More and more “professional” green-thumbed (and often part-time) DJs enter the Boston wedding marketplace each and every day, armed with hard drives of music freshly copied from their friends or the Internet, gleefully ready to showcase for you brides and grooms their months of seasoned experience, and anxiously beating up very trustworthy and reputable, truly professional DJs, on the basis of pricing. As such, I feel it is my duty as one of the latter-referenced professionals to help educate you, the bride and groom, or family member or friend assisting in the planning process, on what genuinely goes into a genuine professional’s performance, and what the real end-of-the-day fiscal takeaway is for your DJ (or other wedding vendors, for that matter) after all the hard work is finished.
I’ve been a full-time DJ in the Greater Boston wedding (as well as corporate and private event) market for more than two and a half years now. I was part-time for more than eight years prior to 2010. Making this switch, from operating in a part-time capacity while working a steady 9-to-5 during the week, to putting everything — especially my family’s financial well-being — on the line, was and remains to be an often risky and scary proposition.
I am proud to run my own small business. I am proud of the services I provide, the vast majority of my customers are a joy to work with and for, and the testimonials I receive from brides and grooms (and their parents and other family members and guests alike) drive me to keep doing what I am doing. I’m even more proud to say I’ve managed to grow into a full-time venture despite a down economy. But I cannot say it has been easy, or will grow much easier moving forward. As I mentioned earlier, there has been quite a lot of competition lately, mostly on the basis of vendor pricing.
Let’s get down to brass tacks: dollars and cents. Most truly professional wedding DJs nowadays in the Greater Boston and Massachusetts markets, are charging in the range of $1,200 to $4,000+ per wedding for their packages, all depending of course on many details, including but not limited to: venue, travel, size of wedding, time of year, date, last-minute scheduling availability, length of day’s events (number of hours), specific setup complexity and requirements, and specific services needed or requested such as number of system setups for ceremony, cocktail hour, and the main reception area, dance floor lighting, uplighting, photo booths, slideshow services, and more.
Not even being specific to weddings, have you ever overheard someone say (or even said yourself), “Where does this guy get off charging so much to play music off a laptop for a few hours?”
First off, so you know from the start, when a full-time career wedding DJ receives a check from you for all the time and effort put into your wedding day, he or she does not run to the bank, cash the check, abandon all of life’s responsibilities (including paying taxes and bills), and jump on a plane to the Bahamas for a week in the sun.
Hypothetically, let’s say that the professional DJ you have hired has quoted you the minimal $1,200 for a bare-bones five-hour wedding package, which you feel is reasonable. You actually shopped around, and in the process, turned down a few other folks quoting $1,500, $1,700, $2,000. Let’s presume this is the DJ’s career and sole means of surviving — how he takes care of his family, feeds and clothes his kids, pays his mortgage. While most people with a 9-to-5 job have a steady paycheck year-round, hopefully and generally have half-decent health benefits, paid sick and vacation time, and a basic company-matched retirement plan, many professional wedding DJs in the Boston area do not enjoy these “luxuries,” including the DJ you’re hypothetically hiring here.
In addition, these DJs do not usually have five or six available days to work each week, in order to make a decent year’s wages; it is more like only a couple of “bread-and-butter” days (i.e. Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays). [Note: This is not to say these are the only "work days" for the DJ, which we'll discuss a bit later.] So, even if the wedding DJ was fortunate enough to book a wedding on every weekend date, it would be a maximum of 156 bookings per year — which, so you realize straight away, never happens, especially in New England, considering only a brave few decide to marry during the potentially treacherous winter months, and most couples avoid getting married on or near certain other dates, such as Thanksgiving, Mother’s and Father’s Day, Easter, etc. Also playing a role in a limited number of potential wedding dates for a DJ: many couples wind up choosing the same handful of most popular dates each year, which are usually Saturday evenings, holiday weekends, and quirky dates like 10-11-12, or 9-10-11.
The DJ pays higher taxes right off the top: 9-to-5’ers pay 50% of the Social Security and Medicare pool contributions while their companies put in the other half; this is not true for sole proprietors, who pay 100% of those taxes themselves. So, the $1,200 paycheck comes in, and 30-35% goes right to estimated tax payments. So, now the “big payday” is down to, say, $780. This DJ then needs to put aside a small piece, toward his own retirement planning, because no one else will help with that: let’s call it only a minimal 5% (read: not enough). Now, the score is $720. He hasn’t yet paid his even modest monthly advertising bills, monthly liability and disability insurance premiums, monthly website expenses, monthly equipment purchases and maintenance expenses, and other expenses related to the wedding services he’s providing you (e.g. $35 for a roll of extra wide tape to ensure your guests don’t trip on any wires and get hurt; $15 to get the tuxedo dry cleaned; the $25-$60 in gas, tolls, and lofty Boston parking garage fees; $10 on fresh reliable high-end batteries for the wireless microphone on which your best man and maid of honor will deliver their toasts; $5-$25 on unique to your day mp3 purchases, and more). This is not an exhaustive list by any means. For the sake of argument, the DJ is now taking home just under $450, and needs to help run the house hold, and finally try to squeeze out a few bucks left somewhere to actually spend on something fun and leisurely.
Something to bear in mind: this may have been his only booking of the week. This is not to say he did not bust his behind on the other days: the methods he employed to help you find him in the first place; the time he spent on meeting you, helping you feel comfortable during the initial conversations and booking process, via phone calls, emails, and/or in-person meetings; the time he spent during the weeks leading up to your big day, helping you plan the flow, your music, your tastes and preferences; the time he took to reach out and coordinate everything with your other vendors; the time to load his vehicle the day of your wedding, hours before he plays the first song; the time traveling to your venue, loading in, setting up, on hands and knees taping wires across the floors, sound checking, all, again, hours before the first announcement is made or song is played.
Then, it’s show time, and your DJ musters every bit of experience and confidence he has, to strive to justify the immense trust you have placed in him for making the biggest day of your life, absolutely perfect — this is a pressure few people may ever experience in their 9-to-5 job.
After five or six or seven hours of giving his all to you and your guests, everyone heads home (or continues the after-party, hopefully!) — well, everyone except the DJ. He remains up to an hour after your party ends, packing up, staying later than even some of the catering/wait staff, and then getting ready for the seemingly long night-ride back home.
If you chose a career self-employed photographer, videographer, wedding planner, florist, or other vendor, please keep in mind that in many respects, the time and care spent on your wedding day (and for some, like photographers and videographers, the hours and hours of post-production time spent after your wedding day, too!), and the subsequent final financial benefit to the professional, are similar to those I’ve expressed above.
So, please take care to be conscious of all that will go into your wedding day, and while understanding the budgeting concern we all share, remember how valuable your chosen vendors will be one of the most important days of your life — please try to do right by them. (And my wife just told me to add a final note, based on many conversations she’s had with me over the years: a hand shake and sincere eye-to-eye “thank you” at night’s end goes a very long way!)
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We’ve got 333 days to go, and there’s been a lot going on lately. The first questions we tried to answer, just as I guess most future brides and grooms would, were: when and where. After visiting a handful of venues both in Greater Boston (my home) and Greater Springfield (Alison’s home), in response to some innocent prompting from Alison’s mom (“So, what have you talked about so far, about your wedding planning… Huh, well?”), we chose a facility in the end that really took our breath away.
Now, backing up just a bit, I had a couple of contacts here in Boston with whom I work frequently on other couples’ weddings in my line of work. I was already familiar with the high quality of facilities here – as many Boston DJs would be. We looked into facilities including the Hilton at Logan Airport and the Hotel Marlowe inside the Galleria Mall in Cambridge. I’ve worked at both places many times and both are as classy as you can get; the staff, space, and services are phenomenal at each. Though, as one might imagine, the substantial costs of real estate taxes and overhead in Greater Boston for all intents and purposes priced us out of the wedding market here. Well, not entirely, though the few places we could actually afford did not offer us the all-important “atmosphere” we wanted (e.g. although I’m very familiar with the stellar food and services of Spinelli’s in Lynnfield, we weren’t crazy about getting married along a highway). All of this, plus the facts that my fiancée’s parents were footing a hefty portion of the wedding, as well as that her guest list would be longer than my own, really put the ball in their court – Western Mass.
I’m similar to many born and bred Bostonians, being almost completely ignorant to the world beyond Worcester; but since meeting Alison nearly three years ago, the area is starting to grow on me. Her home town is not very different from my own in many ways. At the same time, Western Mass and the Berkshires offered us a very unique opportunity to wed within an environment all its own. I’ve had the chance to DJ many weddings at barns and similar classic New England rustic venues, so we begin examining that course.
We first made a drop-in visit to a place called the Log Cabin in Holyoke. In all honesty, the view and grounds on the rear side of this venue, for some ceremonies and cocktail hours, are nearly unparalleled. The facility was modestly modern and in decent shape, and we were pretty much sold, again, on the gorgeous view itself – you could see for miles. But, we found ourselves out of luck when the rooms with the best access to the view had minimum guest counts way out of our range (e.g. 175) and very restricted availability; the remaining option in the facility overlooked a highway, which again we did not want. We checked out the Log Cabin’s sister venue, the Delaney House, down the road, but its proximity to an outdated hotel/motel , and its function room which was comparable to just about any other function room anywhere, knocked this place out of the running.
We took a bit of time to visit a Knights of Columbus Hall nearby, of which Alison’s step-dad is a member, and this venue actually surprised us quite a bit. Its exterior was castle-esque and inside there were two sizeable quite modern function rooms; each could hold 250-plus people easily, yet the minimum head counts required for each were very flexible. One room there – for the first time in our multi-city venue tour – was fashioned beautifully for an autumn-décor wedding of 125 people later that same day. (Note: we hoped to choose a date sometime in the Fall of 2011, to harness the power of the New England foliage.) Despite the positives, we could not (again!) get past the fact that the venue was right smack on a rotary, neighbored by the likes of Rite Aid and Denny’s and other similar merchants. The parking (another issue we had to consider) was more than substantial here, as it had been as most of the other venues, but again – no dice.
So, we moved on to a venue which screams (…quietly) New England: the Publick House in Sturbridge. The ride there was stunning, reds and yellows and oranges abound. The grounds were beautiful. Parking was adequate. There was lodging available both inside the House itself, as well as just up the hill. Our cocktail hour would be held inside of an old barn; the remainder of the reception inside what I would describe as a supersized yet uber-comfy country dining room. There was a hutch against one wall; antique sewing machines and snow sleds in the rafters; raw wooden beams everywhere. Our centerpieces likely would have been oil lanterns! The pricing points were even just right. It was seemingly perfect. Though, we had one last place to visit before making our final decision.
We traveled to Hampden, Massachusetts, south of Springfield along the Connecticut border, to see the Hampden Country Club. I can’t honestly recall how we made our way there; but I will never forget driving way, way up uphill, surrounded by trees, finally reaching the top and overlooking a stunning view of a valley that went on for miles. We again dropped in for a visit, knocking on a window of the function space. The general manager happened to be strolling by and let us in, happily and without hesitation giving us an impromptu tour of the facilities. We were floored. The function room was, my guess, about 20-25 feet deep and 120 feet long – that is, 120 feet of nothing but glass and a view of the entire valley. After discussing briefly menu and cakes and parking and pricing and availability (and despite our preferred church and nearest preferred hotel for our guests being 30 minutes away), we were sold. The management did give us one of the best first impressions possible, and everything else seemed to fit the bill. We actually chose the date based on the venue’s availability in October 2011. All Saturday evenings were already spoken for, so we opted for a Friday evening reception in exchange for a small discount on the food and beverage rates. (An afternoon wedding wasn’t our cup of tea: we wanted drinking and dancing, both of which are rarer in the light of day.)So, there we had it: we were locked in to tie the knot the afternoon of Friday, October 14, 2011, and to celebrate that evening at the Hampden Country Club, to the backdrop of a valley seasoned in the shades of New England autumn and a sunset which would cross slowly and directly behind the long, floor-to-ceiling windows of our hall.
Stay tuned, because next time, we will talk one, all, or some combination of the following: discussing and setting our budget (yuck); securing our DJ (no, this is not DIY); choosing a picture-perfect photographer; and dress shopping.