There’s a huge debate on the etiquette of being an opening DJ.
Traditionally, the opening DJ’s only job was to warm up the crowd. The night would start slowly with lowkey music playing to an empty room, and build and build and build in power until a headliner blew the roof off. This was fine, as long as the artists playing were DJ’s who each matched the genres they were willing to play.
But as more opening slots are filled with local producers instead of local DJ’s, music selection becomes a problem of authenticity. Local producers who open for other artists often aren’t allowed to play the music that they make because it’s too energetic for the opening set. The core of their artistic vision is compromised to fit the format of a traditional DJ lineup. I wouldn’t recommend any artist play 160 BPM hardcore dance at 8:00 PM at night, but if that is truly what the opening artist produces themselves, then a question of artistry is at hand.
Four Things Never to do in an Opening DJ Set
- Don’t play the headliner’s songs. This one is massive as hell. You may be thinking that you’re showing respect or giving ups to the headlining artist, but you are literally taking the spotlight away from the person that people are paying to see. The audience wants to hear Porter Robinson play ‘Sad Machine’, or Jauz play ‘Feel the Volume’. They don’t want to hear you playing music that isn’t yours to play. This policy also extends to remixes.
- Don’t overplay your time slot. Don’t come out swinging. The earlier you play, the more low-key your music should be. Concerts are marathons, not sprints, so don’t start the crowd off with a bang. It’s your job as the opening DJ to set the pace for the night.
- Don’t overplay your audience. This one requires some judgment to get right. If you have a large, energetic crowd for your set, play large, energetic music. It’s a call of intuition whether or not the crowd is ready for more hyped music. If the club is dead, play something low-key and let people be able to talk and mingle without forcing them to dance.
- Don’t draw attention to yourself. Seriously, don’t. As an opening DJ, you are warming up the night & drawing as little attention as possible. It’s not your job to be the center of attention. If that was the case, you wouldn’t be playing at 9PM. Introduce yourself on the mic, say some words, then put it down. At the end of your set, thank the crowd, say who you are, and close down your set. Even if the room is bumping, don’t get on the mic at every opportunity. Let your music speak.
While doing these four things may be a tough pill to swallow, they will give you cred with the promoter who booked you. If you can be professional and lowkey on your first opening slot, you are likely to get booked out for better opportunities with more flexibility in performance. So, swallow your pride and play some deep music while working towards being where you want to be. If you truly are a good DJ, find tracks that run alongside your usual artistry. Make sure they groove enough to put together a good set but are chill enough to open up an empty room. You will get more props from the industry for playing a unique opening set than a cookie-cutter headlining slot.
I can say these rules for certain based on my experience in the scene. For a straight two-year hustle, I was an opening DJ. Before I started Pariah Reign, I went all-in on a local DJ/producer career, and opened for acts such as UZ, Laidback Luke, Black Boots, Herobust, Mt. Eden, Big Chocolate, Grandtheft, Vaski, Apashe, Riff Raff (lol), Aaron Jackson, Sacha Robotti, Clyde P over the last few years. While I was doing this, I was booking other local artists and putting together lineups an assistant promoter. I came from both worlds. I wanted to play my hype music at the beginning of the night, but I also saw how lineups and DJ styles affected the direction of a show.
The following thoughts come from a balanced perspective of a promoter and artist, providing a framework to make decisions about how to play at the beginning of the nights.
“Always make those above you feel comfortably superior.”
-Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power Law 1: Never Outshine the Master
You might be thinking, “The headliner wants me to play softer? No way! If they’re the headliner, then they should have no problem outplaying me.”
Let’s visit the world where headliners must 1-up everybody who played before them. If an opening DJ plays hardstyle, then the headliner needs to play harderstyle. If an opening DJ plays riddim dubstep, the headliner needs to play riddimer dubstep. Eventually, there may be no harder, groovier, more extreme music to play, and the night fall short. Headliners won’t have the chance to create experiences with the audience because their spotlight has already been stolen.
So if you’re an artist who plays heavy music, what should you do if you get a opening slot? I say that you find something
Whether or not you agree that opening DJ’s should submit to headliners, there are some base rules to playing an opening set. This applies whether or not you think you should be playing tech house or swampy riddim before the main act. All of these rules make sure that the headlining act has an audience to relate to and connect to after you’ve played.
Note: Some of these rules are very general. Every single one is meant for the local opening DJ, generally the first or second acts of the night. The rules are a way of paying your dues as you climb up your career. Traveling support acts are exempt from all of these (besides Rule 1) because they have already paid their dues. If you are playing direct support to a touring artist with a few locals before you, feel free to bring the heat unless the promoter says otherwise.