Weddings (etc): Live Band vs DJ… FIGHT!

TurntableSome of you may know, I occasionally do a bit of DJing (at the moment the operative word there is ‘occasionally’, but still). I’ve done a few weddings in the past, as well as other events. I’ve also been a ‘punter’, or guest, at a number of weddings and that kind of thing with DJs or live bands. I enjoy having a bit of a dance from time to time!

With this in mind, I wanted to write about the subject everyone is asking about. Well, OK, not everyone is asking about it, but I’ve been thinking about it since going to a wedding a few weeks ago with a live band. It seems to me that there is a general perception around that a live band is better than a DJ. In my opinion, I think most people assume a live band is better than a DJ without really giving it much thought. Maybe it’s because live bands are generally more expensive, I don’t know!

What I’d like to do is make the case for why you might want to consider a DJ. Obviously there are pros and cons to either, but here’s my perspective from the position of both a punter and a DJ.

Firstly, remember that a live band, however good they are, are only ever going to be performing covers of songs. You’re never going to have a live band where every song sounds exactly like the record: the band will only have a limited number of vocalists, instruments, equipment – all the stuff which individual bands use to make a distinctive sound. At best, you’ll have some songs (depending on the genre) where the band get it 90% right.

Why is this important? Well, maybe this is just me – but I get bored of hearing cover versions after a while. At the wedding we were at the other week, the band played for three sessions of about 45 minutes each. By the end of that time, if I’m honest, I was a bit bored with the same vocalist singing with the same band with similar arrangements… even if the band are good, after a while they’re going to start sounding samey. There’s a limited amount I can take of hearing songs which sound almost like the record… but not quite.

With a DJ, you know that the songs will sound as you remember them, pretty much – same intros and outros, same number of verses and choruses etc… all things which a band might change. I like familiarity!

Secondly, remember that what the band can play will be somewhat limited by the competency of the musicians. The band we heard at that wedding were good musicians: I think they were all decent in their own right. But I don’t know how they would have fared if they needed to play something which depended on a virtuoso solo performance – thinking maybe of an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo, or even Freddie Mercury’s vocal performances. Now obviously this still allows for a large range of common ‘wedding disco’ songs, and complex parts can be simplified (although see what I said on the first point above).

But you do at least know with a DJ that you can choose whatever songs you want, anything at all which has been recorded, and it will be played and sound exactly as it is on the record – virtuoso performances and all.

Thirdly, bands need to leave gaps in between songs. As someone who enjoys dancing along, it can be frustrating to have to stop for a minute while the band move on to the next song. Bands also need to take breaks from time to time.

With a DJ there usually aren’t gaps between songs – a good DJ can blend songs together well. And a DJ can pretty much play on all night with a supply of drinks and a few toilet breaks.

Now, all of this assumes comparison of a good live band with a good DJ. What I would say is, it’s easier to find a good live band than it is a good DJ (I’ve seen too many DJs who don’t put any effort in – e.g. putting on an iTunes playlist before spending all evening at the buffet…) But I would say it’s worth considering a DJ if you can find a decent one (this reminds me of my Tips for Mobile DJs I wrote a few years ago!)

Finally, I’d just like to consider the objection people might have: “isn’t live music always just better?” I don’t think that there is anything about live music which is inherently better than recorded in that situation. Let me give an example: last November, we went to see Keane at the O2. Now, if we’d turned up and found that they’d shoved a CD on instead of the band playing, I would have been pretty unhappy. Obviously in that context, of a band playing their own songs, ‘live’ is much better than ‘recorded’.

But in the wedding context – with a band performing cover versions all night – I think it’s a bit different. What you gain in the music being live you lose in it becoming homogenised. I think I would prefer to hear e.g. the recording of ‘Town Called Malice’ by The Jam over a band trying to sound like the recording. Especially stretched over the course of a whole evening.

In short, I think live is only really a plus when you’re getting something you can’t get from a recording. It’s not inherently better, but it often is in the case of live bands performing their own songs. At a wedding (or that kind of function), I think I would go for a decent DJ over a decent band.

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