Reception location and lighting, tabletop décor and place settings, plus all of your thoughtful, personal touches go a long way toward bringing the wedding reception you’ve been planning (for what feels like forever now!) into the here and now. It's a beautiful sensory experience that realizes exactly what you’ve envisioned for the celebration of a lifetime. But there’s one other oh-so-important element that can’t be overlooked or left to a secondary consideration—and that’s your wedding reception music.
Whether you book a DJ/MC, a string quartet, a pianist or jazz ensemble with a talented singer or songstress, a funk band, a NOLA brass band, or a rockin’ country band, the music you choose for your wedding reception is the soundtrack for entire gorgeous affair and something that you and your friends and fam will remember long after the table linens have been laundered and the reception chairs are returned to storage.
Which brings us to the question: Should you book a band or other live music, or a DJ?
Meet the Expert
- Michelle Norwood is a New Orleans-based wedding and destination event planner and owner of Michelle Norwood Events, which offers couples all-inclusive travel and event planning services for destination weddings around the world—although NOLA will always be home.
- Mara Mazder is the owner and creative director of Utah’s Fuse Weddings, an award-winning event planning studio that specializes in weddings and destination weddings in the greater Park City/Dear Valley region.
- Victoria Lartey-Williams is the owner as well as the lead event planner and designer of Victorious Events NYC, a boutique wedding planning and design firm servicing New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and destinations around the world.
If you’re both excited by the idea of having some element of live music (and perhaps even have a band or style of music already in mind)—or conversely, music isn’t such a priority, other than that you both definitely want all of your guests to have a great time and get out on the dance floor—choosing between a band and a DJ is a huge decision. To consider all of the important factors of this great debate, we consult a few experts to weigh in on everything from overall cost and budget surprises, to venue constraints and considerations, and a trend these experts are seeing in real-time.
Consider the Real Cost of a DJ Versus a Band
Because of so many considerations—ranging from your geographic location to how deeply personal and meaningful this decision is—it’s hard to quantify how much more of an expense it is to have a live band or ensemble at your wedding reception versus booking a DJ/MC. That being said, bands are, on average, anywhere from four to ten times more expensive than a professional DJ—although you'll need to keep in mind that there are exceptions where a DJ could be equally as expensive as a band if you’re going for major talent. Simply put, a band or ensemble is generally more expensive as you’re hiring more talented people.
Location is another important factor driving price. “In our market, a DJ can run around $3,000, whereas a 10-plus piece band will run, on average, in the $12,000 to $20,000 range,” says Mara Mazder of Utah’s Fuse Weddings. Meanwhile down in New Orleans, according to Michelle Norwood, a wedding and destination event planner and NOLA native, “A good DJ costs between $10,000 and $15,000, while a great band is between $40,000 and $50,000.”
Wedding Budget Advice—and the Surprise Costs to Know About
How much of your overall wedding budget should be allocated to music on your wedding day is ultimately a very personal decision, and that budget often needs to stretch beyond the reception—if you'd like to have live music at various points during the event, you'll need to factor that in. “Couples might not think about also having to book ceremony music, a wedding MC, cocktail hour entertainment—and, if in NOLA, a Second Line band,” says Norwood. As a general rule of thumb, Victoria Lartey-Williams of Victorious Events NYC advises her clients to set aside five percent of the wedding budget for a DJ and up to 15 percent of the budget if they’re interested in having a band or other live music.
And don’t forget about meals for the performers. “Couples often forget a very important line item: vendor meals,” says Latery-Williams. “If you hire a 20-piece orchestra to perform, that means you’ll be paying for 20 additional meals, which is extremely important to keep in mind when tallying up the RSVPs for your final guest count.”
Reception Space and Venue Requirements
From acoustics to quiet hours and providing sufficient power, there are more than a few factors to keep in mind when considering what type of music to have at your wedding reception—and you'll want to work closely with your venue on all of these factors. “The decision of whether to hire a band or DJ should start before you even choose your venue,” says Lartey-Williams. “If having a live music element is important, then you absolutely have to consider the acoustics of the space.” Lartey-Williams notes that reception venues with a lot of windows, mirrors, high ceilings, and smooth flooring can be incredibly challenging for acoustics, as sound bounces off hard surfaces, which can cause an echo-chamber effect. On the other hand, venues with a greater depth of materials absorb sound. “Venues that have a mix of heavy curtains, wood floors, and carpet will typically have better acoustics,” says Lartey-Williams.
Then there are always those questions about how loud or late your celebration can go. Unless your wedding reception venue is really out there on acres of land, or in a public venue with certain music licenses already in place, it’s likely the space has to abide by local noise ordinances for gatherings, whether that’s a curfew for “amplified sound,” which is often 10 p.m., or venue or hotel policies and limitations, such as prohibiting the use of subwoofers.
Other considerations that are easily overlooked include making sure that your reception venue has sufficient room to accommodate your preferred musical choice, as well as sufficient power requirements to accommodate a band or a DJ. The larger the band, the more additional space and equipment the musicians may need, as well. “Bands often require a green room space that may have an additional rental fee from the venue,” says Mazder. “There are also A/V needs such as staging, lighting, or backline equipment that may be required and can come with bills that total thousands of dollars, so it’s important to review the talent agreement in full and even get pricing for the requirements you’re responsible for before you sign on the dotted line.” Any outdoor lighting, heating, etc., also require a power source, so It’s an important detail to confirm with your wedding venue and the musical talent you’re looking to book.
And it’s not only the physical floor space you need to consider—but it’s also vertical height. “If you go with a band that requires an elevated stage, make sure the ceiling and light fixtures will provide adequate clearance and also that there is enough space to comfortably fit the required stage footprint,” notes Mazder.
How to Make the Big Decision
Oftentimes, the choice comes down to budget. “If budget is the determining factor, we’ll always urge our clients to consider a DJ,” says Mazder. “We also ask our clients to think through their vision for the music and the songs they’re considering for big moments, like their first dance as a married couple or the special parent dances. If the vision includes hearing the song exactly as it sounds on the radio, then a DJ is a great fit. If the vision includes a live band performing the song, and they’re open to the band's version of the song, a band is a great choice.”
Norwood explains that, in her experience, many couples already know exactly what they're looking for when they begin the booking process. “Live music makes the wedding, in my opinion—and not to say DJs aren’t great—personally I prefer a band. They interact with the crowd and keep the party going all night long.” Alternatively, Lartey-Williams points out the versatility of DJs. “Having a skilled DJ who is well-versed in the genres of music you prefer can create an amazing party atmosphere; a great DJ will cater to the needs of a diverse crowd ensuring that there’s something for everyone, whereas with a band, you may be limited by [their] repertoire,” she says. She seconds the consideration that a DJ is a great choice for songs as heard on the radio or social media, whereas a band really puts on a unique performance, perhaps even adding surprise twists to old favorites. “As long as you know the type of mood you're going for, you really can’t go wrong either way.”
Booking Both a DJ and a Band
One trend these wedding professionals have seen more recently is couples opting for band-DJ combinations. “It actually makes a lot of sense,” says Lartey-Williams. “While the band takes a break, the DJ can jump in to keep the party going—or the band can open up the reception, and the DJ can take over for the final high-energy dance sets.” Mazder also says that most of her clients opt for both a band and a DJ if it’s within budget. “The band performs for dinner and the first couple hours of dancing, and the DJ takes over the last few hours of the dance party or for the after-party.”
The bottom line: Book the type of live music or DJ that speaks the overall style of your reception, and ensure that it’s music you both love and want to have as the soundtrack for such a monumental celebration—music that you can truly dance to all night long. This is your wedding, after all!