Cocktail Hour Music with Gregg Hollmann – E123

Matthew Campbell of My Wedding Songs and Gregg Hollmann of Ambient DJ Service chat about the music played during cocktail hour.

Gregg Hollmann, aka “DJ Gregg Ambient” is the owner/founder of New Jersey-based Ambient DJ Service.  Gregg formerly served as the President of the East Coast’s leading professional DJ association The New Jersey Disc Jockey Network.  He enjoys hiking, reading, crafting cocktails, and digging in the crates at record shops.

Connect with Gregg Hollmann of Ambient DJ Service:

Website – The Mixology Experience – The Wedding Music Mixologist – IG: @ambientdjs



Show Notes:

  • Heartwarming Wedding Moments
  • Meet Gregg and Ambient DJs
  • Creating Themed Playlists
  • Playlists Considering the Venue
  • Cocktail Hour Vibes
  • Unique/Personal Playlists
  • Dancing During Cocktail Hour
  • Guests Preferences
  • Being In The Moment
  • Elegant Atmosphere
  • Meeting Expectations
  • Favorite Cocktail Playlist
  • Local Jersey Music
  • The Mixology Experience
  • New Projects
  • Connecting with Gregg

Welcome everybody to the Wedding Songs Podcast. I am Matt Campbell. Today we’re going to be talking about cocktail hour music, but not only cocktail hour, just consider when the doors open and your guests arrive. That’s the music that we’re going to be talking about today. To help me along with the topic is Gregg Hollmann from Ambient DJ headquartered in New Jersey.

Welcome to the show, Gregg. Hi, Matt. Thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be here. Yeah, I really appreciate it. You’re definitely one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet for playlist creation. So had to have you on the show thank you.

Heartwarming Wedding Moments

Please tell everybody a little bit about a heartwarming or memorable moment that you’ve had at weddings in the past. Sure. I have a couple of. Stories I’d like to share. So the first one was a couple named Wesley and Chris and here in New Jersey, they legalized same-sex marriage in 2013 and our company donated our DJ service to this same-sex wedding giveaway.

There were about 10 couples that applied, but the winning couple, the one with the best love story. They received a free DJ, venue, catering, photo booth, photography, videography, wedding planner. They got full suite and they were just an amazing couple.

They had a commitment ceremony about 20 years prior. So they’ve been together a long, long time and they were just so happy to be able to celebrate, more formally with their family and friends. It was a great wedding. So many heartfelt moments, a packed dance floor, and really nice people.

We’re still in touch all these years later. And they actually have a podcast, a culinary podcast called How To Feed a Loon. So that’s the first story. The second would be. This was going back even further. So, about 20 years ago, I DJed a destination wedding in New Orleans, for a friend, a high school friend.

And I went down there basically with a pair of CDJs and mixing board, my laptop computer, I don’t think I had a laptop back then. I think we were using CDs and the reception was, old golf course in new Or been shut down. but it was a pretty no-frills wedding. they just had beer and wine. They had an atmosphere musically. Like I just felt it right from the grand entrance and first dance.

Everyone was excited to be there. it was an atmosphere of celebration. just with hope and Tom, the bride and groom. It was just so much fun. Maybe that’s the difference between New Orleans and New Jersey. Sometimes you have to force the action or warm people up, but it was a great party.

And then I. Nodded off about halfway through the party, a band took over, and I joined the fun out on the dance floor. Wow, that’s incredible as a DJ, where the band is second, because typically I would think the band would be first, and then the DJ does the late-night party. oftentimes, yeah.

Or sometimes we work with bands and we play in between sets, you know, bands need breaks, they can’t play for four hours straight like DJs can. So we play in between and try to. Give the guests some alternative musical flavors and styles that the band would be able to. And then, yeah, a lot of times we do after parties as well.

Meet Gregg and Ambient DJs

Please tell everybody a little bit about you and your company just to give them an idea of what you do there.

I was musically inclined from a young age. I grew up playing piano, studied piano for about 15 years, played alto sax, and played tuba in the high school marching band. I was an avid collector of jazz vinyl during high school. I thought about pursuing a music career, but I didn’t feel that I was talented enough as a performer, and I didn’t want to be a music teacher.

So, therefore I opted to study business and finance, I had a great job with Merrill Lynch after college, but I started to miss music. So in my mid-20s, I just started dabbling in,, learned how to DJ, bought myself a 2 channel mixer, bought some vinyl, did house parties for free, and I found that I had a real knack for it and guests who were giving me positive feedback.

I just kept going with it. I had a well-paying finance job in the meantime. I would moonlight on the weekends as a DJ and then earn a good paycheck during the week. up until about 10 years ago, when I cut the cord and put the finances away. And now Running a DJ company is all that I do.

So I do it on a full-time basis. We are Ambient DJs located in the Princeton area in New Jersey. It started out as a single op myself, added Mike Bacon, DJ Iron Mike, who’s been on your show before I know. Talking about quick mixing the staff just grew organically from there. So currently we have about 15 DJ entertainers on our staff. we work primarily in New Jersey, a little bit in Bucks County, and occasionally New York City. We do about 725 events a year. That’s incredible. Congratulations on building the business. Cause that’s, just in, in 10 years, I think that’s a huge accomplishment. Thank you. Let’s get a little bit into the music because I think that you are known in the DJ industry for creating playlists.

I’m not going to claim that title. You’re probably considered the GOAT of themed cocktail hour playlists at any rate.

Creating Themed Playlists

Why did you start creating those playlists? Sure. So I was always interested in creating playlists, from the early days, I would do compilation CDs, and mix CDs. So I was always a musical curator.

At some point, I got the idea to do a cocktail hour series and I shared it with my DJ staff and said, Hey, put together one hour of cocktail music sequenced in a way that would work at an actual cocktail hour. name your playlist and pick an accompanying signature drink, whether that’s a cocktail, a beer, a mocktail, a soft drink, or whatever.

It wasn’t about boozing up. It was about the music, but pairing them together. So we had a lot of fun with it. I guess from the first round, we got about 10 submissions. So I said, I have a lot more ideas. Let’s keep going with this. And, we hit themes like Yacht Rock, Crooners, and Great Gatsby. The Beatles, Billy Joel, Tiki.

I just kept going and going and, three or four years later, we’re at 120 themed cocktail hour playlists. So I took a breather. I’ll still add them, but I need to be inspired. So usually just through living life and traveling and hearing things that would provide a spark for a new playlist idea.

That’s awesome that you had the inspiration to do that. I agree that sometimes it is fun where you’ll get, like we were talking about, a Miami Vice theme, or the couples will do that a lot too because they’ll have their, music. Preferences. It could be concerts. It could be maybe their Disney fans, whatever that looks like. Now you’re creating that.

Playlists Considering the Venue

When creating your cocktail, and our playlist, do you consider the venue, the time of the day, and the overall theme of the wedding? Definitely. and we ask our clients, do they have any input On the direction they would like to go for cocktail hour.

Oftentimes they don’t, it’s not something that they’ve considered. They’re more focused on their special songs for the reception. And what songs are we going to dance to? But Oh, cocktail hour. I never thought about that. So if they don’t have any ideas, I’ll usually guide them or give them some different alternatives.

Cocktail Hour Vibes

But what I usually recommend if they’re not set on any particular genre or vibe Is a variety of genres and decades just to keep it interesting for the audience. imagine an hour of all Sinatra, all crooners. It’s cool, but it gets a little bit monotonous. Same if it was all electronic beats, but what if.

We started with, some crooners and then did some soft rock, some yacht rock, and then some current pop, and then maybe something with some beats towards the end to get people ready for the reception. And I think that variety is the recipe for a good cocktail hour playlist. sometimes our clients give us their Spotify playlists.

And we run with that or they give us a few songs and we extrapolate, but yeah, my general template is, cocktail hour starts. With nobody in the room, it’s silent, people trickle in, so don’t want to come in too heavy, something a little lighter, and then just work the energy up, through the hour, as the people are coming in, as they’re having their first cocktail, their second cocktail, maybe their third cocktail, and you feel the energy go up.

And then it’s time to, segue into the reception. When you’re talking to your couples during the consultation, how do you get that to come across in the consultation? That this is probably the best way, even though, let’s say they want all instrumental music or all, acoustic music, and that’s still accomplished.

Yeah, I mean, ultimately the clients, it’s their day and they decide, but similar to consulting with a doctor, I’ll offer some advice or share some experiences and say, Hey, for example, classical music. It doesn’t sound great over, a sound system. There’s a lot of dead air.

It’s quiet and it explodes. It’s probably not the best music for your cocktail or certainly for an entire hour. I would say things like that. Or I would say, well, hey, have you considered maybe adding a little variety? And generally, they’ll go along with that. I’m very happy that you’re saying that because I went to a wedding last year that was still I think stuck in the 90s where it was John Coltrane’s CDs of jazz music and I think that has its place but to play that for an hour, let’s just say that after dinner a lot of the guests left because they were bored out of their mind.

Right, right. I think for some clients or DJs, cocktail hour is kind of a throwaway. It’s, prior to digital DJs and all the technology and apps that we have now, it was a little bit harder, but there were some DJs who literally put a Kenny G CD on for the cocktail hour and just let that rock nothing against Kenny G.

He’s a cool guy, but an hour of Kenny G. And. Not having the originality to do, different vibes for different couples. I think it’s not as, fun as a wedding, or as unique or customizing the wedding. If you just go in with the easy way, the lazy way, the same old, same old. I agree. Just adding that personality and, you know, and I know that if the couples instill their Personality into the playlist guests are going to know that you’re doing that as well.

If the wedding couple, as an example, are huge Journey fans and you’re playing Journey during cocktail hour, then they’re going to understand that maybe you don’t want an hour of it, but at least they’re going to understand it. Sure. Sure. We do get a lot of positive feedback from our clients, and guests who enjoy a fresher, Perspective on the music, not the same old stuff.

You know, we’re not giving them an hour of elevator music or an hour of smooth jazz. we really put some greater thought into, selections and the same thing for dinner music at the reception. We don’t have that CD or that playlist we always put on. We try to customize it to the client, to the couple, and maybe hit some very unique songs. not so danceable, that probably wouldn’t work for the mainstream, open dancing later, but dinner cocktail are, those are, good moments to place those unique songs, whether that’s indie rock or international music, things like that.

Unique/Personal Playlists

Have you had any unique playlists that you can share? Can think of a DJ board once a DJ was requested to play all Bossa Nova music. And I’m like, wow, that would be so cool to play, but I’m not sure about an hour, but man, that, that would be awesome. So do you have any, examples? Yeah. So we did have a wedding in Asbury Park a couple of years ago where the couple picked all sorts of bossa nova jazz covers of popular songs by artists like the weekend.

And it was cool. I think it got a little bit monotonous towards the end, but it was interesting. I enjoyed it. That’s cool. Yeah. Not something you hear every day. I’m sure that’s what kept people’s attention too. Then, we had a multicultural wedding the groom was Asian American and a professional ballet dancer.

I think he may not have been active, but at some point, he’s been a professional ballet dancer. And, his wife was, From Latin America. they did a wonderful tango for their first dance, but in their cocktail hour, we played, some classic Spanish music and, ballroom-type music that I would not typically play during a cocktail, but I played it because of.

Who the couple was. Exactly. I love it. I love it when couples add their personality to it. They don’t have to give you a list of 50 songs for it, give you a list of four or five just to get you in one direction. And then your creative juices can get flown for the rest of it.

Dancing During Cocktail Hour

At your weddings do guests dance during the cocktail hour? So most of the time I will pre-program a cocktail hour Like I said, with that formula of the rising energy and let it rock, using, an iPod or tablet or something like that. You may see some people dancing. Certainly, our hope would be that they’re tapping their feet or, vibing out with the music.

We see dancing more when we have some hybrid musician fusion packages where a sax player will do the cocktail hour. That human interaction is more likely to induce some dancing. The energy feeds, you know, of the musician, the guests feed off each other and you can see some dancing break out. we have a relatively new package where we offer couples the option of having a DJ, it’s usually a separate DJ, who does the cocktail hour on all vinyl, so not Serato control vinyl, but he’ll bring a couple of crates out, he or she, and, play stuff like Stevie Wonder or The Weeknd and Michael Jackson and, We leave some request slips up there.

If they can browse through the crates, if they want to request the song or artists, again, that visual element of, seeing a DJ and handing the vinyl that makes guests more likely to participate or dance. I think that’s a great tip of, having the vinyl DJs in there where you’re getting that vintage feel, right?

I think couples should consider live music for their cocktail hour. It’s not a throwaway. It’s a time to be unique, but whether that’s a jazz trio or a flamenco act with a singer and a flamenco guitar player, sax player, and electric violinist, sure. It’s a little more expensive than having a DJ play prerecorded music, but it’s ultimately more entertaining and makes for a more unique event.

I love that. I talked to Jay Merch about that on a past podcast and having that infusion of the DJ and the live musicians. Awesome.

Guests Preferences

So how do you gauge guests’ preferences and adjust the music selection accordingly by how they’re reacting to it? If we’re doing a preset playlist, there’s not a lot of ability to do that, I could switch out of a playlist to a new playlist if I saw it was bombing, but usually that that doesn’t happen. So, I just try to make the playlist inclusive. Tailored to the couple. Tailored to my understanding of the crowd. And most weddings are going to feature guests of all ages.

I call them middle-aged adults, which is the politically correct term for, people in their forties and fifties and up, but let’s be inclusive and play some music for everybody.

Being In The Moment

That’s a great transition into, how do you find the couples responding to music that maybe you’re unexpected and what genres are they requesting for their cocktail hour music?

Meaning what vibe do they want?  First off that question varies. We try to find out whether the wedding couple is even going to attend the cocktail hour. Sometimes they don’t. Most times they’ll attend for about half of it. They’re usually running around doing photographs. So if these songs are really important to them, I try to make sure that they’re in the room or if they’re not going to be there, I’ll play their favorite cocktail songs for dinner music or, in between courses at the reception.

But I think couples enjoy, to the extent that you can extrapolate and go a little bit deeper than what they like or expect, some of those deeper cuts that, wow, how did you know that song or, that was such a pleasant surprise, So that just comes from experience and knowing your music, during the reception, we have a game plan and we know a lot about the couple, but if you listen, during those speeches and toasts and talking to guests, you can learn things about the couple or, maybe the bridesmaid in her speech mentions that growing up, they used to have sleepovers and blast Stacy’s mom. So, a little later in the night, we’ll make sure to play Stacy’s mom and they’ll look over at the DJ and they’ll be so happy. A lot of clues, that you can pick up by just being tuned in. I think that that’s a really, really important factor that you mentioned you could have the couple requesting whatever music, but if they’re not going to be there to enjoy it, then I think that’s a great tip to plan that for the dinner, of having that when they’re not there when they’re taking their pictures, cause they’re not going to enjoy it.

So I think that’s a huge tip that you just made there. Yeah, I was just going to add, that we don’t do it every time, but, for some of our favorite couples after the events, we’ll compile. A Spotify playlist. It could be the exact set that we played that night, either cocktail hour or the dinner reception just sort of as a commemoration of this is what actually went down at your wedding or a cocktail or where they weren’t there. But here’s the playlist that we played and you can enjoy it. I love that.

Elegant Atmosphere

How can couples incorporate modern music while maintaining an elegant atmosphere during the cocktail hour? Sure. I think, there are a lot of exciting cover versions these days of classic songs. and. They’re very easy to discover with Spotify these days. So, yeah, I would suggest taking classic songs and playing a version by more contemporary artists. it’s a nice hybrid where everyone will recognize the song, but it’s just a little more modern take.

Those types of songs are good. To put you on the spot a little bit, then talking about electronic dance music, if the couple’s really into that, just because it’s growing so much in popularity, how would you intermix that into a cocktail hour? There are some artists that really enjoy in the electronics that we’re in, like tropical house, new disco, deep disco genres that could be about 105 beats per minute, acts like satin jackets or disclosure.

Calvin Harris has some, material and that tempo, but that’s a nice area. It’s not too heavy, but you can kind of get into a groove. and that’s what electronic music is to me. It’s just, it’s atmospheric and, and groovy and can get you locked in.

Meeting Expectations

So how do you ensure that the cocktail hour in music meets the couple’s and the guest’s expectations?

Well, I think having good music, the raw materials, that’s number one. the tracks that you’ve selected, I think the sequence is important. so that it feels like a natural progression rather than. just a jagged up and down, no direction, like a random walk. and I think volume is also important.

You want music, you want it to be present, but you don’t want it to be overwhelming. Nor do you want it to just disappear into the cacophony of conversations. So finding that perfect level and adjusting it as the cocktail hour unfolds, I think is important.

Favorite Cocktail Playlist

So do you have a favorite cocktail hour?

Playlist or a vibe that you like? Well, sometimes, like late on a Sunday night after a busy weekend of events, I like to sit in my home office and I like to listen to, jazz, like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and, . that sort of stuff and have a glass of wine and yeah, that’s, that’s kind of my version of a fun cocktail hour. I love electronic music. I love international music.

Local Jersey Music

So, all these playlists that we put together, yacht rock, I think for different occasions, I’d be down for all of them. Because you’re in New Jersey, I have to ask, because I’m from that area originally, do you ever get the occasional Jersey Boys music that you have to play?

Frankie Valli and all that style of music? Occasionally the Jersey Boys and Frankie Valli, it’s not unusual to see a couple of Frankie Valli tracks on a wedding playlist.

Can’t take my eyes off of you as a huge track, particularly for reception. It’s a great sing along and it gets very exciting. Bruce Springsteen is very popular in New Jersey to this day, so I like to incorporate some Springsteen tracks, particularly if I’m working on the Jersey Shore. Monmouth County, like Asbury Park.

I grew up in Monmouth County, but that’s Bruce Springsteen country. and he’s had such a deep catalog. I think for wedding receptions, the dance parties, Springsteen can be hit or miss. Like his super fans, they’re all in on all the songs, but if you’re not that type of fan, you’re not going to react that, that well.

So I like Dancing in the Dark. That’s a good track for, All audiences, in my opinion. Sort of a cocktail hour track for the boss. I like the 10th Avenue Freeze-Out. That’s a really nice song and gets great audience reactions. Fantastic. So if you’re listening from New Jersey, planning a wedding, there you go. Some great tips. Let’s talk a little bit more about you to close it out.

The Mixology Experience

You recently released a new book, the Mixology Experience. For those of you that are watching on YouTube, there’s a picture of the book. So can you tell everybody a little bit about the book? Sure. I wanted to share some of the positive experiences that I was having, listening to music, enjoying cocktails, and the synergy.

When you do both, so we have all these senses. Music obviously is for the ear, but, we have the taste, we have smells. So cocktail like a good night out. So for example, I recently went to a spot in Brooklyn called the Clover Club, and they’re very well known for their craft cocktails.and live music.

So it was Wednesday night. It was jazz. They had a Brazilian, I think it was a quartet, but there was a trombone player, bass player, and keyboard. They were playing some wonderful bossa nova music and other things. It was a dimly lit atmosphere. I enjoyed a Clover Club cocktail. That’s their, their specialty.

Then I moved on to a drink called the duck hunt, which had, Vodka it was infused with duck fat. Of course, the fat wasn’t in there and made into a fancy martini. So my wife and I were having just a great time sitting back, enjoying our cocktails, listen to jazz music. And all of our senses are, tingling with the light.

So the idea of my book was to present some of my favorite themed playlists, things like Yacht Rock or the Speakeasy, and then pair them with craft cocktails that would go well with the musical vibe. Rather than just ask AI, hey, can you, pump out 18 cocktail recipes and generate 18 images and call it a day?

I actually took the time to learn how to make these cocktails, tweak them, appreciate them, and photograph them. It was about a two-year project to put this all together, and I enjoyed the process. To give people an example, and you’re listening to yacht rock, what are some of the songs that might be playing, and what would be the drink that you’d be enjoying?

Sure. So let me call that up. So there is the yacht rock playlist in the book here. We have artists, like, Toto Georgie Porgy. Are you familiar with that song, Matt? I am. That’s a great song. It’s a wonderful song. we have, Michael McDonald I keep forgetting, which is one of the top or most yachty yacht rock tracks of all time.

There’s actually a website called, which rates the yachties of a song. So if you wanna know whether it’s yacht rock, you can always consult there. Steely Dan, Hall & Oates, Kenny Loggins. little river band, things like that. And the signature cocktail, was, you know, a lighter drink.

This is the spicy watermelon margarita and there’s the instructions on how to make it. And, I also included a bonus. Suggestion. That was a particular craft beer called, Cali Cream. And it’s a vanilla cream ale, but nice and light. Be great. If you’re out on your yacht, I don’t know if you have a yacht, Matt, but picture that.

You can actually click the QR code to go to the Spotify playlist actually, enjoy it. It’s more than words on a page. You can actually listen to it. And then there’s a bonus mix on Mixcloud, which is a separate playlist. This mix was done by DJ Iron Mike, and it’s mostly different tracks than this, but it’s, Mixed, there’s transitions as opposed to the Spotify playlist, which is unmixed. and yeah, so you have a cocktail, you listen to the art rock playlist or, or iron mics mix, and hopefully you have a mixology experience. That’s phenomenal. So those of you who are listening, I’m going to have links to buy the book. In the show description. Speaking of that, do you have any upcoming projects because you’re so ambitious, right?

New Projects

Well, the first project is the, I call it the wedding music masterclass, which is our annual survey of wedding music. The best first dance songs, parent dance, grand entrance songs, cake cutting bouquet, and garter, and then our cocktail our playlist songs, not to play out a wedding, top Latin dance songs so forth.

We took a brief hiatus from it during the pandemic. We weren’t having enough weddings and I thought that music had gotten a little bit stagnant. and recently, I’ve just been backed up with other projects and the rigors of running a business, but that. I promise this is going to be released this April and, we’ll do a big blog post.

I’m excited that, we’ll be cross-promoting, your site, Matt. and, we think very highly of your work. And in fact, for special songs and the first dance, you go into a lot more detail and really keep track of. All the new emerging tracks.

Whereas we’re hitting the big ones. and certainly not going as deep into country music because country music is a bit less popular here in New Jersey. Very cool. And then I heard through the grapevine too, that you were working on another project about DJs, right? I have another book in me and this one is called prospectively the rise and fall of Star DJs.

For those of you who aren’t aware, star DJs was a New Jersey-based company, that came into prominence during the eighties and early nineties. So this was the era of, sequin jackets, mullets, big bridal shows, and hairspray. And, Star DJs was founded by a great guy named John Murphy who started as a solo op.

He added a couple of, DJs was able to replicate his style fairly well. Mike Walter, who you may know is very successful, in the mobile DJ industry and in multi-op management and training in particular, he was a DJ entertainer at Star. he was the operations manager for a time.

A lot of the big names came out of the star system, but Star scaled up from John Murphy to the early nineties. I ever talked to like 1992. I read an article that said they were doing 6,000 private events per year and doing millions in revenue. they had an incredible rise, but they also, fell fairly quickly as well, at least in New Jersey.

I think there are some lessons and there are some colorful stories. So the idea is to do a lot of research, talking to the entertainers, to the managers. And put it all together, figure out what happened. get some lessons and takeaways. Write a book and who knows, maybe it could be adapted into a documentary or movie someday, like The Wolf of Wall Street.

I love that because everybody thinks of the EDM DJs versus the mobile DJs. So I think that would be fascinating, not only just for our industry, but I think everybody across the board, because we all had DJs at our weddings. And that style of entertainment has gone way out of favor, Few people want a flamboyant DJ entertainer or, the DJ in a sequined jacket leading a conga line or, lots of audience participation, but things do come full circle. So that style may come back, but it was a period in time and star DJs ruled the roost.

Connecting with Gregg

To close things out, is there something that we missed about cocktail hour music that you think we still want to share? I think we covered what I wanted to speak about. Yes. Okay. We’re good. Okay, cool. Where can listeners connect with you and include your book? If you were interested in purchasing the book or checking out some of the Spotify playlists that are in the book, we have a dedicated website, It’s pretty self-explanatory, but there’s a shop tab, which is where you click and can purchase the book, on social media, on Instagram. I’m at @ambientdjs, A-M-B-I-E-N-T, DJs. My cocktail Instagram is @musicmixologist. TikTok is @musicmixology. And if you wanna see those 120 cocktail hour playlists, we have a dedicated website,

Awesome, Greg. I know, if you want to be looking at all those and clicking on the links, like I said before, just click those links on the show notes. stay tuned for next week for another interview with another wedding pro. Thanks for listening and have a great day. And thanks, Greg. My pleasure, Matt. Take care.

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