‘If you want a diverse set of music and want it to sound it like the original artist, you can’t go wrong with a mobile DJ,” says Lou Costa.
A DJ for nearly 25 years and owner of Top Notch DJ Entertainment, Costa started with vinyl, now mixes with digital, and has the inside track on the ins and outs of hiring a DJ for an event.
But first things first: DJ is short for disc jockey — a person who positions record discs for others to hear. It’s a term that endures though a growing segment of society has never touched a record.
While the practice started in 1909 with a teenager changing records on a college radio transmitter, the term was coined in 1935 when radio commentator Walter Winchell introduce the record-playing host of the “Make Believe Ballroom” — a popular radio show with make believe live concerts. A decade later DJs went mobile and used turntables to create hotel ballroom dances and youth-driven events like sock hops, beach parties, and dances in the street. And now, the beat — and DJ demand — goes on.
“The appeal is having someone who knows the music and reaches across ages,” says Costa, a Trenton-born Hamilton resident who in a previous career played live music. “I was in a wedding band for 15 years. We were called Side by Side. I played electronic piano.”
“My first DJ experience was at Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey) on radio station WTSR,” he says. “In 1977 I was hired at Dukes Club at the Quaker Bridge Mall. In 1979 I graduated (with a degree in speech and communications). I was still playing music, but I started working for an entertainment group in North Jersey. They had 25 to 30 different DJ styles — everything from Latino to black to senior citizen.”
Costa says the time there gave him a glimpse into the business and made him want to feel more in control and do it himself. “I learned what it was like to run the business: How they went about taking the customers through what they needed, the sound systems, and the monthly subscriptions (or licensing) that radio stations would get and add new songs and artists.”
But the first thing he needed was start-up costs. “Obviously you have to have some capital. I had to research mixers, speaker systems, a lot of the stuff they had at the company I worked for. I was listening to other DJs in the business and looked into a couple of technologies I liked. I also looked at my bank account and decided I was going to make my first purchases. I forked out $3,500 to 4,000.”
Costa — who has been married for 26 years and has two adult-age children — says his wife, a nurse at Bristol-Myers Squibb, was initially “a little nervous.” “(But) I started building a following, and she knew I loved to do this. What helped is that I was getting calls on my own. After a few jobs and bringing home a few dollars, she was more comfortable.”
The expenses, however, continue with the expectations of the industry — and still do so. “I’m digital. I use a JBL Eon portable speaker sound system and Pioneer CD decks. I am starting to look into a computer.” Then there are the general overhead costs that he says include “DJ liability insurance required by most banquet hall management to cover them, clients, and myself should a guest trip over a speaker wire or other DJ setup components during an event. It tends to be expensive annually to have ample liability coverage to cover any claims.” Add to that “equipment upgrades, website hosting and upkeep costs, print ads, marketing in phone directories, and song subscription costs” — with the latter helping him keep track of the latest line dances and saying up with the top Billboard Dance Tunes.
Costa — the son of a retired McGraw Hill distribution department worker father and a retired New Jersey Department of Legislative Services employee mother — has dealt with the financial ups and downs of the DJ entertainment business by balancing it with other work. “I’m an IT project manager. I was in corporate with Verizon. I was caught up in downsizing and landed in IT management with the state of New Jersey. My day job is a job, but my side business is something I do. It gives me flexibility to not have to take on every lead. You have to compete but you also have to draw the line. I’m proud of that.”
Costa then talks about his niche and approach. “The majority of my work is weddings — with clients predominately 20 to 40 years old — with a little bit of the surprise anniversaries and birthdays. Sometimes it’s an oldies dance, playing ’50s and ’60s rock, Motown, Duprees, and the Twist. I did three or four Princeton High School reunions. The other (events) are Sweet 16s, private parties, and birthdays.”
He says his influences are legendary Philadelphia DJs Jerry Blavat (aka “the Geater with the Heater”) and Bob Pantano (host of the nation’s longest running radio dance party), WYSP’s Ed Shockey, Hamilton Disco Club DJ Tony Nini, and sports announcer Marv Albert (“the voice of the New York Knicks”).
His advantage, he says, is knowing how events work and what customers want. “I did weddings as a musician. I also got married and hired musicians and a DJ. You also have to know how to deal with the banquet managers and have good rapport with the hall and clients.
“You need to know what happens at the cocktail hour, what (the clients) want played, if they need a microphone. That’s what makes it tick. Before they ask you, you ask, ‘Did you forget a toast or a blessing? Do you want music for cutting the cake?’”
Other factors include musts: a customized play list, a “have to play” song list, the opportunity for guests to make requests, and a “do not play” list.
Some of the hits on Costa’s wedding song list include the bride and groom first dance, “Here and Now” by Luther Vandross; father and bride dance, “Wind Beneath My Wings” by Bette Midler; mother and groom dance, “Through the Years”; cake cutting with “Sugar Sugar”; bouquet toss, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”; and “Last Dance” by Donna Summer being a fitting closing song.
One of the most challenging “musts” he said was finding a danceable version of a Hungarian czardas. “There are a number of versions of this ethnic song performed in styles from classical to even slight jazz versions. So it was a challenge,” he says.
Then there are factors that can easily get missed. “Where there are some older (guests), make sure you have discretion on volume control. We’ve been to events where the DJ is so loud you can’t talk at the table. The technology is so crazy, and (entertainers) come like it is Carnegie Hall. At a reunion, you have people who haven’t seen each other in years, but they can’t even hear one another. It’s not a good way to go.” Costa says he also provides services with audiences who have hearing needs, including deaf clients.
Costa continues on the topic of technology and says the DJ industry is creating situations where one DJ or group is trying — or expected — to be everything to everyone: providing videographers, photo booths, plasma screens, upscale lighting, and so on.
With a history that includes lugging 300 to 500 pounds of equipment and vinyl records to jobs and a number of years of experience, Costa puts himself in perspective and says, “I’m usually more old fashioned: a DJ who knows what the client wants and is versatile.” Yet he says he is able to recommend other vendors to provide technical services. But all of this comes with a price at between $800 and a $1,000 per additional item.
Costa says that a good formula to estimate a basic cost for a DJ is to use at least $100 an hour with a four-hour minimum for a simple event, such as a birthday. Costs then rise with the occasion, duration, and specific needs. Weddings are at the high end of cost and planning.
“I’ll do at least two one-hour sit down session to go over bridal list, their first dances, special songs with their parents, play lists, and figure out how the whole day is choreographed. Then you would even add in the preparation of music. That takes another five to ten hours to prep. It comes with wanting to do something right. Spend that extra time,” he says.
About what customers should think about, Costa replies, “DJ insurance coverage and a qualified back up DJ in the event myself or assigned DJ is not able to provide services at the event due to an emergency or other unforeseen issue. I have at least two backup DJs that assist as potential backups when if required. (Also) is the DJ a master of ceremonies as well as DJ music provider? Sometimes the same person handling the MC services is not the same person handling the equipment, sound, music, and mixing aspects.”
Costa says he connects with his clients two ways. “I have a website where I try to keep my search words up with words Hamilton and DJ. The other is word-of-mouth customer referrals. Recently I did a party for St. Gregory the Great Church. They were so pleased that before I left they booked me for next year.”
Costa says there are a few problems and challenges with his business. “One of the misconceptions is that every DJ is the right person for their party. I’ll be upfront and listen and ask questions. If it isn’t my forte I’ll recommend someone else. The other misconception is that all DJs are priced equally. There is a wide spectrum: especially when you include multimedia.”
Then there is the challenge of keeping up with technology. “I have a couple of other DJs as backups so we compare notes. So I can decide if I want to upgrade. I want to stay digitally current. So I need to be out and talk to DJs.”
He also keeps up to date with having the same technical subscription that radio stations maintain and finding legal downloads on the internet.
Another challenge, he says, is keeping himself and his clients happy. “I don’t want to compete with every other DJ. I do what my forte is. I don’t want to get larger. I have to draw the line. I’m working so I can provide the quality.”
For the client who wants a certain sound and may not have the resources to get a live band or just wants to hear what they want to hear, Costa puts it all in perspective: “You can keep the cost down because a very good band can sound like the original artist, but you’ll pay a lot more money.”
For more information on Lou Costa and Top Notch DJ Entertainment, with quotes and options available online, go to topnotchdjentertainment.com or call 609-585-7368.