Iíve met a lot of DJs who use set lists, and a lot of DJs who are absolutely against them, so Iíve seen either side of the spectrum. That being said I want to provide a fairly objective look at setlists and when they can be useful and why you might want to avoid them.
What is a set list ?
Bands are pretty synonymous with set lists since a lot of the time bands will have a pre planned list of songs they are going to play. As a DJ having a set list is walking into the club on any given night with a set plan on each individual track you plan on playing over an hour or two hour span. Lotís of DJs will stick hard to a set list and not adjust at all. Others will take it as a basic outline for what they want to play for the evening and work within it.
A shorter version of a set list I call a routine. A routine, as an example for an open format DJ would be say an old school classic hip hop routine. Itís 3-5 songs you know will work well together. If it goes over really well you can keep pulling out deeper songs in the genre and perhaps a similar routine. If it doesnít you can switch to something else, maybe another routine. It can be songs of a similar genre or sound, or a couple songs that just work really well together.
Why are many DJs against set lists ?
You want to be able to play for the room, it takes a special situation to know exactly what the crowd wants in advance and itís important to be able to adapt. Let me paraphrase from two big name DJs to illustrate this.
To paraphrase one thing Mark Knight has said is, for him DJing is 10 percent technique, and 90 percent song selection. Knowing what tracks work and how to read a room is monumentally important to DJing. Technique can be used to better present good songs, but ultimately you need to be playing good music that fits the mood to set the party off.
A-Track has also said he can teach DJs to scratch but thats only half of DJing the other half is knowing what songs to play when. What does this have to do with set lists ? You need to be able to know what works off the book sometimes and try new tracks to test the reaction. Thats some times the only way to find songs that get the best reaction. Different songs will set different rooms off, at different times and itís important to know which situations you can get away with what. Put Your hands Up for Detroit by Fedde le Grande will still get a good reaction. But It wonít if I play it too early or to the wrong crowd itís important to experiment with what works where.
When is a set list appropriate?
Although as I mentioned many DJs will just play off a setlist, their are a couple situations you almost must go off a set list, here are two examples:
DJ Competitions: Although Itís important to still be aware of the crowd when playing a DJ Competition, whether its for song selection or turntablism, hopefully youíve prepared enough to be aware of the crowd. To keep your set rock solid itís important to know what you are going to play.You have to have practiced technique and in most cases you should know the songs you are going to play as well.
Large Festivals: You have a thousand plus people there to see you for the first time, itís important to do a couple of things. Represent yourself properly. This is less playing for the crowd as it is representing your brand. This is the type of event you should know exactly what type of music to expect.
So whatís the best way to go ?
Many people will argue one way or the other but I think the best thing to do is play in the middle. This is why I brought up routines. Routines are great, because it allows you to have some practiced technique for a couple songs. I think showing up to a venue knowing exactly every song youíre going to play is narrowing yourself too much, that being said itís important to have an idea of what youíll be playing for the night especially if you are playing a long set, but be flexible. Make sure you find your happy medium between free styling every song, and having a hard set list.
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