In our ongoing series for beginners, Harold Heath looks at the thorny issue of DJ requests
This month, we’re looking at every DJ's favourite part of the job - requests. DJs at the higher end of the business are generally spared from requests, but just about every other DJ, whether they're resident at a decent club or an occasional player at their local high street bar, will have to deal with requests.
There's no getting away from this. Over the course of your career as a working DJ, you will likely end up playing all sorts of gigs to all sorts of people, and inevitably some of these people are going to want to talk to you about your music. Requests are as unavoidable as death, taxes and Show Me Love remixes.
Can you play something we can dance to?
Tune requests often come from people who don’t like what you’re playing and want you to play something completely out-of-sync with the music policy of the night. For instance: tthe poor sheep who ended up in your tear-out D&B night by mistake, who thinks that Franz Ferdinand’s come-back album would go down a treat: “It’s got a real retro electronic feel, yeah? It’s superb in the car”. These requesters are generally harmless and are usually placated easily.
There’s a second tier of more aggressive requesters, however: those who are more drunk and think that pestering you might work. Again, not that difficult to deal with. Imagine how you might ask an over-excited child at a party not to keep headbutting your leg, then change the words ‘headbutting and ‘leg’ to things like ‘asking for’ and ‘something from the 80s’ and you’ll be fine.
Then there are the requesters who are also DJs. You’ll know they're DJs, as they will have told you within one microsecond of meeting you. "Yeah, I’m a DJ as well yeah?" has replaced "It’s my birthday, please can you play some Taylor Swift?" as the single most disheartening opening conversational gambit a DJ will hear. They’ll know the name of one of the tracks you just played, and they'll tell you what they mixed it with last week at a club it is remarkably unlikely they played at. They’re always a bit chummy about it, and often take on the mantle of an industry pal - they’re not like those other requesters asking for Franz Ferdinand, ha ha, no, they’re an insider like you.
"Play some Hot Creations, they’ll love it," they’ll say, nodding towards the room full of happy smiling dancers, "they don’t have a clue, this lot". These are the worst requesters. I would rather have a booth full of angry-drunk girls called Megan, all of whom have either lost their friends or their purses and want to take me to task for playing slo-mo yacht-plod, than one actual DJ who disparagingly refers to the precious disco children as ‘this lot’.
I’m an MC, can I get on the mic?
It’s not just requests for tunes any more, either. People used to ask DJs if (a) could they keep their coat in the booth, and (b) can you play something you’re not currently playing. Now they want to recharge their phone, ask you for the WiFi code, and can you play their tune off their phone, can they MC, their mate’s a DJ can he have a go, can they do a cheeky reload... really, a decent DJ should bring a questionnaire with them to every gig, to give out to punters who feel they need to contribute.
There aren’t many jobs where people are happy to readily critique your performance and suggest improvements, despite having no qualification to do either. You wouldn’t roll into someone’s office first thing on a Monday with half a bag of pub bugle up your nose, spill warm lager over their keyboard and critique their spreadsheet skills, would you?
There are two clear schools of thought on requests. One is that DJs are being paid because they are professionals: industry specialists who spend their week holed up inside their DJ caves, hunting for the very finest music in their chosen genre and mixing it together until they’re completely familiar with the mood, tempo and potential dancefloor impact of every tune they own. They put in the leg-work and head out into the night fully prepared to do a job of work and make it look easy. But its not easy - not to do it well. Memorising information about a huge amount of music and using that knowledge to respond to the mood of a room full of off-it strangers, all while maintaining very high technical standards - it’s tricky to do well. That’s why we pay them and we should therefore respect their role as experts and leave them to get on with their job.
The second school of thought, however, puts the audience at the centre and says that DJs are paid to entertain them. So if someone is asking for a piece of music, this argument goes, the DJ should play it. This school of thought is very nice but also, I’m afraid, wrong. Maybe, in certain specific situations, they’ve got a point: if you’re playing a little local gig or a house party and no one’s feeling your avant-noise warm-up set, it’s not beyond belief to expect that someone might ask you to maybe change direction a little, and equally, it’s not beyond belief that this might be a good idea.
But in most club DJ scenarios, requests aren’t really appropriate. They miss the point of the communal experience that the DJ is trying to create. The difference between the requesting-punter and the DJ is that the punter sees things from their own perspective, the DJ see things from the room’s perspective - and the room should always win.
There is also a wider argument to be made about the devaluing of professionals in the digital era, but I’m already way over word-count, so let’s just say that events worldwide in the last couple of years have clearly demonstrated that when you disregard the experts and the professionals, you enable the amateurs and the fools.
Can you play a bit harder mate?
So how do you deal with requests? You could try the moody DJ approach, but no one likes a moody DJ. And anyway, it’s supposed to be a party, lighten up! I would suggest you deal with requests with charm, amiability and a robust approach to the concept of professional boundaries. Requests are part of the job and are never an excuse to be rude to your audience, or indeed to push a monitor on them. But equally, you’re the boss, you’re the DJ and you decide what you play: otherwise what are you doing there?
And finally: yes, I can play a bit harder mate, actually. I’m choosing not to right this second, as it’s only just coming up to 11pm and we’ve barely started. But in answer to your question, yes I can.
Words: Harold Heath