sound you have at your disposal to keep the party going. For example, if the mains cut out but your booth monitor is still blasting, turn up the volume and point it towards the crowd. 

If the sound cuts out completely, this is where you have to get a little more creative. One of my DJ buddies Pwny leads everyone in a little “Happy Birthday” singalong, silently praying that the issue will be fixed by the time she’s done. Get creative with the vibe that resonates with your “DJ persona” and see if you can keep it going for as long as you can.

Whatever you do — don’t lose your cool and don’t lose your connection with the crowd. 

Learning from your mistakes.

These are just a few of the countless things that can go wrong during a DJ set. Whatever the situation, give yourself a little time, sleep on it, and then get curious. If you recorded your set, go back and listen and see where you need to improve. When in doubt, recreate the mistake as it happened and practice the techniques to fix it.

Also check with your friends or listen to the recording to see if it really was that bad. Sometimes what you thought was a colossal mistake was really just a blip in an otherwise great set. We’re all our harshest critic, and the last thing you want is to get down on yourself for something that wasn’t that bad in the first place. Don’t damage your confidence unnecessarily.

what matters the most is how you react to it

Regardless of what the mistake is, what matters the most is how you react to it. When in doubt, get creative and learn how to approach mistakes with poise and authenticity. Mistakes and failures are signs that you are pushing the envelope and expanding your horizons, so use these hard lessons to your utmost advantage and persevere. DJing requires constant acts of bravery. Keep at it. 

Have some hard earned lessons that you’d like to share? Leave them in the comments below.

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