Wedding Band or DJ?

This may seem like an offbeat topic to discuss, but I have been involved with four weddings in the past 9 months, and will be a groomsman in another one soon. I have also had the experience of being in a wedding band, as well as being the DJ at a few weddings (though I really just made the playlists and played them). And even though I am nowhere close to getting married and have never gone through the process, I feel I have enough experience to talk about this topic that can become a major issue for some couples.

When determining whether there should be a band or a DJ at your wedding (or other major event), there are several factors that should be discussed. They include atmosphere, style of music, guests, budget, and personal taste. These factors will make the decision much easier to make for couples, though discussing them may be the most difficult part.

There is a major difference between having a DJ and having a band at a wedding, and that is the feel of the party. Though canned music can be just as exciting and fun as music from a live band, the emotion and feel coming from the band can dictate the energy and enthusiasm of the celebration. Yes, good DJs/MCs can get people on the dance floor, especially if the songs they are play are well known and popular, but they cannot rival the exuberance that a live band can create. Another difference between the two is that volume is much easier for DJs to control, since all they have to do is turn it down. Having music that is too loud can sometimes ruin a party, and bands that just blast their music, whether they are rockin’ or not, can become a real downer on the party. Still, good bands will bring their volume down if asked, without diminishing the energy level.

Style of Music
This is usually not an issue for most bands, and almost certainly not for DJs, unless a very specific style of music needs to be played. Most bands can play, or at least learn, most Top 40 hits, but if the songs are pure electronica or dub-step (or anything else that is mainly digitized music), it is almost impossible for bands to replicate it. The same goes for some international music. It is not uncommon for bands to play music from around the world, but the songs require non-traditional instruments, there’s a good chance the band would not be able to pull it off. I once played a wedding where the bride was Indian (her groom was not) and since we were not equipped to play traditional Indian music, a CD was played and we were told to take a break. While it was great for us to be getting paid to do nothing for an hour, I have to wonder how important it was to have a live band there, since almost half of our playing time was taken up by canned music on a CD.

As I stated in my entry about making a killer playlist, it is really important to know who is going to be at the wedding. Yes, the most important thing is that you enjoy the music at your own wedding, but at the same time, it is important that all of your guests are having a good time as well, because if they are not, the party may end up being no fun. This factor really should only be considered if there will be specific people you want to cater the music towards, and like the previous factor, most bands and DJs can accommodate this. The big factor is if you have a lot of people who need to hear the actual song, and not a cover, to enjoy themselves. I’d say this is pretty rare, but it is still important to determine.

This is usually the biggest and most influential factor of them all. I know several people who have gone with DJs mainly because they cannot afford a quality band. Most good wedding bands will run you at least $5,000, and the bigger and better the band, the more expensive. Some bands will offer price cuts if you hire less pieces/players, but sometimes this will kill the quality and/or repertoire of the band. Wedding band companies or agencies will sometimes offer a selection of bands, usually priced based on quality. The big thing to look out for is to see if all of the band members are actually musicians. I have come across bands that hire people to mime to a backing track, instead of play. Usually this does not include singers, drummers, lead guitarists, and horns, but it’s really easy to fake playing keyboards, especially if there is a curtain in front of the instrument. The key is to make sure that you know exactly what and who you are getting for what you are paying. By saving money you may be destroying the quality you get. This goes for DJs as well. Find out who they are and talk to them. This is a major investment, no matter how much you spend.

If you are like me and know lots of musicians, and other people who are connected to musicians, you may be able to save money by hiring people that you know. Both weddings I’ve been that DJ at I have done almost no cost. I usually ask that I get fed and that my accommodations can be taken care of. One of my old non-wedding bands also played a few weddings, and we did it for a fairly low cost, but just asked that fuel and lodging were taken care of. Just make sure that they also get fed at the wedding; actually that goes for whoever you hire.

Personal Taste
Ultimately, whether budget is important or not, it may come down to what you want. This is your special day, and you want to make sure that you get everything that you want. For me, I’m almost certain I will have some sort of live music at my wedding (if that day ever comes) even if it means that I have to have the reception in my back yard and the music is being played by some of the guests.

Whether you go with a DJ or a wedding band the key is to make sure that the music is going to be good. Be as hands on as possible (though not overwhelmingly so if dealing with a band) and know what you’re going to get. Getting a band almost always makes a party that much better, but it’s all about the music, and whether or not it can get people up and dancing.


4 thoughts on “Wedding Band or DJ?

  1. I’m not about to get married next month or anything, but Kristen and I have discussed to some extent what hypothetical nuptials will look like (this of course assumes the poor girl won’t come to her senses at some point) and I’ve pretty much established that we can get married in the middle of a forest fire or underwater while wearing burlap sacks as long as I get some say in how the music is going to go. So for me it’s DJ all the way, unless I want to pay a band a salary in the six figure range to justify them spending months learning a lot of strange songs they’re never going to play again.

    Ideally, and this got vetoed so fast that I think it somehow went back in time and vetoed itself before I even came up with the idea, was to use basically an iPod type setup with the playlists all prepared, hooked to some speakers and someone to watch over for on-the-fly tweaking and to make sure that it didn’t accidentally start playing Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop” which if nothing else would be a bit of a mood-killer and probably give the more elderly attendees a heart attack. Why, because I’m a complete control freak, which again probably rules out the band option purely for the sake of numbers. If I make too many demands and piss off the DJ, I only have to fend off one person. If I piss off the band (especially since my ideal wedding band would have like twelve members capable of swapping off instruments on the fly . . . or, basically, Lambchop) I am probably going to be subject to one hell of a beatdown. At least they won’t hit me with the instruments, because those are expensive.

    But that’s kind of the thing, isn’t it? Where do you draw the line between what you want to hear and what will get the audience dancing? A wedding isn’t the appropriate place to subject the guests to your own personal mixtape to the stars, no matter how much the Sex Pistols song really plays off the Galaxie 500 song that came before it. I mean, dude, it’s a masterpiece of metaphorical transitioning. Yet my ears are never the appropriate place to be subjected to the Black Eyed Peas, regardless of how it makes people shake their lovely lady lumps.

    I realize I’m getting away from the topic slightly, since you covered a lot of this in the previous “I Now Pronounce You ‘Rock’ and ‘On'” post some weeks back, but to me the ability to hone in on exactly what sound and vibe you’re going for trumps the energy that a live band can bring. Unless, again, you’ve managed to book King Crimson and they can play anything you throw at them. I’d love to be able to subject the guests to as much of my iTunes as I can sneak into it and, God help me, a DJ can make that happen. I think Glen McDonald put it best back when he was doing his “War Against Silence” review columns on his website (which basically stopped when he got married) . . . in issue 498, he discusses his upcoming wedding playlist and what he and his future wife hashed out, and it basically boiled down to not being necessary to play songs of deep personal significance to them, because it’s a party. So they went and picked songs they liked that would get people up and dancing, which seems to be a nice goal (and used the iPod as a DJ, which is where I got the idea I never had from). Issue 498d shows how the actual playlist turned out and, frankly, I can’t disagree with any of it. The Gun Club’s “Sex Beat”? I want to marry them both.

    To me, that’s the goal. The audience will dance to anything that has a good beat and, you know, isn’t wrapped in shards of shrieking feedback (darn it, there goes the Sonic Youth Dinner Hour) and theoretically once the drinks start flowing, they won’t notice you’re subjecting them to basically, you know, Coachella.

    Still, it probably depends on how big a gap exists between what you like and what the guests like. My family likes “nice music”, Kristen’s parents like doo-wop, I listen to Women’s “Public Strain” for entertainment. A slight disconnect may be in play. It’s become a fun running joke that whenever we’re in the car and sometimes experimental and/or off-putting comes up on the shuffle, I turn and Kristen and announce “And they’ll dance to THIS at our wedding.” Typically it’s Joan of Arc or Tortoise and she just nods. She’s very patient, the little darling.

    So, I guess what I’m saying to any potential DJs of my future who are out there: be warned. I’m coming and I’m going to be very specific. {cue ominous music, preferably from Mogwai’s “Like Herod”}

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