How to manage your music like a pro

A clear process for managing your music, from proper playlisting to optimizing rekordbox, should ultimately help you to give the best DJ performances possible.

Being in touch with your music is a key part of DJing, and it doesn’t happen on its own. As your collection grows from dozens to hundreds to thousands of tracks, you’ll need methods and routines to maintain a clear picture of what you’ve got, what it sounds like, and when and how to play it. Sure, it’s possible to play a great set from a collection that’s never been organized. Or from an old USB whose contents are mostly forgotten. Or from a friend’s collection that you’re only vaguely familiar with. 

The truth is, though, the better you know your tunes, the better you’ll play. You’d be wise not to leave this task entirely up to your memory and your in-the-moment decision making. This is one of the many areas of DJing, or perhaps creativity in general, where we’d like to think it’s all about vibes, inspiration or a mysterious energy channeling through you in the moment (and sure, that’s part of it). But at the risk of sounding like a buzzkill, organization, preparation and a bit of (eeek) homework are the real keys to delivering your A-game.  

In this article we’ll be making a distinction between music you listen to generally and music you play when you DJ. The second category is what vinyl DJs once called their “crate,” and that’s how we’ll refer to it here. Even if you’re streaming or playing digital files, you will still have a proverbial crate, a collection of tracks that you DJ with. This is a primer on how to manage that crate like a pro.

Design a frictionless method for adding new music

For everyone, save perhaps the odd seasoned vet whose collection is so vast they literally never need new tunes, a big part of DJing is finding and acquiring new music. An equally important part of this, and one that’s too often overlooked, is adding music to your crate in a systematic and reliable way. It’s all too easy to find loads of new stuff you like and immediately lose track of it, especially if you’re hoovering up a lot of music week to week, or taking in big hauls all at once (keepers of 100-track Beatport and BandCamp carts, we’re looking at you).

This is easily avoided, so long as you have a way of processing your new finds that happens the same way every time. The best method for you personally will depend on your technology—whether you’re streaming tracks, playing digital files, using a controller, playing off your laptop, exporting tracks to a USB, and so on. The important thing is you arrive at a method that ensures your new gems reach your sets instead of falling through the digital cracks.

To give one example: say you play with digital files, and use both iTunes and rekordbox. In your web browser’s preferences, set the destination for downloaded files to your desktop. In iTunes, change your settings so that any files you add are automatically copied to the Music Media folder. Create a playlist in iTunes for new music. When you download new tunes, they will appear on your desktop. Drag and drop them into that new music playlist on iTunes, then delete them from your desktop. Open your settings on rekordbox, go to View, and make sure the iTunes box is ticked. Now your “new tunes” playlist (or whatever you call it) is already on rekordbox, ready to be further organized. And, crucially, all your files are tucked away in the central location of the iTunes Music Media folder. This makes it much less likely that you’ll unwittingly move or delete them and be met with the digital DJ’s least favorite message: “file missing.”

Rekordbox regularly

Make “rekordboxing” a regular activity. To get in the right mindset, we recommend thinking of “rekordbox” as a verb, as we’ve just done there. The meaning of this verb is, loosely, processing your music, getting it properly beat-gridded and organized into playlists, with cue points and hot cues saved, maybe with tags added. The depth and detail that goes into this process is up to you. The important thing is you do it often, at least if you’re often acquiring new music. 

Leave it too long and your crate will get chaotic and overgrown. It’s like landscaping. You can mow the lawn, trim the hedges, water the flowers, make everything look perfect. But nature will take its course, and soon you’ll need to do it again. The longer you wait, the more work it will be. Key difference being that rekordboxing is actually fun, easy and something you can do at home in your track pants with a cup of tea. 

If you don’t already rekordbox regularly, try leaning into it as a leisure activity, something you do to pass the time or unwind in a free evening. You may be surprised how much you like it. And you’ll definitely notice the results next time you play. A tidy, recently refreshed, neatly organized library will absolutely give you an edge next time you DJ. 

Picture the frustration you feel when you’re standing at the decks, struggling to think of what you want to play, or knowing the perfect track and discovering it somehow didn’t make it into your crate. Every time you feel that frustration, your morale suffers, and your set suffers. Now picture the opposite of that feeling. Everything in its right place, all the tracks you’re looking for easily found, your flow never interrupted by a fruitless search for a track you’re sure you downloaded but apparently didn’t. Even just the look and feel of a lovingly organized crate might make you play better. 

Optimize your rekordbox layout

A big part of crate management is visual, in terms of both the library itself and the digital workspace where it’s processed. rekordbox has many ways to tweak its interface to suit your personal workflow. The simplest way is to mess with which columns you see when you open rekordbox, and how much space each one takes up. Maybe you don’t actually need to see the track lengths? Right click the column, get rid of it, free up some space. Maybe you never thought of considering track playcount, a handy way of seeing how few times you’ve played tracks you love, or weed out ones you may have overplayed? Whack that one in there and give it a whirl. 

There is no one-size-fits-all. Try out different combinations of visible columns, see which ones help you and which ones don’t. Naturally, you can also tweak the size of each column. BPM only needs a tiny bit of space. With track titles, you’ll want more room, especially for tracks for which you have a few different remixes. 

Personal preference aside, different layouts work best for different rekordboxing tasks. Open the “View” tab and root around a bit. When you’re processing new tunes—getting the grids sorted, adding cue points and so on—1 player view works best. If you’re moving tracks from one playlist to another, try adding the Sub Browser Window. The more of these tweaks you try out, the more you’ll arrive at a rekordboxing method that’s effective for you personally.

Playlist, playlist, playlist

Creating playlists is a fundamental part of managing your crate, a tending of your garden that leaves you more deeply connected with your music and more agile behind the decks. Good playlisting means that, while you’re mixing, there’s less searching, less scrolling, less decision anxiety, and more space for personal pleasure and relaxed creativity. 

The simplest approach is to handcraft playlists according to whatever logic suits you personally. An all-vinyl DJ once told me that he organized his record bag according to how the gig might turn out: casual party in the front, serious rave gear in the back, with the records loosely ordered along that spectrum. You can organize your digital library in a similar way, crafting different playlists with different situations in mind. Start with variations on the big three (”warm up,” “peak time,” “end of the night”) and get more specific from there (“big room bangers,” “subtle rollers,” “vocal anthems”).

Go as granular as you like, organizing by genre and tempo range, or more nuanced qualities of your own invention. In 2016 Objekt (a notorious rekordbox fiend) told me a few of the playlists on his USB: “Section Closers,” “Section Starters,” “Beatless Transition Tools”… “Empty Club,” “Fast And Functional,” and so on. “I recently made a playlist called ‘Urgent Wee,'” he added, “which is tracks that are all more than ten minutes long for when you really gotta go.”  

Then you have your intelligent  playlists, which are automatically assembled by rekordbox based on shared qualities of tracks in your library, like tempo, key, genre, or your own customized tags. These can be incredibly handy, so long as you’re willing to put in just that extra moment of effort as you process your new tunes, namely by making sure those bits of metadata are correct for each track in your crate, and adding your own tags. Naturally, we recommend you invest that extra bit of time per track. It’s very little work, and it makes a big difference.

There are so many more ways to use playlists to your advantage. We’ll offer one specific suggestion, a method you can apply to all your playlists. Create an intelligent playlist that focuses on new music, with criteria like:

  • Date added
  • Is in the range of 
  • 1 December 2023 to…  
  • 31 January 2024

Next time you’re rekordboxing, go through that playlist, listen to each track more closely. Clean up the beat grid if you need to, put in some loops or cue points if you want. But most importantly, sit back, listen, and think about how much this tune really grabs you. Do you like it so much you want to hear the whole thing play out right then? Or do you find yourself getting a little impatient, skipping around, seeing what happens in the breakdowns? If you had a gig tonight, would you play it? If a friend came over, would you show it to them? 

Within your long list of new additions, only a portion will pass this test. Move these to a different playlist, one not tied to a specific period of time (or genre, or any other criteria), which also includes the cream of the crop from previous eras. Comb through this one every now and then and cut out anything that doesn’t quite hit you anymore. Over time, this playlist will contain a selection of tunes that basically amount to your A-game. (You can even title it that if you wanted to.)

One other thing about playlisting: when you think of a track that belongs on a playlist where it doesn’t currently reside, add it right away. You may think you’ll remember to do this later, but you probably won’t. Get out of bed or off the couch, open your laptop, and whack it in there. If an idea for a juicy playlist addition strikes you while you’re DJing, don’t wait for your next rekordboxing session. If you DJ with a laptop and controller, it’s not much effort to add it straight away. If you use CDJs, you can create playlists on the fly without ever touching your laptop.

Study “histories”

At the risk of stating the obvious, most of your most inspired ideas about which tunes go well together will happen not while you’re seated at your laptop, but while you’re in the mix, following an intuition and connectedness with music that makes categories like genre and tempo seem superficial. Back in the day—that is, all-vinyl, pre-iPhone—these flashes of synergy would usually be lost to the moment, forgotten or only hazily remembered by the DJ and whoever else heard them. These days, they are preserved, and not just in shaky phone videos with tinny sound. 

If you’ve never perused your Histories on Rekordbox, we highly recommend it, especially after you’ve had a particularly satisfying mix. All the tracks you played will be there, listed in the order in which you played them. Maybe there are some curveballs, things you’d never think to throw in a playlist when you’re rekordboxing, whether it’s an old track you were surprised had aged so well, or something you’d considered a guilty pleasure that turned out to be perfectly guilt-free. Drag and drop them into your current crop of playlists. This is a great way to channel the elusive DJ flow state into the more cerebral work of crate management.

Merge your DJ crate with your daily favorites

As a DJ, your songs will always be, to some extent, your tools. But it’s important to have a natural relationship with them, too—at least, if you want your sets to have any life in them. To DJ well, you need to really know your tunes, and to know your tunes, you need to listen to them, and enjoy them, as actual music. If you only ever hear them seated at your laptop, appraising their potential usefulness in your sets, your connection with them might be superficial. It may even be hard to tell if you actually like some of them or not. And if you don’t love what you’re playing, how could you expect your audience to? 

The best way to get to know the tracks in your crate is to absorb them in natural settings and situations. Listen when you’re out of the house via the rekordbox or Bandcamp apps, or create and update playlists on Spotify, YouTube or whatever streaming service you use.  Try to see this not as homework for your DJ set, but for your own personal pleasure. Listen to them while you cook, while you clean, on your way to and from work, when a friend passes you the aux cable, etc. Short of that, at least listen back to your recent finds in a relaxed setting. The important thing is you’re actually listening to them for your personal pleasure, without thinking purely about whether you’d play them or not. 

In these situations, you may be surprised which tracks really speak to you. There’s an odd disconnect between music you think is cool and music you actually want to hear. The latter category tends to be the stuff that works best when played out. You can figure out which are which by listening on your phone, going about your usual business and seeing which tracks seem to whisper, “hey… play me!

This runs in the other direction, too. There are most likely songs you listen to day to day that, though you may not currently think of them as DJ material, absolutely deserve to be in your crate. Scan all the music you keep coming back to outside the context of DJing and think about which bits would work in your sets. If you’re a particular kind of DJ, say, one of the more eclectic variety, we’d recommend getting everything you listen to with any regularity in your crate. 

There are a few ways to do this. One low-tech method is to create special playlists on whatever streaming service you use, whack in anything you hear that has even a remote chance of working in a DJ set, then routinely review these playlists. For a more tech-savvy solution, services like Soundiiz are built specifically to integrate the libraries and playlists you have across different softwares and streaming services. However you do it, the goal is to get all the songs you love into your crate and easily accessible while you’re DJing. 

That might sound like an overwhelming amount of music to manage, but if your playlists are well-tended and your rekordboxing methods are on-point, you’ll have no trouble keeping tabs on a vast library. And the rewards can be explosive. 

Consider the Berlin DJ Boris, who, in the middle of a multi-day New Year’s party at Panorama Bar, played the entirety of Maurice Ravel’s classical piece “Boléro,” described by audience members as a “tears on the dance floor” moment. The very act of adding this song to a club playlist is an expression of creativity. You can never know ahead of time what will rock a particular party. But keep your crate in shape and, when the time comes, you’ll have the right tunes ready—and know exactly where they are.

Text: Will Lynch