Tuesday, October 25, 2011

It's a Nice Day for a White Wedding: Increasing your DJ Cultural Competence

My latest article for MobileBeat.com:

My Father-in-Law is a Psychology Professor at the college here in town. At a recent family gathering, he was describing a study he is publishing about what he referred to as the cultural competence of psychologists around the country. This study looked at how competent these doctors were to effectively treat patients who come from different cultural backgrounds than their own. When I asked him how competent doctors were, he said “not very”. I thought about how this theory might apply to our profession. I’d be willing to bet the answer might be the same.

I know there has been a lot of initiative in raising awareness among DJs of international wedding cultures, like Indian wedding traditions. But I’ve been more interested in this phenomenon as it relates specifically to the relationship between black people and white people as opposed to marketing to international wedding clients. I think we all have sort of a “cultural comfort zone”. For DJs, this “comfort zone” can mean white DJs with white clients and black DJs with black clients. But if our marketing includes efforts to reach clients outside of that comfort zone, our business would grow wouldn’t it? How realistic is that? I mean, clients also have their own cultural comfort zones, don’t they?

Picture this: A wedding reception at an elegant venue. The ballroom is tastefully uplit and the DJ has painstakingly gone over every detail with the clients. The Bride and Groom’s alma mater fight song blares from the DJ speakers under the Grand Entrance. The first dance – a popular Michael Buble tune, Father/Daughter Dance – I Loved Her First by Heartland. Mother/Son? Forever Young by Rod Stewart.

Would you guess that these clients were white or black? Would you guess the DJ was white or black?

Nothing in the example reception above is universal or exclusive to weddings of either group. Nor is this reception meant to symbolize what any reception should include. But the song selections alone might suggest a white wedding. If that was your guess, you guessed right.

And the DJ? That would be me. A black DJ. And the reception I described above could also describe most of the hundreds of weddings the multi-op company I work for books each year. Our company is certainly one of the most forward thinking, inclusive companies I’ve ever worked for, but among the 25 DJs we represent, only 3 of us are black and one of us is Hispanic. We would certainly love that number to be higher but the fact is the overwhelming majority of clients calling us to book entertainment is white. Perhaps our line-up of DJs is a natural reflection of our clientele. Interestingly enough, a much larger number of our band musicians are black. Many are in all-black bands that are very popular with clients of all races. Are more black DJs missing an opportunity to increase their business by having larger visibility among white clients? Maybe. But I suspect that the disparity between the demographics of our bands and DJs has more to do with the fact that white entertainment clients may love the persona of a talented black musician performing live R&B, Soul, Disco, etc. in a band setting. But having a black DJ (or a white DJ for black clients) actually steer the entire event from the Grand Entrance to the last dance may be a different matter.

As a black DJ, and as an agent whose job it is to book other DJs, there’s a question I’ve thought about many times. Are white wedding clients hesitant to hire a DJ of color? Any more than black wedding clients would hesitate to hire a white DJ?

Now I realize that just by posing the question, I’m opening up a can of worms and invite the inevitably over-compensated response along the lines of “that doesn’t matter to us!” or “we never even thought of anything like that”.

Well I have. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who has.

If you’re a white DJ reading this, I wonder if you’ve ever had the experience of being the only white face in an entire wedding reception. I certainly have been the only black face as a DJ and I can tell you everything has always been absolutely fine.

Interestingly enough, the client above didn’t specifically choose ME as their DJ. The client chose a specific package program our company offers that selects the DJ for them closer to the event date based on the current inventory of DJs. I wonder what their initial thoughts were when I first introduced myself to them. From my perspective, they couldn’t have been nicer and I never once got a weird feeling from them. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like I had to work a little harder – even unconsciously – to assure them their event was in professional hands. But that feeling certainly came from me, not them.

I know one thing for sure. If clients of both (any!) races are willing to hire me, my business will increase.

Of course, depending on where you live, weddings of a different race might be scarce and/or far less realistic. Indeed, there are far fewer African-American weddings nationwide than white weddings in general. In fact, according to the African-American Healthy Marriage Initiative, a government initiative whose goal is to encourage lasting marriages among African-Americans, 5% of Americans between age 24 and 34 have never been married, but that percentage increases to 54% for African Americans in the same age group. Additionally, married couples head 76% of American families, while African American married couples head only 47.9% of American families.

But many black couples ARE getting married and all one has to do is browse exceptional websites like www.blackwedding.com or www.forblackweddings.com to see that the wedding industry geared toward African Americans is big business.

(As a side note, I had to laugh at the large number of companies I stumbled across doing some research for this article with names like “White Wedding DJs” or “White Wedding Entertainment” etc. I wondered if the proprietors of these businesses ever considered other contexts for their monikers as they named their companies. While a website called “BlackWeddings.com” is clearly aimed at African-Americans, I really don’t think the owners of “White Wedding DJs” intended their service to be solely for Caucasian brides and grooms. Or did they? And even if they did, why does that feel far less acceptable?)

In fact, African-American spending is up in many different categories. In 2009, black households spent an estimated $507 billion in 27 product and services categories. That's an increase of 16.6% over the $435 billion spent in 2008. African-Americans' total earned income for 2009 is estimated at $836 billion.*

It has been my own personal experience that black wedding clients are more likely to hire DJs as opposed to other forms of entertainment. This may be due in some part to budget, but it’s more likely that it’s because the DJ culture has always been a prevalent part of the African-American community. Preferences for DJs could also be related to the actual musical styles preferred by many African-American clients, much of which is focused on contemporary Hip-Hop and R&B music which can often be more challenging (and expensive) to reproduce effectively with a live band. In any case, if this consumer group prefers DJs, shouldn’t you – a DJ - make yourself as marketable to them as possible, regardless of color?

So how to market to clients of a different color?

  • First of all, it’s important to understand that wedding clients all want the same thing, regardless of color: a great party led by a professional MC/Host that guides the event smoothly through its timeline while keeping the dance floor full. Demonstrate you can do that and you’re a lot more likely to get hired no matter what.
  • Many obstacles come from fear of the unknown. So know as much as possible. Learn about the traditions of different weddings and make sure you are knowledgeable about favorite music of different cultural groups. You already study the music charts and pay for music subscription services. Don’t overlook other genres of music you may not be familiar with.
  • Make sure you have a presence in publications and other media that may be geared toward cultural groups outside of your own. Also look into free exposure in places that are important like churches and schools. Some clients might overlook a DJ of a different color unless they know your DJ skills and knowledge are also focused on them.
  • Be yourself - a knowledgeable, skilled professional who can host a great party no matter what it looks like. Don’t pander or patronize clients based on what you assume they are looking for.
Sound familiar? Pretty much you should be doing for ANY client anyway. You might be surprised at how alike we all are – especially when it comes to getting married. Of course there can be cultural and musical differences between black and white weddings, but really no more so than differences between different weddings in general.

A little awareness and celebration of our differences can go a long way, even far beyond any reception hall. So open your mind and your marketing plan and watch your cultural competence and your business grow.

- Geoff Short

Resources: www.blackwedding.com www.forblackweddings.com

*Source: Target Market News, "The Buying Power of Black American - 2010"

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