HEE-HAW: The Challenges of Barn Events for Mobile DJs

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Sarah and Tim’s wedding reception in the coastal town of Wiscasset, Maine, was set in a storybook location: Fresh-cut flowers, a colorful venue that overlooks a river, a manicured lawn where guests could enjoy cocktails before dinner, and an expansive ballroom-sized dancefloor for guests to party the night away.

And it was all on a farm, especially designed for a rustic wedding, with Jerry Bazata of Jaz Music & Entertainment of Ogunquit on the microphone as he controlled the volume and pace of the event.

“The typical barn wedding that one might envision in Maine—with cows in the background and chickens running around on the dancefloor—is completely fictional,” says Bazata. “In fact, many of these ‘barns’ today are no longer used as ‘working farms,’ but have been completely renovated and updated to accommodate weddings and other social events.

“To further capture revenue, a farmhouse which may exist on the property can often be renovated into an inn to accommodate the wedding party and family, since lodging for out-of-state guests may not be readily available in some areas.”

In its 2014 Wedding Survey, The Knot wrote that Maine was one of the top destination wedding locations in the Northeast, particularly for its coastline and rustic settings. It reports that rustic-themed weddings have been the driving force behind hundreds of thousands of dollars being invested by entrepreneurs in the renovation of barns across Maine the past few years.

We talked with DJs from across the country about their experiences performing at receptions located in barns and in other rural settings. What season of the year is best for these types of events? And what special advance planning should a DJ keep in mind while preparing for these types of events?

Up in Maine, Bazata says that barn weddings have increased in popularity so much that there’s actually been a sudden surge in new barn buildings being custom-built for the purpose of hosting receptions and other social events.

“The new barns are often built in locations that offer a view of the scenic coastline of Maine or breathtaking views of the mountains and lakes in Maine,” he says. “For the mobile DJs of our state, this has increasingly become the venue of choice for several reasons:

“First of all, load-in and -out and set-up are one of the easiest to work with, as you can literally pull right up to the location—often within feet of where you’re going to set up. Secondly, with the upgrades to the infrastructure of the barn, having enough power is never a problem and the need for external generators has all but been eliminated. And thirdly, if you’re creative and sell up-lighting, this is a great enhancement to the wedding package: literally working with a blank canvas to showcase your talents.”

Bazata adds that brides with a desire to have a rustic wedding in a barn are also looking for a level of elegance and sophistication to the wedding. He says they come to Maine because they love the outdoors, but also dream of that grand-ballroom wedding—and a barn setting provides them the best of both worlds.

“As a DJ, we need to incorporate both concepts into our sales pitch to the bride and groom,” he says. “Determine ways to create a grand entrance, blending in your set-up with the decor of the room and, more importantly, sound management for the guests. It doesn’t take much to fill these wide-open structures with music.”

For the reception mentioned above, at Marianmade Farms in Wiscasset, Bazata recalls that a butcher-block table had been provided for him to set his laptop on and he even had a dedicated outlet on a separate circuit for power.

“A large window was located to my right so I could open it up for air circulation during the heat of the afternoon,” he says. “The venue was equipped with ceiling fans and the cool river breeze kept the barn at a comfortable temperature during the day and into the night.

“The cocktail hour was on the patio outside the barn, and for the DJ that meant simply placing a speaker outside the window, so the music would be provided in the same in all areas of the venue. For the bridal party, there was an adjacent building in which they could view their guests enjoying the cocktail hour while they had a few minutes to prepare for the introductions.

“Unlike most barns that require quests to use temporary bathroom facilities, Marianmade Farm has a dedicated building with several private bathrooms for guests. The place has a rustic feel with a real touch of elegance.”

Down in Alabama, Geoff Carlisle of JAMM Entertainment Services in Birmingham says receptions held in barns also seem to be the current hot style of venue in his part of the nation.

“Some are small and some are larger,” he says of rustic weddings. “Either way, the secret is to make sure that the guest count will fit in the actual barn.”

Carlisle says some barns remove any horses normally in residence during the receptions, probably due to the noise level and guests being around.

“The staff typically cleans the stalls and removes anything that would cause an odor,” he says. “But then again, some barns allow the horses to stay in the stalls and allow guests to pet them as part of the experience.”

The best barn wedding Carlisle’s company recently provided music for had the DJ set up in the courtyard area with café-lighting over the dancefloor, which was surrounded by tables for the guests.

“A fireplace on one side was lit for guests to create their own s’mores dessert,” he says. “The caterer was set up on the opposite side, with a cloverleaf arrangement for the casual BBQ-style food. The horses were in the stalls for guests to see and pet. The barn itself was large H-shaped with couple dozen stalls.

“The manager’s room was then reserved for the bride to get ready and for the couple to enjoy private dining before they wereintroduced. It was intimate and warm, but classy and Southern.”

Blake Eckelbarger of The Music Place in South Bend, Ind., says his company does an assortment of barn weddings every year, located at venues ranging from pole barns to gorgeous turn-of-the-century antique barns.

“Being located in northern Indiana, this is the heart of Amish country,” says Eckelbarger (aka DJ Sticky Boots). “My staff and I have done everything from a simple reception to elaborate Pinterest-worthy ceremonies and receptions on commercial properties with vintage century barns. I’ve also had the opportunity to spin several proms and other school-related events in various barns, including a fundraiser event called #BarnProm2014.”

So far, Sticky Boots says none of these events have been held in barns that had animals actually in them—“Unless you count the party-goers!” he jokes—so that any animal-related smells or health concerns were not applicable.

“However, these types of properties—especially the vintage, 125-year-old barn—have unique challenges. Everything from tight spaces, limited electricity, no air conditioning and limited line-of-sight with the bridal party and/or head table and/or dancefloor can be very challenging.

“In one case, our DJ was required to set up in a hayloft, which made it difficult to see the dancefloor, difficult to move gear up a narrow set of steps and incredibly hot on a humid July night. Several of the vintage barns are not really weather-proof, so there’s the risk of water damage if there happens to be a storm.

“The upside is each venue is truly unique and the owners take tremendous pride in creating the perfect backdrop for a vintage, rustic event. Many of the weddings I’ve been a part of in these barns literally look like the center spread of a bridal magazine come to life.”

Over on the west coast, Mark Haggerty of Denon & Doyle Entertainment in the San Francisco Bay Area says their DJs are typically asked to wear something a little more casual than a tuxedo or suit for these events, which he says can be a nice change-up.

“I typically start with just a shirt and tie—then I loosen the tie after a while,” he says. “If they have a Western theme, maybe even wear jeans and boots. This past Saturday was a casual wedding. Even the groom didn’t wear a tie, despite the fact some of the guests did. The town was Cotati, about 50 miles north of San Francisco, near the wine country of Napa/Sonoma.”

Haggerty says that recent ceremony took place on the edge of the property, in a field that was cleared, with seating in an arbor. The guests had signs directing guests to the ceremony site on the side of a cornfield.

“The cocktail hour was in the backyard of the main house, and during that hour I moved my secondary sound system from the ceremony area to the dinner area inside a very long barn,” he says. “This historic-looking building was obviously part of a bigger ranch back in the old days that has since been subdivided with housing tracts.

“The only animals in sight were two dogs that seemed to wander anywhere they wanted,” he says. “This was a wedding with about 60 guests all told, and the barn contained one super-long King’s table at which everyone was seated. I used my second sound system for dinner music and a wireless mic for toasts. The barn was so long, I had to use a wireless link to a speaker at the far end to ensure that everyone could hear.”

A few challenges for Haggerty included the fact that power sources for the three different areas where music was required each were 50-100 feet away from the closest outlet, the dancefloor was not very level, an umbrella was required to provide shade for this DJ’s sensitive and expensive electronics (until the sun went down) and, while he was constantly shooing away flies and yellow-jacket bees during the day, at night he was visited by numerous gnats, mosquitoes and even a spider that climbed onto his laptop.

Back up in Maine, Mike Mahoney of M&M Entertainment in South Portland says he performs for about a dozen different rural weddings every year, in all sorts of shapes and sizes of barns. Recently he played for a wedding ceremony and reception at Caswell Farm in Gray.

“They had the ceremony in one space, the cocktail hour in another, the first dance and parent dances just outside the barn during cocktail hour just before dinner, dinner under a tent and then dancing in the barn,” he recalls.

“I had to go out and walk around randomly to see when they might be finishing dinner. As dinner was wrapping up, I began playing some good-ole Motown, and people began coming into the barn and dancing. I kept moving up to newer music, and the sweet spot turned out to be a mix of early-’80s and newer music in the 120-130 BPM range.”

Mahoney says the ceremony started at 3 p.m. and the entire event was scheduled to wrap up at 9 p.m., but by 8:30 the bride and groom had already asked him to extend the reception for an hour.

“At about 9:30, the uncle of the bride came up to me, put his arm around me, and said, ‘See this here, these are my family. They’re having a great time, and I want you to keep going until they’re done.’

“We ended at 2 a.m.!”

Mahoney says several special considerations come to mind when it comes to planning a barn wedding. “In terms of lighting, a smaller barn will probably be fun and easy to decorate with icicle lights or strings of single bulbs draped across the beams, but a larger barn may need architectural lighting,” he says. “And the lighting of choice for barns tends to be an amber hue, to highlight the classic nature of the space.

“Also, depending on the location, you’re generally on private property in a sparsely populated area, which means you could literally party until long after the cows come home—my latest party went until 3:30 a.m.

“Have a power regulator—not just a power strip, but a regulator. They cost about $400, but are well worth it. Many barns are extensively renovated, but some are not, so be prepared—and save yourself, and your client, a lot of potential grief.”

Mahoney says a DJ will likely need to have at least two systems for a typical barn wedding. “Not necessarily two complete systems, but as an example, I had one this past June where the ceremony was in one place, cocktail hour in another, dinner in another, and dancing in yet another,” he says. “Many of these so-called barn weddings are actually ‘farm’ weddings, where they make full use of the property; therefore you’ll be doing a bit more work.”

Of course, not all DJs have found these rural experiences to be a cake-walk. Celebrity DJ Carl Williams in New York says he’s performed for several barn weddings—though obviously never for one in New York City.

“I just flew to Orlando earlier this year to perform at a barn wedding,” he says. “They are not easy events because load-ins are bumpy and hard within rural areas. There’s always dirt and sometimes mud.

“The guests and I have never had to deal with negative aromas; however, there has always been a flying insects issue with the food. I find that many folks really don’t want to spend their time in hot and humid surroundings, where flies like the food as much as hungry guests.”

Williams says that sometimes the bride envisions a unique affair when they plan for a barn wedding, but might not take into consideration that her guests had other expectations.

“When the ladies find their heels sinking into mud because it rained the day before,” he says, “it doesn’t make it easy for the DJ to entertain them later in the night.”

Still, in the right environment, with proper planning and equipment (and sometimes a lot of luck in terms of the weather) many DJs are finding lots of work with rural weddings and receptions.

“We perform at various bed-and-breakfast locations—inns, mansions, manors and such,” says Scott Goldoor of Signature DJs in Plymouth Meeting, Pa. “Many of them have a barn that’s either restored or has been updated and renovated, so it’s not always your typical or classic vintage-type barn.

“I feel locations like this have some charm to them and give our clients a different option or feel. Many want a more rustic or country feel, versus the typical wedding factory or standard country club ballroom, where you go and sit in a square room for five or six hours. Oftentimes, locations like these have multiple areas in which you can use for the various parts of the event.”

Goldoor’s most recent rural wedding ceremony was located 300 yards from the rest of the party, and nestled away under some trees and overlooking a creek. “Cocktails were then located in a grassy area with a wrap-around patio/deck, just outside of the barn, and then the rest of the reception was located in the two-story barn,” he says.

“Of course, locations like this are very heavily weather-dependent. You must plan for the worst and hope for the best. If the weather is inclement, then any rain, cold, heat or humidity really throws a wrinkle into the plans.”

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