Before Ryan and Heather Watroba began planning their 2010 wedding in earnest, it seemed a foregone conclusion that they would hire a disc jockey for the reception.
“We never really thought there was any other option,” Ryan Watroba, 28, said. “Growing up, we are of the age that any school dance or function was always just a DJ. And they do a great job, so you don’t think of a whole band.”
The couple began to change their minds after attending a corporate function at which long-running Capital Region band Grand Central Station performed and befriending the band’s founder, leader and drummer, Paul DeBiase. They quickly became fans, attending shows when they could. Although Heather has DJs in her family, when it came time to choose the entertainment for the wedding, Grand Central Station won out.
“We instantly loved the energy Paul and the band brought, the way they engaged with the crowd and the individuals that were there,” Ryan said. “One of the things we really noticed is that they care so much about what they do — they have passion, and they also have the ability to really tie into emotions and the excitement of the crowd, and they play into that.”
Sarah Pinkowski, who married Tony Fuda earlier this month in Verona, Oneida County, went the DJ route for her reception, hiring SEH Entertainment founder Scott E. Hemming. For her, the choice was obvious.
“I was fairly set on DJs,” Pinkowski said. “I wanted more of a variety of music, which is why I went with a DJ over a band. ... I think that when it comes to a DJ versus a band, there’s a lot of distinct differences to make someone lean one way over another. In my circumstance, with my experience, I would absolutely recommend going with a DJ.”
Only a few decades ago, wedding bands were the default for reception entertainment. Since the ’90s, DJs have gradually moved out of the clubs, competing with bands for gigs at private parties, corporate events and of course, weddings.
Hemming has seen the transition first-hand. In his 28 years as a DJ he has worked for The Piano Man’s DJ Productions out of Saratoga Springs and Sound Control DJs in East Greenbush; he started SEH Entertainment about two years ago.
“It really started taking off in the mid-’90s — bands were a huge thing in the ’80s and even in the ’90s,” Hemming said. “Now, the nice thing with a DJ is that you can be versatile, you can play a wide range of music and you don’t have to take breaks.”
For many bands, the competition has been rough. DeBiase, who formed Grand Central Station close to 40 years ago with his brother, bassist Frank DeBiase, has seen many of his friends in other bands quit in recent years.
“I do know some bands that have just thrown in the towel,” DeBiase said. “[I’ll ask], ‘Hey, how you doing, blah blah blah,’ and they’ll say, ‘Ah, you know, these damn DJs.’ That to me shows that there’s no tenacity and there’s no drive, because you know what? They’re spinning the music that a live musician is playing — that music had to be generated by a musician.”
Mike Emery, leader of the 10-piece group New York Players, which he founded in 1999, has seen some of his business drop off in the past five years, both due to the recession and due to increased competition from both DJs and bands. But New York Players, along with its brother bands City Rhythm and Body & Soul, has managed to maintain a full schedule, playing about 80 events per year.
“We’re very lucky up here in this area,” Emery said. “Saratoga Springs is a crown jewel for the Northeast wedding industry — we have people coming from Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, people that aren’t from the area and just find Saratoga Springs a really appealing place to have their wedding.”
In recent years, Emery has noticed a “DJ culture” springing up around weddings.
“There are brides and grooms that have been to all their friends’ weddings, that have never seen a live band at a wedding — ‘Why would you have a band? You have a DJ, that’s what you do,’ ” Emery said. “I’ve played events where, you know, the reaction of the crowd — the people who normally go to weddings with a DJ, they’ll be looking at the band and thinking, ‘What the hell is this?’ After a while they’re dancing. At the end of the night, we’ve had people come up and say, ‘We’re going to cancel our DJ; we want you.’ The difference is the level of energy, the excitement and the interaction with the crowd.”
Grand Central Station plays more than 100 gigs a year, with about 80 percent of those weddings or other private functions — the band is already completely booked for this year and most of next year. In order to maintain such a heavy work schedule, the band has had to constantly evolve.
“The scene in the ’70s, live music was — there was no DJs,” DeBiase said. “Live music was everywhere. There were a lot more venues to play. The music was pretty easily replicated for the most part.”
Today, the six-piece band’s song list includes artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to Led Zeppelin to Lady Gaga — most recently the band learned Justin Timberlake’s latest single, “Suit and Tie.” DeBiase prides the band on being able to re-create an artist’s original recording, note-for-note.
“Three, four years ago we opened up for Collin Raye,” DeBiase said. “After we’re done ... we went in the back and we had our picture taken with them, and him and the band came up to us and they said, ‘I’m gonna tell you something — they told us there was a live band before us. We thought they were spinning records; that’s how great you guys sounded. We thought it was the original recordings. We had to come out —’ and we saw them — ‘We had to come out and see for ourselves.’ And that was the biggest compliment to us from a real pro, from a real professional.”
Life of the party
Many factors go into a bride and groom’s decision to hire either a band or a DJ, from the price tag to the energy level desired to matters of personal preference.
“I think a lot of people prefer to hear the original artists’ songs being played versus a band’s cover,” Vinny Commisso, who runs NonStop Music, said. “I think a DJ has a lot more variety and variation in their music catalog. They can really cater to different types of music throughout the night.”
Commisso has been a DJ for 15 years and founded Elite Entertainment in 2002, relaunching the company as NonStop Music in 2008. His company focuses on weddings, which make up about 95 percent of its business.
“What led to the focus is just really the love I have for weddings — it’s one big party that everybody gets dressed up to the nines for to come and celebrate with the bride and groom for one special day,” Commisso said.
He approaches being a wedding DJ differently than others, eschewing the more showman-esque aspects, such as group dances like “The Chicken Dance” or “The Electric Slide.”
“I like to think that I am a true DJ, where I like to beat-mix songs into one another and keep the energy level high from the beginning of the night until the last song is played,” Commisso said. “I also believe that being a wedding DJ, you also have to be an MC for the evening as well. In the MC role, you perform your formalities — the introductions, the first dance, the parents’ dance, etcetera, with class and professionalism that your clients would come to expect. That’s kind of my simple approach to it, is that I love creating fun, upbeat and most importantly memorable wedding receptions, without any of the cheese.”
Hemming’s business is about 85 percent weddings. Beyond being a DJ, he considers himself an event planner, working with the bride and groom at every step of the process.
“Every wedding is different, from high-elegance weddings to backyard weddings with a tent,” Hemming said. “I talk to the bride and groom all day long — I’m kind of one of the key players in that whole thing.”
Depending on the wedding, Hemming can go low-key, simply playing music and doing announcements, or he can go the full-blown entertainer route, including the group dances.
“I have clients that want that interaction, the full interaction with party props, glow necklaces if they want that. At other weddings, they don’t want that,” Hemming said. “If they give me a do-not-play list, I do not play it — if a guest comes up and requests something off of it, I’ll tell them I’m unable to play that song per the bride and groom’s request. I’ve done full-interaction stuff, teaching them the dances — I’ll actually dress in a chicken suit if they want me to.”
One of the specialty dances, the anniversary dance, was a big hit at Pinkowski’s wedding.
“He called out all the married couples onto the floor and played a song I had chosen [‘Through the Years’ by Kenny Rogers],” she said. “A little while into the song, he asked anyone who had been married for a day or less to step off the floor, and he kept going up by year — one year, 10 years, all the way up to 50 years, and there were four couples left. ... It goes down to only one couple, and then he had me present them with a bottle of champagne.”
With wedding bands, there are further opportunities for guests to get involved — especially for musically inclined guests who want to sit in with the band.
“[Grand Central Station] learned Bon Jovi songs for us that they performed with Heather’s uncles, Tom Frame and Don Frame, who have been in a lot of bands in the past,” Ryan Watroba said. “Tom and Don have over 30 years of experience playing in bands, and the way Paul seamlessly collaborated with them was wonderful.”
Often, the cost of a band with multiple members, versus a single DJ, is a factor in selecting which option to go with. With only six members, Grand Central Station is able to keep its rates lower than some of the bigger wedding bands in the area.
“Obviously, a DJ is going to be less than a band — what are you getting for that savings?” DeBiase said. “If budget is your No. 1 concern, by all means, you have to go with a DJ. However, being that we’re a six-piece, we’re probably the most affordable band in the area, that I can say confidently.”
In the end, it comes down to the kind of experience a bride and groom want to offer their guests. Commisso feels there’s room enough for both bands and DJs to co-exist.
“I’m getting married myself in October and I hired a band, which may be kind of weird — ‘You’re a DJ and you hired a band?’ ” Commisso said. “But I also hired a DJ, too, so I’m offering my guests both levels of experience.”
Reach Gazette reporter Brian McElhiney at 395-3111 or email@example.com.