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Your Emails, My Answer: What’s a DJ set anyway?

By   /   April 12, 2013  /   Comments Off

Festival season is just around the corner and it is beyond awesome that I have been receiving emails from students asking me to teach them a little bit about the dance music world. Friends, here are the Cliff Notes of Electronica 101.

Far too much time had past since we had seen our favorite glow-in-the-dark rodent. We hadn’t seen deadmau5 in about twelve months, and by twelve I mean four… and that is four too many. It was 99 degrees in Chicago on the last day of Lollapalooza; it had been raining off and on all afternoon. 2010 was the first time the all-electronic stage had been added to the 20 year running festival that sees over 210,000 attendees over three days. This was also the very first year a dance music act would headline a mainstage, not to mention close out the weekend. Plus, said act just so happened to be debuting a new stage set up, along with new material. Needless to say, we were fired up.
Watching the glowing city skyline dwarf the massive stage in front of it, we waited in the perfect spot for the show to begin, worried the impending rain may ultimately doom our good time. The downpour began though, and it was not friendly. My brother and I looked at each other silently confirming there was no way this set was happening when – almost on cue – the stage was flooded with blue light and Where My Keys began battling the storm, both literally and figuratively. The deck was stacked: last day of Lolla, favorite artist, stage production premiere, new song, epic rain storm. There was no way this would not turn out to be the best show of all-time. Or would it?

“Was that not the most unbelievable thing you’ve ever seen!?” Little bro and I just smiled and kept on trucking, walking with the droves of people leaving the festival raving about deadmau5. There was never any confirmation that we were thinking the same thing until we sat down on the train with matching Eeyore expressions. It was written all over our faces: austere disappointment. The planets had basically aligned, and what should have been something to talk about forever just… wasn’t. We were confused. Had we become playlist snobs? Had we seen too many shows? Is there such a thing? What makes a show good or bad?

There are so many things that go into a show: the location, the atmosphere, the crowd. Artists don’t always have a say in the where, who, how, when of a show, but they most definitely have control over the what; the setlist.

I hear over and over again, that there is no more paramount sign of a great DJ set than walking out of the club going, ‘I’ve never heard one of those songs but that was the best night of my life.’ While not completely true or false, the fact of the matter is, DJs are meant to be tastemakers and thus their sets thrive on being built up live to feed the need of their audience. It is possible that some combination of tunes that no one in the house has heard could

be the optimal setlist for a show, but at the same time, a setlist with nothing but Beatport’s top

40 could make for ‘the best night ever’ too.

Flip over to artist-only sets and it’s a bit different.

Given the fact that the artist is going to play their own records and not veer too far from that, the setlist already begins to build itself. However, the major make-or-break factor in a set like this is the order. Just as in a DJ set, there is a great time to play a certain song and a not so great time; the same goes for artist-only sets. When we saw deadmau5 at Lollapalooza there was a good 45 minute chunk in the middle where he played nothing but ambient, down-tempo songs. There is no doubt that a set is built around the ups and downs – the peaks and valleys if you will – but a great setlist makes it a point to spend the correct amount of time on each portion. Everyone needs a break to cool off, relax and enjoy the music but if it is too long, the artist runs the risk of losing the audience’s attention. For an artist-only set it is imperative that the ordering of songs is built up just as it would be in a DJ set, only this time with the artist’s own compositions.

One of the biggest determinants of a successful show is the energy between crowd and artist. The best gift an audience can give is raw energy, which in turn causes artists to select tracks that will move listeners and steer them in whatever direction they are intending to go. It’s bewildering when you think the DJ is literally reading your mind, but really, it’s the vibe being just right. That is the mark of a damn good show.

The greatest enemy of any set is comparison, so when you go to ten festivals a summer, shows begin to get predictable. Even if you walk into every different event with optimistic clean slate, chances are details will get tweaked but set structure will remain similar. A large reason why so many fans go to festivals is because the hope is, the quality or scarcity of each act’s playlist will be greater than a regularly scheduled tour stop.

These kinds of theories put supreme pressure on your experience, whether you are doing it subconsciously or not. We saw Bassnectar destroy his set at Summer Camp in

southern Illinois last year, which made us even more pumped to see him again a few months later at the

inaugural Electric Forest.

So excited, that we even brought eleven hundred glowsticks to launch into the crowd as a part of the ongoing Basshead tradition. Sadly, the set fell completely flat – it dragged. So upsetting!

Could it have been that after seeing Kaskade and Tiesto we just were not in the mood? The expectations we set for the show were probably way too high. Does that mean it was a bad set or just bad timing?

If we teleport back to Electric Daisy Carnival this summer we can study what is probably the best example of timing in dance music history. Here are hundreds of thousands of fans ready to see some outrageous sets from all the international titans of electronic music. Whether you were there or even just listened to the sets, you can spot the running song trends with little effort. Almost every set included some variation of the same ten songs. By the end of the second night we had heard Knife Party’s Internet Friends a dozen times. Any one of those sets in a different context would be one to talk about for eons, but because each ‘special’ set was back to back (to back), it made them all too common.


Probably the worst part about all of it was that we were all just like hungry dogs waiting for the next bone to get thrown into the pen! Even when there was a break from the repetition, say an artist-only set from Pretty Lights or Bassnectar, the crowd was too caught up in the playlist and it’s like we didn’t know how to function without it. We just sat there waiting and waiting for these sets to be over so we could all jump up and down again . At some moments I thought things were going to take a turn for the completely obvious until Armin van Buuren catapulted us into a legitimately ground-shaking cyclone of songs we could not recognize if our lives depended on it, and BOOM: instant best set of the festival – a wizard among muggles.

So what kind of conclusions can we draw about sets and why they make us go bonkers or feel like we just missed the boat completely? A multitude of components all come together to make a perfect moment, or there’s something that isn’t quite right. Ultimately the most important truth of any show is that the artist has total control over what we’re listening to and at the core of any great set is the orchestration of where the set will take us at any given moment. On top of that, we also have to realize the non-musical experience is almost just as important as the tracks playing in the foreground. Whether it be the friends you’re with or the stage production and visuals, for the perfect set to play-out there has to be that one extra piece of the puzzle that puts everything over the top and allows you to ride the glorious wave that is the live performance. But just as in surfing, you have to send out the good vibes, let things come to you and just roll with it. This year we got a chance to see Tiesto at Summerfest in Milwaukee. He played late at night in a large pavilion and we could only get lawn tickets, but that wasn’t going to stop us from seeing our favorite DJ on the planet. To be honest we weren’t expecting much considering our seats, the overall feel of the festival and the sound quality. However that night, something we can’t explain occurred and for two hours it seemed like all the planets had actually aligned. When the music finally quieted down and we were on our way back to the car, we found ourselves in that same moment we had years before at deadmau5, but this time there was nothing but smiles on our faces and a lasting memory forever burned into our hearts. Remember: the next time you head to a show, no matter how big or how small, just know that the perfect storm may come at any time. Sit back, relax and ride the rave.



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About the author

Caroline Koch

I am a first year student at COD, avid concert-goer, music blogger and lover of Transformers. I worked on many a magazine while attending Arizona State University and now I run my dance music & culture blog with my brother: Operationhandhug.com (Go check it out!) arts@cod.edu 630-942-2660

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