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Technology tempts some couples to DJ their own weddings - but it takes work

05/05/2015 09:11 EDT | Updated 05/05/2016 05:59 EDT
As she prepared to get married in 2009, Meg Keene considered iPods "a small gift from the wedding gods." Rather than hiring a band or professional DJ for thousands of dollars, she and her fiancé made their own playlist of Sir Mix-A-Lot, Frank Sinatra and Dolly Parton songs and cranked them on rented speakers.

Today, with phone apps that let brides and grooms instantly play just about any song ever made, Keene counsels caution.

"It's easier to screw up, honestly," says Keene, 35, an Oakland, California, blogger and author of "A Practical Wedding" (Da Capo, 2011). "People think a great way to DJ a wedding is to set up a Spotify playlist or have a Pandora station — that tends to not work very well. Putting a playlist on at random tends to just go down in flames."

Although professional DJs and wedding planners scoff at the idea of do-it-yourself dance-floor playlists, technology makes it almost irresistibly simple. Many venues have built-in sound systems with ports for phones and laptops or even Bluetooth for wireless audio connections. For more electronically challenged churches and gazebos, couples can buy or rent speakers that can be connected to a small, affordable mixer and a laptop. Google Cast and Apple's AirPlay let you control the playlist remotely.

The trick is coming up with a playlist. There's an art to it, as the staff at Google-owned Songza has discovered. A year ago, in the middle of wedding season, the staff of six full-time New York curators and a fleet of freelancers realized they had no wedding playlist. They corrected that with a dozen specialized lists, from the Marvin Gaye-packed "It's Your Wedding Day!" to "Rustic Outdoor Wedding," filled with Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons. Of course, users can go off the reservation and add their own songs.

"As long as you maintain a consistent mood, you can really mix whatever you want from whatever decade you want," says Parry Ernsberger, a curation expert at Google Play Music, which oversees the Songza playlists. "Reading the room is important."

Those who DJ their own weddings run into several challenges. They have to provide different playlists for different settings, from here-comes-the-bride tearjerkers for the ceremony to cocktail music for early drinks to dance music for the reception. They have to find the right balance between familiar, "YMCA"-type anthems and meaningful obscurities that risk clearing the dance floor. And they must do all this while greeting guests and making sure drunk uncles avoid face-planting into the cake.

"It can really be pulled off," Keene says. "But it's not something that you can sort of look away and be like, 'That will work itself out.' It takes some work."

Keene recommends crafting a fully formed iTunes playlist, with a beginning, middle and end, including a series of "big, raging dance-party numbers" followed by a cool-down song. Pay attention, she says, to the early part of the reception, when older guests want to hear Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing" or Ray Charles' "What'd I Say." Later, friends and family might want to hear Kesha and hip-hop. (She also recommends using iTunes' cross-fade function to avoid awkward silences between tracks; backing up the playlist on several guests' phones; and depending on a mobile streaming service only as a last resort, since Internet connections can be unreliable.)

Not everyone is sold on DIY wedding playlists. Asked for an interview, one prominent New York wedding planner sniffed, "That does not make sense at all. None of our clients have ever been interested in something like this."

"Really, my experience? We've always hired the professionals," adds Trudy Baade, president of the American Association of Certified Wedding Planners. "There's so much to plan."

But Evan Minsker, 27, spent months making a playlist for his May 2014 wedding — then wrote about the process for indie-rock website Pitchfork, where he is a staff writer. Minsker built a reception soundtrack full of sure things (Outkast's "Hey Ya!"), novelties (Eddie Murphy's "Party All the Time") and lesser-known, Pitchfork-friendly favourites (Todd Terje's "Inspector Norse"), hitting all decades.

He posted playlists and wrote: "Pay attention to transitions. Try to make it so your playlist has a flow and logic to it."

Minsker's reception playlist began with Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up, Part 1" and ended with Michael Jackson's "Man In the Mirror." He tried to entertain every age group. The dance floor, at his wife's parents' house in the woods, was full for most of the wedding. The rare snag was when one of his friends temporarily commandeered his laptop, purchased Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" on iTunes for $1.29 and aired it as a practical joke.

Otherwise, Minsker, who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, highly recommends the process.

"It was honestly the most fun and meditative part about putting together my wedding," he says. "By the time the wedding rolled around, it was 'hit play on the playlist.'"

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