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Does size matter? The great DJ set length debate

It is a conversation that has stood the test of musical time. Today, I look at one of the most argued issues within electronic music – DJ set length.

Frankie Knuckles

The feature topic today will always be a contentious one. Over the world, the debate surrounding it has reared its head time again without any fixed conclusion or, indeed, change. With the mood often becoming heated, it can cause a division between DJ and promoter and does not include input from the most important people in the grand scheme of things – the raver. 

It is a conversation that has stood the test of musical time. Today, I look at one of the most argued issues within electronic music—DJ set length. 

What is the perfect set length?
Does the view differ between DJ and promoter? 
Is the set length time specific to a genre? 
Does the set length affect events negatively? 

So many questions, and I will endeavour to address a few of them. 

To set the tone early on, as much as this piece is my personal view, I always offer thoughts from both sides of the proverbial coin to keep perspective and balance. I aim to give an honest and transparent opinion and open up debate. The end game is to create a platform for change. 

Before we look into the ins and outs, I want to highlight some background context. 

For transparency, as a DJ and promoter myself, I often fell into the perception traps that I mention below and implemented some odd DJ time slots. As I look back, perversely, it created one of the most beautiful learning curves of my time in the industry to date. We all get things wrong at times. Many of the most spectacular failures lead to the biggest success stories. 

I am now going to dissect a few questions that continue to circulate surrounding this subject.

Where did the standard one hour set time originate? 

In truth, nobody knows. There are several answers given, but one thing is for sure, it converted quietly from being an ‘introduced’ format to common practice over a relatively short period. 

Music has progressed and developed, diversifying its audience to the international stage. According to some, this accounts for the shrunken sets. In earlier times, DJ travel schedules and alcohol limiting laws dictated the closing times of venues and these obstacles had to be accommodated.

Fast forward a few years, the fable has changed. Now, the 1-hour duration seems to fit the narrative for promoters wanting to stack line-ups and jam-pack a flyer with the largest selection of DJs possible. There is a definite promotional and marketing tactic in play. The event scene has become overloaded and saturated with parties due to the increased popularity of electronic music; by loading up on DJs, the marketing channel reach is heightened. 

Many will also cite consumer age as a factor. A belief that an event with a younger demographic places smaller length sets in the schedule as the audience do not have the patience for a set build and want instant gratification for their entrance fee. I would wholeheartedly disagree with such a belief. The enthusiasm and knowledge amongst younger clubbers these days is arguably as vibrant and more in-depth as it has ever been. 

Is one hour long enough for a DJ to tell their story? 

NO. Building a journey through music is the most beautiful skill to possess. Having the ability to create memories, conduct a crowd masterfully and showcase dedication to the craft is, for me, what I yearn for and strive to achieve. A set should have a start, a middle and an end. It should delve into the depths of the archives and join modern cuts. Peaks and troughs need to be formed with times of emotion, energy and pullbacks. This journey takes time to construct and bring to life. 

One hour sets can cause issues with music flow and event vibe. Take a warm-up DJ as an example. They do not play to large crowds and want to showcase their talents within a limited time. Usually, the last 20 minutes of an already short set will have an audience. What happens? Bangers galore. The DJ tries to impress. A chain reaction causes a knock-on effect for the rest of the show as the next DJ has nowhere to go or build the next block. Like Groundhog Day, the sequence repeats. Before you know it, the headline artist performs at 130 BPM and loses the ability to provide the ‘peak’ chapter of the story (what they are booked for). 

Some promoters allegedly will tell you that this time is ample to perform. It enables them to fill a show with several DJs, thus getting the potential to have promotion reach extended to an increased number of people. The hope of a rise in ticket sales and revenue is behind the motive. To remain balanced, we need to understand the cost implications enforced on the promoter by the venue. Such costs can affect a mindset when curating the lineup. Small capacities, bold venue hire fees, and agency artist fees can often dictate, to a degree, what the promoter needs to include to break even financially. 

In my view, having 1-hour slots shows that the promoter is lacking confidence in their brand identity and its follower loyalty. Some will say that the promoter is being lazy and cannot push their event to key demographics. I would not go to that extremity, but feel that it is a confidence issue….or indeed, just about the ticket sales. 

30 – 40 minute sets are a thing. Should they be?

NO. Quite simply, it should not exist. I do understand how some promoters feel that by implementing these set lengths, a consistent vibe will be in place. However, I believe that any DJ taking bookings for this time needs to STOP. What can a DJ achieve in this timeframe? I will give you the answer. Absolutely nothing. By the time you have mixed out of the previous DJs track and dropped your last beat before the incoming DJ mixes in, you will have probably dropped three to four, THREE TO FOUR grooves. 

The exception to the rule (I am really digging here) – If you have one track that you have always wanted to play out and is incredibly long, take Prydz ‘Opus’ as an example, the chance to drop has come. Plugin, drop the track and leave. 

On a serious note, a DJ spends hour upon hour creating their sound and crate digging. With a 30 minute slot, none of that time or dedication to the art can play a prominent role. 

Sidestepping from this musically, look at it from a slightly different angle. Imagine a DJ travelling for 2 hours to get to a gig, play for 30 minutes and then 2 hours to travel home. It makes no sense logistically, especially to then receive a single drink token and half-price guest list for one friend. In my opinion, this length shows a lack of respect for the industry, the DJ and the raving community. 

Read: Djs and the lost art of digging.

Does the genre of music matter when considering the set length? 

YES. It is a question that I have never been able to give a committed or firm answer, until now. Specific music genres do lend themselves to more of a story-telling slant. I have looked at this from a more ‘raver’ point of view as I feel that, as a DJ, I would always want to spin for the maximum amount of time possible; I mean, that is why we do what we do. 

With a long-term raver residency under my belt, I have been to many different style music events. The way I see it is this. Could I dance to a DJ playing a 3-hour tech-house set? No. Do I expect to listen to a DJ drop a 3-hour minimal set and tell a beautiful story? Absolutely.

Soundwaves Festival

All genres of music have different tones as the music is produced in multiple layers to create that tone. Playing at a slower tempo allows for peaks and troughs, meaning the longer set lengths do not lose expression or engagement levels. 

Take the 60 minutes set as an example once more. It allows just enough time to get the vibe across. In a genre such as drum & bass, an hour represents around 30+ tracks. Compare this to a minimal set where the number is drastically reduced to approximately 10. This scenario offers a little justification but is far from ideal. 

Extended sets pay testament to my answer. Often DJs within a particular genre will play an ‘extended set’ or an ‘all night long’ showcase. Events are set in more intimate venues and often sell out. This shows us just how educated modern-day ravers are and emphasises the need to listen to the people that make these nights happen. This paragraph transitions into my next section perfectly.

Extended Sets 

Extended sets are a marathon, not a sprint. There is no doubt that the dance music community is tuning into the extended set. The notion of letting a DJ perform for the whole night has caught on. Extended or all night long sets date back to the earliest events (90’s) and not the new concept that is widely perceived. These styles of events originated back in the house music motherland, Chicago, where guest DJs were not a thing. Residents such as the legendary Frankie Knuckles would take control for the whole night. Due, in part, to there being a limited number of DJs available. (How things have changed!)

Chicago Skyline

There is something incredibly satisfying for both the DJ and raver in an extended set. The selector has time to conduct and command the crowd and build with a start, middle and end, exploring all corners of their bags. The audience gets an insight into what the DJ is about. There is no ‘power’ hour but a look into their musical soul. A real chance to see an artist push themselves. 

Some promoters and events understand this perfectly. 

The world-renowned Berghain in Berlin has a minimum 4-hour set policy. Romanian minimal festival Sunwaves will often have long hour showcases from selected artists. Fabric in London is a staunch supporter of the elongated set. If you know where to look, some places do ‘get it right’. 

Berghain Berlin

Have short set lengths become a problem in the industry? 

YES. When something becomes a common practice, change will rarely come. The perception that a 1-hour set is standard has filtered through the scene and will be the chosen option for a high percentage of events. For me, it depreciates the quality of an event. It ruins the flow and vibe of the party. This leads down a dangerous promoter led path and will be taken forward into the next generation and lose the electronic music arena a certain amount of credibility and engagement. Many, unfortunately, are not in this for the love of music, just the love of heavy pockets. I find this extremely sad. 

So, what is the ideal set length? 

I will cut to the chase, as this is quite a long article read; I want to keep you all with me. I will be bold and state that a MINIMUM of 90 minutes, but preferably 2-hours, is the ideal set length but does take into account the different genres of music. It reaches a compromise between promoter and DJ and allows the DJ to create a story, albeit a slightly limited one, whilst allowing the host to have a decent number of artists on their showcase (if that is what they feel works for their motives). 

I constructed a brief poll on my social media profiles with four different set length options to see where feeling lies. The consensus is that a 2-hour set hits the spot.

Is it time for a change in the industry ‘standard’? 

YES. Let the revolution begin.

I have only scratched the surface of this topic. There are many more areas that could be covered within this piece, but it would have turned into a length of biblical proportions (get the link there?) I hope this opens up the floor to some constructive debate. 

Will we see the re-emergence of longer sets at festivals and events? It remains to be seen. Does size matter? In this case, yes, it does.

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