19 July 2011

DJs’ Perspectives on Interaction and Awareness

How do audiences and DJ's actually interact in nightclubs?  DJ’s were asked to talk about what information they use during performances, how they gather and use this information, what type of information and what problems they encounter in maintaining awareness of their audience.

DJ's interact with audience in complex ways, DJ's are adept at reading the audiences, despite the demands of selecting and mixing music. DJ's watch for early signs of disengagement in the dancers, to give themselves enough time to smoothly work their musical response into the presentation before the dancers start to leave the floor. DJ's often plan musical energy changes several songs in advance, in order to take the dancers on a cohesive and dynamic musical journey.

DJ's are busy, nightclubs are dark, and DJ's have to deal with frequent interruptions. Even so, the DJs felt that interactions in the nightclub were not ‘broken’ in any major way.


Nightclub environments are playful spaces where the atmosphere encourages exploratory relationships with music, dance, visual elements, and performance. DJs exist in this space to facilitate these explorations with their technical and performative presentation of a live mix of recorded music. The DJ’s mix responds to the environment and the audience in varying ways at varying times. DJs provide this presentation of music for enhancing the atmosphere, which is usually oriented towards socialization, relaxation, and dancing. Interaction between DJs and their audiences vary depending on many factors, and although the DJ is ultimately responsible for the enjoyment of the music by the club patrons, they are also encouraged to innovate and introduce new styles of music to the audience, enhancing the sense of expectation and discovery by nightclub patrons [8, 10, 11, 13].

There are many types of DJ's and many specific genres of music that are associated with distinct cultural codes, values, and practices. We decided to focus on club DJ's who choose to perform smooth mixes of popular and underground electronic music that are conducive for socializing and dancing for long periods of time.

Whatever the medium of choice for mixing music, DJ's only bring a finite collection of music with them to the nightclub. DJ's often prepare by pre-selecting a number of tracks (songs) that they think would be a good mix for the particular club. Before the event, DJ's often practice mixing various sequences of these pre-selected tracks and realize several good mixes that might be interesting for the club audience. They use these practiced sequences at the club along with many other improvisations and new mixes that are created on the fly. The pre-selection of tracks is grounded in several factors that DJ's research before an event, such as the clubs’ layout, the theme of the particular event (where applicable), the expected audience, and the specific desires of the club owner or event promoter [13]. The decisions a DJ makes about the music they will bring with them to the club defines the parameters of the DJ’s ability to respond to the environment, as well as any potential musical requests put forth by the nightclub patrons.


The workspace of the DJ is a busy place where there are many demands and many distractions. The DJ is placed in a position of authority with their power over the musical sphere of the club, but with that authority comes a responsibility that the DJ maintains a professional technical and aesthetic presentation while being perceived as friendly and approachable. Our site visits revealed that DJ's are often approached by club patrons, staff, and event promoters, while performing, so they must be able to juggle technical tasks with frequent interruptions while appearing personable and relaxed.

Spatialization of the nightclub also affects the workspace of the DJ and their ability to maintain awareness of the environment. We noticed on our site visits that DJ booths are sometimes placed beside the dance floor on the same level as the audience so that the audience and DJ are visible to one another. Sometimes, DJs are positioned within booths that are off to the side of the dance floor and are often encased with glass windows or walls so that the DJ and audience can see one another, but the DJ maintains a level of distance from both interruptions and helpful dialogue. Other setups have the DJ positioned on a high balcony or stage overlooking the crowd, making it difficult or impossible for the DJ and audience to see one another. Regardless of the physical position of the DJ booth, there are usually ‘blind spots’ where the DJ cannot see parts of the room. DJ booths are also often quite compact, leaving little space for the DJ to spread out their records to look through them. Sometimes these booths are poorly lit, and sometimes the air is hot and smoky.

Although many factors make the work of the DJ challenging, the ability of many DJs to work within these conditions demonstrates the considerable skills they must possess to perform their art.

Do DJs and Audiences Interact?

We asked DJ's how they felt about playing to audience they couldn’t see and how they felt about playing to audience who couldn’t see the DJ. All of the DJs responded that they would be uncomfortable playing in a club where the DJ and audience were not mutually visible to one another.

tobias c. van Veen: I’ve tried it, I don’t like it…they did some experiments with it in the Midwest, to create alienation. I think it works if that’s your intent. I don’t like it. I don’t like booths that are separated by glass. I don’t like booths that are high up…I want to
be with the people.

It was clear from our interviews that DJs and audiences do interact. DJs gather information from the audience throughout the event, and the interaction is complex. Interaction between the audience and the DJ also significantly differs as a priority from DJ to DJ. Personal preferences and style, and awareness appear to be the major factors in determining exactly to what degree, and in what ways, the DJ interacts with their audience.

The participants regularly reported that they would interact with and observe individuals, usually through body language or verbal dialogue, but they reacted more with their music to the overall observations about the entire audience. We also found that about half of the DJs surveyed spontaneously mentioned during the interview that they play for audiences as a whole, not for individuals.

What Types of Interaction Occur?

DJ's primarily interact with their audience by performing a live mix of music that is composed at the nightclub, taking the context of the environment and the audience’s behavior into consideration, to varying degrees.

Mike Waiser: The music of course is the …main energy you put
out. There’s also the energy of your own person as a performer
that can add, and the way that you interact with the crowd.

DJ's also communicate with their body language and facial expressions. About a third of the participants noted that they make a point of visibly demonstrating their enthusiasm to the audience by smiling, waving their hands, cheering, or dancing while they are playing.

Timothy Wisdom: I try to show the audience that I’m having a
good time while DJing. I do this by smiling lots, waving my hands,
and dancing to my own music. This helps them become more
excited about my performance. They relax and become more
immersed in the show.

About half of the participants mentioned that they slightly dramatize their technical movements in order to display what they were doing more clearly to the audience.

Timothy Wisdom: I’m actually in support of DJ's who put a little
elbow grease into twisting their knobs and put a little bit of flair
into moving sliders around, because I think it just looks better.

Three of the more experienced DJ's we interviewed said that they sometimes take on the additional role of MC (oral entertainer using a microphone), VJ (video jockey), or lighting technician. One of the DJ's in our study mentioned that he would enhance his interaction with the audience by speaking to the entire audience as a whole over the microphone, telling jokes or enticing the audience to cheer or act in unison. This type of interaction can greatly enhance the audience’s perception of the DJ’s presence as a live entertainer.

Individuals may also interact with the DJ by engaging in verbal dialogue with them. Conversations between the DJ and individual audience members can be very important for establishing camaraderie and sharing information. The individuals within the audience communicate with the DJ primarily through the subtleties of body language, and DJs are experts at interpreting these signals. Many audience members dance facing the DJ, and when dancers are close to the DJ, it is easier for the DJ to observe and interact with them on a more personal level by exchanging small gestures, glances, smiles, winks, and nods. These interactions can communicate a mutual understanding or enjoyment while making the individual audience member feel valued and recognized.

What are the Aims of DJs and Why do DJs need Audience Awareness?

We found that the DJ’s main goal is to help people enjoy the environment by presenting a creative mix of music that balances elements of excitement, energy, and suspense with a respect for the diversity of functions of the nightclub space for various patrons. Very often the DJ’s goal also includes building an active and engaged dance floor.

How DJs go about achieving these goals and negotiating this space differs greatly from performer to performer, and from time to time. This is one of the main areas where the art of the DJ comes into play. The audience is not a static group, so the DJ must constantly monitor the changing audience in order to reflect upon the actual formation of the audience from moment to moment and make quick decisions on the spot about how to facilitate engaging, enjoyable experiences through their musical presentation. Therefore, DJs need different kinds of audience awareness at different times in order to understand the constantly shifting experiences of their constantly shifting audiences in relation to their musical presentation and creative vision.

DJs consistently ranked it essential to know how the audience is enjoying the music. They reported that this awareness allows the DJ the opportunity to modify their presentation in response to the audience as they see fit.

Timothy Wisdom: I’m a performer, and I need to be able to build a
relationship with my audience…I depend on learning things about
my audience based on their reactions to certain songs.

Awareness of the dance floor activity is crucial for DJs, especially when considering how the music impacts the energy levels and intensity of the dancing.

Machine: It’s really important to watch the dance floor and watch
who’s doing what.

The majority of the DJs in our study also mentioned that since they are playing to the entire club, they also need to maintain an awareness of the people who are not dancing. However, the DJs usually ranked the dancers as more important to maintain an awareness of. DJs often adjust their musical presentation in order to reflect the dancers’ energy levels, changing musical elements such as tempo, mood, or intensity in order to entice dancers to remain engaged with the music, yet they will also try to entice the rest of the audience to join the dance floor.

Kyro: If they have lots of energy, you want to give them
something that lets them use that energy.

Dislexik: It can even come down to health issues if the people are
pushing themselves really hard and they need to slow down…it’s
good to keep an eye on people and realize ‘hey these people are
getting really overworked, let’s take it back a notch.’

It is also important for the DJ to monitor the audience’s engagement with overarching musical themes and narratives. About half of the DJ's described how they often compose their sets to create an overarching narrative structure or ‘journey’, integrating their awareness of the audience into their musical selections on a broader level that would allow them to plan musical energy changes several songs in advance, effectively ‘taking’ the dancers on a musical journey. DJ's also need to stay aware of their dance floor so that they can plan these energy shifts in time enough to prepare smooth musical transitions in advance.

Dislexik: If you’re building up to something and the crowd can tell
that you’re doing that, they’ll start feeling it too and start building
up inside as well.

We discovered that as the audience composition shifts throughout the night, awareness of the changing audience’s general musical tastes and backgrounds is very helpful for DJ's in order to be able to musically challenge and excite the audience by introducing new music to the mix. DJ's match their perception of their audience’s backgrounds to an awareness of the broader culture of contemporary electronic music so that they can make musical selections that are considered tasteful, timely, and culturally significant. Playing new or rare music can greatly add to the ‘insider’ or ‘underground’ status of the DJ, but this is usually balanced with playing more familiar tracks that tend to draw the audience out to the dance floor.

Dislexik: I think there are times where it’s great to see people go
crazy for a song they’ve heard a million times and you know it
works and it’s not a risky situation. But…I’d rather see someone
go crazy for something they’ve never heard before…I don’t mind
sprucing up a set with a couple familiar songs or something just to
beef it up a little bit and maybe draw the people out who are
feeling a little alienated, but…I’d rather never play the same
record twice if I never had to.

Since DJs acknowledge that audiences shift throughout the event, naturally moving from activity to activity, and since the individual audience members all have different backgrounds and preferences, the notion of making the ‘right’ musical choices is somewhat subjective.

Insomniak: People will drink for a while, then they’ll dance for a
while. We’re always recycling the dance floor…so we have a lot
of turnover between groups of people. You can’t always please

The agency granted to DJ's to negotiate these choices about the musical environment and its relation to the everchanging audience is where a great deal of the artistry of the DJ lies. The technical and stylistic details of this negotiation define and distinguish these artists from one another, adding value to the performance [10, 11, 12, 13].

How Do DJs Gather Awareness Information?

The DJs in our study were strongly united on their methods of collecting awareness information about their audiences. Our study showed that vision is, by far, the main way that DJs gather awareness information about their audiences. mWhen DJs are given good visibility of the nightclub, they are surprisingly fast and effective at general visual observation, especially when one considers their demanding, busy workspace.

To visually read the audience, the DJs often subtly look into the crowd, quickly glancing away from their technical workspaces. They must be able to do this very quickly, as they may miss time-sensitive cues, either on the dance floor or in their technical mixing if they spend too long doing either activity. DJs look for several things, both on the dance floor and off to the sides and the bar area.

tobias c. vanVeen: is there a swell of movement, is there head
nodding or grinding, intensity or dispersion?

Mike Waiser: The dancers channel your music into a visual
form…[dancers] can really change the atmosphere of a club very

From our site visits and interviews, we found that DJs often register preemptive signs of disengagement in the dancers before they leave the dance floor, thereby allowing the DJ time to work their musical response into the presentation before the dancers actually disengage from the dance floor. These signs take the form of subtle and not-so subtle gestures within facial expressions, dramatic larger body movements, and small movements of the hands, feet, head, shoulders, and hips.

Away from the dance floor, DJs look to the sidelines, the tables, and the bar area for information about what the rest of their audience is doing.

Deko-ze: Part of my job is to be able to gage how many people
are coming off and on the dance floor, who is coming off and on
the dance floor, what sort of people are coming off and on the
dance floor.

Machine: It’s a lot harder to judge people who are sitting at the
bar…or sitting up in the seating section and talking to people…

We found an interesting discrepancy between many of the DJs when we asked them about how they dealt with certain influential people in the nightclub. Over half of the DJs in our study acknowledged that they observe a set of key individuals, either enthusiastic and energetic dancers, other DJs and promoters, or even knowledgeable mavens of the particular community who often sit on the sidelines instead of dancing. To some, these key individuals are influential people whose demonstrated support can influence others increase their engagement with the DJ’s performance.

Timothy Wisdom: one good tactic is to satisfy ‘key dancers’ who
will help raise the excitement level in a room, causing others to
join in on the dance floor. Identifying ‘key dancers’ consists of
seeing people’s reactions to certain songs.

Deko-ze: Those are the sort of people that kind of make everyone
else think ‘oh it is okay to come and approach the dance
floor’…So, I want to find out and figure out, by watching them,
and maybe even share a smile with them from across the dance
floor…or figure out what is making them dance, and what is going
to keep them dancing…Bless those key dancers!

Paul Who?: I think that focusing on them, instead of the entire
dance floor, sometimes is misleading. If I focus on those few
people who are key dancers and cater more to them to keep
them going all night it might entice more people to the floor, but
those dancers might be into something that the general
population or general dance floor isn’t, and if I keep catering to
them, I might force people away from the dance floor. And…if for
some reason they need to leave the dance floor…and I’ve been
catering to them, I’ve just lost everybody else.

Yet, others do not recognize this type of stratification:

tobias c. vanVeen: I’ve never locked on to any key dancers nor
realized there were any: a dancefloor is not a hierarchy.

Two of the DJs commented that listening to the general hum of the audience is another way in which awareness is maintained. Most DJs have trained their ears to be able to selectively shift their awareness to be able to focus on different sounds. Conversations, laughter, yelling, cheering, or even silence can give the DJ plenty of information.

Participant 5: If you’ve been in the industry long enough, you can
kind of almost hear over the music…crowd reaction. A lot of the
sound of a good event is really vocals of other people talking over
the music mixed into it, too. It’s that entire experience.

Most of the other DJs commented that they also understand their audience by engaging in dialogue with them. Nightclub guests often initiate conversation, approaching the DJ with comments, questions, or even requests. This dialogue gives the DJ information as to how the guests are experiencing the event, but it also gives the DJ an opportunity to ask questions to the audience members. This exchange may build camaraderie and understanding between the DJ and the audience member, but it may be perceived as an interruption if timed poorly or if the DJ and audience member have different expectations.

How Do DJs Use Awareness Information?

We received very diverse answers from the DJs about how audience awareness information affects their actions. It seems that although DJs collect much of the same information in similar ways, their decision-making processes are complex, and not necessarily always directly linked to any one type of awareness information. Their decisions are based on both personal values and the many environmental and social factors that shift throughout an event. Even knowing whether or not the audience is enjoying the music affects each DJ differently. The DJs in our study reported a wide spectrum of responses as to how important the feedback is from the audience in their decision-making process. Since

DJs are also artists with their own ideas about what they wish to present, the process is an ongoing trade-off between the DJ as artist and the DJ as crowd-pleaser and dance floor catalyst. As mentioned, it is the specific way in which each DJ negotiates this dialogue that separates DJs from one another as artists.

Deko-ze: If it doesn’t involve the people and their energy and their
emotions, well then I’m not doing my job.

Dislexik: I tend to be a fairly egotistical DJ. So I like to do what I
want to do, and if it works, it works. I mean, obviously if the
situation is suffering, and you know you’re out of place or
something, you might slow things down a little bit. But I kind of
like to take myself on a journey, and lead other people with me,
and hopefully they follow [laughs].

Several DJs in our study also reported that they often plan the music that they are going to play 2 or 3 selections in advance. This is not only so that they have time to cue the coming tracks, but also so that they can create smooth musical bridges between changes such as different songs, melody lines, tempos, intensities, or percussion sounds.

Deko-ze: I try to think at least 2 to 3 records ahead… how am I
going to program it to make it work with the rest of the tracks that
I have selected?

About a third of the DJs in our study mentioned that they practice mixing certain combinations of tracks before performing so that they can perfect certain mixes, although when they are actually performing, they often improvise.

Timothy Wisdom: I usually come up with record combos: two or
three tracks that go well together…and then when I play, I usually
clump all my little combos together in my crate… depending on
what the mood of the night is, I’ll either start slowly or I’ll start in
the middle or I’ll start really fast, and then I’ll either go up or down
the tempo scales. I’ll use these three or four record combos as
I’m going, and I don’t quite know what combo is going to come
next, so there is a little bit of play in that. If I start off a combo, I
know pretty much what the exact next record is going to be, and
where it has to start and end for things to fit in properly, and whenI finish that combo, I have to figure out what the next combo is
and then I glue those together.

The most immediate way that DJs can respond to their audiences is through affecting the sound (such as scratching or EQing the mixer), speaking to the audience on a microphone, or using their body language to communicate. When DJs seek awareness of their audience, they integrate these observations into their decision-making and technical processes for both long and short-term responses. In order to engage their audiences, over half of the DJs we studied said that they balance playing a mix of familiar and new music. However, the ability to do this is contingent on having a general awareness of what music the audience is likely to have heard before. This is not a simple task, considering the ever-changing nature of audiences and the limited awareness that DJs can have of individual audience members tastes.

Mike Waiser: When I DJ I try to play primarily new music or music
that I don’t think they’ve heard, [I] contextualize it in a way that’s
related to something they know…the simplest way would be to
put a song that [the audience has] never heard next to a song
that [the audience has] heard that go really well together…or to
play a remix is a good way to do it…maybe incorporate a vocal
sample or something like that…

What Problems Do DJs have in Gaining and Maintaining

Awareness and Interacting with their Audiences?

The job of a DJ is high-pressure. Selecting and mixing tracks are cognitively demanding tasks, especially in the busy, loud, dimly lit environment of the nightclub. Observing the audience is a task that never ends. We found that there are often some complications for DJs in gaining and maintaining detailed awareness of their audiences. Understanding the problems DJs encounter and their current methods of dealing with these problems make excellent starting points for discussing the possibilities for new technologies through a set of design recommendations.

Most of the DJs we spoke with mentioned that there were not that many serious problems that they have in gathering a general awareness of the audience when mutual visibility is not an issue. Interestingly, DJs are very skilled at gathering general information about their audience by just glancing into the club for just a few seconds. However, when the DJ is positioned in such a way that limits their visibility, it greatly compromises their ability to read and interact with their audiences. Ironically, the loud volume of the music in the nightclub can make it difficult for the DJ to hear what is happening around them. Unfortunately, our study participants regularly reported occurrences of such nightclub setups that complicate their ability to gain awareness of and interact with the audience.

Even when the DJ has a high degree of visibility of the nightclub, it is not always as easy to infer a detailed awareness as it may seem. Many of the things DJs are looking for are not easily seen, such as an individual’s musical background, or whether or not they are familiar with a particular musical selection. Currently, DJs must often make informed speculations about this information, based on the appearance and behavior of individuals, a method that can only be considered somewhat satisfactory.

Participant 5: You catch a lot of half facial expressions within a
well-visualized room, so that gives you a chance to see what the
reaction is.

Machine: It would be interesting…to have a little bit more of a
gage of what people are into, and what names they know and
what they don’t know, so that you can find similar stuff.

The problems that were discussed most often had more to do with researching social or cultural aspects of the audience demographics.

Insomniak: What other clubs they like, or if they are going
somewhere before or after [the event], sometimes I know where
the people work, which actually helps…it kind of gives an
indication of their personality a little bit.

People have many reasons for dancing (or not dancing). Since the nightclub is a social space, it is not only the music that influences how people engage with the music in the nightclub. This complicates the DJ’s ability to read the audience on a literal or behavioral level.

Dislexik: If they’re really, really tired, you don’t have to worry
about being offended if they leave the dance floor, because, you
know, there’s nothing you can do.

Machine: To be so worried that…everybody’s not totally dancing
at this moment…it’s a little too much.

All of the DJs in our study said that they often speak directly with audience members while they are playing. However, some conversations are more helpful to the DJ than others, and much of this balances on the timing of when the audience member approaches the DJ to talk. Since the task of DJing is so demanding, audience-initiated dialogue can easily be seen as an interruption.

Deko-ze: it is an interruption, but on that same token…that is a
really good way to interact with people, so therefore I think it is
necessary. Even though sometimes it can be the biggest pain in
the ass. ‘Cause you know, sometimes they just want to come up
and dance [on the stage]…which can make the record skip, or
they want to do lines off a CD or whatever…always
something…A lot of people when they want to talk to you, they
want to talk to you now…they’re not going to wait.

Currently, the DJs we studied said that they manage this type of interruption by using simple gestures and speech to communicate to audience members when they are busy concentrating on their technical performance when someone wants to speak to them.

tobias c. van Veen: When I play very, very, very hard techno… I
can’t talk to anybody…if people are trying to talk to me – they
usually interpret it as being…very rude – but I just put my hand
up – just don’t – I don’t want to hear language because I’m not
thinking in terms of language…I’m thinking in terms of rhythm.

We found that across the board, DJs noted that music requests are rarely welcome or well informed. Audience members making requests can even be seen as abrasive or inconsiderate of the DJ’s authority on the specific musical style they were hired to play. Since the DJ is often concerned with the overall stylistic and narrative structures of their set, requests can undermine their creative decision-making process that is necessary for them to make a cohesive presentation. Yet, DJs often face nightclub guests that consider their immediate musical preferences more important than the current presentation of the DJ or the musical preferences of the entire nightclub audience. We found that when DJs are approached by audience members that wish to make requests, it is not necessarily easy, nor always desirable, to satisfy their requests. DJs perform for entire audiences, not just for individuals.

Kyro: One man’s perfect song is another man’s atrocity.

tobias c. van Veen: I am not a jukebox.

On top of this, the DJ is expected to appear approachable and friendly at all times, even, for example, when getting a request for Aerosmith during a German minimal house set.

Galaxy: My style is so only defined by me, making it my
style…Why these people are so offensive is because the instant
you play it, yes it goes over well for those people, but you detract
other people that were really feeling where you were going with
your set. Moreover, these offensive people now think that you
are now their servant, so they keep coming with requests. That’s
another reason why I won’t take requests.

Some of the DJs we spoke to mentioned that they are sometimes concerned about playing tracks that other DJs have already played at the same event. Currently, DJs have the option of showing up early and listening to the other DJ’s sets in order to get that information. They can also try to find out this information, to varying degrees of success, by asking other people at the nightclub when they arrive. Interestingly, almost all of the DJs we surveyed said that they would find it very useful to have a track listing of all of the other musical selections other DJs had already played at that venue that night. Yet, few of the DJs were enthusiastic about sharing their own playlists. DJs spend a lot of time researching music, and possessing rare, underground tracks can be considered a type of trade secret.

Dislexik: When I was younger, I really cared a lot more that
people did not know what I was playing. I was really particular
that what I played was ‘my records and my records alone’...I
didn’t want other DJs stealing my tracks. Now…it’s not as big of a
deal to me, as it’s for the benefit of everyone in this industry that
music gets out as much as possible.

Overall, we found that DJs have a full cognitive workload and a high degree of responsibility to providing an enjoyable experience for all of the nightclub patrons. Problems happen when the DJ is prevented from focusing on the technical aspects of selecting music, mixing the music, and observing the audience. Problems happen in the form of blocked visibility, lack of information, and interruptions. They are expected to always appear friendly and approachable, despite the demands of their workload.

*Thanks to Carrie Gates, Sriram Subramanian and Carl Gutwin 

From: http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1142418


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