How to Make a Killer Playlist

I recently was the DJ at a wedding of two of my friends. And by DJ, I mean I was the person who put together the playlist, played the playlist, and emceed a little bit. However, while that may sound like a fairly easy job to do, it’s not as easy as one may think. Now I’m no master DJ or playlist maker, by any means, but for the most part I’ve gotten fairly good reviews, and the fact that I’ve been asked to be the person in charge of the music at two different weddings, should mean something. However, it’s taken me several years to come up with guidelines to create a quality playlist, and I’m going to share them with you all, because I think it’s important for everyone to know.

Before I begin, however, I am going to give some history into my playlist making.
(Or you can go straight to the guidelines.)

It all started in 1994. My dad was in charge of the entertainment of a local Rotary street fair, and each year he would make a mixtape of music that was played between acts that performed at the fair. I asked him that year if I could make a second tape, in case the first tape ran out, and he said that would be fine. So I did. And then I did it again the following year, and the next, and maybe one more. Now most of the tracks were just some of my favorite songs, but I recall taking into consideration what tracks would open and close each side of the cassette tape, so I know it wasn’t just a random smattering of songs. This trend continued in high school, when I made a handful of mix CDs that I took very seriously and planned very carefully (Frisch Mix 1-3). I gave a few to friends as college graduation gifts, and they loved them.

While I didn’t make many mixes in college, I was playing in a few different bands (in school and out), and starting to take note how music flowed, or didn’t flow, from song to song. Also, taking note at concerts what type of songs were used when, and how sets were being shaped, and how the crowd reacted. This of course was all done inadvertently; I wasn’t really concentrating on all of that, but it all sunk in. After I graduated, one of my bands (Zanzibar Scuf) started playing a few parties, and I really got to see how a set of music could shape a party, and when to play certain types of songs, especially to open and close sets.

Then in 2007, I was working Appel Farm Arts Camp, and decided to sign up to DJ for an hour at the first staff dance. I decided to go with a funk/R&B theme, and put a handful of tunes together. The party was incredibly schizophrenic since every hour there would be a different DJ with a different set of songs. However, my little playlist stuck out positively to a bunch of people, and was asked to help with the end of summer playlist. The next summer, I came to camp with a 4 hour playlist ready to go for the first dance. I ended up editing the playlist with another staff member, who was also very adept at making great party playlists. We did that twice more that summer, though I started taking more and more control.

In 2009, I got cocky. At the first staff dance, I managed to make an incredible list and everything went off amazingly. Then the second dance was a disaster. It had less to do with what I was playing, and a lot to do with my attitude and lack of willingness to put in certain requests before and during the dance. It also didn’t help that some of the staff were impatient, but everything came to a head when my iPod was unplugged and things got a little out of control. I eventually got my music back on, but I had lost my groove, and was so put off that I declined to DJ the last dance, allowing others who had been vocal about me doing everything to have a shot. However, I came out of the whole situation learning a valuable lesson about what music to play.

The following year I didn’t go to camp, but was asked by one of the counselors if I would DJ her wedding that Fall. I said I would. It went well, and I was thanked and complimented on my work. Last summer, I returned to camp, and it was just assumed that I would be the DJ for all of the dances, so I did, making sure to get some input from the staff on music, especially newer hits that I was not really aware of, particularly stuff from Europe. Things went incredibly well, with the first dance being one of the biggest successes in my “career.”

As mentioned earlier, I just DJed another wedding (another couple from camp), and things went pretty damn well, and it’s all because of what I learned from my experiences, whether they were good or bad. So without further ado, here are my guidelines to making a great playlist.

DJ Jewish J’s Playlist Guidelines

General

  • Know what you’re making the playlist for. Is it for a wedding, a party, or a barbeque? It matters, because music sets the mood and the vibe, and there are just certain types of music that shouldn’t be played at certain occasions.
  • Know who your audience is going to be. This is incredibly important if you are dealing with children, older people, and/or people you are not familiar with. Some songs are universal and will be fine at almost every occasion, but some are just not right in certain situations. (e.g. Playing “2112” by Rush at a party that isn’t completely filled with hardcore Rush fans, and even then, that’s probably a no-no.)
  • Know your timeframe. It’s better to have more music than needed than to not having not enough. Deleting songs, while painful at times, is MUCH easier than adding them on the fly.
  • If possible, ask beforehand if anyone wants to hear something specific. Playing songs that people DEFINITELY want to hear can make everything go much smoother. This is vital if you are doing a wedding or party specifically for someone. Also, just because you don’t like the song, doesn’t mean everyone else feels the same. This is more about your audience than yourself, and sometimes you have to bite bullet. However, if you know the song is not going to fly (or just plain sucks), don’t play it.
  • Be open to requests, but not too many. Good requests should never be turned away, especially if they fit the vibe of the event. However, taking too many will take away your autonomy of the music, and that is not a good thing at all.
  • Make sure songs flow together. Nothing worse than having a disjointed/schizophrenic playlist, which alienates your audience.

Specifically for dances/weddings

  • Determine when dancing should start. If dancing isn’t expected to happen when the music starts, or most people aren’t expected to show up when the event is supposed to begin, make sure to hold off on the good stuff. I always like to put some buffer music on while people are showing up and getting loose. The buffer music is still usually danceable, but less intense and less popular. More like mood music. But the main point is, don’t play stuff that WILL get people dancing until you are certain most of the crowd will be there. That’s when you…
  • Get people on the floor with a song everyone knows and is super danceable. Personally, I try to use a really solid Motown song for this, because anyone who likes to dance will dance to a Motown hit. My usual go-to is “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” by The Temptations.
  • Play a handful of quality dance songs back to back at the beginning. You want people to stay on the dance floor as long as possible, and doing so in the beginning sets the tone for things to come.
  • Don’t be afraid to mix things up stylistically. Totally cool to have rock followed by rap followed by R&B followed by a current pop hit, as long as things flow well together. Most people love variety, especially if they are well known songs.
  • Don’t be afraid to make changes on the fly. If a song is not being received well, follow it up with one that will get people into things again. even if it shakes up your playlist.
  • Break out some random/older/forgotten hits. They always make things more interesting, and if they were truly hits, people will have a blast. Just make sure they will get people on the dance floor.
  • Always play the drunken sing-alongs near the end of the night. Pretty standard. (e.g. “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond, “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey)
  • Only play a few slow dances, if any at all. At weddings they are a must, but at parties, unless the host specifically asks for them, don’t play them. The reason is that while some people love to get close to each other, it can totally destroy the flow/mood of the dance. People can take breaks if they’re tired, but don’t give them an excuse.
  • Close out the night with a song everyone knows and can dance to. Always close out the night with a bang, but with a song that says, “Sorry folks, the night is over.” If there is a specific song that is requested, play it. If there isn’t, it could be one of those drunken sing-a-longs. But never, ever, ever, end it with a slow dance, and always announce that it’s the last song.

While this may not be everything you should consider, I feel these guidelines are a great starting point to make a successful playlist. Of course, this is based off of my personal experience, which I will admit is kind of limited. The big thing to remember is that crafting a playlist takes time and effort and a lot of editing, particularly if you listen/skim through and notice there are tunes that don’t flow. Obviously, for a barbecue, road trip, etc. it is not as necessary, but it’s always good to go over what you have a few times.

If you have any comments about what I’ve written, please leave them below, especially if you have experience and feel I’ve missed something or said something totally wrong. Otherwise, I hope you enjoyed this entry and that you use these guidelines in the future for your own personal use.

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2 thoughts on “How to Make a Killer Playlist

  1. Brittany and I planned our entire playlist. It went over very smoothly and people were commenting positively on it for weeks afterward. It didn’t help that the reception was outside and it was 100 degrees out, But, for the most part, with the tent and a large fan, people danced pretty continuously throughout the night. I will say though, people did not like dancing to Ben Folds. That’s the only time I recall everyone leaving the dance floor. I thought it was perhaps coincidence that they left when “Kate” started to play, but then later on that night when “Underground” came on the same thing happened again. I was baffled. Everyone on the dance floor was college-aged plus or minus a few years and for the most part had similar tastes to what we liked. Not sure what happened there.

  2. Pingback: Wedding Band or DJ? | The All New Cheap Music Blog

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