Feature on Soundsations — DJ specializing in weddings

Ashley Hunt

Weddings are beautiful things — filled with elegance, white dresses, flowers and of course the wedding party. Receptions are when the fun comes in. The key to a great, exciting and fun wedding reception, one that feels more like a celebration than an obligatory dinner following the wedding, is the music.

In the past, many brides and grooms have arranged for live bands to play the music for their reception. Today, with technology around every corner, brides and grooms arrange for DJs to provide music and entertainment for the wedding guests. An option for a fun wedding DJ in central Iowa is Soundsations DJ Services, located in Pella.

Craig Van Vark, owner and founder of Soundsations, offered some insight into how he has found success in a difficult field, his own experiences with weddings and how brides and grooms can find the right DJ for their receptions.

Van Vark, an ISU alumnus, created Soundsations in 1993 but had experience with radio and music for years before doing so. Van Vark worked at four radio stations over the course of eight years in a variety of positions, including marketing, working with the morning show producer and programming.

At his last radio station in Ottumwa, Van Vark ended

up working a few DJ gigs on the side and discovered he enjoyed it.

In 1993 while Van Vark was taking classes at Simpson College, he was given a project in one of his entrepreneurship courses that would change his life. The project required students to create a small business in a field that they had experience in or in which they were interested. “It was a little more than just a theory on paper,” Van Vark said. “We actually had to start a business.”

And so Soundsations came to be. Almost 20 years later, Soundsations has developed from a class project to a successful business, having provided music for more than 400 wedding receptions.

One thing that helps Soundsations be a success is Van Vark himself is the only DJ. Van Vark said that many times brides and grooms will want the owner of the company. That is the person they have heard about and that has reached success. When they get another DJ, it can be disappointing.

Van Vark’s company may specialize in weddings but also provides entertainment for school dances and other various events. Van Vark said weddings are different from the others, especially school dances.

“There is definitely a difference [between weddings and school dances],” Van Vark said. “School dances are a little more cut and dried. It’s pretty much you go in, set up, know what your start time is, what your end time is.”

Van Vark related DJing for a school dance to a rock concert: “Those guys go out there, and they play their same set each time. DJing for school dances for me is a lot like that.”

Weddings are different than these events because as a DJ, you may know your start time, but you never know how late the dance will go, Van Vark said.

In addition to this fact, the crowds for weddings vary quite a bit. 

Sometimes the guests are partiers and want to stay out late to celebrate. Other times, guests will go home after a few songs, and no one will be left at the reception.

As a small business, many may not think of the marketing philosophy a DJ service will have to develop in order to gain customers. Van Vark related his marketing philosophy to that of Casey’s General Store years ago.

“I went into all the small towns and pretty much ignored the bigger metropolitan areas,” Van Vark said. “I basically just market myself to smaller towns particularly in southeast Iowa. I’ve definitely noticed a difference between crowds in metropolitan areas and in small towns.”

Soundsations DJ Service provides more than the basic entertainment and music library, which includes more than 6,000 songs from all genres including oldies, country, rock and R&B.

In a basic wedding package, brides and grooms can expect to have a reception every guest will remember. Services provided include special effects for spotlight dances, a bouquet and garter toss, dollar dance, introduction of the wedding party, announcements of events, the use of a wireless microphone and a computerized and LED lighting system.

For Van Vark, it is a given that these services should be included in the wedding package.

“[The bouquet and garter toss and dollar dance] are usually the events you have the most fun with. Some other DJs stick it in as an after thought; I view it as a big presentational item,” Van Vark explained. “As traditional items, I believe it should stick out. I think these traditions cut across generations, young and old. Everybody likes to participate in these events.”

These traditions aren’t the only thing that Van Vark makes sure to do at receptions to get every guest involved.

“My favorite thing [about DJing weddings], aside from just going out and doing it every Saturday night, is just getting everybody involved,” Van Vark said.

“It’s kind of fun. I don’t do a lot of games at weddings like other DJs might do. I like to do more things that will get everybody involved. It’s really fun to see everybody, from a 16-year-old high school kid to a 65-year-old grandma doing the “Cha Cha Slide.” I like to see everybody from 40 to 50 years difference do the same thing and all have fun.”

After providing music and entertainment for more than 400 receptions, experience is not something Van Vark and Soundsations DJ Service lack. In the span of nearly 20 years, Van Vark said he has noticed changes from weddings in general, as well as changes from wedding to wedding.

One general change Van Vark has found is today the couples seem to be older than they were years ago. Couples are more often in their late 20s and 30s as opposed to just fresh out of college.

Also during his time providing entertainment at weddings, Van Vark said he has seen a few out of the ordinary things.

A few memories stuck out in Van Vark’s mind, including a story about how the groomsmen serenaded the groom and proceeded to throw in him the pool at the country club where the reception was. 

Another entertaining moment for Van Vark came from a family tradition between the bride and her father. This tradition entailed the bride and her father getting on top of the table and dancing to “Tequila” while drinking tequila.

For Van Vark, it has been interesting to see the differences between each wedding and how each bride and groom can make a wedding their own. Traditions like the garter and bouquet toss and the dollar dance may span over many weddings, but personalizing each wedding can make the bride and groom’s very special day unique.

Van Vark also offered his 2 cents on how to be a successful DJ, particularly at wedding receptions, as well as how a bride and groom can find the right DJ to make their special day special.

Van Vark said he believes the key to being a successful wedding DJ is knowing the audience.

“That goes back even to my radio programming career. Know your audience — who you’re trying to reach.”

Van Vark brought up the fact that many aspiring DJs get into the business for the wrong reasons. “When I first started out, I bought my equipment from a guy who sold stuff from Ames,” Van Vark said. “He told me that roughly 50 percent of the guys that bought equipment from him were back within a year asking him to buy the equipment back.”

By knowing his audience, Van Vark has been able to provide music for every guest at the reception. “I get brides and grooms that say: ‘Can we pick out the music for you?’ because they want to have songs they like. I tell them if they want a DJ to do that, then I’m not the right person for you.”

Van Vark said that brides and grooms need to remember that even though they are paying for the service, there are anywhere from 100 to up to 300 people besides them who need entertainment.

When a bride or groom is looking for a DJ, the most important thing is finding someone who will relate to and understand the crowd. With a variety of people at the event, a variety of music must be played in order to please everyone as much as possible.

The bottom line, Van Vark said, is that when a bride is trying to book a DJ for her reception, there are a lot of factors she takes into account. “One of the big ones is price. They won’t be wowed by a really awesome sound system. Most brides are looking for somebody who is experienced and gets the crowd involved, and somebody who is affordable.”

Van Vark said another reason he has seen success as a DJ is because he has kept it simple. He also said he is truly mobile, with a setup time of only 45 minutes, and he keeps his prices affordable, while still providing quality entertainment.

While continuing to keep his services simple, he also keeps it modern. By keeping up-to-date with technology such as computerized and LED lighting, he is able to stand out from other DJ services.

“I’ve always tried to stay current and modern. LED lighting is one of the unique things I do. I always try to do special effects for spotlight dances like smoke effects [when possible].”

When brides and grooms plan weddings, they might immediately start to plan the wedding itself — the church, the dress and all the flowers — but it’s important to remember the celebration.

The reception is a time for the wedding party to celebrate with the guests, and it is just as important as the wedding ceremony itself. For a night to remember, find a DJ that can provide more than just music, but entertainment and memories that will last a lifetime.

For more information on Soundsations and the DJ services Van Vark supplies, you can send an email to [email protected] or call toll free at 1-888-628-9179.