What do guests really remember about a wedding, years later? The amount of fun they had, and the dance floor usually play a huge role in that memory.
“There's a common misconception that the music your wedding band plays is just background music,” says Keanna O’Quinn, the founder and chief executive officer of the wedding band Honey+Vinyl. “The truth is that your wedding band can determine whether your wedding is a good time or a great time.”
A wedding band or DJ has a huge responsibility on the day of your celebration: They need to bring the party and manage the energy of the crowd, amping it up at some points and dialing it back at others to focus on quieter wedding moments, such as the first dance or the cake cutting. You may think that you know what bands and DJs do, but there’s a lot that couples just don’t understand.
Here are some key misconceptions about wedding bands and DJs, according to the vendors themselves.
O’Quinn came up with the idea for her band while on stage at an engagement party—singing Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” “It could not have been more inappropriate for that occasion,” she recalls. “An engagement party is often the first time that family and friends are meeting one another, so it's super important for them to connect and chat, and that song was really interfering with that being able to happen.”
Honey+Vinyl specializes in perfectly paired music fit to each moment, taking into consideration décor, menu, lighting, and timing. They develop a playlist after an in-depth discussion with a couple, including considering the demographic of the guests and how they want guests to feel. “The most important thing, when we onboard clients, is that they trust us—that we can deliver and that we can design a cohesive soundscape,” O’Quinn says. She welcomes couples to share playlists with the band, but, “What they then trust us to do is to take the vibe from those songs, the energy that those songs create, and apply them where we see fit.”
“We want to be able to use our expertise, but fuse that with the clients’ input, and also go over stuff in-depth enough so that on the day, the client is musically not second-guessing stuff—they're relaxed and just ready to have fun,” seconds Jesse Kivel of Dart Collective. “If people have specific songs, particularly for the earlier portions of the event, we're pretty good at playing those requests, but when it comes to dancing and live mixing, we look at that as something where we like the clients’ input, and they can definitely have must-play songs, but ultimately we need to be able to use our skillset to read the crowd and do what we do, so that the night is successful.”
“Clients often want to hear their favorite music even if it is not dance-floor friendly,” agrees Beth Koppe, a Bay Area DJ for nearly 30 years, with a niche in the queer community. “I will cater toward the folks who are actually getting married for music choices, but they can come up with some interesting selections—Nine Inch Nails or Dave Matthews Band aren’t really dance-party music. But clients will insist I play their requests.” It’s a fine line to walk between customer service and getting people to dance. In those cases, Koppe says, “I do my best to explain ‘dance-floor friendly’ and work hard to find music that’s close to the actual request, but will actually get people on the dance floor. When the dance floor is empty, that reflects on me, not those who requested the music.”
Performing at a wedding isn't easy, Kivel points out. “You can have many talented performers and DJs who are great at making people dance and putting together a really clever high-level set. But the thing that makes a wedding unique is that we’re responsible for the audio services and logistics from the beginning of the event to the end. That is something that most DJs, even if they're great DJs, are not really able to do. As a company, we have a full-time logistics staff whose entire job is to run a timeline and organize all of the details going into the day so that we're super precise and on point, in addition to the creative and talented musicians and performers who play.”
The wedding music should be a priority, and booking a band should be as important as securing the venue and caterer. “Our concept of weddings is often based on what's been captured in a photograph—the bride's dress, table settings, floral arrangements, decor, and everything that makes up the overall visual aesthetic,” says O’Quinn. “But the actual experience of a wedding is what couples pay for. Think about the moment the bride walks down the aisle, right, or the first dance or the mother-son or father-daughter dance—each of these moments is scored by music. Your wedding band isn't just the wedding band—your wedding band is really your experience designer.” She notes that premiere bands are typically booked at least one year out from the wedding.
“Clients are usually unaware as to what they actually need from the DJ,” Koppe says. That includes not paying close enough attention to the details or listening to what a DJ says they need, such as reliable internet access (if clients want streaming services for playlists) or heeding their electricity specs. “Many people want outdoor events, these days especially, even before COVID. I always inquire about an on-grid power source and make clear that I can’t work with generators. Often I show up and there’s no access to power and I’m given an underpowered generator that damages equipment. This happened so much that I started putting it in my contract in bold, and it still kept happening,” she adds.
That also includes understanding that playing music in different spaces is not as easy as moving from spot to spot. “If you have a venue with multiple locations for sound, it really needs to be addressed well in advance,” Kivel says. “We always require unique sound systems in each area so that our team isn't hustling gear in the midst of an event to another area and hoping that it sets up and everything works well. That preparation and having a really clear-eyed view of each aspect of the setup will really go a long way to making things easier.”
O’Quinn says that overtime requests are her biggest worry on the day of the event. Sometimes a planner will know in advance that overtime is likely, but other times it’s a call made at the end of the night. She says her band is prepared for an encore, but overtime can sometimes add up to another 90 minutes of music on top of the typical two-hour dance set. “Energywise you can't always prepare for another hour of performance—it can compromise the quality of the performance.” Your favorite musician’s concerts, for example, are usually an hour and a half, and full of details like background dancers and pyrotechnics that contribute to the energy. “When we're playing live music, you're getting pure human energy—we're not using smoke and mirrors.” Her band’s energy output is capped at around an hour, at which point they may downshift to reggae, country, or Motown for 15 minutes so that performers can rotate offstage for a break while ensuring continuous music.
Part of the DJs job can also be teaching speakers how to use mics properly so that they can be heard. “I try to instruct folks how to use them, but they get nervous and usually forget, or they’re shy or unfamiliar with mics,” Koppe says. “Then, when people can't hear them, there’s not much I can do as turning sound up causes feedback. Also, guests often walk too close to speakers and cause that horrible feedback sound. Using a mic is a skill—when folks don't have it, the sound person can do very little to correct it.”
Even silence can have an emotional impact, and the best bands understand how to deploy it as well as music. “The moment when a bride and groom are about to have their first dance—that's a great place to insert a little moment of silence so everyone's attention is directed to the floor,” says O’Quinn. “Another moment might be when the father of the bride is done speaking. Having just a couple seconds of silence is really important to allow what has been said to sink in.”
Kivel is also concerned with details such as cabling and how the setup looks. “The visual presentation of what we do is also really important. For a long time, wedding companies haven't focused on the aesthetics, the visual side of the band, and not just the audio. We try to get different color tapes and various things to blend in with the venue surroundings so that everything looks super clean.”
“We are as selective as our couples are because we realized we may not always be the best fit,” says O’Quinn. For example, if a couple wants a setlist of mainly rock songs, she’d refer them to a vendor that specializes in that genre; in one recent month, she referred half the inquiries to other vendors. Budget is another factor, and she notes that Honey+Vinyl also offers consulting services with other bands—everything from song selection to timing and volume—at a lower price point than booking her band directly; about half the clients who don’t have the budget for her band opt for this.
A couple would do well to communicate their relationship story to their wedding band and generally help the band get to know them beyond their set music lists, says O’Quinn. “The more that the bandleader understands about the couple, the more they will be able to incorporate music that speaks to their specific story. I would encourage couples to share details that they think may not be important, because a good bandleader will be able to suss out what can be used and incorporated into the music design. It's usually a really pleasant surprise for the couple.”
Ultimately, wedding bands and DJs want to make sure that you and your guests have the best time—think of them not as background music but as experts deftly scoring the event and shaping the emotional experience. “I always hope that our couples are just present and get to enjoy the day and really take stock of all these people who have come to celebrate,” Kivel says. “That’s the real goal—it's not about these executions, these little details. It's about the overall feeling of warmth and energy that we get from these parties. Not one individual thing, but the totality—that people walk away feeling like that was really fun and felt relaxed and joyful.” Trust their expertise, and you’re sure to have an unforgettable night.
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