Murder on the dancefloor: what I learned about marketing from being a bad DJ

I was a bad DJ. I couldn't mix; I couldn't sample; I couldn't scratch. But above all, I couldn't make people dance - or at least, make them dance to my tunes.

The withering glances, the paralysing fear, the creeping self-doubt; it all comes flooding back. Staring out at an empty dancefloor, the only movement the geometric reflections from the mirror ball, the crowds clinging to the walls as if pushed by some centrifugal force.

I’d play one top track after another: D-Train, Fatback, Archie Bell & the Drells… Nothing.

‘It’s a shame,
Sometimes I feel like I’m going insane,
But still I want to stay’
Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King - Shame

Gradually the pressure built. They wanted to dance, but they didn’t want to dance to anything I was playing. The occasional Goth would approach, demanding Southern Death Cult.

Eventually I cracked and reached for The Jackson 5. No sooner had a few bars of ABC chimed out than the floor was filled with jiving students, a mass of ecstatic rhythm and moves.

But no time to enjoy my achievement. I faced another challenge. Once they were on their feet for The Jackson 5, I couldn’t very well give them Melba Moore. So I’d unsheath Earth, Wind & Fire. And then Shalamar. And Chic. ‘And the beat goes on...’

Yes, the floor was packed and pulsating now. A joyous Bacchanalian throng. But at the height of my seeming success, I was filled with self-loathing, because I had, in effect, created a Wedding Disco. I knew the revellers would not go home sated that night. They’d had a bop, but it was the same old stuff they’d always danced to. Nothing to be remembered, respected, revisited. Nothing original, authentic, inspired. Last night a DJ ruined my life…

So why am I telling you this?

Well, as a bad DJ I learned that it’s quite easy to generate a bit of fizz, a quick thrill or momentary buzz. But it’s much more difficult to get people dancing to your own tune, to be credited with it and thanked for it. And once you’ve got people dancing to a populist rhythm, it’s nigh-on impossible to get them off it. I learned that, if I ever wanted to be a good DJ, I’d need a thicker skin.

‘Here’s my chance to dance my way out of my constrictions,
(Feet don’t fail me now),
One nation under a groove, Gettin’ down just for the funk of it’
Funkadelic - One Nation under a Groove

I’d been to enough clubs to recognise a proper DJ. I’d seen them seamlessly blend the familiar with the exotic. I’d seen them coax their public onto the floor, change the tempo, manipulate the mood. I’d seen them insinuate a rhythm that took dancers deep into the heart of darkness. And I’d seen the joy unconfined of a real dancehall crowd moving as one.

I think marketers can learn from dance. Dance is about individual fulfilment found through collective action, private passions explored together – not unlike brands. Marketers could learn from DJs, too – the experts who create, catalyse and control the dancefloor, the magicians who manufacture social success. What advice would a good DJ give a brand manager? Well perhaps...

1. Read the crowd. Feel the mood of the masses. It’s about your own, instinctive judgement, not someone else’s.
2. Live in the moment. Be spontaneous, intuitive, impromptu. Don’t plan for a future you can’t predict.
3. Mix sugar and spice, the familiar with the unknown. It may be counterintuitive, but no one will thank you if you play only what they want, know or expect.
4. Surprise them with the arcane, the forgotten and absurd when they least expect it. Don’t let consistency become predictability.
5. Create one seamless journey, contoured with its own highs and lows. Take the whole dancefloor on that journey and don’t get lost in segmentation, tailoring and targeting.

Great brands set a rhythm that unites consumers, propels them onto the dancefloor of life and inspires them to express their truest feelings, together. In the age of the empowered, atomised consumer, we should never forget that, fundamentally, brands are shared beliefs. I have always believed in a brand that seeks to lead opinion rather than follow it. I guess I believe in the Brand as DJ.

Or as Soul II Soul might put it: ‘A happy face, a thumpin’ bass, for a lovin’ race’…

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