DJ, Band or Playlist?

Ivy Lamb

Navigating wedding entertainment options

Nothing sets the tone of your reception quite like music. You may agonize over your wedding colors and centerpieces, but you shouldn't overlook entertainment in the process. How do you choose the best option, though? Should you hire a DJ or a live band? Is a DIY playlist ever a good idea? It all depends on your priorities and the kind of reception you're planning.

If you're hiring professional entertainment for your reception, choosing between a live band or DJ is the first big decision, and it mostly comes down to the vibe you're looking for and your budget.

With a DJ, you get access to virtually any music and your guests will hear familiar, popular recordings. That familiarity can be a big plus if you want a lot of guests to dance, as people prefer to dance to music they recognize. A good wedding DJ will work with the couple to understand their musical tastes and what they want out of the evening. If an epic dance party is a priority, you may need to lure guests out onto the dance floor with at least a few well-known hits.

"I write down every song I play and I have a gauge of what the crowd does," says local DJ Mark Dantzer. "But you can drive those big songs into the ground, you have to be careful." A good DJ will be able to keep the music selection varied but accessible, partly by gauging the room. "You need an experienced DJ to read the crowd and make good decisions," says Matt Ryan of Mobile DJ Entertainment. "What's a good call at 8 p.m. may not be a good call at 11 p.m."

A band brings a different feel to the reception. "The energy you get from people playing right in front of you can't be replicated with a recording," says Paul Hoy, owner of Class Acts Entertainment, adding that bands can customize music as well. "I can point to example after example where a band has made a song unique for a couple with a lyric change or a story in the middle," he says. Often, bands are entertaining even for those who don't enjoy dancing. "We're more interactive," says John Pollock of the Street Players. "We'll bring people up on stage to sing or go onto the dance floor to sing to the bride's grandmother."

Logistically speaking, bands take up more space than a DJ. You'll also need to plan around the band taking a few breaks throughout the evening. Another deciding factor is cost. A band is often more expensive simply because there are more people and equipment involved. But for couples who want that unique, high-energy atmosphere, many believe it's worth the higher price tag.

Whether you choose to go with a DJ or a band, it's important to be realistic about how much to budget for entertainment. Skimping on the entertainment can lead to a lackluster reception. "These days, it's very easy and relatively inexpensive to buy some equipment, set up a Craigslist ad and say, hey I'm a DJ," Ryan says. "$400 or $500 can seem like a good deal, but it's wasted. And it can ruin the entire reception." While many factors affect pricing, you should expect to spend roughly $1,000 to $1,500 for an experienced wedding DJ.

Similarly for bands, what can seem like a good deal may spell disaster. According to Hoy, you should anticipate spending $400 to $500 per musician on average for a live band. "If they're super popular, they may be above that; if they're new, it could be a little lower," he says, adding that you can save money by booking on a weeknight or stretching the budget by having band members cover other parts of the wedding, like the ceremony.

Pricing isn't the only thing to consider, however. It's important to meet with potential entertainers in person so you can get a feel for how they approach weddings and if it's a good fit. You should find out if they have experience working weddings or other events, and if they're open to your input and overall vision for the reception. Don't be afraid to shop around and meet with multiple vendors. "Unlike a dress or flowers, our work is very in the moment," Ryan says. "It's not as tangible, which makes it even more important [for couples] to meet with their entertainer, that the entertainer understands their needs, and have the knowledge and capability to deliver on what the couple is expecting. You can't glean that from a website or a brochure."

Keep in mind that the band or DJ is almost always responsible for playing the emcee role as well, making announcements and transitioning between events. "Fifty percent of the job is helping to keep things running smoothly," Dantzer says. "I'm not the planner, I'm not in charge, but I have the microphone. You should look for someone who is organized, prompt and responds to you."

With a band specifically, you should ask if their repertoire is varied enough to appeal to most of your guests. "You want a band that has experience playing several generations of music, have done formal events and have a professional persona," Pollock says. "I'm familiar with a lot of bands that do phenomenal in a bar setting, but if you set that band in a high-end venue with several generations of people present, there might be a large part of the audience they miss."

Lastly, you may be wondering if creating your own playlist is a good idea. It might seem like a simpler, cheaper option, but like many other DIY projects, it can turn out to be more expensive and stressful than you think. Programming several hours of music is no easy task, not to mention that it's one more thing you'll have to babysit at the ceremony. You'll probably need to rent high-quality sound equipment and take care of set up and break down yourself. If dancing isn't a big priority (or if you don't plan on having any dancing at all) creating your own playlist can be a good option. Ultimately, though, a professional entertainer will always be more responsive to the mood of the crowd than any playlist.

Boogie Down

Get the party started with these picks from local DJs

Which songs are practically guaranteed to get even your most reticent guests out on the dance floor? The answer (like it or not) is line dances. "People have strong opinions about the songs they hear again and again at wedding receptions," says Matt Ryan of Mobile DJ Entertainment. "But when you think about the go-to songs, the reason they have that reputation is that they work!" You may be tired of hearing "Cupid Shuffle" but according to Ryan, see how quickly it fills the dance floor.

Old-school rock 'n' roll and '90s hip-hop are also popular, but one song in particular emerges as a clear winner in this category. "If there's nobody on my dance floor and I need them out there now, 'Uptown Funk' is the song that will get everyone from 16 to 78 to dance," says local DJ Mark Dantzer.

The five top choices according to our experts, are:

  • Mark Ronson (ft. Bruno Mars),?"Uptown Funk"
  • Journey, "Don't Stop Believin'"
  • Usher, "Yeah"
  • AC/DC, "You Shook Me All Night Long"
  • Run-DMC, "It's Tricky"