In our ongoing series for DJ beginners, Harold Heath looks at what might happen the first time you play at a festival
As winter turns to spring, the DJ’s brain turns to thoughts of long summer nights dancing under starry skies, and gigs at this year's festivals. Previously the preserve of rock musicians with guitars, worthy lyrics and big hair, festivals have now become as much a part of the DJ circuit as clubs, and are full of DJs with laptops, tropical re-edits and Bluetooth enabled wellingtons.
So the question for the fledgling DJ is: are there any differences between playing at a festival and a nightclub? Can you just rock up to the tent at 2pm as though it were a club at 2am and bang out the tunes, or are there subtle differences between the two?
Well, the world of festies is a broad one, from exclusive boutique events that only cool people know about, through to huge corporate-sponsored affairs, each with a bunch of stages, tents and bars, full of different DJs. But generally speaking festivals tend to be in the outdoors, with fields, grass and trees, whereas nightclubs are more usually in a building in a town or city. Know the difference and you’ll save yourself the embarrassing faux pas of trying to order a round of drinks from some shrubs or bringing a picnic blanket to fabric. Key indicators that will signal you’re at a festival, not a club, include there generally being more baby-wipes at festivals than in clubs, but this may well depend on the kind of club nights that you go to.
Spot the difference
The other main difference between DJing a club or a festival is the demographic. It does of course depend on the festival - and there are plenty of superb events every bit as credible as clubs, with line-ups to die for, that attract a hardcore crowd of clued-up clubbers. But a festival might also attract people with little or no experience of dance music, who have literally no idea at all of the difference between the dub techno you were dropping earlier, the tech-house you’re playing now and the techno you’ll be playing in a bit.
You may find yourself pleasantly surprised or slightly unsettled by the huge response your proto-house no-wave re-edits are getting. Equally you may find your underground set is dying on its arse and you need to quickly locate a tune that will appeal to the vastly varied demographic wandering around the tent in front of you. Being able to do this while not betraying your underground principles is perhaps the true test of a DJ.
Secrets and lies
A festival gig requires flexibility and you might need to do a bit of ‘winning people over’ - in DJ terms, this might mean a little compromise and perhaps playing out of your comfort zone. To this end, I’ll let you into a little secret: UK garage is the festival DJ's secret weapon. Among all the faceless techno, shouty hip-hop and endless obscure Nigerian disco re-edits, the tight shuffle, fast pace and deep bass of UKG when whipped out unexpectedly on a sunny day can absolutely slaughter a festival tent, believe.
Unlike clubs, festivals often feature enormous line-ups, so if the audience is not into your music they can wander off at any point to catch Nina Kraviz playing an acoustic set in the Gingham tent. Unless you’re Disclosure or Ben Klock, it’s likely that no one has actually paid to come and hear you, specifically, so we recommend having a few options in your sonic arsenal to entice the sprawling demographic in front of you.
Other things to be aware of:
1. Some festivals are massive, so familiarise yourself with the site to ensure you don’t get lost on your way to play your set. Glastonbury, for example, is huge, and famously has seven main stages: anger, denial, guilt, bargaining, regret, acceptance and trench foot.
2. There might be small children there. Sometimes families bring their kids and you might find your audience includes lots of over-excited young people with painted faces running around screaming and laughing. You don’t get that at elrow do you? Oh, hang on...
3. Olds too. There might be olds. And teens. In fact, now that I think about it, points two and three could have been summed up better by saying there may well be a much wider age range at your festival gig than you’re used to.
4. Daylight. The night hides a multitude of sins and people are more inclined to let go the later and darker it is. A mid-afternoon set in stark daylight is quite a different beast and it can be more of a challenge to build atmosphere and to get people to really let go, at least until their afternoon cider kicks in.
5. Likewise, there is often a lack of the serious air pressure you get in a rammed club - meaning the sound of your favourite wub-wub bass might dissipate into the surrounding meadows rather than slam your punters in the gut.
Where the wild things are
Ultimately, playing a festival can be an utter joy for a DJ. There’s often an air of wild abandon to a decent festival, as though the normal rules of life have been put on hold for a few days. The natural elements may even allow you a magical DJ moment of music/nature synergy and you might get to play the Morales mix of Frankie Knuckles Rain Falls just as the sky clears after a typical English summer deluge.
There’s a real sense of adventure that comes from the feel of the breeze on your face and the smell of the chemical toilets as you take to the decks - festivals are always the time to pull out the tunes that you don’t get to play. Just remember there are plenty of other blackt-shirts for your audience to go and stand in front of while they Instagram a stream of images of their glitter covered, entitled little faces. So bring your finest tunes, get 'em off their phones and give them a festival sesh to remember.
Words: Harold Heath