By D . W . Waterson
COLUMNS Structuring DJ Sets Like a Film
’ ve always admired cinema , music , and storytelling and the way they intersect . I feel music and film are the greatest love affair this world has ever known .
I grew up as a drummer and musician , and had my start in a handful of different bands , from rock to screamo to pop music . I remember first hearing EDM in 2008 / 09 ; I heard a track from the Bloody Beetroots and the walls around me shifted . While simultaneously attending film school , I combined my love of electronic music and storytelling , ultimately creating my awardwinning digital series That ’ s My DJ ( 2016-2019 ).
My career has forever blended these two mediums together and I ’ ve toured the world as a DJ-drummer and artist , including a sold out North American tour .
As someone who has studied “ story ” in film , I ’ ve learned that without story structure , you cannot emotionally transport the audience . In the film industry , the quintessential beat sheet is Blake Snyder ’ s Save the Cat , which details the points a film needs to make in its beginning , middle , and end to make a compelling story .
As an avid party-goer , I remember feeling many DJs ’ sets that were merely playing their favourite tracks or just dishing out the hits — what I call “ throwing bones ” for the audience . I could tell the difference between that and DJs who were telling a story and playing for themselves . My goal as a DJ is to create a moment in time for my audience — not just another average Friday night .
Inspired by Snyder ’ s book , I ’ ve created a onehour DJ set beat sheet on how to build a story through a live performance in order to reach a climax and leave your audience wanting more .
D . W .’ s DJ Beat Sheet
Opening Moment – You ’ re opening your show ! Yay ! This is the track that will catch your audience ’ s attention . There may already be a crowd , or the dance floor may be empty , but this song must catch people ’ s focus and draw them in . For me , I open playing drums ; all lights turned off on the stage and I perform a big sounding rock remix track , which draws the crowd in and lets them know what ’ s about to go down .
Theme Stated — Transitioning out of your first song , you ’ re telling the audience , “ This is the vibe and tone you ’ re going to get from me .” My vibe is usually fun and high-energy .
Catalyst – This is where I would typically plug in the anthem of the moment that fits into my genre . This makes sure that everyone nearby lands on the dance floor .
Break into Genre Two – Keep things changing . I ’ ve established my tone and the kind of party I want to have , but to keep people on their toes , I shift into a sub-genre of that party , which could be anything ( I like to switch to disco tracks ).
B Story Subgenre – Now everyone ’ s lifted up , I want to throw them down by changing the subgenre again . Remain in your similar tone overall , but you can jump from disco to bass-heavy bangers . The idea is to take your audience to different locations and moments within the same party .
The Promise of the Premise / Midpoint – Here , you dish out more of what you ’ ve been giving . Swing back to that original tone you introduced in the beginning . This is usually a good moment to mix songs that your audience knows and loves .
The Build – Here ’ s where it gets sweaty and we start driving the party to a final destination . I begin pushing the BPM ; if I start my set at 125 BPM , over the course of 15-20 minutes , I slowly increase to129 BPM , ensuring I ’ m pushing partygoers ’ heart rates and making them work for the payoff . I ’ m transitioning a little quicker between songs , and also staying within one tone , towards the direction that I ’ m ushering the crowd . This is where you have to work hardest to keep peoples ’ engagement . The last thing you want is them going for another drink or checking their phone . The Build is where you tell your audience that you ’ re ramping up to a moment .
The Climax – The moment everyone ’ s been waiting for ! Your crowd is dancing their ass off at 100 % — and if they ’ re not , you have to fix that . Get on the mic , demand their attention ! This is going to be your major song that you ’ re about to drop ( for me , this is when I ’ m doing the most with my light show and I ’ m throwing down on the drums in a big solo ). This should be a song that everyone knows well , but with a new spin on it at the top of your BPM . This is why your crowd came out tonight !
Finale – Now you ’ ve completely exhausted your audience , they need to catch their breath — but you don ’ t want them leaving ! This is when I throw two to three “ big bones ,” meaning classic songs in their original form , typically at a way slower BPM . I ’ ve thrown everything from Kelly Clarkson ’ s “ Since U Been Gone ” to Blur ’ s “ Song 2 ” to Abba ’ s “ Gimme ! Gimme ! Gimme !” in my finale . It ’ s time to make it known that the show is closing but that you ’ re going out with a bang .
Final Moment – At this final point , ask yourself , “ what do you want to leave your audience with ?” How do you want to leave them feeling ? Euphoric ? Pumped up ? Raging ? With this last song , it comes down to what emotion you want to embody , what you ’ d like to say . It ’ s your last opportunity to entice your audience to come back for more at your next show . I always close my shows in true cinematic fashion by bookending my set the same way it began ; with strobing lights overtop a rolling drum solo .
And with that , it ’ s closing time .
D . W . Waterson is a genre-defying music artist and award-winning director . D . W . released their debut EP Home Brew Vol . 1 on November 26 , 2021 and has garnered a Canadian Screen-award Nomination , won 5 Best Director awards as well as Noteable ’ s 2017 Director of the Year . Waterson is currently getting ready to shoot their debut feature as well as release Home Brew Vol . 2 in 2022 .
CANADIAN MUSICIAN 31
PHOTO : VITA COOPER