Tying the Knot in a Meaningful and Memorable Way (Without Losing Our Savings or Sanity)

Monday, March 29, 2010

How to DJ Your Own Wedding with an iPod

Matt and I decided to DJ our own wedding reception with an iPod for several reasons:
  • A $2,000 budget does not leave much room to hire a band or even a DJ.
  • We've been annoyed with DJs at wedding receptions in the past*.
  • Matt loves music and was excited about the opportunity to pick all the songs.
  • We thought that eliminating as many wedding vendors as possible would help eliminate a lot of the stress of wedding planning. We would have to do less searching, less interviewing, less haggling, less following-up, less worrying about their reliability.

However, DJing our own wedding was no walk in the park. It took careful planning and follow-through. Here's the step-by-step process we went through (plus a few things I wish we would have done):
  1. Figure out a way to project the sound professionally. I love dancing and wanted our wedding reception to evolve into a thumping, jumping, full-blown p-a-r-t-y. However, I worried that with anything less than professional sound equipment we would have trouble corralling enough energy and interest for true, get-down dancing. In the process of researching options for renting such equipment, we realized that we had a friend in a band. Matt contacted him, and Nick agreed to let us borrow his stuff for the night. He also volunteered to be in charge of transporting it, setting it up, and breaking it down. There are lots of rental companies out there, plus lots of amateur musicians have really nice equipment. Also, a post on Craigslist might turn up some interesting leads.
  2. Create separate play lists. Once the speaker situation was settled, Matt got to work with creating the play lists. He created a pre-ceremony play list (since a quartet was also not in the budget), a post-ceremony play list, a dinner play list, and a dance party play list. I think coming up with play lists is one of the most difficult parts, but there's no right or wrong answer to the question of what to play. We started with the music we liked and thought about which specific songs would create the kind of ambiance we were going for. We used music we already had in our iTunes library, as well as the website Hypem or Elbows to download songs we didn't have already. There are lots of free resources out there that include lists of suggested songs.
  3. Match the arc of the evening to the arc of the music. One of the reasons why DJs are a potentially appealing option is because they can be skilled at matching music to the mood and using the music to further shape the mood. With the absence of such an omnipotent observer, you have to take matters into your own hands by anticipating the arc of the evening and creating songs that align with that arc. For example, we started our dinner mix with relaxing yet upbeat music. By the time we wanted the dancing to start, we switched it up. We decided to start with a few classic, popular dance tunes to get people out on the floor early. We also folded slow songs into the mix to give people time to rest. The good news is that you don't have to stress out too much about this process because you can always advance to different songs throughout the evening, if needed, to match the energy of the crowd.
  4. Plan way more music than you think you need and bring a back-up iPod. It's better to be safe than sorry. We created really long play lists and then brought a back-up iPod in case something went wrong. We made sure to write these items on our centralized "To Bring" list, so we didn't forget them in the stress of packing.
  5. Plan any intros or transitions. We wanted someone to introduce our "first dance," so we asked Nick to do the honors. After that, we didn't think it was necessary to include any other transitions. However, you could easily insert your own transitions by creating your own mp3's (such as "This song goes out to Grandma.")
  6. Clearly establish roles and responsibilities in advance. Who is responsible for bringing the speakers? What time will they bring them? Where exactly will they need to be set up? How many outlets are required? Will any additional cords need to be provided? Who is bringing the iPod? And the back-up? What time should the music start? Who presses the play button? Answering these questions (and any others) will ensure smooth execution.
  7. When you've planned everything, let go and completely immerse yourself in the moment. You don't want your wedding to fly by, and you don't want to be a stress ball. Once you've planned everything that is in your control, surrender to the universe and truly experience the sheer loveliness of bringing together your nearest and dearest to witness and celebrate your commitment. Even if there is a major snafu, trust that someone will figure out a solution and it will all work out in the end. It might even interject some good comic relief and provide everyone with something to remember. Case in point: the power went out at my friends' wedding, and some of her former students banded together and started singing. It was very moving and memorable.

Overall, we were really pleased with our DIY iPod wedding reception. The dance party was a blast. The money we saved (and diverted toward a down payment two days after our wedding weekend) was definitely worth it. Plus, we had a great experience working with our friend, Nick, and he seemed to feel even more connected to the experience because he played an integral role in it.

However, here are some things I wish we would have done:
  1. Get really, really good dance songs. We had some good dance songs, but most of the music we listen to is not dance-inspiring. I wish we would have gathered more really classic songs (I'm thinking back to my middle school days in the rollerskating rinks). If we had known about programs that let you download other people's music libraries, that would have been a really good option for getting good music for free.
  2. Get suggestions from friends. I love the trend of asking friends and family to request songs on their RSVPs. We could have easily done this with our online RSVPs, but it didn't occur to us. I think it's a fun way to build community and connection.
  3. Decide what your policy is for touching the iPod. Matt and I didn't figure out our policy before the wedding, and we ended up having a particular friend who didn't like our choice in music. She tried to use our iPod to achieve her own musical agenda during the reception. In retrospect, I wish we would have secured the iPod beneath a sheet of paper (with edges taped down) that read, "Please respect our wishes and keep away from the iPod." It could be fun to let your guests interact with the iPod if you decide that's what you want, but for us, it ended up feeling really scattered when our friend would change the music and we would change it back.

I wholeheartedly recommend the DIY iPod wedding reception route for a variety of reasons, and I would love to hear your suggestions and questions in the comment section!

*I am in no way suggesting that all DJs are annoying. In fact, there seem to be really cool ones out there.

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Sarah said...

Thank you for the "on the ground" tips! We are just now getting to this level of prep (aaugh!) and it's good to read this. Our budget is also not allowing for a DJ, though we are asking for song requests via RSVP.

A-L, said...

We're just now having to deal with this issue because a friend of my fiance's can no longer deejay for us (it's too far to bring his equipment 1000 miles away, which I suspected might be the case). So now we're totally up in the air about how we'll do the music, either using an ipod or a DJ. But neither my fiance nor I use ipods (I own an MP3 player which has been waiting more than a year to get some music on it). And apart from going to itunes or similar services, don't know of any legal ways to get a song (unless I already have it on cd). Which would lead us to think of doing a DJ. But some of us (ahem, me) like the idea of choosing all the music. So we'll see what happens. But can anyone explain how to get free, legal music for an MP3 player?

Jamie@OwlReally.com said...

Hi there! I love your blog but as a member of the music industry, I just have to speak up about "free" music. I'm not familiar with the sites you posted, but the idea of downloading someone's entire library sends major red flags up.

Rarely is free music legal (unless you collect all your iTunes Discovery Downloads each week and only play those or something similar or you play only indie bands who give their music away anyway).

I so appreciate what you're doing and will someday myself be a budget bride, but please encourage your readers to download legally and support a dying industry (and people like me who love their jobs).

Emily SW said...

I never considered that someone would change the music! We used an iPod for our wedding reception, with speakers borrowed from the leader of my mom's band. Whoever set up the iPod must have hidden it well, b/c we never had anyone change the music.

A Los Angeles Love said...

To add to what Jaime said (from a woman whose partner also worked in the industry and now helps manage independent artists) you can also consider getting an emusic subscription for about $20-$30 a month, which gives you a lot of legal downloads. Also, you can raid your own CD collection and that of other friends for the party to accumulate music. You should also be aware that a lot of free music sites are incredibly virus-ridden and you never know quite what you're going to get (before dating my partner, I downloaded a few viruses from free media bitorrent sites that my computer antivirus protection luckily caught).

Other than that, great point about thinking through the ipod DJ option.

BridalHood said...

Thanks for the great post and the suggestions - we are going the iPod DJ route and working on all of this right now. It can be pretty daunting getting it all together but will save a lot of money. I think we need one person to help with the transitions and any annoucements we want to make but other than that think we're set

Stephanova said...

Thanks for this!

We are also now starting to think about this. We aren't going the DJ route because in my opinion they tend to be annoying (and don't seem to appreciated Steely Dan.) My fiance's mom really wants to throw us a shower, so we convinced her that a co-ed party would be best. We don't have a lot of (older, wealthy) family in the area so we've asked people to bring us music instead of, you know, bed linens. They can buy us a CD or make us a mix (which I hope is legal?) of music they'd like to hear at the wedding. We'll then use those contributions to create our play lists. (And, probably end up downloading some stuff from iTunes-- even though $1 a song can add up, it is still way cheaper than a DJ.)

Newbie and the Murr said...

If you have access to internet at the wedding, why not try making Pandora playlists? I've been using Pandora for a while, and by giving songs I like thumbs up/thumbs down, I'm at a point now where I love everything playing on my radio station.

You won't have full autonomy over your playlist, but if you start early in planning and make a few "stations" (pre-ceremony, post-ceremony, dance, etc) and just keep honing the station to your liking, you'll have free music streaming for the evening and a bit of surprise thrown in!

Brite Lines said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brite Lines said...

We used an iPod too and it worked out pretty well - another suggestion though is to have backup speakers. Our receiver overheated (it was 104 that day!) so we had to pull out the backup computer speakers. We paid for all of our music - we either already owned the CD or bought songs on iTunes. I think we only spent about $40 on iTunes though.

We had cocktail hour, dinner and dancing playlists and we deleted everything else on the ipod, so there could be no music takeover among guests. However, we had a form on our wedding website where guests could suggest a song. We played most and vetoed a few.

Picking songs for our playlist was one of the things that took the longest time and the most cooperation in planning our wedding! We ended up going with lots of 70s for the dance music. Here are some of the songs we chose:

Tamara said...

I already started making my playlists. We don't have our venue yet so speakers etc. aren't determined yet, but picking a ton of songs and then going through them to pick the winners is the hardest part. We already have a friend in mind who can be in charge of stop/play/announcements for specials songs who loves music. Glad to hear it worked for you. DJs rub me the wrong way so I definitely want to do the music myself.

Bailey said...

wanted to pass along i lesson i learned. we are using an ipod for our wedding at a restaurant - worth noting that while the restaurant is allowing us to use their sound system, it is only good enough for background music - so we'll be renting speakers and a mic for the dancin' portion.

agoodic said...

wanted to pass along i lesson i learned. we are using an ipod for our wedding at a restaurant - worth noting that while the restaurant is allowing us to use their sound system, it is only good enough for background music - so we'll be renting speakers and a mic for the dancin' portion.

Hi-Fi Weddings said...

lol I didn't have an ipod when we got married, so it was an 8 disc long mix...but luckily the venue just happened to have an 8-disc player. i didn't even think of that beforehand, so thankfully it all worked out! but man, would have been SO much easier with an ipod haha :)

Kate Wells said...

We did an ipod as well for our wedding. We borrowed a PA system from a friend who is in a band and he came over earlier in the morning to set it up. We also had several playlists - one for waiting for the ceremony to start, the ceremony itself, cocktails & lunch, then our bonfire. We didn't do dancing per se - we've noticed that at the weddings we've gone to nobody seems to dance except kids and the crazy drunk guy. But we did have upbeat music in case people felt like groovin'.

A couple of tips:
1. Have a back-up ipod with all your playlists just in case.
2. Find somebody willing to help out with changing playlists, making announcements, etc. For example, the friend who brought the PA also took responsibility for changing playlists at specific times, adjusting the volume of the speakers and making the announcement of when we were serving dinner, dessert and s'mores at the bonfire.
3. Be understanding when said friend gets distracted. For example, I had to remind him to start the toasts and turn down the volume while we were eating. Just remember he's your friend and a guest too and he's doing you a favor!

If you are the type of person who enjoys making mix tapes/cd's/playlists anyhow or if you're really particular in your musical tastes, this is a really fun project. If you find sitting in front of your itunes boring, then it might be worth hiring somebody else to do it for you.

MissMC said...

These are great tips! I love the idea of getting music suggestions on their RSVP as well.

And the suggestion of the back up iPod someone made is good to consider as well.. Congrats on your wedding!

Cupcake Wedding said...


This is fab, but what I really dont understand is how you pulled everything off the day of your wedding. I've searched and searched but can't find a timeline. Can you tell us more about that? THANKS!

Moxie said...

To Jaime & Los Angeles--

I don't think Sara was suggesting for readers to utilize illegal free downloading websites. While I wasn't familiar with the two links, it would have been quite uncharacteristic of Sara to suggest anything slightly uncouth or immoral on this blog.

A quick check (after reading your comments) revealed that my gut instincts were correct. The sites linked in this posting were suggestions of where to go to find new music for playlists.

While I appreciate you speaking up for the music industry, I wanted to clarify that any sort of illegal downloading of music did not actually appear to be suggested or implied.

Amelia Kaye said...

Thank you so much for sharing, my Fiance and I are trying to do this for our wedding and this link was great help, thanks!

wedding songs said...

Excellent article! Great way to save money. Definitely have a back up ipod for a "what if" situation. Trust me, as a wedding musician, I can say that the more you plan ahead, the less stress you'll have on your big day.
(As an aside, it's also not a bad idea for the bride to have a back-up bag for herself--ie, extra hose, finger nail file, nail polish/remover, kleenex, aspirin, etc.) Obviously, Amazon has tons of downloadable music for 99 cents. Another source for wedding music ideas is Wedding-Songs-Galore.

Anonymous said...

THANK you, for publishing this!

Anne said...

I'd love to see your dance list - in the process of creating my own ipod wedding playlists! thanks!

Sara E. Cotner said...

It's coming on Monday, Anne!

Anonymous said...

oh thank you so much for all the helpful tips. I'm trying to get some indie obscure music i really want for our wedding. i think i have been spending too much energy thinking it all had to be love songs. but do you think its okay if they arent necisarily happy love songs but they have the right energy your looking for?

well i'm definately looking for some help getting songs. i think a good way is set up a trade. burn a cd for someone, and they burn one for you and that way you can trade with anyone. its the same as downloading free music, only virus free... anyone interested? this is my blog: http://sheliebelie.blogspot.com/

also if you search wherehouse music for their used cds you can find them for under $5 for used CD's

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