Wedding Reception Music: Band or DJ?

Presenting both sides in the great debate between live and recorded music for your reception.

Deciding between hiring a live band or a DJ to spin recorded music is one of the biggest reception issues you'll face. Both have their pros and cons; ultimately it's a question of budget and taste (but then what part of wedding planning isn"t?). Both services generally offer a set price for four hours of music with play beginning right before or right after the cocktail hour, with an option to pay for overtime (if you'll want this, it's best to discuss it beforehand and have it written into the contract). Here is a comparison of the options, plus tips on contracts and reference checks.

Band Benefits


Having a band gives you the dynamics of a live performance. It's traditional and distinctive, and the band you choose can do wonders to set the tone for your reception — from big band glamour to surf band funkiness. But booking one can be a costly endeavor, and your musical selections will be limited by the band's repertoire and style.

Popular bands get booked far in advance, so give yourself at least six months for the hiring hunt. To find the right band, ask friends and wedding professionals for referrals and check your local newspaper for band listings. Once you've found a few candidates, make sure they:

  • are available on your wedding date
  • can play the songs you and your fiance love as well as a variety of music for your guests.
  • are in your general price range

Bands may charge either a flat fee or per musician, per hour. Most will negotiate, but it doesn't pay to keep talking if there's an enormous disparity between their price and your budget. You'll also need to determine if the band's size meets your needs - some insist on a minimum or maximum number of pieces (musicians). Ask which instruments are offered, how regularly the musicians play together (the more often, the better rehearsed and more current their repertoire), and how frequently the band works weddings.

If the answers to these questions are satisfactory, it's time to give the band a listen. Ask if they're giving a live performance you could attend (but be wary if they invite you to stop by and hear them at a wedding, since they're likely to use your wedding as a sales opportunity too). Often this won't be possible and you'll need to review a tape instead. If that's the case, be sure to request a tape featuring the same number of musicians you're considering — listening to 10 pieces when you only want five won't give you a clear picture of how the band will sound.

Listen for:

  • Balance: Is one instrument in particular drowning out the others?
  • Vocals: Do all the musicians in the group sing, or just the vocalist? Do you like how their voices sound?
  • Quality: If there's a synthesizer, does it sound tinny or obviously electronic? A good keyboard is almost indistinguishable from the instrument it's mimicking.
  • Composition: Are the musical arrangements creative, or does every song sound just like the one before it?
  • Preparedness : How easily does the band move from one song to another? Are the sets organized or do the musicians seem to be scrambling for the next number?
  • Repertoire: Is there an ample array of musical styles?

If you're watching a video or live performance, critique the appearance of the musicians as well. (If you're only hearing a tape, then ask to see a picture.)

Happy with what you heard? The final step before deciding is to sit down and meet with the bandleader. Remember, if he is going to emcee your wedding, you need to be absolutely sure you like his style and personality. The interview is also your chance to iron out the details of what the band offers and to make sure the bandleader understands what you're looking for.

To give him a sense of what you want, talk about your impression of the audition tape. You might even create a checklist of songs you did and didn't like, but don't shy away from a band because you didn't like one or two selections. Audition tapes try to reflect the full scope of the musicians' abilities. It doesn't mean that every style of music has to be played at your wedding. Ask to see their play list for a sense of the band's repertoire. It's also helpful to mention which artists or types of music you like and any songs you definitely don't want played at your wedding.

As for requests, some bands discourage brides from making long lists of songs they want played. It is fair, however, to put in several requests ahead of time (in case they need to be learned—which shouldn't cost extra), and make sure the band is willing to oblige requests from guests.


DJ Delights

No Regrets:
Picking the Right Band or DJ

• Unless you’re going with a particular reception theme (country and western or swing, for example), don’t limit yourself to a band that plays just one style of music. After all, your band will need to accommodate a variety of age groups and tastes. Bands who play weddings regularly will be especially well prepared for this; your cousin's garage band may not.

• Remember that a band's rendition of a song you like is not going to sound just like the original, so if you've always dreamed of doing your first dance to a particular pop tune, you may be disappointed with the version you hear. On the other hand, a band can customize the tempo and length of a song (to some extent) so you can choreograph your dance as you choose.

• Bands take up considerably more space than DJs, so that 10-piece swing band may not be an option if your reception site is tight.

DJs used to be seen as cut-rate entertainment, but today 85% of all wedding receptions have DJs spinning the sound. The advantages: The cost is generally far lower than for a live band; the songs are performed by the original artists; and the variety of tunes available is far wider than any one band is capable of providing. On the downside, a DJ simply can't provide the drama and visual focal point of a live band.

Choosing a DJ is considerably simpler than picking a band. Assuming that a candidate's equipment and album selection meet your standards, his personality is by far the most important element to consider, so a personal interview is essential. To make sure the genteel Dr. Jekyll of the interview doesn't turn into Mr. Hyde once he's in the spotlight, ask to see a videotape of his performance at past weddings to make sure his demeanor suits your taste. Make sure he'll be dressed appropriately (have him wear formal attire if you're having a formal wedding) and will use professional equipment.

As with a band, it's unreasonable for a bride and groom to expect to dictate the DJ's entire play list. After all, part of his professional expertise is in reading the crowd and responding to its mood, and you don't want to squelch the excitement with a rigid schedule. But of course, if you have particular favorites you definitely want to hear, do give him a list in advance so he brings those disks along. (Also advise him of any songs he absolutely shouldn't play — like the song you broke up to once, or the love-it-or-hate-it Chicken Dance.) Also give him the list special dance songs, along with the exact introductions you want, complete with pronunciation guides.


Sealing the Deal

Once you think you've found the right band or DJ, it's time to hash out the details. First, be specific about the set-up time (at least an hour in advance). Then settle on the exact hours they will play, as well as how many minutes per hour will be spent on breaks. (While many bands talk about "continuous flow," most play in full for about 45 minutes. During the off time, individual musicians will take breaks while the remainder of the band plays on. Anything less than 30 minutes per hour in full is unacceptable.)

Overtime fees are important to discuss, too, since most pros do charge them. And find out if you'll be charged extra for travel time and lodging — you shouldn't be, unless the band is traveling an especially long distance. You will be charged tax, but beware if you're also asked to pay a "musician's union and administrative tax." It's just an unnecessary extra fee. Gratuities on music are optional and should not be included as a mandatory fee. And if the band or DJ requires you to pay for their meals, the menu needn't be the same as that of the guests (filling sandwiches are fine).

Finally, discuss the terms of payment. Most pros require a deposit to hold your wedding date, but policies will differ on when the balance is due. It's smart to hold a portion of the payment until the wedding ends. Also, get the refund policy in writing, just in case you have to cancel. Most bands and DJs will return your deposit if they can rebook the date or if you give plenty of notice.

Details resolved to your satisfaction? Next you need to check references carefully before committing. Be sure to ask the DJ or bandleader for the names and numbers of at least three recent clients — all wedding professionals" success depends upon their reputation, so they should be happy to provide this information.

Ask each reference for her overall opinion of the band, then probe for particulars.

  • Was the bandleader or DJ available for consultation during the planning stage?
  • Did they arrive on time?
  • Did they remember to include all special dances and events, and to follow all other requests?
  • Was the bandleader or DJ careful to pronounce names correctly?

To be extra careful, also call the Better Business Bureau to make certain the band doesn't have a file of complaints. Don't forget to check with your reception site that the band or DJ will be allowed to play there, and confirm that they have whatever insurance is required.

Finally, before you sign a contract, make certain it covers every detail of your agreement. If something is missing, write it in by hand. Be sure to write in that the DJ or bandleader you've interviewed must attend your wedding "in person." That's because sometimes there will be more than one orchestra carrying a bandleader's name, or service carrying a DJ"s. And if your contract only requires that the "Jane Smith Orchestra" attend, Jane Smith is not obligated to be at your wedding along with the rest of the musicians. Also, watch out for clauses about "in event of illness" — they're an easy out for bandleaders or DJs who are double booked. At the very least, find out who would take his place in the event he can't be there.

Don't be pressured into signing on the spot. No deal is so special that it won't still be there after you've had a chance to think it over and make sure you're comfortable with every aspect.


Hiring a band for your wedding adds elegance, creates an atmosphere that a dj or IPod playlist can't provide. Live entertainment is truly a magical experience.