Could I Have This Dance?

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(Pictured: this is what people think it’s like to be a party DJ. Go ahead and keep thinking that.)

The role of the party DJ has changed a great deal since I was doing it back in the 90s. Where we played CDs and even a few cassettes, music is all digital now. In addition to music, DJs now often provide photo booths, karaoke, and other stuff. At the last few weddings I have attended, the DJ rarely spoke; he wasn’t putting on a show around the music, as we used to do. And that’s fine. Times change.

I have written a few times over the years about wedding DJ work. For example, in 2011:

Clients and wedding guests could be terrifically gracious, inviting us to have dinner, a piece of wedding cake, or a drink at the open bar. But they could also be shockingly rude, peremptorily demanding this and that. And a couple of times, we felt physically threatened. One family had paid to rewire the reception hall after it was determined the electrical panel on the rickety stage in the middle of the room (in a decrepit hall, in a decaying town) couldn’t handle the smoke machine in addition to the DJ rig and the light rig. The smoke machine cost extra, and this family obviously wanted it badly, but on the night of the wedding, The Mrs. and I could not get the notoriously temperamental thing to function. So there we were, on a low stage surrounded by the entire cast of Deliverance, all violently pissed off that they weren’t getting the goddamn smoke they paid for, although the cigarette smoke in the room should have been more than enough.

There were more physical threats than there should have been, actually. On another night in another hall, a guest wanted to use our microphone to make a toast, which we did not allow. He and his knot of friends were not happy; after the party ended and we were packing up, I wasn’t sure they were going to let us out. Guests would frequently ask if they could look through our CDs, which we also never allowed; one of them told us that since we were paid help, we should let guests do whatever they wanted.

The thread connecting all of the bad experiences was alcohol. After another party, at midnight while we were packing up, the father of the bride wobbled over and started criticizing the job we’d done. For a few minutes I was sure he was going to stiff us the $300 he owed. At another party, the extremely young bride and groom got drunk in the limo between the church and the reception; she was weepy and he was catatonic, and dealing with them required a very light touch.

There was another bride who wasn’t drunk, but who could have benefitted from a couple of drinks. She came over to request “YMCA,” which packed the dance floor, but when I followed it with KC and the Sunshine Band and not a solitary soul left the floor, she came back on the dead run to accuse me of “ruining her wedding by playing disco.”

But there were many good things to remember, too. The Mrs. and I worked for a DJ service, which would book the parties through a particular hour, but the client had the option to purchase an extra hour if they chose, and if they did, that money went directly into our pockets. It was a validation of the job we’d done when the groom or the father of the bride came up to us at quarter-to-eleven with a wad of cash to ask if we could stay until midnight. (Drunk-in-the-limo couple bought an extra hour that night.) We made it a point to play at least one set of music the couple’s grandparents and other older guests could dance to, which back in the 90s was music from the 40s; they would look at us with appreciation as they swayed to “Moonlight Serenade.”

My last experience as a party DJ was a brief turn in the booth at a friend’s wedding in 1999. I have been asked to do it a couple of times since but have always turned down the requests; I don’t have the equipment, or the desire. But for the few years The Mrs. and I did it, we had fun with it.

7 thoughts on “Could I Have This Dance?

  1. I played wedding DJ once—at my own (second) wedding five years ago. Separate playlists on Spotify (for pre-vows, post-vows/dinner and after-dinner dance) played on my iPhone through a PA system.

    I agonized over tempo, intensity and especially lyrics. You couldn’t pay me enough to do it for someone else (“You do know that “Every Breath You Take” is about a f&*%ing STALKER, don’t you?”).

    1. After a while, I developed a standard show: I’d do the same proven songs in the same order. The DJ is being paid to entertain 250 people, and I always felt like it would be malpractice not to give each client the benefit of my expertise regarding what works and what doesn’t. (Couples like to think they’re unique, but when it comes to this, they aren’t. I could duplicate 90 to 95 percent of the songs from party to party.) When a bride and groom gave me a list of songs they wanted to hear, I would play some but ignore others. (Sorry dude, that eight-minute U2 album cut isn’t gonna get on.) One night I was planning to ignore the groom’s request for Tom Jones’ “She’s a Lady” until he came up to the bandstand and requested it personally. It’s hard to think of a song more inappropriate for a wedding reception, but he was adamant, and I played it.

      I always wonder what percentage of the couples whose weddings we did are still married now, 30 years later.

  2. This post reminds me for the thousandth time that I really need to record my dad sharing as many gig stories as he can remember before he forgets them. He played any number of weddings and receptions.
    I’ve heard one or two stories in which alcohol figures, but usually they involve people acting goofy, not people acting jerky.
    There must have been some jerks over the decades, but I don’t remember hearing those tales; I wonder if he enjoyed playing music so much that they didn’t bother him.

    One of the last wedding bookings he took was a former high-school classmate of mine. A number of other classmates attended. They were apparently kind enough to say nice things about me when they discovered the identity of the organist/piano player.

  3. Tim M

    First marriage: outdoors, short; park setting, no music. Second marriage: hired my station’s morning man, who had a mobile DJ business and begged for the job. We requested a particular song for our first dance and told him weeks in advance, reminded him a few days before the wedding. At the reception, just before our first dance, he said he’d “forgotten” to bring the record. Third wedding: again, hired a DJ who worked at the station and had a booming DJ business. Requested a particular Frank Sinatra song for our first dance. Said he had it, no problem. At the reception, after setting up, he tells us he “forgot” to bring the Sinatra CD. My bride motioned to her brother – who was also our wedding planner – who reached into his suit coat pocket and handed the DJ the Sinatra disk.

    Live and learn.

  4. James Lap

    I was a party DJ for 15 years. A lot of it coincided with my on-air gig. It was very good marketing! To have the client tell people they hired the guy you hear every night is thrilling. I’ve had my share of nightmare gigs, but being 6’4″ 220 lbs kept the threat level at absolute zero. In fact, I called a few drunks outside! Fight me! I dare you. Never happened.

  5. mackdaddyg

    I can’t imagine how much of a potential nightmare being a wedding DJ can be.

    When I got married a couple of years ago, my wife let me choose the first dance song. It wasn’t anything popular, and naive ol’ me thought I’d need to get the DJ a copy of the song. He found it with no problem whatsover. In this modern day and age, it’s pretty amazing how much music they can access.

    Oh, and the song? This lovely tune:

  6. John Gallagher

    As someone who has been a full-time wedding and event DJ for the last 25 years, I can sympathize with what’s been said previously. We added a photo booth in early 2019 and run it as a companion business to my DJ business and on it’s own. I design the strips/welcome screen and my wife runs the booth.

    2020 was a horrible year for our business since entertainment was the business most affected by crowd restrictions if venues allowed dancing at all. Luckily, I received money from both of the paycheck protection programs and both times the loans were forgiven. I also received grant money from the SBA which helped. The only downside on funding was I was approved for an SBA EIDL which is not forgivable, and it’s a 30 year loan with interest adding up daily. In March of 2020, I had no idea when I’d work again so it was an option to keep my business afloat.

    The only downside of today’s weddings are that couples are difficult to communicate with. They hide behind emails and text messages and don’t always communicate clearly on details for their day. When inquiring for a price quote, they often ghost or disappear if the quote is higher that they want to pay. And, they often pick music that THEY enjoy but not all of it is danceable. For those selections, I move them into a cocktail or dinner hour.

    I started late in the wedding business at the age of 37, and now I’m 62. My prior career was nearly 25 years in the radio business. Unfortunately, I didn’t start investing until I was out of radio so it looks like I’ll be working at least 10 more years.

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