Why Every DJ (Even Big Names) Need Spontaneity In Their Sets

At the EDMBiz conference in the middle of June, in the lead-up to this year’s EDC in Vegas, three big dance music artists argued over how important unique and spontaneous DJ sets should be from one show to the next. On the side of extreme importance: Z-Trip. Opposing him? Nicky Romero and 3Lau. In this article we delve into the art of variety, why it matters, and a few things to try to avoid stale sets.

“The conversation got somewhere near heated for a moment when Z-Trip insisted on the importance of spontaneity and variability in DJ sets. Nicky Romero and 3lau countered by mentioning the pressure of one hour sets every week, but Trip ended the conversation with ‘We’re not David Copperfield or Beyonce, motherfuckers! We’re DJs!'” – Thump


Why Some DJs Need To Rely On Similar Sets

For many touring producers, crafting a set is less an active selection process and more viewed how a traditional band would view putting together their song set for a show. If you have a methodology that works to build up a crowd through a certain series of mixes and effects, it could be difficult to try anything new.

  • Regular Success: For touring artists, this is a job. You’ve got to kill it onstage every single night you perform, and failing to do so could mean less bookings next season and the potential end of a career.
  • Time In Your Set: To get warmed up as a spontaneous performer, it’s not uncommon to need a few songs to get into the groove and be willing to take risks – and by that point, your set might be over.
  • Pressure and Focus: For many touring producers who play DJ sets, most of their time is consumed between the insanity of living on a tour bus for 5 to 20 weeks and still trying to get some production work done whenever they can. The idea of not having the actual performance be reliably high quality might be too much!
Extensive pyrotechnics might be a reason to play a predictable part of a DJ set Photo Credit: Visual Bass

“When I do some festivals I have a team there that does all my pyro, FX and CO2s , + most of them have a synced “fireworks show” that is synced to the music so nothing goes wrong for the fireworks show since timing everything is extremely hard for them […] so I have a medley mix I close with so they can have everything synced, most big festivals have that and it’s nothing new, as soon as you’re closing under a big finale you have that going on…” – Steve Angello

Why Spontaneous Elements Matter

While having predictable success in a DJ set might be nice, we tend to air on the side of keeping sets fresh and unique. Some of the key elements that make spontaneity so important:

  • Not every crowd is unique / don’t let your diehard fans get bored! If you’ve got a fanbase of any size, there’s a pretty good chance that some people in the audience might not be at their first show where you’re performing. If you use the same techniques and set order each show, they seem less like innovation/creativity and more like a gimmick.
  • People Pay Good Money To See You: This especially applies to big name DJs. If you’re playing a show every week, likely of a decent size, think of the expense that your audience has gone to to see you. It’s your responsibility to put up your end of the bargain and put some unique effort into your sets. Deadmau5 put it well recently:

“The way I see it: If you’re going to pay a guy upwards of $500,000 to a million f—ing dollars to stand on a stage in front of however many people at ‘X’ EDM event, if you’re not putting at least 200 grand into your stage show other than an LED wall and some backline stuff, it’s just the biggest ripoff.” – Deadmau5 quoted in this YourEDM piece 

  • Unique = Memorable: Despite having their playlists nearly memorized, even wedding and Top 40 club DJs should have built-in variation in their sets. This will make you unlike similar performers; what you offer is more interesting, and you’re more likely to get recommended for the next gig or event.
  • The Crowd Knows You’re Bored: Playing the same or similar set over and over will also have an impact on your own level of excitement when it comes to DJing. If you looked bored, your crowd is going to see that and feed off that.
A bored DJ can easily mean a bored crowd
  • You’re Not Making This Music Live: This is the big one – a majority of DJs aren’t actively creating music on the fly, and if they are, they’re usually just layering those elements into a pre-produced song. What has always made DJs exciting and interesting since day one was their arrangement and manipulation of music. If you don’t want to manipulate and get interesting with your music, you’ve become more of a Disc Selector than a Disc Jockey.

Ideas To Switchup Your Mixes

Ditch your set lists! Photo Credit: Performing Musician
  • Add At Least One New Song Each Week: If you’re playing a weekly gig, get fresh tunes, and play at least one of them! Surely artists like 3Lau and Nicky Romero get great promo tracks from industry friends all of the time?
  • Play Your Own New Edits / Productions: A dance floor is the ultimate test laboratory – so try something new you’re working on? Don’t worry if it’s not a super polished or unmastered track – maybe consider doing a quick shmastering job a la Mad Zach. The goal is really to gauge the crowd reaction, and if it gets people going than that can give you a boost of motivation to get that track finished.
  • Mix Songs Differently: If two songs work well together, and you always mix them with the same technique, try something different! Odds are they work together in other ways. If you’re onstage DJing for at least an hour every week, you should be comfortable enough to try new things on the fly – if not, you’re not practicing enough.
  • Use Planned Vignettes Instead Of Sets: Ean will cover this soon in a new video, but putting together micro-sets of two to three songs that work well together to use anytime you DJ is a great way to have smaller planned “moments” inside of a DJ set without having a stone-carved setlist.
  • Data Doesn’t Lie: Look at the play count of your tracks in Traktor/Rekordbox/Serato and also review your historical playlists. If there are songs with play counts in the high double digits or triple digits then deliberately avoid those tracks for a while. If your previous setlists seem to follow similar trends/patterns, that’s another sign to make a conscious effort to try something different.

Inspired to do more? Here are some great DJTT tutorials that cover techniques and ideas to keep sets fresh:

3Laudeadmau5EDMbizNicky RomeroSpontaneityZ-trip
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  • PresCamacho

    Don’t be afraid to fail and have fun, if you’re playing the same songs over and over you’re obviously no better than a Spotify playlist.

  • elsupertai

    I’d surely take a look at the play count of my tracks in Serato, if only the software was capable of doing such a basic thing. *sigh*

  • Johnny fontana

    There is a cultural aspect to it as well. There are so many moving parts to this. As a black/Caribbean, I am more into the beats and rhythm. I am also a dancer and dance with my lady at clubs- no 2 finger salutes here. Therefore, we don’t want all th fuckery. We want good vibes, good vocals, instruments, and funk in our music. We sing along. When at the club, I am a clubber, not a dj. I don’t sit around critiquing the dj’s techniques. Z-trip sounded like a dj. Guess who is commenting on here- all Djs. People want to dance, not focus on skills. Me playing a house track with a Russian/Portuguese vocal does more for my sets in terms of relating than any loop…

  • Don Stone

    There is literally almost nothing to do onstage if you preplan your set. I would probably freak out if I had to just stand there in front of 20K people and do nothing but wave my hands around.

  • Vegeta Saga

    this is old news to me

  • Nico100Coins

    Romain Play, the best exemple to never bored dj 😀

  • calgarc

    The first 2 tracks in my sets are planned ahead… the rest is a mystery… I simply play what feels right 🙂

    • Dennis Parrott

      THAT’S AWESOME. takes some confidence to just wing it like that.

      with great risk comes either great reward or a really hilarious trainwreck, no?

      i know what tunes *might* get played because i have a somewhat overstuffed crate for the event but i never know which ones will get played or when.

      • qazen

        my key is a very close relation to my very well maintained collection. When my slot starts, I start at what ever vibe is currently present and after the first track, that I have to “choose”, my brain automatically tells me, which track MUST be next. From now on everything is on the fly. I usually get lost in flow then and the crowd so sucked into my world, as I do not even have the time to care about boredom of anyone.

        I also rarely record sets and never revisit my playlist afterwards. Makes every set unique.
        If ppl want to hear, what I have in store for them, they have to come to where ever I am at next time!

        Anyone also having the feeling, digging up gems is getting harder and harder these days?

  • Jay Dabhi

    Does Serato even have a play count viewing option?

    • Edgars Sorokins

      i just looked in serato and I could not find one…

  • Old school DJ

    It’s sad that DJing on the fly should even be explained in an article.

    • Bco Mack

      It seems that once digital sidekick ed into the DJ culture…the ture spirt of taking people on a musical Trek became a clear channel club joke which has spawned countless programed DJ sets. I’m grateful I was at ground zero for both Chicago House & Detroit Techno….an era where you played/educated from your soul & life experiences vs a pre programed play list.

  • Fish Bone

    Z-Trip wIns this debate hands down in my book, Nicky and 3lau should feel honored to even be getting advice from him in the first place. Think they will even be relevant in a few more years, nope.. Z- Trip has been doing this forever and will continue to, he is a DJ… not a stage act.

  • Vilmar

    I do the 2-3 tracks at home. It’s how I gained more confident in mixing. Fooling around between those micro sets was fun. And a good way to assess the crowd. Did they like the genre you just played or not, can you push through with more tracks.

    Got a people to like and appreciate Broken Beat that way.

  • jimmyv

    You have to be spontaneous, people will get bored. Unless you are doing some pyrotechnics lighting, video etc that has to have impeccable timing. But if you’re playing a club every weekend, you have to change it up.
    I DJ at a small bar/club once in a while, They have quite a few DJ’s on rotation. They all play the same songs and pretty much the same style, and I can pretty much tell you their set lists. When I go there I play a totally different style (keeping in mind I still have to play some top 40). I change it up every time I DJ there. No one knows what to expect when I show up, but the crowd and dance floor get rocked every time.

  • JAP_

    I’ve got a lot to say on this matter but, don’t want to bore everyone with an annoying rant so, I’ll try to keep it brief.

    Simply put spontaneity in a set is a must and a true sign of an experienced, educated, well practiced and ultimately a talented artist. If you are doing this for the love of the music then you get this and it comes easy with time. If you are in it for fame, fortune (good luck to you) and the party, then you will never truly get it. This whole subject is complex as each person gets something different out of life and life experience has told me that most want the quick fix, not too deep disposable emotion. This is demonstrated by all of the hyped up (not very talented) DJs that dominate the popularity polls. I look for something deeper from my experiences and that drives me to discover and push for more.

    Fortunately, I had not heard of 3LAU until recently however, I checked out his music and recorded live sets and wow… There is truly nothing there. Nothing inspiring. Completely disposable, manufactured and devoid of real artistic talent. This is the complete opposite of what I expect from a DJ/Live performance. Obviously, musically it is very subjective and to each their own, but really not only is the music pathetically immature and one dimensional (IMO not subjective, just a fact :P), his sets could be pulled off by the most amateur beginners. The only thing he has going for him is his youth and arrogance.

    Anyways, the point is that if you are really striving to be the absolute best you can be, then understand that spontaneity is critical and will come with time. Practice and dig deep. The best experience, even in your own bedroom, can be when you discover and create something so special and the hairs on your arms stand up and tingle. This is the feeling that I strive for daily. If you haven’t discovered that feeling yet then keep digging.

    blah… rant over… whatever… 😀

    • Dennis Parrott

      i’d agree with paragraphs 2 and 4 but i disagree with paragraph 3.

      i have Dennis’ 1st Law of Music: There are only 2 kinds of music. (No, not Country and Western…) There is Good Music and Bad Music. Listener/dancer gets to decide. i might agree with you that 3LAU isn’t any good but it is only our opinion. we might even agree that everyone who likes him (her?) is a misguided fool. but it is our opinion. somebody likes 3LAU and thinks he’s “Good”…

      but the more important thing to me is this: rather than us carping about how bad somebody is we should find the examples of what we think are amazing and celebrate those. holding up what we think are the best examples might just inspire more to follow in those footsteps and crowd out the ones we don’t like… (…besides, griping about “bad” DJs is a lot like the whole “you aren’t a real DJ unless…” diatribes.)

  • deejae snafu

    i like to use what my friend calls “cluster mixing” where you have some core songs that go together in small playlists, and then improvise harmonically between the clusters. this keeps every set fresh and new and full of magic, while still giving you backbones and security of familiarity, and consistency of style.

    the only time every moment should be planned should be amazing(battle/controllerism) routines, that could only be performed by practicing the exact same thing beat for beat.
    even these should be showcased amid the clusters, unless it is in fact a battle and there’s a time limit.

  • Jamz

    Nice Article. I think a combination of similar and experimental on the fly mixing at gigs is a good idea to me. It is nice to be totally in control but you have to improvise and stress a lil bit for your crowd. Especially when you not a big name DJ.