Do DJs Really Just Press Play? No… But Also…

Do DJs really just press play?

The question of do DJs really just press play is now part and parcel of the DJ world. It has been raging on by DJs, big and small, and those who know, and those who don’t, including many not in the DJ industry. What should be a fairly clear-cut answer is actually an intriguing topic…

99% of the time a DJ will be mixing and creating a set on the fly. Meaning do DJs really just press play? No, artists might almost be tough. This is because an artist performing their own songs will have pre-planned a lot of their set. So while they will not be purely pressing play and dancing around for an hour, this is where that reputation comes from.

To explain what I mean let’s quickly go over the two types of performer mentioned above.

The Pure DJ

A DJ will be someone who playing either their own tracks or other artists. And will be are mixing tracks live.

This means selecting tracks, adjusting speeds and then blending tracks using EQs and effects to create as seamless a mix as possible.

Rarely Pre-planned

A true DJ will be responding and reacting to the crowds that they are playing to. They will be selecting music on-the-fly to create the best vibe possible.

So again, in this instance, do DJs really just press play? Those who respect themselves and their audience, no absolutely not.

One example of a superstar DJ who is accused of this is Skrillex (see the software & equipment he uses here), yet from this video, you can see he definitely has DJ skills.
Skrillex mixing backstage

A Note on Use of the Term “Pure” DJ

I use this term as a way to differentiate from producer/performers and refer to a person that uses any variation of multiple decks (see our recommended decks here) and a mixer. I do not use it to downplay producer/performers or imply that what they do isn’t “pure”.

The Producer First… DJ/Performer Second

This is the area of performer where this misunderstanding has come from. While it is pretty specific to superstar DJs/artists, who play large scale events or festivals, it has tainted DJs as a whole. Not least because of a Tumblr post written by Deadmau5 titled “We all hit play”.

Deadmau5's "We all press play" tumblr post
The original Deadmau5 “We all hit play” Tumblr post

Deadmau5 argues that he is there to bring people together and put on an amazing show for them. Predominantly a producer he see’s the true skill of his craft taking place when creating his tracks in the studio. Not while on stage performing them.

This sentiment is explored further by Afrojack in an excellent video discussion with Laidback Luke. Afrojack explains that, much like a famous band, there are certain tracks the crowd is going to want to hear.

Laidback Luke & Afrojack discussing pre-planned sets

And, because “DJs” are often a solo performer they have to rely heavily on theatrics and large-scale productions. After all, watching static person work a set of decks isn’t the most interesting show imaginable.

Often Pre-Planned

For these to run smoothly then, of course, it makes sense for the artist to have, at least in some way, pre-planned parts of their set. Doing so allows them and their crew to get parts of the production ready and triggering at the right time.

Exactly as you would with a band that has agreed to their setlist before hitting the stage. You’ll see techs running on and off stage when they need various equipment for example.

Do DJs Really Just Press Play… Only as Often as Singers Lip-sync

Now the misnomer here is that they are simply pressing play on each track and dancing around. While this is certainly possible it is tantamount to a band’s singer lip-syncing.

Simply put, if you were skilled enough and confident in your abilities then why would you want to?

So instead, many established artists will break their tracks down into its component parts. This way they are reconstructing it live on stage, exactly as if they were a one-man-band.

This allows them to give a live feel to their tracks as well as create live remixes or improvise in the moment. Although, as Deadmau5 mentions, the ability is somewhat limited due to restrictions of current technology. In much the same way as guitarists would have been restricted before the invention of FX pedals for example.

It is worth bearing in mind that although performing with electronics may seem cutting edge, it is still very much in its infancy.

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Why Is “Do DJs Really Just Press Play” Even a Question?

I feel that a large part of why there is so much misunderstanding is due to the gear being used. Specifically the difference between using electronic equipment vs instruments, and DJs vs producers.

People understand that when you hit a drum or pluck a guitar that sound comes out.

However, with electronic equipment, people’s own experience is that you press play and an entire song comes out. This makes the question of “do DJs really just press play” all the more understandable. After all, why would someone’s personal experience be any different for a DJ?

While this is partially true (in that decks specifically, see our recommended ones here, are designed to play entire tracks) the skill and the art of DJing lies in building mixes. This is where the equipment comes into its own.

Those who say DJing is easy but have never tried it, are pretty quick to change their opinion after a few attempts at doing so themselves.

As DJing advances, there are evermore features and techniques available to the modern DJ. All of which take time to master and develop into a unique style. Hence it is misunderstood by anyone who hasn’t had the opportunity to play around on DJ equipment themselves.

Only then do you fully grasp the full range of skills required to successfully perform as a pure DJ.

To Use a Guitar Analogy

What an artist does with their tools is up to them

Anyone can quite quickly, when given a guitar and instruction, learn to play Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower”. But only Jimi Hendrix can play it like Jimi Hendrix does.

Meaning that the equipment, be it guitars or decks, are simply tools.

What the artist or DJ does with those tools and how far they push them is entirely up to the individual.

Conclusion Do DJs Really Just Press Play?

No, pure DJs do not just press play. And, in the extremely rare instance, you do see a DJ do it, then it simply means they have no confidence in their skills. Plus, I would argue, zero respect for their audience and presenting them something exciting and unique on that day.

After all, why do you go to live shows if it’s not to experience something unique? Something that only you and those around you can only experience by being there on that day.

What next?

  • Has this post made you wonder if DJ decks are instruments? Then we’ve got you covered here.
  • or if DJs can be considered musicians? Then you’ll want to read this post.


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