DJ Ali & The Crackle of Vinyl
Rosendale, N.Y.—Ali Gruber got into the music business through her mother, an administrative assistant for the head of the international licensing department at Arista Records in the mid-’70s.
“Her desk was right in front of the art director ‘s office, so she always got to see all the artists—members of The Kinks and the Grateful Dead, Patti Smith—as they went in to discuss album artwork,” says Gruber. “She had colleagues at all the other New York-based record labels, like Warner Bros., Mercury, Columbia and Atlantic, and they all used to share music.”
Her mom bestowed to her daughter a love for classic soul music, digging into her vast record collection and giving her an Otis Redding album. “It was the first record she ever gave me from her collection,” says Gruber. “And I absolutely could not get enough of that in high school.”
Some 20 years later, Gruber is a DJ, spinning at weddings and bars, and retains a love for analog, bordering on obsession, to the point where she refuses to switch to digital. A rare breed, indeed.
“From a business perspective, using real vinyl sets me apart from a lot of other DJs on the scene right now,” she says. “It makes me unique as a DJ, especially in the wedding industry, and unique is lucrative.”
Gruber says the advantage of spinning vinyl is that she doesn’t have to pre-program a night and guess what might work—especially at weddings. “The guest list at a wedding can really run the gamut of ages and music tastes, so I usually bring at least 150 records with me and wait to see what people respond to,” she says. “I think it’s really important to feel out your audience and see what people are actually dancing to.”
The only programming parameter she follows is a loose chronological order. “I almost always do an early dance set for older folks who might not stick around for the end of the night dance party, and I believe in playing full sets, not just a song or two from one era. So I’ll do a ’60s soul/Motown/funk/disco thing in the beginning of the night and usually end the night with ’90s hip hop and whatever current pop music might make it onto my radar.”
Like many DJs, Gruber got her start at house parties, spinning for fun. Then, a couple of friends who were getting married asked if she would DJ their wedding. “They paid me for it,” she says. “It wasn’t much, but I remember that light bulb going off in my brain. I had never considered making money DJing before. It was just something I did for fun.”
That wedding was the night it all began—literally. The caterer and the venue operator both loved what she was doing and started referring her. She had wedding clients before she had a business card. “I was really lucky in that capacity,” she says. “In the Hudson Valley, word-of-mouth is pretty much the gold standard in the wedding industry. After a couple of summers of doing weddings, I thought, ‘I should really put some effort into this,’ and started actually building my business.”
The business side didn’t come to Gruber as naturally as the DJing. “Getting a grip on the administrative back-end of the business was a challenge,” she says. “You throw me in front of my turntables with a crate of records and I’m fine, but dealing with clients did not come naturally to me. I really had to step up my professional game to get better at communicating with my clients. Once I did, though, I realized how much easier it made my job in the long run.”
Gruber has managed to be selective in choosing her clientele. “That’s the best part of owning my own business—not having to compromise my standards,” she says. “I told myself when I started doing weddings that I would never ‘sell out’ just because I was making money and working in the wedding industry. I’ve stayed very true to my style, and I don’t have to play music that makes me cringe because I don’t take on clients that don’t jibe with that style. Happily, for the most part, clients that seek out a vinyl DJ for their wedding are usually folks that really love good, classic, dance music and really get behind what I do.”
There are other, more practical challenges for an all-vinyl DJ, especially one who lugs two heavy Technics SL-1200 turntables, a Rane Empath 3-channel mixer, Crown amps and a crossover to power passive Behringer speakers and a passive Electro-Voice sub—oh, and 150 vinyl records, too.
“It’s all about Yoga,” she says. “I will freely admit I was a total hater until I started doing it and realized that it really works wonders for strengthening the back. I also make it a point to pamper myself with massages and acupuncture, especially during wedding season, because it’s rough lugging all that stuff around twice in one weekend. I’m also really lucky to have an assistant—read: roadie—who happens to be a pretty awesome boyfriend, and comes with me to almost all my gigs.”
DJ Ali doubled her number of gigs between 2013 and 2014, after spending a bit more time and money on marketing, and maintains modest ambitions. “I don’t know how much more growing I can do without taking on an employee,” she says. “I’ve thought about it, but I’m so picky. I think my music standards probably seem ridiculous to other people. For now, I’m really happy with the way my year went, and I’m hoping to be lucky enough to, at the very least, replicate it next year.”
And she’ll start by almost never saying no to an opportunity to gig. “Gigs bring more gigs,” she says. “And I guess while I have the energy and time, I’ll get out there as much as I can, because you never know who’s listening.”