What are the basic things to look for when hiring a DJ?
What will separate an amateur, fly-by-night service provider from one who is a truly professional provider running a legitimate and successful business? We’re hoping this article will help you with some of the basic “check-mark” items you should look for and cross off your list to help you tell the difference, and we hope to give you an idea of what differences you should expect as well.
What does make a great DJ?
This is a harder question to answer, and not really the scope of this article, but the answer to this question depends a lot on what is important to you, and the ideas and expectations you have when you are looking to hire a DJ for your event from an entertainment standpoint. Often, if you have never hired a DJ before, it can be hard to know what kinds of things to look for or just what your expectations should actually be. Again, we are hoping this will help.
On this page are just some of the things to consider when hiring a DJ. Once these things are “checked off your list,” then you can proceed to the next step, which includes vetting out personality styles, entertainment offerings, and other subjective criteria that are essential to finding the right professional DJ for you, your guests, and your event.
We’ll start here with these items because far from being indicators of a “good” or “great” DJ service, they are simply the bare-minimum requirements for being able to “DJ” an event at all. Most services and their websites place too much emphasis on the fact that they have these bare-bones essentials covered, so we’ll just get them out of the way first.
Make sure your service uses only professional-grade audio equipment and not just home stereo components, or consumer-grade electronics. Ask them for brand-names, and if you are not familiar with the names, or with audio equipment in general, research them yourself online for more information. Also make sure that the DJ or service you are considering has “enough” equipment, or the right type of equipment to handle your specific event. While you may not know what all goes into a mufti-faceted event like a wedding ceremony & reception (that IS why you’re looking for a PROFESSIONAL!), you should ask your provider what types of equipment and setups they will be using and make sure their explanation at least sounds like it will make sense. A quality service has multiple systems and can construct an audio solution that is right for just about any type of size of event. Sometimes too much is too much, and not enough is… well… not enough!
On the other-hand you will find DJ-sites all over the web that are more than happy to give you a laundry list of the “latest and greatest” in audio equipment they use. Don’t get us wrong – high-quality pro-audio level equipment is NEVER a BAD thing, and it should always be in the PLUS column for any DJ you are considering. That being said though, in today’s digital music/Guitar Center world, literally ANYONE can get a new credit card in the mail, buy some good equipment and spend a weekend downloading an illegal music library. Then you have an “instant-DJ!”
Think about this: Does your photographer try to wow you with the name-brands of the cameras, lenses, flashes, and light-diffusers they will be using? Our guess is not. Showing you the equipment they use should be done almost in-passing so you can just check that concern off your list. Many DJs like rattling off name brands and specs more than they like planning events and brainstorming original ideas with you. This is a sure-fire sign of an amateurish provider!
Pro-audio equipment is a prerequisite for being a DJ, and is only a piece of the puzzle – not a sure-fire sign of a quality service provider, and it’s crucial to keep this in perspective. Be sure to look at the WHOLE PACKAGE. If they can demonstrate to you that they have the experience, planning, and performance ability through a strong list of past clients and references in addition to their list of equipment, then GO FOR IT!
A true quality provider will spend more time explaining to you why they are better suited to help plan and execute your event, and will spend more time giving you ideas and explaining their process than they will showing you pretty pictures of equipment. While a stellar DJ on lower-grade equipment will still put on a stellar event for you and your guests with no real noticeable downfalls, a hack with the “latest top-of-the-line” will still be a hack and will deliver a lower-quality result.
Make sure your DJ has a VERY large and diverse musical library covering many genres, artists, and eras. Also be sure they will honor your requests for “must-play,” as well as “must-NOT-play” selections. Make sure they will take requests at your event if you want them to. When you are meeting with them, be sure to ask about their policy regarding music you want that they may not currently have. Be sure that they are willing to get selections for you at no additional charge if needed. Make ABSOLUTELY SURE that they are asking for YOUR input and direction on what music to use for the different parts of your event. Again, suggestions are fine. But anyone telling you what “they do,” or what you “should do” is not looking out for you or your event, and is not the sign of a professional DJ service.
Consider asking your provider how they get their new music or what sources they use. If they say they download it all, or get it for free, etc., be wary. This may indicate that they do not pay for their selections and are using pirated material. If they are too cheap as a business to pay $0.99-$1.29 for an MP3 file, what other corners might they be cutting in their business that could have very real, disastrous, and even potentially embarrassing results at YOUR wedding?
Beyond that, illegally distributed music files are often very unreliable in quality. They can be low-bitrate files that do not sound very good, or worse, can have pops, clicks, or other artifacts that you will be able to hear when listening to them. Finally, pirated tracks are usually album cuts, and as such may not be edited for foul language, explicit content, etc.
Professional DJ providers will more often than not use subscription services that give them access to all of the newest/most recent music tracks in the highest quality possible, and provides them with special radio-friendly edits that are checked for language and explicit content. Many times, these are the same services that actually send the tracks to radio stations themselves!
Also, ask your DJ what their policy is regarding your special music requests that they don’t have in their library already. A professional provider charging a professional fee for their services should be quick to respond that as long as the selections are readily available for purchase through legitimate channels, and as long as they are given enough notice, they will have no problem rounding up those selections for you.
If, on the other hand, the DJ says they will charge you extra for the selections, that you will have to provide them, or that they will just “rip” them off of YouTube (NO!), this is a sign you are not dealing with a DJ who is focused on delivering you the highest level of customer service and quality at your event.
Okay, so we know a DJ needs to have music & equipment. Moving on…
Professional IS and professional DOES!
Too many individuals and services call themselves “professional,” and to them the word “professional” simply means “someone who gets paid to do something.” At Sounds To Go, we think the word means far more than that. “Professional” means running a business like a business (including paying taxes). It means being prepared. It means having backup plans in-place, and protecting the interests of your clients as well as your own. It means educating your clients so they can make an informed buying decision.
Get it in writing. Make sure your service is going to offer a contract that has all the pertinent details regarding your event including, but not limited to date, time, location, hours of service, services included (including equipment upgrades, options, etc.), payment terms along with breakdown of deposits made, balance due, and if your service employs more than one DJ or subs-out to other DJs, get the name and contact info of the person doing your event.
- Liability Insurance
Make sure they carry a liability insurance policy, a minimum of $1 Million is pretty much standard in the industry. Some venues require liability coverage for some or all of your vendors, but that aside, it is just a good idea to have it anyway. Without liability coverage, you could be held responsible for property damages and personal injuries that occur at your event that arise from your DJs performance, and if your DJ does not have coverage and your venue requires it, you may be forced to get coverage through the venue itself (at a premium of course) or on your own (from your homeowner’s insurance policy for example.) Bottom line is, if your DJ doesn’t have coverage, you’re responsible.
- Business Credentials
This one is usually over-looked by people shopping for DJs. Far too-many DJ services operate on an irregular and “under-the table” basis. Some are even hobbyists who only come out of the woodwork when they need some extra cash. Inquire about the credentials of your service. Look for business licenses and fictitious name statements current and on-file, bank accounts in company name, etc. It is also a good idea to see if the service you are hiring is a member of the local chamber of commerce, Better Business Bureau, various national DJ trade associations, etc. These things may seem small, and may appear on the surface to be inconsequential to the success of your event (“he’s just playing music… right?”), but businesses having the above items “in-place” are actually running their business LIKE a business, and this can actually give you a bigger insight into their character and professionalism than any in-person interview could. It tells you how seriously they take what they are doing, and offers more of an assurance they will be there for you when you need them and when your event arrives.
Looking for industry-specific affiliations, like local and national DJ networking associations, wedding industry networking associations, and others can be a very good indication that they are very well established in the local business community, and the wedding industry specifically, and that they take their business more seriously than someone who just moonlights or DJs for extra money on the side.
- Back-Up Equipment
Be sure your DJ has a contingency for equipment malfunction that could potentially put a halt to your celebration. Though equipment failure might be a rare occurrence, it can happen. Make sure as well that this extra equipment will be ON-SITE AT YOUR EVENT! It’s not really “back-up equipment” if it is back at the DJs house, in use by another DJ at another event, or in storage somewhere. Get this specified in writing if it is a concern. (Hint: it should be!)
Make sure the service you are considering has plenty of references, and most preferably, references for the type of event you are having. Make sure you are able to contact the references and take your time asking about their overall experience and about the level of professionalism and ability of the DJ they had, as well as their take on the overall quality of service they received. Things to ask about: performance, punctuality, flexibility (every event is different, and changes are always happening on the spot), appearance, personality, preparedness and planning, etc. Testimonials on their site can be great, but also see if they have any reviews on established third-party review sites like Yelp! and others. Check social media outlets as well to see what others are saying.
- Know Your DJ
Do not sign a contract until you have met with the person who will actually be the DJ at your wedding. Ask the company if they employ more than one DJ, or if they sub-out any of their events to other DJs or DJ services. If the answer is “yes” to either question, we suggest you insist not only on meeting the DJ you will be working with, but that his/her name and contact info is included on your contract before you sign. At Sounds To Go, you will know from the start who your DJ is because there is ONLY ONE! We never sub-out events unless unforeseen circumstances prevent our being able to perform, which hasn’t happened yet!
- What If They Cancel?
Ask your DJ what their policy is regarding their inability to show up, for whatever reason to your event. At Sounds To Go, we have a policy in-place, and included in the Terms And Conditions of your contract that protects you in this scenario. In the event we cancel an event we contracted for, we will either find replacement services for the agreed-upon price, or you will receive a 100% refund of all monies paid. We have never had to use this clause, but it is there for your protection.
Be sure your DJ discusses attire for your event with you, and if they don’t bring it up, you should. It is important for your satisfaction and for the success of your event that your DJ be attired appropriately. This is especially crucial if your event is themed or if the event type is usually somewhat formal. Your event might be totally casual, and you may not have any real preference, but your DJ is not being professional, and is actually doing you a disservice, if they do not ask you about your preference. After you have discussed attire with them, we suggest you get the agreed-upon attire noted in your contract.
- Meet In Person
Always make sure your DJ is willing to meet with you before you sign your contract. It is important to put a face with a name and to get a feel for the overall personality of the individual you are choosing to help represent you at your function and help entertain your friends and family. Your DJ should be available any time for questions or concerns. At Sounds To Go, we offer unlimited in-person, phone, and email consultations as needed to help ensure both the success of your event, and your peace-of-mind.
Going the “Extra Mile”
Now that we have the basics covered, and have seen the kinds of things that distinguish a truly professional service from the rest, it’s time to look at the kinds of things that make a service superior and make them stand out head-and-shoulders above the rest. Just like with any other type of professional service, a dj service that excels at these items here really doesn’t have any “competition” at all.
1. CUSTOMER SERVICE
Were they responsive to your first contact? Did they make their appointments on-time? Did they follow-up after your appointments to see if you had any further questions or give you additional information you talked about in your appointment? Or did they just hound you about “sending in your contract?” Is it easy to get a hold of them when you need to?
2. LISTEN TO YOU
You dj should listen to you! They are there to help you plan and realize the celebration of your dreams. Did you get that… “of YOUR dreams.” Your dj should always make the effort to get your input on EVERY facet of your celebration, not just the music. Remember: a dj wouldn’t be a professional, and wouldn’t be doing you justice if they did not offer you ideas, suggestions, and scenarios based on experience. But giving suggestions and dictating are entirely different. If anyone tries to tell you what you “should” do, or “oh no, you HAVE to do_______,” then they are not the right fit for you or your event. Did the dj you met with take the time to get to know YOU and find out what you were looking to get out of your celebration, or were they just “giving a sales pitch” and tooting their own horn? Quality dj’s LISTEN. Hacks “try to sell.”
3. ORGANIZATION AND ATTENTION TO DETAIL
It’s all over our website, and we can’t stress it enough… The organization and attention-to-detail of your dj before your event will play a huge part in the success of it. How is your dj going to run your event if they don’t have a clue what’s next or who’s doing what? Ask to see the materials they will be using to plan your event. Make sure they are going to provide you with an itinerary/timeline prior to your event for you to review and approve. Your dj’s planning process before your event should give you a crystal-clear picture of what your event will be like from beginning to end. If you can’t see or understand ahead of time how they are going to go about painting that picture for you, keep on looking!
4. #1 PRIORITY
Make sure your service is going to make your event priority NUMBER 1 the day of your event. This is ESPECIALLY crucial if your event is a wedding. On the day of your wedding, there is a good 3-4 hours of work (or more) that your dj will put into your event BEFORE it is actually scheduled to start. This crucial preparation and attention to detail can be sacrificed if your dj is doing another event the same day as yours, or if they have to oversee other dj’s doing other events. The results can be unpleasant. At Sounds To Go, we will only ever do one event on any given date. This helps to ensure YOU will always be priority #1.
- How is your DJ going to do about personalizing your wedding day celebration?
- What ideas and suggestions do they have for helping to incorporate your personalities into each aspect of the ceremony & reception?
- Do they have ideas for highlighting special family members & friends that are there celebrating with you?
- How will they go about helping to design and execute a dynamic and smooth-flowing reception?
- How will they keep guests informed, engaged & entertained throughout the celebration?
There are so many more important questions that will help you determine a quality provider, but the questions above, and the answers you get, will help you separate a truly professional DJ who specializes in creating custom, personalized celebrations, from the DJs who prefer to do a cookie-cutter “routine” for each wedding where you have little-to-no say or choice over each aspect of the event.
And of course:
Oh yes… price… “The Biggie.” We understand that price is a factor when hiring a dj, but it should not be the main, let alone sole determining factor. More important than price is value. What you are actually getting for the price you are paying. Remember: A dj is a professional service to be hired, and not a product to be liquidated. All the age-old adages are true… You get what you pay for. Good dj’s are rarely cheap, and cheap dj’s are rarely good. We’re not going to give you the ubiquitous pie chart showing “the typical wedding budget” or use scare tactics to try to justify crazy prices, but use your common sense. If a dj seems “too good to be true” from a price standpoint, it just might BE too good to be true!
As a consumer, it’s YOUR responsibility to remember that you’re making an INVESTMENT in the overall experience that will be had by you and your guests, and you are making an investment in the overall SUCCESS of your event itself. When seen this way, it does become obvious that the investment made in entertainment for your event should not be taken lightly, nor be relegated to a lower-priority from a budgetary standpoint.
Just Remember: A “PROFESSIONAL” service is going to charge for more than just the “performer’s time” to play at your event. Business costs, both fixed and variable, like overhead expenses, etc. will vary from service to service, but will always be a part of the fees you pay. Do your homework and talk to or meet several dj’s to see if they meet the criteria above, and any other criteria you have. While you’re getting a feel for the range of fees and finding out which services are within your initial budget, also be open to considering services that are at the upper-end of your budget, or even a little higher. Why? Because a better overall VALUE may be had for your event and it’s outcome from a service that charges slightly more for your event, but that also puts so much more into it and can provide a better result. First figure out what your vision for your wedding day is, and what you want our of your entertainment, and then ask yourself how much that vision is worth to you. When you have followed these steps, you can rest assured you are making an educated buying decision that will increase the chances of a successful event!