Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Reading a crowd?’’ That’s DJing 101!” And you’re absolutely right! Most DJs have an innate sense of crowd intuition.
However, beyond all the commercial bullsh*t of modern DJing, it’s still a skill that stands above all others.
Being a DJ isn’t just about playing great music or showing off your technical prowess; it’s about understanding & connecting with the people in front of you.
Let’s get to it.
1: Get There Early to Observe The Crowd
It’s the same thing all of us instinctively do when walking into any lounge, bar or club. That is, whether consciously or not, we quickly get a read on the room.
As DJs, we’ll subconsciously assess the demographic breakdown in terms of male-to-female, age bracket, ethnic background, gay/straight, and so on.
What type of crowd are they? Is it a ‘trendy’ crowd, a poser/VIP crowd (hopefully not), an underground clubber crowd, or a mixed bag?!
What mood are people in? How intoxicated are they? What are their overall energy levels like? I’m sure you’ll agree—all important stuff!
Next: if people are dancing, who are they from this demographic breakdown? And which group—if any—are they with? What’s their body language telling us?
It’s essentially this algorithmic download that plays a significant role in determining the direction of our DJ set.
In essence, the DJ’s job is to ‘’read the room’’ as a whole.
And so yes: getting there 20 – 30 minutes early to observe the crowd and acclimate to the environment is always a good idea!
2: Get The Girls Dancing
It’s no secret that DJs will often prioritize getting the girls dancing as they’re typically seen as the trendsetters on the dancefloor.
When girls start dancing and having a good time, it creates a positive and inviting atmosphere for everyone else to join in. By focusing on this, we effectively set the tone for the rest of the crowd and encourage more people to get up and join the fun.
I’d better point out: this strategy might also be described as ‘’picking a target’’ — so it doesn’t have to be women, necessarily!!
For this cunning tactic, we have to use our observational skills and some trial & error with our track selections: tracks with vocals, pop music, commercial dance …you know the ones!
Sure, getting the ladies dancing first won’t apply to EVERY given scenario, although it’s definitely one to keep in mind when it reaches that time of the evening.
3: Be Prepared To Pivot
As you progress through your set, you’ll need to continuously read the crowd’s musical preferences, adding the information to that subconscious algorithm you created when you came in.
Observe their reactions to different tracks and genres. Are they enthusiastically dancing, or do you notice some disengagement? Similarly, be aware of any signs of restlessness or lack of response, which may suggest a need for a change in musical direction.
We’ve all heard the saying: ‘’play exactly the right tune at exactly the right moment’’. Well, that just about sums up what you need to do based on what vibe you’re getting from your audience at that particular moment.
When I used to play in tourist destinations at bars and clubs overseas, reading body language and observing people’s reactions in real time was crucial. You had to be willing to pivot regardless of style or BPM at any given moment as the crowd/room breakdown could completely change in the blink of an eye.
4: If It’s Working, Play More of The Same
If it’s working, DJs often suggest playing ‘‘more of the same’’. Especially when you’re trying to cultivate a dancefloor, it’s a no-brainer to capitalize on what’s already working.
Or to put it another way: when you find a good vein you’ll at least want to stay there for a bit to see where it goes!
On the flip side, you should always be able to have that larger perspective. That is, don’t lose the overall direction of the night just because a small cross-section of the crowd is responding to a certain style or genre. Still keep them interested, but keep it rationed.
5: Use Non-verbal Communication
Scan the room and seek out those who are particularly engaged or responding positively to your music. By simply making eye contact with individuals and groups you’ll create a sense of personal connection.
Are they nodding their heads, clapping their hands, or dancing with enthusiasm? Use these cues as feedback to guide your song selections and transitions.
Whilst I’m not a big fan of ‘’hands in the air’’-style dancing in the booth (or worst, when DJs stand up on the decks area as the music continues exactly the same as it was!), the DJ is still essentially ‘’the leader’’ of the party. So feel free to dance, jump, and interact with the music yourself in moderation.
The only thing I would say—whatever you do—DON’T START THROWING CAKES!!
6: Cleanse The Dancefloor
Keeping the dancefloor moving as different people reach different stages of their night is something a good resident DJ knows all about.
I’ve seen Danny Tenaglia do this most skillfully on a number of occasions. I’m really referring to the concept of ‘’cleansing a dancefloor’’ — essentially creating space by implementing strategies to disperse the crowd (yes, intentionally THINNING your dancefloor!).
This is usually done to set the table for a different type of music and facilitate a change in atmosphere. To do this effectively, observing how the dancefloor is evolving—assessing the overall vibe, people’s energy levels and time of the evening, etc.,—is key.
Proceed with caution, though, as this isn’t a beginner strategy! The best real-world scenario I could give here: imagine it’s 2 am in a club and the dancefloor is mostly full. Something just isn’t quite right. Things are starting to feel a bit stale.
Maybe it’s time to cleanse the dancefloor.
7: Practice Empathy
More of a psychological point here—one that’s fundamentally associated with crowd connection—and thus reading one: Having a healthy amount of self-awareness as a DJ is critical.
By that, I mean you need to constantly remind yourself that it’s not about you and your beautifully choreographed mix. Rather, it’s about how you respond to what’s going on in front of you!
Practising empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of others. It involves putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and attempting to see the world from their perspective with the intention of connecting on an emotional level.
In essence, you’re not there to impose your agenda on the audience—rather you’re there to find a musical common ground.
Whilst he isn’t one of my DJ idols necessarily, Norman Cook – AKA Fatboy Slim – explains it best with this quote: ‘’The basic sole essence of DJ’ing is to have a communication with the crowd, and go on a journey with them.’’
Watching how different crowds react to your music is fundamental for all types of DJs. It’s literally what makes you a DJ!
The more you play out, the better you’ll become at reading a crowd. Clocking up those experiences is everything.
I always say that the more club experiences you’ve had as a punter also makes a big difference. It makes for a stronger bond with the crowd when you get on the other side of the decks — making that empathy skill (point No.7) almost second nature.