Music on Set: Who Plays DJ?

Music on Set: Who Plays DJ?

Music has a very strong connection to studio photography. I’d wager that the vast majority of people imagine studios with music driving the shoot. Think Blow-Up or more recently, Austin Powers. Music can help to energize your set. But, what happens when you’re just not as in touch with the poppiest of pop culture anymore?

The Client’s Choice

On commercial shoots, I’ll just let the client pick the music. After all, they’re paying; their happiness and mood are central to getting the next commission. 

Music as a Representation of Brand

If the client isn’t on set, as the director on set, the choice of music often falls to me. I have my own tastes, but music tastes are as diverse as any other preference. How can I possibly satisfy everyone? Taking it a step further, as I get older, my tastes drift a bit further from those of my cast and crew. If the entire shoot day is a representation of your brand and I don’t want my brand to feel out of touch, what do I do?

Turntables and records

Music on set, who plays DJ?

The Crew’s Choice

If the client isn’t on set, I will often defer to the PR or AD agencies that are on set. These agencies are usually staffed by creatives that are a few years younger than me. I’m happy to let them pick the music as long as it doesn’t veer too far from my tastes. I have a very broad taste in music, but, as the director on set, I need to be energized and comfortable as well. The music can’t turn me off. Although I’d be happy with a bit of Taylor Swift or Drake, I’m not interested in a few hours of Cardi B or Post Malone. I’d likely rather some Stones, Simone, or Public Enemy. Truthfully, working with a younger crew also gives me a chance to hear something new.

The Talent’s Choice

On editorial or longer creative shoots, the models often get to pick the music, as their mood can drive or crater a shoot. Again, if the music drifts too far into one particular genre or era for too long, I can always bring it back to a different playlist during a break. 

Too Many Chefs

Lately, I’ve found myself shooting a lot of what the modeling industry calls new faces, essentially test shoots for the modeling agencies. In any given day, the agency will send me up to a dozen aspiring models, and I will run them through a series of poses to help the agency determine if these models have it or not. In this case, working with more than 10 different models means that the playlist would be changing every 30 minutes or so. That kind of herky-jerky soundscape can exhaust both me and the makeup artists. In this case, either I pick the music, or I let the MUA pick the music. 

Vinyl albums on set

Music on set, what genres do you go for?

What Do You Do?

I am very curious, though. How do you select the music on your set? Does music help drive the mood of the set, or is it strictly background? What sort of approach do you take if whoever is playing DJ takes the mood in the wrong direction?

Log in or register to post comments

15 Comments

Nick Merzetti's picture

You guys should curate Photoshoot playlists and share a small
Monthly fee. I would pay

Kirk Darling's picture

I think you are hinting that professional photographers should respect the copyrights of the musical artists by using agencies that provide licensed music playlists. Yep.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

In Canada we have two small fees to pay. One for they performing artist and one for the writer. For commercial shoots, where there is money on the table, we always make sure there is a license. Ours or someone else’s. However, don’t get me in to why playing music during a photo shoot counts as commercial use. Music is never part of the advertising. We’re not selling music we don’t own to sell beers. In fact, we often turn people on to new artists. However, we do pay.

Kirk Darling's picture

Well, why are you using music during the commercial shoot? Is it not, basically, to improve the effectiveness--and thus the profitability--of the shoot? Otherwise, why go to the additional effort of providing music at all, if it's not advantageous to your photography? So you're arguably making a bit of your profit on someone else's artistic effort.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

To be clear. We do pay.
I’m just not a fan of the law. Music is ubiquitous. The ubiquity suits the artist. The artist makes money off of that ubiquity. Because of this ubiquity, it’s not an effort to put on a playlist I listen to at home. I pay for all my music and all my movies. Those payments make music part of my everyday life. Having it on as background, when I’ve already paid for personal use, seems like a grab. The music does benefit my business, but it is because of this very ubiquity, if I don’t have it, the space feels empty. Having such a omnipresence, having everyone buy and subscribe is the benefit to the artist. When music benefits the business in a tertiary way, I don’t like to pay for it, even if we do pay. Which, to be clear, we do.
Thanks for the continued discussion!

Kirk Darling's picture

By saying "The artist makes money off of that ubiquity," you're basically saying that you're giving them "exposure" so it's good to use their work.

Photographers don't accept the "exposure" argument. Why should musicians?

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I don’t think that ubiquity is the same as exposure. I am constantly paying for music. I do agree that exposure isn’t enough. Artists like The Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney don’t need my exposure.
I’m saying that if something becomes such a part of daily life that, I’m otherwise already paying for, I shouldn’t have to pay again for another use.
In my mind, it’s more akin to the internet, it’s so common, so everyday, it’s closer to a public utility than a private enterprise. I’m not saying that music is a public utility, but, the industry has succeeded in making itself so ubiquitous that they are making money off of that in a way the industry never has. (Good debate, thank you!)

I let the talent pick so s/he is comfortable and in a good mood, it totally comes across in the content. But I gently veto anything I really don't like.
In the end, the more professional the shoot, the less it matters. I know and the model knows, it doesn't matter if you're cold, wet, don't like the music, had a fight with your mom or girlfriend, you need to deliver, that's why you're getting paid.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Agreed. Pros versus not. Pros get it done even when their first (two?) cameras break. Music is a luxury. One of the higher echelons of Mazlo’s hierarchy. 😂

Stephen Kampff's picture

I have a bunch of playlists for shoots, for different types of clients/atmospheres.

For example, I find some of the fancier NYC studios are a little Europhilic (read: Francophilic) so some subtle French tunes go down a treat. I also think it's important to avoid anything overly sexual, especially when shooting models. This cuts out a lot of pop songs for sure.

The problem is that you need 20+ hours of music for a multiple day shoot.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I’d say I’m a bit out of touch. Would love to hear some recommendations.

I always had it down as:

Model
HMUA
STYLIST
And finally, when I want to piss someone off, or have a laugh at disgusted youthful reactions, it’s me.

Radio Paradise - all day, almost every day. The best!