How to Organise Your Music

An often overlooked but crucially important factor for any DJ, having an organised music collection can make or break your set. Ray Philip speaks to five selectors to find out what works for them.

17 min
How to Organise Your Music
Jul 29, 2021
Ray Philp

What does it take to be a good DJ? Perhaps you’d say it’s about having great taste. Or being able to read a crowd. Tight mixing? Sure. But as software and CDJs become more central to DJing — and as DJs themselves have more music to reckon with than ever before — the secret sauce to doing it well in 2021 arguably requires a slightly more technical recipe.

DJ software such as Serato, Traktor, and rekordbox have changed the way many DJs approach the craft. By being able to encode tracks with tons of metadata — track titles, artist names, key, tempo, genre and much more — DJs have unprecedented control over how to organise (and present) their tunes.

Of course, DJs have always organised their music collections in some way. Your brain has its own filing system; if you turn up to a gig with a folder of 50 tracks you know inside-out, there isn’t much organizing to do. But in an era of musical abundance, where DJs may have thousands of songs on a single USB drive, that intuition has its limits. You won’t, after all, always remember that a track is in A minor, or that it has live drums, or that it might be too rowdy for a Sunday afternoon.

“I started off as a digital DJ on Traktor for all my tunes,” says Tim Reaper, “but it was a bit overwhelming to try to find them in the moment or type in the artist name.” This tends to be a common experience for digital DJs getting started. Without the rich visual information that vinyl can offer — artwork, stickers and so on — scrolling through similar lines of text on a CDJ or laptop can elicit panic rather than clarity.

The key to avoiding this is tagging your music collection properly, and as you go. “Don’t be lazy on metadata, because it’s one of the longest things to try and rectify,” Reaper says. “If, like most people, you have hundreds or thousands of MP3s, if you want to spend a whole week going through tagging them all with the right genre, the right year, artist names and track names, it’s an absolute mission.”

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Mapping Your Collection

So, where do you start? Having a rough mental map of your music collection and applying it digitally can go a long way. Even a shambolic stereotype like Eyeball Paul, in a scene from the cult 2000 film Kevin & Perry Go Large, suggests that it’s useful to distinguish between, say, “acid house” and “pumping house.”

The question is, how specific should you be about genres? The short answer is, it’s up to you. You might be like rRoxymore, who’s inclined to improvise and go with the flow. “Even though I have some folders — this is more house music, this is more breakbeat, or whatever — the categories are kind of broad. It’s easier for me to memorize it like, ‘Oh, what did I play that time? Ah, that gig two weeks ago, I was playing this, it was nice.’ So it’s easier for me to organise [my music] like this.”

But for this looser system to work, she admits, you need to play a lot of gigs. “Last year, I had one DJ gig, and it was really exhausting. It was fun, but it was like, ‘Oh, shit. Where is this track again? I can’t find it.'”

Other DJs thrive in the weeds of metadata. “I don’t want to say I’m the furthest on the hyper-organised spectrum,” says Chrissy, “[but] I’m over there.” With genres, though, Chrissy also tends to keep things broad. “If you’re only playing house, then maybe having deep house, tech house, vocal house is useful. But if you’re playing a set where you’re playing house, and you’re also playing jungle and old rave records, and dancehall and hard techno, I find it’s a little more useful to have [the genres] be a little broader, and then use the tags to really drill down into the nerdy specifics.”

Read: Chrissy’s Tips for Getting Record Labels to Notice You

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Going Beyond Genre

You can get into the “nerdy specifics” Chrissy points to via — to use one example — rekordbox’s My Tags feature. There, you can tag a track with items from the “components” section — where you can mark specific elements like a vocal, synth or piano — and another section called “situation,” which lets you indicate tracks that are ideal for “main floor,” “build-up,” or “peak time.”

These My Tags functions are a key part of CCL‘s DJing, but they adapt them to suit their personal categories. “The most important thing for me is mood, energy, components and/or situation,” CCL says. “So I do have genre tags, but I also have funny genre tags: ‘percussive step’ or, like, ‘chug.’ Then I have another subsection called ‘components,’ and one of the components is called ‘big bassline.’ Another component is called ‘loopy.’ Another one is ‘guitar.’

“Then I have ‘mood,’ which is a surprisingly important one for me. I can read you all the ‘mood’ ones: ‘Mysterious’, ‘Euphoric’, ‘Pensive’, ‘Ominous’, ‘Spooky’, ‘Dreamy’, ‘Naughty’, ‘Driving’, ‘Trippy’, ‘Feelgood’ — and one that just says ‘WIGGLE’ in capital letters.”

Chrissy, meanwhile, tags his vocal tracks with lyrical themes. You could, for example, create specific folders for rainy days, or Saturday nights, or love songs — all timeless dance floor themes. Or, if you’re DJing in Chicago, “there’s a million songs about ‘jack your body’ or ‘work your body,'” says Chrissy. “I’ve got a whole folder of that if I need it.”

“In addition to marking the BPM and key of every song in my library,” he adds, “I mark every song with the length of the intro and outro (in bars). I learned of it from late ’80s, early ’90s gay bar DJs, and seeing it written on used disco and house records. I find it incredibly helpful for programming sets. Knowing that you only have eight bars until the vocal comes in, as opposed to 16, can really save you from clanging it.”

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In Case Of Emergencies

So far, so good. But what happens when your best-laid plans go belly up?

Chrissy has a folder for that. “Things that everybody knows,” he says, “where you’re like, at some gig where everybody there is kind of square, it’s like some rooftop bar, they’re not responding to anything, and you’re like, ‘Fuck!’ If I don’t play ‘Don’t Cha’ by the Pussycat Dolls, they’re gonna throw me out of here. Just a folder of, like, dumb shit that everybody knows that you can play to bail yourself out.”

If a night’s going badly, DJ Seinfeld turns to what he calls a “savers” folder, which he’s filled with road-tested bangers over the years. But, depending on the situation, the easy pop appeal of a track like “Don’t Cha” won’t always be your best option.

“If I play something cheesy, then I’ll ruin it,” he says, “then the night is killed. Because then [the crowd] will know that I thought I needed to play this track to save the night. But this folder, I love it, because it has helped me a few times so much, be it for the energy it provides or a certain kick drum that is unmatched.”

Other situations can also present problems. What do you do, for example, when the DJ before you finishes on a Big Tune™? “Usually what I do in that case is I have a lot of rhythmic or polyrhythmic tracks, essentially stripped bare of melodies,” DJ Seinfeld says. “So I know that all I have to do is beatmatch that, and they tend to have quite a lot of energy — drums, percussion, small vocal stabs.”

Create playlists and organise your tracks right inside the Beatport DJ app by signing up for Beatport LINK.

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Small Clubs Versus Big Stages

DJing to 100 versus 1,000 people obviously presents different challenges. In a club setting, DJs usually have more opportunity to “tell a story” — that is, establishing a narrative arc that has a beginning, middle and end. By contrast, a one-hour slot at a big festival isn’t so much a story as a paragraph. Both can be impactful in their own way, but, as rRoxymore suggests, the bigger stages require a greater degree of efficiency.

“If it’s a big festival where there are 10,000 people, where I’ll only play one hour, I’ll be more prepared than if I play a five-hour set in a club,” she says. “People are more loose, more open, as well. So you can take more risk. In a festival, you cannot take so much risk if you play a main stage — you can’t. I give myself a buffer to be more spontaneous in a festival context, but the frame has to be tighter.”

“It’s a little bit easier with festivals, I would say,” says DJ Seinfeld, “You don’t have to be complicated. You don’t have to overthink it. You just need to give people what they want, what they bought tickets for.”

It’s possible to make more specific distinctions than “festival” versus “club.” Some DJs create custom playlists for every gig, which can be especially useful if you return to play a venue for a second and third time — that way, you can review what worked, what didn’t, and change things up accordingly.

“There was a time where I would make a playlist for a specific venue and specific set for every set,” says CCL. “But ideally I want to put myself in a position where I’m not doing that as much anymore, where I just have all the tools to think and find things.”

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Knowing When To Let Loose

Having a well-organised USB needn’t squeeze out space for creativity and spontaneity — ideally, an orderly set of tags and playlists helps you realise those qualities more fully. But ultimately there’s no right or wrong answer to how organised your music collection should be. (“Honestly, the biggest don’ts to me would be, don’t listen to anybody else telling you what you should not do,” says Chrissy. “Whatever feels good for you.”) And however much you might go into a gig with a plan, it’s also important to be willing to break away from it.

“You need to be able to be flexible,” says Tim Reaper. “I used to be the kind of guy that would pre-plan his entire set — you go from this tune to this tune to this tune — and just stick with that rigidly. There was this one booking where I was playing a regular kind of jungle set. But I could tell that it wasn’t really the crowd’s cup of tea. So I started playing newer drum & bass stuff. And I played one tune just to see how it would go down — and the energy just took off again. If I had stuck to my guns, I probably would’ve played a half-hearted set that the crowd wasn’t really into. I had to be able to switch it up to keep them on my side.”

Sometimes, though, you’ll encounter gigs that might be difficult or daunting to prepare for (your first peak-time set, for example). And some DJs reading this won’t have played to anyone except an ungrateful neighbor on the other side of a bedroom wall. Organizing your music well is a product of imagination as well as experience.

“I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve closed an outside party on a terrace,” says CCL — who, it’s worth noting, has a custom tag called ‘Terrace Smasher’ — “but I think about the possibility of that happening as something that would be fun. You sometimes hear tracks that make you think of that specific feeling, and you don’t necessarily need to have played that gig.”

In fact, some of the most transformative sets you’re likely to play might begin and end with a spur-of-the-moment decision.

“I have this one playlist,” says CCL, “it’s so lame, but it’s called ‘Tears!’ Stuff that makes me feel strongly in some way. I’d never played anything from this playlist for anybody — it was super personal. But at Honcho Campout, I played a lot from that playlist — and people cried. I was like, ‘Wow, this is crazy.’ I never thought I would use that playlist. No one can plan for every single situation; I think it’s fun to just use your imagination.”

Ray Philp is a writer and editor living in London. Find him on Twitter.

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