Size Matters: How Long Is Your DJ Set?

DJ complaints. Bad monitors, low turntables, patron requests…the list goes on. But one thing you’ll hear from almost all DJs is the desire for more time—more time to spin more music. Time to play all the amazing records in the bag. Time to take the audience on a journey.

There is no doubt that the dance music community is tuning in to the extended DJ set. Whether it’s one of Berghain’s exhausting open-ended closing sets (sometimes running from midnight Sunday until Monday afternoon), Seth Troxler’s quarterly residencies at Output, Fabric and Trouw, or DJ Harvey’s legendary all-night Sarcastic Disco events in Los Angeles (sadly on hiatus, it seems), the notion of letting a DJ provide a full night or more of musical direction has caught on, even in less-likely places like Philadelphia, where Berlin resident and Bunker NYC resident Derek Plaslaiko frequently delivers 12 or more hours of music to a small but dedicated crowd at Inciting.

"...A stacked lineup with 2 hour sets
from each DJ almost never compared
in terms of the quality of the
journey the night would take...”

Those unique nights were part of the inspiration for The Bunker Limited, a series of off-shoot events from New York’s long-running Bunker techno nights, run by Bryan Kasenic.- Bryan Kasenic photo: Seze Devres

“For our eight year anniversary in January 2011, we threw a party at Public Assembly with Donato Dozzy playing an eight hour set in the back room, Optimo doing eight hours in the front room, and Derek Plaslaiko doing an eight hour afterhours set up in the loft,” he recalls. “Everyone really responded to the [loft] space and, once we put our soundsystem in there, it was pretty incredible. Everything kind of fell into place.”

“When I first started going out, I heard Richie Hawtin do some sets in Detroit where it was just him all night. Danny Tenaglia used to play all night almost every week in NYC as well,” Kasenic continues, discussing his earliest exposure to extended sets. “Those all night sets were always something really special, where the DJ had the opportunity to take the room on a real journey. A stacked lineup with 2 hour sets from each DJ almost never compared in terms of the quality of the journey the night would take.”

The extended or all-night set isn’t a new concept. In fact, it dates back to the earliest DJ-driven events. In a time before the very existence of guest DJs, beloved residents like Larry Levan in New York and Frankie Knuckles in Chicago would attend to the music all night, in part because there wasn’t anyone else to do it. Go even further back, and David Mancusso’s The Loft featured the host playing tunes all night for his personal guests in what was barely a club, but rather a private party.

However, as dance music developed into an international scene in the 1990s, and DJs became globe-trotting stars, the length of DJ sets began to shrink, in part to accommodate the travel schedule of the guest jocks, and in part in consideration of the time-limiting liquor laws that dictate the close time of most venues (especially those outside of major metropolitan areas).

Additionally, as event competition increased with the music’s popularity, stacking the line-up with as many name DJs as possible became a common promotion technique. Who cared if each jock would only get two hours or less to entertain the crowd, so long as people came. That stack ‘em mentality continues to exist today, especially in the world of giant EDM events like Tomorrowland, Electric Daisy Carnival and Ultra Music Festival, where the line-up is loaded with dozens and dozens of carefully branded DJ logos. However, it’s more than just a marketing gimmick.

“The current trend in the rave and festival scene is a very low attention span in the crowds. They get bored easily,” explains San Francisco-based EDM DJ John Beaver. I have had to make edits out of most all my songs, cutting out the second breakdowns so I can mix into something new quicker.”

Beaver explains that the energy expected from DJs can also play a limiting factor. Watch any of the headlining DJs perform at any of the big festivals, and behold a serious cardio workout onstage, one that can’t possibly be maintained for very long. “I just don't have the energy to keep it pumping from track to track for longer than that,” admits Beaver.

“...I’ve played lots of 5-6 hour sets,
but never for an audience as
committed to engage with
the music I was playing...”

Extended sets offer a different sort of energy—a marathon, rather than a sprint. One maintained by the dancers as much as the DJ. “I’ve played lots of 5-6 hour sets, but never for an audience as committed to engage with the music I was playing,” says Detroit-bred, San Francisco based DJ Carlos Souffront, regarding his recent set at Bunker Limited. One that was cut short by cops after a mere seven hours behind the decks. But as any long distance DJ will tell you, once you find a groove, time can pass incredibly quickly.- DJ Carlos Souffront, photo: Kahley Avalon Emerson

“After I turned off the music, I thought to myself ‘What a bummer, I only got to play maybe four hours!”  And then I looked at the time and realized that I’d already played for over seven!”

Souffront enjoys the challenge of playing a complete night; one that he says involves far more preparation than a usual time slot. There’s also the challenge of changing up his style to suite the format. “I’m a spaz when I play,” he confesses. “And it’s not an A.D.D. thing, it’s just a stylistic preference.  If I’m booked to play a set that’s longer than 2 hours, I need to switch things up and get eclectic.”

“...If you can't tell your story in two
hours or less, you're probably
not a great storyteller...."

He also cautions that just because longer sets are more in demand, that doesn’t mean every DJ should jump onboard. “I don’t think they’re overrated as much as I think there’s too many DJs playing longer sets than they probably should.”

He goes on to mention his SF peers Honey Soundsystem as a crew who do individual short sets well, creating an energy that builds throughout the evening with each jock trying to outdo his colleague before him.

Ultimately, the value of DJ sets shouldn’t be determined by punching the clock, but rather that is delivered during the DJs office hours, whether it’s a short session, or serious overtime.

“I think of sets like movies,” says Souffront. “If you can't tell your story in two hours or less, you're probably not a great storyteller. That's not to say epic films aren't occasionally amazing.”