What can we learn from our worst DJ gigs?

We explore the idea that, in the long run, our worst DJ sets help us to improve more than our best DJ sets.

DJing is an unpredictable art. Many variables dictate whether a set goes well or terribly—and a lot of these factors are beyond the DJ’s control. This means that bad shows are simply part of a DJ’s job. From empty dance floors to broken equipment, displeased crowds to a bad vibe, these shows come in countless shapes and sizes. 

This is true for DJs of all experience levels. When you’re starting out you might have two dud gigs for every good one. But even veteran DJs can’t avoid the odd nightmare show. Most successful DJs will happily share a tale of the time that things went wrong. They’ll laugh about it now, but you can bet they weren’t laughing at the time.

These experiences can be crushing. But the tough truth is that they are often valuable lessons. It’s a great feeling when a gig goes exactly how you imagined it. But that set might not push you to develop your craft. Bad shows, on the other hand, show you where you can do better. The path to DJ greatness is paved with them.

In this article we’ll take a look at some of the common ways that DJ gigs go wrong. And with some help from experienced selectors, we’ll learn how these nightmare experiences can make us better DJs.


DJs are shaped by the technology they use. Whether you’re a turntable purist or a controller specialist, your equipment is the conduit for your performance. If you don’t know how to handle it properly then things can go wrong. And in the chaotic, noisy environment of a club, they often will. 

Picture the scene. You show up for your first proper gig. You haven’t had a chance to practice on club standard CDJs, but figure that you vaguely know how they work and that you’ll wing it. You arrive at the booth and are confronted with a row of gleaming objects that are bigger than you expected and all the functions appear mysterious. You don’t even know how to cue up your first track.

This problem isn’t limited to novices. After all, there’s a lot of DJ gear out there, and scant opportunities to try it outside of a DJ booth. I once played a show where the headline DJ had requested a specific, quite complicated rotary mixer. Having used it a couple of times before, I breezily said I’d be happy to play on it too. Cue a painful two hours of repeatedly EQing the wrong channel and activating the filter when I was looking for the cue button.

The lesson? Do your homework. Check in advance what tech the venue will have. If it can be changed, then request kit you know. If not, then try to brush up on the equipment beforehand. If you’re lucky, you might know a friend’s place or rehearsal space where you can spend an hour with that particular mixer or player. If not, then YouTube demos are a big help. As a last resort, follow the sage advice of Irish duo Belters Only: “Read the manual.” 

Think about how you’ll be using the equipment during your set. If you love rocking the filters, then make sure you know how they work on this particular mixer. If you’re less into using FX, it’s still important to know how to switch off the Delay and Reverb. The DJ before you might end their set in a haze of endorphins and forget to return all the knobs and switches to their default settings. You need to be able to get back to a set-up you’re comfortable with. On Pioneer DJ CDJs, you can make this easier by pre-choosing your settings in rekordbox and then loading them from the CDJ menu. 

With some careful planning, you should be able to avoid letting tech woes ruin your night.


Sometimes, however, knowing the equipment isn’t enough. Clubs are dark, loud places full of distractions. It’s all too easy to press the wrong button or move the wrong fader, with potentially catastrophic consequences. “One challenge is making sure you don’t press the cue button on the CDJ that’s playing,” said Belters Only. “That’s probably the worst thing that could happen to any DJ on the decks, and it does happen to the best of us.”

Tales abound of veteran DJs making this particular boo-boo, or its vinyl equivalent: taking the needle off the record that’s currently playing. Techno DJ Objekt tweeted: “In 13 years of DJing I’ve learned how to build up my set to a massive frothy crescendo over 2 hours but am apparently still able to then pull the needle off the wrong record right at the absolute peak moment.” 

New York house artist Levon Vincent told a similar story in an interview with Resident Advisor. It was his first set at legendary London club fabric, and the club’s head of promotions had just entered the booth. “I said, ‘Oh hey, what’s up?’ And then I walked over, and took the needle right off the record. And it was just silence, pure silence… I didn’t know what to do and I looked at Judy in panic.”

What can be learned from this spine-chilling experience? Firstly, reflecting on how it happened might reduce the chance of you doing it again (though probably not entirely). 

What caused you to mess things up this time? Were you, like Vincent, distracted by someone entering the booth? If so, perhaps be stricter about focussing on your mixing, even if you risk coming across as impolite to friends and colleagues.

Or perhaps you were thrown off by an unusual booth layout? If the CDJs were three meters apart thanks to the four turntables requested by the previous DJ, why not ask the sound engineer to move things around? Many such factors can be sorted out with some forethought.

The second thing to learn from making stupid mistakes is this: they’re not the end of the world. In a hectic live situation, momentary errors aren’t such a big deal. So what if there’s 10 seconds of silence at peak time? If the rest of your set is packed with killer tunes and energetic transitions, the crowd will have forgotten that snafu by the next morning. 

Who knows, it might even work out fine, as was the case with Vincent’s fabric story.

“I put the needle back down, and everyone was like ‘Waheey!’ and the house came down, like it was a trick,” he recalled. “It came right on the beat, so it sounded like it was on purpose… That’s what I really love, the longer I DJ—the accidents and the things you can never account for that get handled gracefully without your intention.”


Even if you know your equipment backwards and have done your best to minimize mistakes, things will still go wrong. Life is chaotic, and nightlife doubly so. 

I once played a gig in the North of England on a snowy February weekend. A small but appreciative crowd had braved the weather. It took some work to build a vibe in the sparsely filled room. Just as things were warming up, the sound system died. A power cut. With a helpful leg-up from the night manager, the promoter managed to flip some circuit breakers and get things back online. I restarted my track. Then the power cut out again. And again. 

It turned out that the bouncer had been boiling soup using an extension lead. By the time the mystery had been solved I was pretty flustered and couldn’t recover. The lesson? Stay calm. Often, when something unexpected happens, the crowd is pretty forgiving. But if you panic you’ll make more mistakes, turning one unfortunate incident into a full-blown car crash. Just make the best of the situation, and try to see the funny side.

But what if the incident in question resembles your worst DJ anxiety dream? Bristol DJ Hodge had just such an experience on tour in the US. Having played a party in San Francisco, he showed up for a gig in Portland the following night. With the club sold out and his set about to start, he plugged in his USB stick, only to be confronted with a bunch of playlists he didn’t recognise. He remembers thinking, “Holy shit, these aren’t my USBs.”

It turned out that he and the promoter of the San Francisco party, Chris Zaldua, kept their USBs in identical wallets, and Hodge had grabbed the wrong one. His set was due to start, and all he had was somebody else’s music collection. “It was a genuine DJ anxiety dream,” Hodge recalled. “I was standing there blinking, it was such a surreal moment. My face went cold.”

We can learn from the way he responded to this unforeseen turn of events. He kept his cool and approached the problem methodically. “I went through all the tracks, tagging every one I recognised, and put them all in BPM order. And I was like, ‘Right, I’ll start at 120 BPM and just keep going up.’” He was fortunate that Zaldua has “blinding taste in music. I knew a lot of the tracks he had in there. But there was also a whole bunch I didn’t. I was checking them on the cue and thinking, ‘That sounds good!’” 

In the end, Hodge says, the set went pretty well. Aside from Zaldua’s great taste, he also credits the crowd at Spend The Night in Portland for giving him a warm welcome. “I think I got a bit lucky!” Things might not go as slickly in every such situation. But even the very worst disasters can make you a stronger DJ. Think of it as a baptism of fire. Once something outlandish has scuppered your set, more run-of-the-mill crises will be easier to handle.


DJing is a collaboration. It’s a dialogue between musician and crowd. The best DJ sets respond to the moment, giving the audience something they needed (even if they didn’t know it). But getting this right isn’t always easy. 

In a widely shared post following a gig in 2017, the Canadian DJ Tiga posed the question: “How about when you DON’T kill it? How about when you are what is actually wrong with the party. Your programming is lazy, your decisions are ill-informed… You can’t maintain a connection… And just like that, for a few hours, the magic is gone.”

We’ve all seen sets where the DJ is just not catching the vibe. Perhaps their tunes are too energetic or too chilled. Maybe their pacing is off: they’re rushing through the good bits and lingering on the filler tracks. Maybe their mixing is slapdash, or their presence behind the decks just isn’t engaging the crowd.

From the dance floor, it can seem obvious what’s wrong. But you can’t always tell from the DJ booth. There will be clues. The crowd seems bored. Your big tracks don’t get a cheer. The room empties out. But it’s all too easy to watch as things go south without knowing how to fix them. Whatever you try, the crowd just isn’t into it.

The first step to learning from this experience is acceptance. When things go wrong, it’s tempting to blame everyone but yourself. As Tiga put it: “You summon up arrogance to bolster your position. THEY obviously don’t get it.” Sure, there could be a grain of truth here. (More on this below). But self-examination might reveal that your own decisions were part of the problem.

Now you’ve acknowledged this, you can reflect on what exactly went wrong. Tiga’s post mentions a number of possible reasons why his gig was a flop. Perhaps it was that his “effort was minimal” and his energy levels low. Maybe his playlists were poorly put together, or his “grasp of the situation was utterly compromised by my self-absorption.” Some of these self-assessments might be unfair, but by thinking back through the set you should notice the things that felt off. 

Work on these weak points for next time. Were you struggling to locate your best tunes? Redo your playlists. Maybe you didn’t adapt to the room, forging on with a pre-prepared set that didn’t match the vibe? Try to be more spontaneous next time. Or, conversely, maybe you flip-flopped around, second-guessing the crowd’s desires when they wanted you to do your thing? In that case, try to be more confident. Whatever your weak point was, make time to work on it before your next gigs.

DJing is a psychological battle. If you’re not in the right headspace, you’ll be more likely to make poor decisions, and less likely to realize it. So it’s important to show up for your set in close to peak condition. 

Sleep deprivation is a given for many touring DJs, but try to get as much rest as you can. Having a nap before the set is often more important than coming to the club four hours early to catch all the warm-up acts and make friends with the promoter. And be mindful of how you spend your time in the club. Drinking the green room dry might help your nerves, but it will disconnect you from the people around you, making you worse at responding to the crowd. 

“My bad DJ experiences were mostly concerned with being sober or lack thereof,” said the South African DJ Floyd Lavine. “I wanted to feel less anxious and more confident around people, but the substances only cured my symptoms for a small moment and made my anxiety worse in the long run.” Lavine found that going sober allowed him to “be fully present during my sets. It’s made me realize how much I love my job. I enjoy the music even more and have fun, which I didn’t expect.”


There are times when the crowd tells you exactly what’s not working. “Play harder!” is a commonly heard demand. According to urban legend there is a club in Spain where, if your techno is too soft, the punters will take off their shoe and wave it aloft in protest. Then again, it’s also possible to play too hard. I once had bottles thrown at me for playing speed garage before a well-loved dance-pop artist. 

Then there are the more specific requests. The smartphone era has done wonders here. Gone are the days when “I can’t hear what you’re saying!” could discourage an overeager punter. Now, you’ll get a Notes app shoved in your face. Never mind that you’re in a serious techno club: this dancer wants some “SHAKIRA” and they want it now.

Requests can be a fruitful communication between DJ and crowd. But sometimes they demonstrate that the crowd (or at least parts of it) wants something that you simply can’t give. Maybe the promoter has put you in the techno room when you play house, or scheduled you right before a bigger DJ with a completely different sound (as in my experience with the dance-pop artist). Maybe the club has attracted a somewhat random crowd of people who don’t agree on what makes a good set.

If you’re booked in the wrong environment and things go badly, it’s worth doing the soul searching described in the previous section. But you should also recognize that, sometimes, the situation is beyond your control. You can’t be expected to completely transform your DJing on the spot. You might not have the tunes for it, particularly if you’re limited to the contents of a record bag. And in your efforts to “read the room,” you might end up out of your depth, delivering a compromise set that doesn’t please anybody. 

What can be learned from a gig like this? If a promoter has put you on the wrong lineup, this will refine your sense of when a gig offer isn’t right. Then again, if you’re trying to earn a living from DJing, you might not be able to turn down even the strangest booking.

The deeper lesson is philosophical. No DJ can please every crowd every time. Playing to a hail of bottles or a bunch of bored-looking ravers is a helpful reminder that no DJ is perfect. Disappointing a crowd of strangers can be a great way to downsize your ego. We all need to be humbled now and then. 

In any case, don’t let the experience get you down too much. Your next gig will hopefully be in front of a knowledgeable, appreciative crowd, you’ll play a blinder, and you’ll be back on top of the world.


One of the joys of a night out is its freedom. Unlike a concert or the cinema, you can dip into a DJ set as the mood takes you. Feeling restless? Why not check out room 2, refuel at the bar, or get sucked into a deep chat on the moldy old sofa next to coat check? 

Unfortunately, this can be brutal on DJs. You can’t expect polite attention from a dance floor full of people. Some of them might follow your selections for a while, but as soon as they get bored, tired or distracted they’ll wander off without a second thought. This can make every ebb and flow in the crowd feel like a vote on your DJing skills. And the most damning judgment of all? An empty dance floor.

Empty dance floors come in a few varieties. If you’re playing warm-up, it’s natural that the room will be empty when you start. But if it doesn’t fill up at the rate you expected, you might start to wonder if something’s gone wrong. When playing a closing set, the situation is flipped: of course people will leave gradually, but you’ll panic if they’re getting their coats after your first tune. Then, of course, there’s the traumatizing experience of the peak-time empty dance floor. 

First thing’s first: an emptying dance floor is not necessarily your fault. All but the busiest clubs experience peaks and troughs throughout the night. In multi-room venues, punters wander from room to room. If there’s an outdoor smoking area, half your crowd will probably be there. Try not to overreact to brief lulls in the crowd.

OK, but what if it is your fault? You’re doing your thing, and people are leaving. This is an unsettling experience. A gap has opened up between what you expected to happen and what did happen. Your connection to the audience was weaker than you thought. What now?

The most important thing is to handle the situation with grace. If you panic you could make things much worse. It can be tempting to draw for crowd-pleasing tunes, but if you dumb things down too much then you might alienate people further. Another mistake is to mix faster, on the assumption that the same tunes played more quickly will be more interesting for the crowd. Give in to these knee-jerk reactions and your set will end up rushed and directionless.

Instead, learn to get comfortable with an empty dance floor. When you notice people are leaving, assess the situation calmly, and tweak your approach to try to fix it. Focus on giving the remaining crowd the best experience you can. And if you’ve fully lost the crowd, then accept that you misjudged this one and learn from it for next time.


Traveling DJs face many unknowns. They go to new places to play for unfamiliar crowds at the invitation of promoters they’ve never met. This cultural exchange can be magical sometimes, but it can also be alienating. 

Eddie Fowlkes, the Detroit techno pioneer, recalled just such an experience. Visiting Berlin in the earliest days of the techno scene there, he was booked to play a show in neighboring Poland. Poland had been behind the iron curtain, meaning even the Berliners he was traveling with had never visited. 

“Everybody in the club was looking at us because of the way we were dressed,” Fowlkes remembers. “I was dressed totally like a B-boy.”

The turnout was great and Fowkles played his set. Afterwards, everybody clapped but “nobody left the club. So as I pack my record bag and begin to walk away from the [booth], I got rushed. Not [because of the] set: they all wanted to touch my skin and my hair. The hair thing was crazy, it was like I was a pet. I truly understood they [had] never seen a black person before. I was their first Detroit DJ.”

Eddie’s story gives us a window into a moment when Black US artists were exporting techno and house music around the world, and often facing incomprehension and prejudice. Many DJs face similar challenges today. As ambassadors for their communities and music scenes, they are tasked with sharing their culture with the world. But the exchange isn’t always positive for everyone involved. It’s not clear what can be learned from such experiences, other than that we need to keep working to confront prejudice in the music communities we share.

Eddie Fowlkes’ story does help to put other kinds of bad DJ gigs into perspective. Those of us who don’t experience prejudice in the course of our DJing lives are lucky. A fumbled transition, a mid-set power cut, or an unappreciative crowd can be awkward, but in the scheme of things they’re not that bad. Most of the time, playing music for an audience is a privilege. And if it goes badly? Well, you’ll have a story to tell.

Words: Angus Finlayson

Lead illustration: TAVS WORLD