Can’t Decide Between a Live Wedding Band and a DJ?

Easy: Pick neither.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

It’s your wedding reception! Mazel tov. Dinner is over; the band is playing. Let’s visit the couple at Table 11: “The band’s great, isn’t it?” she says. “Yep, it’s great,” says he. We’re all agreed. Everything is great.

There’s only one problem. This conversation is happening at a table.

In the high-stakes debate between live wedding music and recorded, the downsides to hiring a band only seem to multiply every year. Call it the wedding industry’s John Henry problem. You spend an exorbitant amount on human labor, for marginal benefit, if any, providing your guests with what amounts to second-tier dinner theater.

Oh, but a band brings such energy, you protest. (Perhaps your deposit is nonrefundable.) It’s true! But such infusion happens only in short bursts—and generally during the first few songs. Then for the rest of the night your guests flit on and off the dance floor, as if dipping their toes into the water before retreating beachside because the ocean is, frankly, really boring. Near the end of the evening, the band—the only people in the room besides your caterers wishing they were someplace else—will strike up “Livin’ on a Prayer” and everyone will gamely rush in to shout along over the lead singer’s (flat) chorus.

Don’t let this happen to you. The limitations of a wedding band vastly outnumber its advantages. Why not let your guests listen to the real Mr. Bon Jovi, in a crisp, precise studio recording that he no doubt worked very hard on? Not only do we have it, but it has never been so easy to play, at any time, anyplace, with power and fidelity, through the magic of technology.

About that: A live band is completely hamstrung in its ability to capture the genre that, with its assiduous production, sampling, mixing, and mashing, is the truest child of technology: hip-hop. (Imagine a standard five-piece trying to cover “Niggas in Paris.”) Thus your wedding band is necessarily a time machine—and not in a good way. Hire a big band to relive the Jazz Age and watch how fast the dance floor quickly clears out, but for a few prancing geriatrics and that one couple in their 20s excited to finally make use of their swing lessons.

Does all this mean I am encouraging you to hire a DJ instead? Heavens, no. My interviews with friends about their DJs have gone most commonly like this:

“Did you like your DJ?”

“He was fine. He didn’t play the songs we asked for, but it was still fun.”

“What was up with the Fleetwood Mac interlude?”

“I have no idea.”

You may feel reassured by the idea of a solo captain piloting the most important night of your life, but in fact it should terrify you. At one wedding I attended, the DJ was doing a fantastic job—until he abruptly disappeared without explanation, headphones abandoned on the dais. Another continually mixed up the do-play list with the do-not-play list and glared scornfully at the bride every time she ran over to correct him. And every DJ I’ve ever seen has at some point drummed up excitement by starting a universally beloved hit, only to yank it away 45 seconds later, eliciting audible groans. “Take On Me” is not a song that should ever be stopped before its time.

Your DJ is an artist—and trying to box his immense talent into a hotel ballroom or country club dining hall on a random Saturday night is tantamount to putting a wild horse in chains. So set him free. Because there is another way. And it is as follows:

  1. Collect several hours of your favorite dance songs on an MP3 player, say the popular over-the-counter brand known as iPod.
  2. Play them at your wedding.

That’s it. There are levels of nuance I don’t need to address in this space (such as whether to use your player’s built-in function for blending songs, or to download a more sophisticated app). But the basic operations are the same. And the results will be uniformly superior. The playlist curated by you and your betrothed will feel like you, and your guests will thrill from the recognition. You’ll be able to guarantee the appearance of that one song you and your friends all heard in a convenience store after that hilariously disastrous camping trip, and that you still hum to each other as shorthand. You can throw in a few for the olds in attendance without letting them take over your big night. And the best part: The pitch will always be true, the beat unflagging, the next song prescreened. That will in turn make the couple of honor—that’s you!—spend more time on the dance floor, which is where you should be, shaking out the cobwebs of singledom instead of idly chatting up Aunt Ida by the coat check while some woman screams “Mustang Sally” in the background. Your guests will flock to your glow, moths to a happy flame. And all will be good.

If success is so certain (and nearly free, beyond time and energy), you may wonder, why doesn’t everyone have an iPod wedding? Because tradition is a formidable foe, and because the inexpensive can unfairly be associated with the déclassé. Don’t succumb to these pressures! The iPod wedding was not even possible just over a decade ago—the practice is still elbowing its way into the mainstream. But your chance to join the future is now.

This is not to say the live band or DJ will utterly disappear, nor should they. I once attended a wedding in Detroit where a shaggy bear of a man sang Motown standards in a soulful snarl, hypnotizing everyone with his commitment and thinly veiled contempt. I once watched a disc jockey who hardly spoke a word of English, according to the groom, make OMD and Dr. Dre speak to each other like old friends. But if you are not well-connected in music, as this groom was, or don’t live in Detroit, these gems are hard to find, and you won’t discover them via YouTube samples and a rushed interview.

And even these exceptions contribute in a way to my ultimate argument for DIY music: At concerts and parties, bands and DJs are the selling points for the event, and the reason for whatever social alchemy occurs in their presence. But at your wedding, your friends and family already come pre-infused with the merrymaking spirit, out of love for you, and the modesty of an iPod will do nothing to diminish that. They don’t need a show, or a reason to party. They already have one. All they need to do is dance.