A message from the opener Dean Muhsin, a resident at Steve Lawler’s VIVa @ MOS nights sounds off.I’ve been a resident DJ on and off for about ten years and am lucky to have the residency I have, but I’ve just recently begun to notice how marginalised some residents are becoming. Shorter sets and crappy slots mean that there’s a fair chance that the guest will have started by the time anyone gets to the club. I know there are people out there who really believe that a resident/warm-up set is the real essence of DJing, but for some reason people seem to fall foul of that marginalisation. That said, people like Secret Sundaze have got a wicked balance of residents/guests, so it’s clearly doable. There’s room for the resident DJ to become the focus of the night again, and not just because they’re sometimes stuck in traffic and have to ask the headliner to start their set for them. (Thanks, Will Saul!)
The last crucial element in the event equation, though, is the opening DJ. At a live music event, if the opening band is terrible there is always a short break to switch out equipment. The headliner then takes the stage and the night moves on. But in a club environment the music rarely stops from the moment the first track begins. This continuous flow of sound is maintained until the lights are turned on at the end of the night. A good DJ taps into this flow and manipulates the energy of a room through careful programming and mixing choices. Mastery of this flow allows a DJ to take the crowd on the sonic journey which has come to define the all-night electronic music party.
But the headliner almost never plays from the moment the doors open. One or more opening DJs are used to warm up the room, keeping the crowd entertained and the alcohol flowing until the headliner’s designated time slot later in the evening. And many promoters seem to be unaware of how important this role can be. A DJ who isn’t up to the task of opening can dissipate the energy on the dance floor before it has a chance to solidify. In a good scenario, the crowd will pack the bar and hug the walls until the headliner comes on. In a worst case scenario, the club will empty out before the DJ has time to mix in a new track.
In many ways, the warm-up DJ faces more challenges than the headliner. Consider this: The opener must start with a fairly empty room that slowly fills with generally sober people who aren’t there to see them.
The DJ must create an atmosphere out of thin air and at the same time set the stage for the musical narrative of the headliner’s set. Steve Lawler, head of Viva Music who has headlined top venues the world over, agrees, “The warm-up’s job is in fact the hardest and very important to how the whole night will turn out. If a warm-up does a good job, you can feel it in the air, and then usually 99% of the time, it’s an amazing night.”
The opening DJs biggest challenge is to program a set that will seamlessly sync with the DJ who will go on next. “The opening DJ has a huge responsibility; they can dictate the entire mood of the party,” says Magda, of Minus Records. “You have to think about who you are opening for and how they play in order to avoid overpowering their sound.” Each headliner has a definitive musical style that presents a unique programming challenge to the opener. “If I open for Theo Parrish I definitely will not be playing the same records as opening for Richie Hawtin. That’s the fun of it though,” she explains. “It’s a challenge to get the different crowds worked up while complementing the main act at the same time.”
A good opener must have two things: an attenuated awareness for the musical progression of the night, and an extremely large and eclectic record collection. Craig Richards would concur. With a ten year residency at Fabric, London’s most respected club, Richards is highly regarded as one of the best opening DJs in the world. Warming up a room is a position Richards fully embraces, “Over the years I have often opted for the warm-up slot. I find it a wonderful challenge which if played properly can result in maximum musical fulfillment.”
Great opening DJs know their music and the subtle effects each record transition will have on a dance floor. DJ Yousef, the DJ and promoter behind Liverpool’s legendary party, Circus, says for a DJ to successfully warm up a crowd “they need to be aware that the tempo, the groove, the energy and even the texture of every record must be seriously considered.” This sensitivity to the way music influences the crowd allows the opener to begin the patient task of drawing people to the dance floor.
Dirtybird’s Christian Martin describes it as such: “Your job is to peel people away from the bar, and keep building upon that small nucleus of early dancers that will eventually become a packed dance floor. It’s important to pay attention to the mood of the floor and adjust the direction of your set accordingly, without going overboard too early.” Martin’s last point brings up another extremely important trait of great openers: restraint.
“I’ve warmed up for many big names over the years and I realized a long time ago that the night wasn’t about me alone,” Burridge continues, “This seems hard to accept for a lot of upcoming DJs as they want the attention of the people. This attitude totally disturbs the gradual build of the night as a whole.” Many young DJs see the opening set as their chance to show what they’ve got, but the result of this enthusiasm is exactly the opposite. Yousef states when an opening DJs set is “hitting them over the head with an iron fist” of uptempo, peak hour tracks, it “will always result in not getting another gig.”
But there is more to opening a room than just keeping the tempo under 124 bpm and playing deep music. The signature of a great opener is defined by a devotion to the music he or she is playing. As Lawler explains, “you can tell when an opener is someone that has just gone onto Beatport’s Top 100 [to buy their] Deep House [tracks] and is trying to do it, as opposed to someone who loves and collects the music they are playing. You can always hear passion in a DJ’s set.”
Craig Richards takes it one step further: “I’m absolutely certain that the music lovers, not the DJs, are fit for the job—the people who can forget themselves for a moment and deliver a groove, a beginning and a sense of belief.” The best openers are in many ways the people who are true music lovers, the ones who obsessively collect obscure and eclectic music for the simple joy of it. These DJs know their music so well they intuitively know there is a right track to play in each moment for any audience.
Opening a room requires the ability to step outside what you want to play and, instead, to be conscientious of what the crowd is willing to accept. “As a DJ you have to find the middle ground of being yourself and being mindful of what you think will work on the dance floors of the world’s clubs,” Yousef explains, “I always play the music I love but I’m experienced enough to enjoy a broad selection of electronic music.” Each DJ I spoke with emphasized the need for an opener to have an extensive range in musical tastes and, most importantly, the patience to hold back, and to slowly build the tension in preparation for the headliner.
For both Lawler and Burridge, each sees the role of the opener as important as his own role as the headliner. Lawler tries and takes an opener with him to gigs, “so I know the energy and vibe will be right when I go on.” But they each tell me it is often the promoter who chooses a DJ not fit for the role, or sometimes, Burridge says, “The promoter has been known to come into the booth and tell the warm-up to pick it up.” In either case, it reveals a lack of understanding in how a night develops. Whereas a nervous promoter wants to see the dance floor packed with people pumping their fists in the air from the start, all the DJs I spoke with saw this as detrimental to the night as a whole. As Richards put it, “There can be nothing worse than an over-enthusiastic start—a soup that burns the mouth or curtains ripped open to let the light in.”
But this ultimately leads to one question for the promoter: If you are going to spend the money to fly in and accommodate a world-class DJ, why not spend the extra time and money to get your guest a proper opener? With the high risk inherent in throwing an event coupled with a lack of understanding about the role of the opener, DJs who are picked to warm up a night are often inexperienced and more often than not, underpaid. A promoter can spend thousands of dollars on a headliner, and to rein in costs, will often only spend a couple of hundred on an opener.
So obviously, great opening DJs aren’t in it for the money. Instead, these DJs are perhaps the purest music fan in every sense of the word. Since the opener’s artistry is built upon subtlety, they rarely receive any accolades. The media often overlooks good warm-ups, instead focusing on the headliners, and only knowledgeable crowds will recognize the skill that goes into the nuance and restraint of slowly building the tension in a room. This often leaves only the headliner’s gratitude as any sign of appreciation.
In fact, the biggest reward an opener receives is the opportunity to explore musical territory a headliner often cannot. Playing opening sets “gives justification for buying records that you know will only sound right at certain times,” says Craig Richards. “The chance to hear these records loud was and still is my driving force. Playing deep, quirky, delicate tunes at a time when they make sense is an utter pleasure to the man who seeks the truth for the music not the limelight.” Successful venues and events have always recognized what a proper opener provides: The atmosphere that is the foundation of any event.