Wedding Reception Entertainment Tips
By Doug McAlexander
A BAND OR A DJ...(which should you choose)?
The entertainment you choose for your reception most often determines whether your reception is over in an hour or two, or whether it will go the duration and beyond. You must choose your entertainment wisely or all the money you spent for the facility, flowers, food, etc., planning on a 4-hour reception, may have been spent in vain. Okay, so you know you need quality entertainment. Now which will it be? A band or a DJ? The following suggestions are intended to help you decide between a "LIVE" band or a Disc Jockey.
Of course budget is usually first and foremost on people's minds when deciding between a band or a DJ. Professional quality disc jockeys will usually cost between 20% and 35% of the professional band rate for a Saturday night reception. Some professional level DJ's in my market charge $800 to $1500 or more for a 4-hour wedding reception, with budget DJ's running as low as $400-$500. If you have a limited budget, or have "overspent" in other areas, the obvious choice may be a disc jockey. This situation is quite common because most couples don't think of entertainment until all else has been planned. Yet almost everyone agrees that the entertainment will usually make or break the event. Choose wisely. If you can prioritize your budget accordingly, a professional quality band is almost always the better value, as proven by simple mathematics. If you are looking at a professional DJ for $800 (one person), then a 6-piece band (multiply $800 by 6) should logically be $4,800. But most professional bands quote a range of $500-$800 per musician, which can make the band as low as $3000 for a 6-piece group - less expensive per person than many disc jockeys.
There is a bonus! The band will be providing the music "LIVE" whereas the DJ will be replaying pre-recorded music. You might think that the disc jockey is playing the original, but in reality he/she is playing a recording of the original. The original performance of the song was done by live musicians in a recording studio. Most everyone realizes that the recording is never as good as the live performance. If you could have been "a fly on the wall" when songs like Brown Eyed Girl, Twist And Shout, Sweet Home Alabama, Play That Funky Music, Superstition, My Girl, Mustang Sally, etc. were recorded you would have heard what the recording equipment could not capture - especially with the lower technology of the 60's and 70's. The only other option would be to catch the performers at one of their live performances (if they are still touring), but then you are buying a ticket and only getting to hear one of the artists at a time. A great band can re-create the sound of each of those artists and more, right in front of you, your family, and those fortunate enough to be on your guest list.
The news gets even better. Some bands will discount their price, provided the wedding is being paid for from personal (non-corporate) funds. So if you have prioritized your budget to allow for a "LIVE" band, you are setting yourself up for the best value in entertainment.
This is a "one-shot" deal for you. You can't afford to take a chance on a budget band or DJ (not for what may be the biggest event of your life). If your budget has you looking at the bargain basement bands, consider a DJ for sure. If the focus of your reception (after the cake is cut and toasts are made) is a party atmosphere, then budget accordingly. Saving a few hundred dollars might cost you in the end when your guests go home early and bored. When your guests enter the room and see/hear a live band, the variety of food, the decorations, even the flowers, become secondary. Put your money where your return will be highest. In twenty years as you reflect on your wedding festivities, I would imagine that you and your friends will remember the dancing and singing more so than what you ate. Budget enough to get the very best. Most couples pay from $60 to $150 per guest for food and yet they try to hire a band for around $7.50 per guest (based upon 200 guests). This is not very wise since the food will not hold everyone's attention for 3 or 4 hours like a band will. Ask yourself this: The band has to pay for thousands of dollars of musical instruments, P.A., lighting, formal wear, etc., office expenses, technical personnel, and the musicians themselves, right? How professional can a band possibly be if they are willing to play at your reception for one-tenth of what the food is costing you? I'm often amazed at how low a client's entertainment budget is in comparison to food and the photographer. Many photographers today are charging $6,000 up to $10,000, and even that is still a fraction of what the food costs per guests. Let's face it, the guests will eat three more meals the next day. In 6 months, they won't have a clue what kind of food you served them at the reception. But they will remember whether or not your reception was a ton of fun. And what kind of photos will the $6,000 photographer snap at the reception? Will they be pictures of guests eating chicken fingers or having a blast on the dance floor? The irony is the chicken fingers cost you much more than the pickin' fingers. Who creates the party? Will the reception end when the food is eaten and the photos are taken? Let's face it! The ultimate success of your reception is riding on the "low-bidder", the entertainer. GET THE BEST!!!
TO GET THE BEST YOU WILL HAVE TO BOOK EARLY
It is best to plan for entertainment as early as possible. For example, if you know you are planning a 4-hour reception, you must know that food, flowers, cake, and the bouquet toss are not going to be enough to hold everyone's interest for four hours. Some type of entertainment must be considered. The entertainer should be one who has years of experience performing at wedding receptions. Entertainers of this caliber will usually book up very early (as much as 12 to 18 months in advance), so waiting to see if you have money "left over" after you have secured everything else will often leave you shopping for left-overs in the entertainment field. Again, if you want your reception (celebration) to last for three or four hours, start budgeting and shopping for entertainment as early as possible. You don't even have to wait until you've secured the facility. Many entertainers will allow you to book them with the option of filling in the location later, as long as you stay within a specified geographic region and the chosen location meets their power and space requirements.
It should go without saying that the best choice of entertainment for your reception should include a big variety of musical styles. You don't want to alienate any of your friends or family. Everyone deserves to have a great time at your reception. Okay, so variety it is! Which can give you the most variety, a DJ or a band? This issue can be tricky. On the one hand, you would consider a DJ as having the ultimate variety at his disposal; however, this is not necessarily the case. There is a practical limit to just how many CD's a DJ can bring to the event. He must also have them organized in such a way that he can find the right one to play a certain request. Many disc jockeys work from a list that is compiled by organizations who monitor what is "hot" for a given time period. Many can supply you with a list of the top 200 most popular DJ songs of the year. This is good. You, as the client, may choose from this list the songs you think will be a hit with your invited guests. This part can be tough though. Some of the most well-intentioned couples have guessed wrong. As long as the DJ has a large collection of songs (at the event) and they are well organized, he can "punt" when your choice of music doesn't seem to be working. Your DJ must pay attention to the response of your guests and you must explain to him up front that he has the authority to adjust his play-list as necessary to keep the party going. Disc Jockeys and bands alike must have the authority to "throw away the song-list" when it "ain't" working. Your DJ must have more than just the top 200 popular party songs from a particular year at your reception. He must also be equipped with the greatest classics covering many generations of music. There can be a limitation even with a DJ if you didn't shop and plan wisely. Most professional disc jockeys will meet these requirements but it is always wise to discuss the issue of variety with them just to be sure they come equipped to handle almost any situation.
Bands are usually considered to be somewhat limited in their song choices when compared to a disc jockey. This may not be entirely true. Earlier I mentioned that the DJ must be equipped with the right CD or tape, etc. in order to handle a request. Even if he has the song, is he organized well enough to find it before the end of the reception? Bands and DJ's alike must anticipate requests and prepare accordingly. The professional quality bands, like disc jockeys, are constantly adjusting their song selection to take into account the latest trends. Experienced bands know which classics they should have in their repertoire. By classics, I mean the songs from the past that just seem to never die. For example, "Unforgettable" by Nat or Natalie Cole, and "That's Just The Way You Look Tonight" by Frank Sinatra. But classics can also include rock, pop, disco, and R&B hits like "My Girl", "Unchained Melody", "We Are Family", "Mustang Sally", "Play That Funky Music", "Twist And Shout", and "Old Time Rock And Roll", just to name a few. And if a guest requests a song that the band doesn't know, some bands will try it just for fun. They will usually present it to the guests as a "stump the band" game with comments like, "we are trained professionals, don't try this at home." The truth is, if even one member of the band knows the song, the band can usually "wing it" and make it a fun part of the show. Bands can usually be flexible with a song too. For example, my band, Mixed Company, plays each song as closely to the original recording as possible. However, if the crowd is really "getting into" a certain song, we can extend the song and take advantage of the moment.
A DJ can keep music playing virtually all night without a break. If he/she needs to go to the restroom, they can put in a long song that gives them enough time to take a short break for nature.
One concern about bands is that they take breaks. It is virtually impossible for a band to play continuously for four hours with no break. Think of the last concert you went to by your favorite artist. They usually last 1.5 to 2 hours at the most. And halfway through, there is an intermission so the band can rest up for the second half. Guitar players may experience a temporary paralysis in their fingers after so many hours of constant playing. This is usually due to the guitar strap cutting across their shoulder. Vocalists need to go on break and not even talk, just to rest their voice. So bands must take a break at some point. That is the trade-off of having the excitement of a live band leading your reception. Some bands offer the option of having you pay for extra musicians so the music is continuous. They will have "double coverage" for each instrument and alternate musicians throughout the event. This can be okay but bear in mind that using substitutes in this way can change the personality/sound of the band as compared to their tape. You never really quite get the sound you heard on the tape (when they were using their regular musicians).
Some bands play a "break tape" while they are away. The break tape can vary from "lame" to good though. Be careful about the use of a break tape. Allow me to explain. A mediocre band will sound better to your guests after they have listened to 15 minutes worth of "elevator music" and are bored out of their mind. Take my advice. At the very least, ask if the band will allow you to bring your own tapes and/or CD's to be played during breaks. This is no guarantee since even you may guess wrong about what songs your friends and family will like, but I'll bet you won't pick elevator music either.
There are now a very small number of bands like Mixed Company that actually provide a "LIVE" interactive DJ during their breaks. As far as variety goes, this covers all the bases. You get a full set of live music from the band (using their regular musicians so it sounds like the tape or better). You also get the flexibility of the DJ to play the "booty-shaking" music during the breaks. This break music is usually something totally different from what live bands play so it also adds to the variety. For example, club-mix hits like "Ride The Train", "Gettin' Jiggy With It", "Tootsie Roll" etc. and/or some of your own requests. The DJ is usually a member of the band so there is no extra charge for this service.
Another thing to consider about breaks is this. You must at some point in the reception cut your cake, make toasts (unless you did the toasts at the rehearsal dinner), toss your bouquet and garter, etc. If you have a DJ, you must stop the music anyway in order to take care of these traditions. If you have a live band, it is a good idea to cut your cake, make your toasts, etc. while the band is on break. The professional quality wedding bands are accustomed to providing a master of ceremonies for such formalities and they will usually suggest that you plan to cut your cake, toss your bouquet, etc. during one of their breaks. This gives you the most live music while allowing you the time needed to enjoy the other wedding traditions. If the band supplies an MC or DJ, he/she is accustomed to working through the breaks, assisting with toasts, announcements, etc.
SPACE AND POWER
A DJ's footprint (amount of space he/she needs) is usually much less than a band. If your reception venue is extremely tight on space, money aside, you may have no choice but get a DJ. There are a few places in the Atlanta area that fall into this category. If you have any idea that you may want a band, check with some of the experienced bands in town and ask about the venues you are looking at. They can give you a "real" answer about the place. Some of the venues will tell you what you want to hear until they've got your name on the dotted line. Then, when you think you've found the perfect band, the venue tells you that they have a limit on the size of the band. This has happened to several of my "would have been" clients. They were extremely frustrated when they found out that even though they had the budget for a band, they would have no choice but hire a DJ, simply because the venue had not previously disclosed their band headcount limit. But it was too late. They could not afford to forfeit their deposit by canceling the venue. Let's get real here. I have had venues try to dictate to me how many members I can bring and even how many amplifiers I am allowed to have. That is utterly ridiculous. Many bands are made up of highly trained professionals with college degrees. And yet the catering director at a reception facility thinks they know more about musical instruments and sound and lighting equipment than those who make their living with it. The fact is that what the event venue is trying to say is that they have a space limitation and a sound ordinance. Then that is what they should tell you. They are over-stepping the boundaries when they try to become the entertainment specialist. For more about this, read my article about coordinating bands and reception facilities.
The bandleader knows the footprint of his/her band better than anyone. Some 6-piece bands can fit in the space of other 4-piece bands. Mixed Company, for example, has a custom designed sound and lighting system that can fit some of the smallest venues in town, or expand to handle the larger facilities, like when they were the opening act for the band Chicago. One small reception venue in Atlanta has a dance area that is about the size of a living room. Mixed Company will take their minimum setup into that room and have a blast. If anyone deserves to tell a couple that they have a space limitation, it is this venue. However, they allow the entertainment professionals to make the decision about best placement, space utilization, etc. I've seen some great receptions in that cozy little room. And by the way, if you want a party band, the minimum instrumentation for the band should be keyboards, bass, drums, and at least one guitar. Don't book an event venue that says 3-piece bands only and then go looking for a 3-piece party band.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It can be tough to make the decision about whether to use a band or a DJ. In general, if you have the budget, a great live band will create an excitement at your reception that will not soon be forgotten. Live music will foster an environment that sparks excitement and many guests will spend most of their time on the dance floor, while for others, who might have less of a desire to dance, live music will provide an equally enjoyable concert atmosphere. In other words live entertainment creates the atmosphere for both audience participation and spectator enjoyment. But if you don't have the budget to get the highest quality band, consider a DJ. Not a budget DJ though. While the CD version of the popular songs all sound the same, subtle details like the quality of the sound system, lighting (or not), and the interactive skills/experience of the DJ are what you are really paying for. If you are troubled about hiring a DJ (because you wanted "LIVE" entertainment) but you can't afford a great band, consider this. Hire a great DJ and spend just a little more to have a surprise visitor (i.e. famous person impersonator) come by about halfway through the reception. The DJ can keep the guests in suspense by dropping little hints about the surprise guest who is stopping by later. You can usually get the DJ and the impersonator for about half the rate of a quality band. The impersonator can perform for about 20-30 minutes and then mingle with your guests for photos afterwards. I have done this for many of my clients and they all had a blast. I like to say that this combination package bridges the gap for those who wanted completely "LIVE" entertainment but simply could not work it into their budget.
I hope you have found this article helpful. Please feel free to contact me if you have a question I have not covered in one of these articles. I make this advice available for no charge, as I endeavor to raise the bar of excellence with regard to wedding entertainment.
Doug McAlexander - Arsis Productions
Links to other related articles:
How To Book the Perfect Variety Band?
Budgeting For A Band
Getting The Most Value From The Band You Hire
Coordinating the Reception Venue with the Band
What is Swing Music?
How To Guarantee That Your Band Will Show Up
Wedding Reception Entertainment Q & A
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