Confessions of a wedding DJ
Some simple advice for a complicated day
By day, I'm a mild-mannered reporter for a pretty good weekly newspaper. But on weekends, I change into my costume, and while I don't have "powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men," I do have skills.
I'm a wedding DJ/emcee, and for more than 20 years I've been helping brides and grooms making their day their own.
Every time I think I've seen it all, I see something new. Like the time I was playing "Take Me To The River" and the entire bridal party jumped into the river just outside the reception hall. Or the Disney-themed wedding: The wedding song was "A Whole New World," (which, I suppose, beats "Beauty And The Beast"), where the bride wanted as much romantic Disney music as I could play -- and still keep people dancing.
I've had a bridesmaid and groomsman disappear between the wedding and reception hall for a private celebration of their own. I've had a limo break down en route to the reception and out of cell phone range-- fortunately, a woman in the nearest house had a cherry-red mid-'60s Olds 88 and volunteered to take the bride and groom to the reception herself, leaving the limo driver to wait the two hours it took to get a replacement.
I've had couples who've spent three hours behind closed doors during their reception putting together favors or who have spent their entire reception going from table to table talking to their guests, and at one event I was handed a hand-written list of introductions at the moment I was supposed to start them. I've had brides nearly faint, bridesmaids who did, officiants who didn't show up (I'm now qualified to perform weddings myself, thanks to an online certification), extremely intoxicated guests/brides/grooms/etc., feuding parents, a photographer who went missing mid-reception, and once, a frantic call from a bride and groom three days before their wedding because the other DJ they'd hired had gone missing.
Given all that, here's the single-most important piece of information I give my bride and grooms: No matter how carefully you plan, something is going to go wrong. It may be something big or it may be something small, but something will go wrong. The only difference between it being something you laugh about and something that ruins your day is your attitude, so make a commitment to have fun, no matter what.
Also, remember: It's your day. Everyone will tell you about traditions, or that this is how it's done -- or worse yet, -- this is how "we" do it. As far as I'm concerned, if my couples want to get married, then change into shorts and T-shirts and dance the rest of the day, then that's what they should be able to do. My advice is to do what you want and not listen to the hall, the photographer or even your parents.
There are two things more than any others that can help brides and grooms enjoy their day. The first thing is to get enough sleep, which can be difficult to pull off the night before your wedding, especially when you're surrounded by out-of-towners who've come in to party. Remember, you're getting married in just a few hours, and while your guests can sleep in, you probably won't have that option. The other is to eat that day. Adrenaline, which you'll likely be running on all day, only lasts so long. My experience is that grooms skimp on sleep, while brides forget to eat.
One more thing: Don't be afraid to delegate. Give your best man or maid of honor a checklist and have them load important stuff into their cars the night before.
A study about 10 years ago in "Modern Bride" magazine said all couples really want from their DJ is for him to:
A. Show up; and
B. Not be a jerk.
That's a pretty low bar, but consider the fact that, for some, the motivating factor that led them to get into the business is the idea that they can get paid and also get all the free drinks they want. Anyone can go out, spend a grand on equipment, subscribe to Columbia House, and call himself a DJ.
One look at Craigslist on any given day will show at least a dozen DJs who are willing to play for a wedding for next to nothing. Many of them are good, but how can you tell? Most of them can even provide references, but again, how can you tell if he's good or just had a good night? As my friends in the South are fond of saying, even a blind pig gets an acorn from time to time. Ask for references from their last three events and call them.
A more recent article pointed out that the DJ has 95 percent of the responsibility for the success of a wedding. No one leaves an event and says "Man, that was a great fruit platter," but nearly everyone will comment on the DJ.
So, with that in mind, here are some questions you should ask when talking to a prospective DJ:
* How much experience do you have with weddings?
Weddings are a specialized area of DJing. They require not only skill at playing the right music at the right time but also working with the couple before and during the event, managing the timeline (so that things happen when they're supposed to happen), and working with other professionals (making sure, for example, the champagne is poured before the toast, or checking to see the photographer is in the room and ready to take pictures of the cake cutting).
* If we book you, will you be the DJ at my event?
This trend has been growing as DJ companies get bigger and as the Internet has grown. It's unfortunate that many companies send out DJs sight (and skills) unseen.
Will you play music we provide?
This is a complicated question, especially in light of illegal music downloading. Any DJ should be able to play what you provide, as long as it's in the right format. A good DJ will already have the song you're looking for or buy it for you. Some will even let you plug your iPod right into their system; I personally discourage that, because I can control things better with CDs or through my laptop.
* What about requests?
Your DJ should sit down with you ahead of time and plan out all your requests as well as discussing a do-not-play list. Do you love the Chicken Dance or hate it? What about guest requests?
* Do you have a system for our cocktail hour or for our ceremony -- or both?
This is common, especially when ceremonies aren't in a traditional church setting. Often, a DJ will need to provide music for the ceremony, music for cocktail hour and music for the reception, all in different locations.
* What about back-up equipment?
I still believe in the Boy Scout slogan, "Be prepared." In addition to back-up equipment, I also carry a DJ emergency kit including, among other things, an extra bouquet to throw, an extra garter, aspirin, Tylenol, Midol and Imodium, just in case.
* Do you have a cordless microphone?
Every DJ needs both a cordless and corded mic. I generally provide one for the officiant if I'm doing a ceremony as well as one for the toasts.
* What will you wear to our wedding?
A DJ needs to wear a tux. Period.
* Do we need to provide a meal?
Another tough question; some DJs even have a meal written into their contracts, but at $50 and up per plate for the photographer (and possibly his assistants), a videographer and a DJ, that can add up. Remember, all those professionals may have to go as long as 12 hours between meals. In general, they can get away with eating at a buffet where there's often food left over, but it's worth checking with your hall or caterer to see if they offer meals to the professionals for free or at a reduced rate.
* What about gratuities?
Every DJ loves a tip. It's a sign that he's done something right. The rule of thumb is if someone works for himself, no tipping is required, and while it's not required for someone working for a company, consider if he's done an above-average job and compensate him appropriately.
I said when I started DJing that I'd do it as long as it's fun, and I'm happy to say that I still love the whole idea of marriage, and the love I see at every event.