The Music Experience
| 2016 Q2 | story by BOB LUDER | photos by Steven Hertzog
Sean Mawhirter stands patiently behind his MacBook Pro, 1,000-watt amplifier, Bose sound bar, equalizer and two large speakers mounted on tripod stands, and itches to push the virtual button that’ll turn up the volume and get this party started. But, alas, it’ll have to wait a few more minutes as the reception hosts have a few more door prizes to raffle off.
“This is the glamorous part of being a DJ, sit around and wait,” Mawhirter says with a wry grin. “It’s as glorious as I dreamed it would be.”
Don’t let Mawhirter’s dry sarcasm fool you. He loves being a disc jockey (DJ) for weddings and, on this particular night, a Kansas University sorority event. Moments later, he’s cranking up “Cupid Shuffle” and smiling broadly as revelers semi-successfully negotiate the choreographed dance steps.
It’s a scene he’s witnessed countless—hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand—times over the past 16 years.
“For the most part, everybody’s lovely,” says Mawhirter, who estimates he’s DJd and/or played live at 40 weddings per year since starting his business in 2000. “At the same time, there’s a tension involved. It’s a performance, and you want to do a good job.
“But, there’s a ton of satisfaction you get from doing this.”
If one is in the market for a wedding DJ or band to entertain at your ceremony or reception, there’s no need to look far. A Google search of “Lawrence wedding entertainment” pulls up a list as long as Mass Street. The options are endless.
Mawhirter, an unassuming, soft spoken yet outgoing sort originally from Wichita, is happy to have found his niche in a business that typically puts him in the middle of one of the happiest days in young couples’ lives.
He moved to Lawrence from Wichita in 1997, and it wasn’t a couple years later that he decided to take his love of music and start making a living with it. He bought some equipment and started advertising in local publications and attending wedding fairs. These days, he sticks to online advertising—places like WeddingWire and Thumbtack—and says he could DJ a wedding every weekend if that’s what he wanted to do. Business is booming.
He’ll DJ a high school dance or college fraternity or sorority party occasionally but says, “The wedding circuit is my bread and butter.”
There are two tiers of Mawhirter DJ experiences for weddings. There’s the basic playlist that typically runs $600. Adding in a fog machine and karaoke will run $750. The typical block of time is five hours. If a client wants longer than that, it’s $100 for each additional hour.
Wedding reception playlists have become somewhat standardized, Mawhirter says. Most everyone wants to hear “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Love Shack,” “Celebrate” and “We Are Family.” But that’s not always the case. Mawhirter says he always likes to get together with the bride and groom beforehand to see what music they’re into, and sometimes tastes can be quite diverse.
“I had one couple where the groom was from India,” he says. “So, part of the reception, we had Bollywood songs, and the other half we had country.
“I always encourage requests. It’s never about me,” he continues. “Making it about you is not going to get you another job.”
Mawhirter says he remembers one wedding reception he was DJing in a barn in the Iowa countryside when the power went out. No problem. Someone drove into town to the local hardware store and bought a generator.
Last October, during the Kansas City Royals run to a World Series championship, there was a reception where everyone wore blue and white, and gave away Royals jerseys as a parting gift at the end of the evening.
Mawhirter is much more than a DJ playing other people’s songs from his computer. He’s an accomplished musician himself. He plays in four bands, each of a different musical style. He studied jazz as a college student at Friends University, in Wichita. Last November, he traveled to Argentina to train with world-class tango artists.
“Originally, I studied jazz, but I’m learning classical,” he says. “It’s steady work.”
Mawhirter says that in about 12 or so of the 40 annual weddings he works, he plays guitar live during the ceremony before performing as DJ at the reception.
Sharing a Greatest Day
Being an accomplished musician does have its drawbacks, however. Every once in awhile, Mawhirter says he’ll hear one of his contemporary artists throw a disparaging remark his way about “selling out” as a wedding DJ.
It might have bothered him at first, but these days, he’s having none of it.
“I don’t think it was until I got married in 2007 that I got over myself,” Mawhirter says. “Some people look down on you, but I see how important it is. I don’t feel like I’m compromising anything, because I’m part of one of the greatest moments these people will have.”
Scott Simpson feels the same.
Simpson says he’s DJd more than 2,000 weddings since he started as a college student in 1986. For his first gig, he charged $150 and remembers spinning Glen Miller records and playing “Tiny Bubbles” from Don Ho. Today, he gets $550 to $700, depending on the length of the reception.
“It’s been interesting, to say the least,” says Simpson, who once owned the venerable Lawrence college watering hole Ichabod’s, north of the river. “I remember doing a reception once in a cemetery on Halloween. Obviously, it was very gothic.”
Like most wedding DJs, Simpson gives the bride and groom a song list before the reception, and asks that they check what they want played. He is a little old school, however, in that, while he does have playlists loaded on a computer, he prefers to play CDs that he’s compiled and curated specifically for weddings.
The main thing is, he just wants everyone to have fun.
“I’ve always liked a good party,” Simpson says. “I don’t want to see people playing on their phones during a wedding reception. I have to be honest, alcohol plays a big part of it. Nighttime receptions are a lot more fun than daytime because people drink more.
“It’s just really nice to be part of a special day. When I leave a reception, and I’ve just killed it, I drive home with a smile the whole way,” he says.
The demand for wedding entertainment is so enormous, there are entire companies dedicated to it.
Take Complete Music, for instance, which blankets Lawrence and much of north-central and northwest Kansas with a small army of “media specialists” for all events, but mostly betrothals. The company doesn’t just handle music but offers wedding photography, videography and photo booths.
“DJ-wise, we have the ability to do 25 weddings on any given day,” says Domingo Ward, a DJ with Complete Music, which also serves Manhattan, Salina, Hays and any of the smaller communities within those areas. “We don’t look at it as just providing entertainment. We look at it from a media aspect, and we have one business to deal with all that—high school dances, proms, corporate events.”
Complete Music charges $795 for five hours and brings the works—dance floor lighting, state-of-the-art sound production equipment and, of course, a full songbook.
“Typically, most people do traditional format, songs by decades,” Ward says. “But sometimes, some uncle is really keen on Hank Williams.
“This is one of the best jobs I’ve had. Being a part of one of the most important days in someone’s life is pretty great,” he explains. “In college, I practiced to be the party starter, and now I have the job to do it. I get paid to have fun. How cool is that?”
Alonzo Beardshear started DJing weddings back in the 1970s, but today, as owner of Alonzo’s Music, he considers himself an entertainment director and has hired comedians and even circus performers for weddings and receptions. An accomplished instrumentalist himself, he’s performed live at many ceremonies and receptions, as well as served as a DJ. He says he’s even served as sound man for some live bands.
“Most bands don’t play a wide variety, which is why people prefer DJs,” he says. “People don’t want bands that just play pop covers.”
He says he’s charged anywhere from $500 for a basic DJing session to, one time, $3,000 for a reception that included six circus acts and tents.
“I also recommend lots of people if I can’t do it or I’m not right for the job,” Beardshear says. “Basically, I want people to have a great wedding and have a great time.
“I feel I’m really bringing people together,” he continues. “That’s what I do.”