From the September/October issue of the Rinksider:

DJ Savvy: Hitting the right notes with skaters

by Connie Evener

Music we like as teens and young adults becomes the personal soundtrack that will always take us back to our first crush, our first kiss and our first broken heart. So the person who chooses and plays the music in your rink has a lot of influence over who comes to your rink, the memories they take away and how likely they are to come back and bring their friends.

To find out what operators should be looking for in their DJs, and what those DJs can do to improve their performance, RINKSIDER asked Brett Stang, General Manager at his family rink, Skateworld San Diego, where he also coaches roller derby and regularly mans the DJ stand. We also tracked down Ryan Burger, who operates his own mobile DJ company and publishes Mobile Beat.

The magazine sponsors a trade show called Mobile Beat Las Vegas, which is the place to be every March if you’re a DJ or want to learn how from the best in the business. And if you’re someone who commonly uses terms like “sub woofer,” the magazine and convention are such showcases for the latest in high tech equipment, you’ll think you went to Heaven.

The “mobile” in mobile DJ means the disc jockey might have a gig to do at Oldies Night for the Ramada on Thursday, an anniversary party in someone’s back yard on Friday, and a wedding reception at the Holiday Inn on Saturday. But Burger believes that mobile DJs and those with standing gigs in roller rinks have a lot in common. “It’s like we’re cousins,” he said. “We can learn from each other, but we do have unique ways of doing things, too.”

One major difference is the multi-tasking typically required in rinks. “You guys have all kinds of things going on and the average disk jockey needs to learn how to work with what flows in the rink environment,” said Burger. DJs in rinks really need to be well organized, he said, suggesting having various sets of three or four songs of similar style and pace set up and ready to go on command.

“That way, if you need to go out on the floor or help some of the other staff, you know what the next three or four songs will be, and the software can do the work automatically.” With the apps available today, he noted, no one needs to be confined to the DJ stand pressing “Play” as it was 20 years ago. “There are even programs that allow your smartphone to interact with your software.”

And you can get pretty much anything you want to play by subscribing to a music service. “We use Promo Only,” said Stang. “We pay a monthly fee and then download what we want. You can get the whole CD, and it’ll download into your iTunes account, or pick a couple of songs you like. It’s pretty simple.”

On her website, “Book More Brides,” wedding business coach and blogger Stephanie Padovani is adamant: “Your guests won’t dance without an experienced entertainer who can read the crowd and keep the momentum going.” When the music stops, dancers – and skaters – stop, too. To keep them on the floor, a DJ needs to know how to set up bridges for people to skate or dance “across” from one song to the next. And, as Padovani pointed out, you want someone who “will play the right songs at the right time and in the right order.”

So – how do you know what the “right” songs are? When he spoke with The RINKSIDER, Burger was just rolling out Mobile Beat’s 182nd issue. (Sign up for a digital subscription – it’s free.) Every year, the magazine shares its Mobile Beat Top 200 – the 200 most requested songs, as compiled by DJ Intelligence. The May issue provides other lists, too, including: the 50 most requested songs of every single decade back to the 1950’s, the 50 most requested songs for weddings, and a feature with “Out of the Box” lists by columnist and musicologist Jay Maxwell, who has just written and compiled a new book of music lists, “Play Something We Can Dance To!”

“Just like at a wedding reception, there are people who are only going to participate with certain types of music, then they’ll take a break, so the rotation is important,” Burger said. By varying the pace and style, a DJ can keep most of the guests fully engaged at least part of the time. He or she has to be able to read the audience and not have preconceived notions about what they’ll like. For instance, “It’s amazing what some of these young kids know in the way of older music.” And that, Burger explained, is because they learned the top tunes of groups like Journey and AC/DC from their parents.

Those parents, incidentally, are the adults standing at rink side who brought their kids, paid their admission, and who do the recreational deciding. Play music that puts a smile on their faces and chances are, they’ll be deciding to come back.

When kids approach the DJ with requests, they do frequently ask for songs that came out way before they were born, agreed Stang. They usually ask for pop, rock, or old school funk, like Abba’s “Dancing Queen” (1976), or Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1975). And “Roll Bounce” (from the soundtrack of the 2007 movie) is definitely a perennial favorite at Skateworld.

In the not-so-good old days, noted Burger, DJs would have lists stuck all over the place in the DJ stand. “But nowadays, you can mark it all and organize it all and get transitions figured out and pre-done.” He suggested having at least 20 or 30 sets of combinations ready to go. “The DJ has turned into much more than someone to press ‘Play’ every five minutes. The DJ is now an entertainer to the degree that he needs to work the audience, and that means he needs to have his (or her) hands free,” he said.

“When someone spends their time announcing and explaining things over a microphone, they need to sound confident and relaxed,” said Stang. When he trains new DJs at Skateworld, he’s fine with using a script to help them get started and memorize what needs to be said. “Over time they change a word here, two words there, and then they kind of make it their own.”

In congenial surroundings “When everyone’s having a good time, you’re going to have a good night,” said Stang. But then there are the nights when everyone seems unhappy with the playlist, the genres, or everything’s either too slow or too fast. But that’s not just a rink phenomena. Check out Mobile Beat’s Most Requested Lists. “Macarena” is first on the list of songs people beg DJs not to play, yet it’s 108th on their All Time Most Requested 200 list. And “Cha Cha Slide,” second on the please-don’t-play list, is the fifth most requested song for the 2000’s decade.

As Stang puts it, “You are not going to please every single person with every song you play.” Most DJs learn that pretty quickly, but the real professionals maintain their cool and keep on trying anyway.