In some countries, clubs are cautiously reopening. In others, people are hitting up illegal raves. We explore what the dance music landscape will look like in the immediate aftermath of coronavirus
Like it or not, parties are back.
Barely a month ago this seemed a remote prospect, even with Chinese spaces like .TAG operational and Berlin biergartens opening up. The last weekend suggests that Europe has taken a mile when offered an inch. In Prague, Lausanne, Amsterdam, and Paris, people were legally out and dancing, while illicit raves popped up from Kirkby to Kreuzberg. In Ibiza, superclubs are shut, but villa parties and poolside bars are racing to capitalise on a makeshift summer season. Owing to the country’s exemplary handling of coronavirus, the Serbian prime minister has urged EXIT Festival to soldier on with its 20th edition in August. You can reserve a table for a Balearic Brunch in Brixton next month if you truly feel the urge. Everywhere you look, clubland is thawing and green shoots of recovery are sprouting.
Could a rushed return to events be a disaster? Of course. Coronavirus adds a moral dimension unlike any other, and it would be naïve to think that an industry as diffuse and flawed as live music has a foolproof plan in place. Seoul shutting down the entire city’s network of venues after one super-spreader erroneously bar-hopped shows how to responsibly react to a still highly-active threat. Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk and Rock & Roll Steakhouse packing punters to the rafters in Tennessee shows how not to.
Structurally speaking, there’s no clear solution for how this all shakes out – if there was, you’d hope some saviour would get to work implementing it. Next-step reports and formal calls for rescue packages have come out across the globe, but they all assume that the demand for, and supply of, music will stay consistent. It’s inevitable this isn’t a fixed variable, as if the faucet of available musicians and eager punters can just be turned back on to refill venues.
It goes without saying that there have been much more pressing issues on people’s minds this year. But unless we accept the total impotence of entertainment at a time of struggle, it’s worth mapping how the industry returns to play after this unprecedented halt. So here are some observations about what might happen, hopes about what should happen, and realism about what is likely to happen within dance music.
WAVE GOODBYE TO GROSS COMMERCE
Speak to the vast majority of people working within electronic music in recent years, and you’ll hear similar complaints: of being pushed around by bully promoters expanding into territories outside of home while locking performers into rigid exclusivity contracts within a 100-mile radius; being taken to the cleaners by powerful DJ agencies; having local talent passed over in favour of established options on the circuit. A one per center bubble dictates the terms and sets the price of clubbing for the rest.
That era is surely now over. Anyone who stays with the old way has to give up the pretense of being underground. This is a moment of succession, of mainland and islands separating as tectonic plates shift. Paying £20,000 plus five-star hotels and all the rest for 90 minutes worth of wicka-wacka will feel like PSG shelling out £198m for Neymar. In general, egregious displays of wealth, vanity, or tone-deafness will be gazed upon extremely dimly. Alexander wept for there were no more worlds to conquer; we weep for no more silver gabber whistles going into production. A tragedy.
WE SHOULDN’T EXPECT A GILDED AGE OF DIY PROMOTERS (YET)
In May, when the first footage of a socially distanced party in Münster surfaced, it spread like wildfire: the optics of 100 uniformly white and blatantly un-socially distanced people paying €70 for some sort of VE Day II: Victory Harder boogie riled pretty much everyone. As it transpired, this vision of industrial-strength cringe was more accurate than we knew.
The scenes of returning parties are a model of privilege. Almost every sanctioned event stops before midnight, open air spaces are prioritised and pre-purchased tickets are a must. Temporarily at least, we’re back to the mid-2010s trend of blanched nightlife experiences. If this becomes the new norm, promoters face triple jeopardy: big venues that offer a chance to scale up will be the last to come back (or, in the case of Printworks, have already shifted to drive-in cinema); medium-sized ones are at acute risk, living on a financial razor’s edge; and red tape means even a lowly basement party is at constant threat of being rumbled. Electronic music is always healthiest when the widest variety of people have agency within it. Even if DJs slash their fees as expected, the fantasy of running venues at 60 per cent capacity is exactly that – a fantasy. Specialist parties that exist primarily for queer or non-white audiences will be the first to take a hit, because it’s a cloistered scene by trade, and often by necessity too. Pricing people out of nightlife entrenches the structure that led to such a fucked-up imbalance in the first place.
As much as everyone would love hegemonies to get broken up, only institutions with deep pockets can afford to run events below capacity for now. And already, these institutions are shirking responsibility. Live Nation taking a $500m investment from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund while simultaneously pushing the financial burden of cancelling shows onto artists should send everyone’s blood running cold. In the UK, assisting live music seems to be the very last thing on the government’s mind, with the officials specifically meant to protect clubs notoriously inept. Anticipate a depressing re-run of the battle to legitimise nightlife all over again, breaking Puritanical logic that no, not all clubs can exist in the daytime and yes, the dark is not a scary place. Do we really want to live in a world where 90 per cent of clubs and festivals are facing extinction, but M&M’s World is open for business?
It’s not all grim news. Take Lithuania, which has done astonishingly well in its handling of the crisis, recording just 76 deaths in total. Vilnius is a model of transformation, as one of the capital’s best-loved DJs, Manfredas, explained to me. “The city eased the regulations for bars early, allowing us to use basically any space outside the premises and make one big open-air café,” he says. His first DJ set once back in action was not for one of his residencies at premier club Opium, but for parked cars outside the airport. “Pre-quarantine, it was extremely difficult to get such permits, so this really changed the face of the city,” Manfredas says. “I could imagine it looks scary for somebody landing out of the blue, but it took weeks for the worry and paranoia to fade. Everyone has shown massive support to their favourite spots, opening up a new scene. We’ve only just started hugging and sharing smokes again. Of course people understand the possibility of a second wave, but it’s all the more reason to appreciate the music and togetherness and live in the moment – we’re definitely going for it.”
Similar success stories will admittedly be limited in 2020. Independent operators in hard-hit cities might have to bite their tongue and appeal directly to audiences’ innate sense of fairness by clearly demarcating the lines between corporate ventures operated top-down and those run from the bottom-up. A sliding scale of ticket prices could be implemented, where those who can pay more on the door do – though you can have valid doubts about whether club-based behavioural game theory is going to work. It’s an unsavoury form of collective action, but if it keeps clubs affordable and safe for a broad set of society, it’s worth a shot. Community spirit is going to have a stress test like never before.
MINDLESS SELF-INDULGENCE WILL BE HEAVILY SCRUTINISED
Dance music is used to familiar epicentres exerting outsize influence (or, less charitably, showing off how cool they are): New York, Berlin, London. For the first time in living memory, the balance of clubbing tilts in the opposite direction. None of these cities are getting back to normal footfall any time soon. At the beginning of lockdown, consternation was rife as the moral imperative to shut down public spaces was heeded by some countries and ignored by others. Watch this now go into reverse as staggered reopening of clubs, broadly rolling east to west and documented through the distorting lens of social media, causes further friction.
A rift in the US continues to widen between those taking coronavirus seriously and those wriggling out of responsibility on the proviso of liberty. The country is still mired in its first wave of the virus and, critically, still fighting a national battle against subjugation and for liberation. In the wake of protests that broke out across the globe, countless promoters, platforms, and actors within the music industry have pledged to be more equitable and stop being so incessantly self-involved, but this already feels compromised. Set aside the argument about individuals being at fault for actions of the state for a minute. If you were lacing up your shoes to hit the streets for your 30th straight day of protests and scrolled past a video of the same white dudes who posted a black square on Instagram now dancing on chairs in a fancy courtyard, wouldn’t you call them on being full of shit?
This situation poses risks for brands as well as fans. Lapses in judgement take on additional gravity. When news broke of an irresponsible warehouse party in Los Angeles, people slammed not just the promoters, but Resident Advisor for selling tickets. The withering response to an all-white panel of techno trainspotters published by Electronic Beats confirmed people’s commitment to criticise platforms’ jurisdiction of care like never before. You can’t retrofit material from The Before Times to now. What that means for a music media infrastructure that relies on clicks and engagement is unclear. Expect the attention economy-fuelled methods of online activity to shift as the climate remains combustible. The content churning we’re used to might already be in the rearview mirror for good.
In what might be the first dance party in Europe in months, Gerd Janson played to a small, socially-distanced crowd in Münster last night. We're speaking with the promoters on how they pulled this one off. More details forthcoming pic.twitter.com/SSfrxRrQkV— Resident Advisor (@residentadvisor) May 22, 2020
IF GOD IS A DJ, BUT HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE, WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE US?
We’ve got enough distance from the initial novelty of living through a pandemic to call this one straight up: no fucker is going dancing in a hazmat suit. It’s a romanticised ideal that’s infantile, and pretty gross when PPE remains in short supply. Footage of parties has shown that masks are worn fairly sparingly. It seemed optimistic to assume that instruments which get in the way of drinking, chatting, and intake of extracurriculars would be readily adopted by weekend warriors anyway.
As the rules of physical engagement are constantly rewritten, there’s another barrier that people aren’t really taking into account yet. The psychology of trusting one another in crowded places is unknown. Dancefloors have a de facto code of ethics: look out for each other, but so long as no-one is causing harm or distress, you don’t grass someone up. Let people be people. What happens if a performer watches a dozen people crowd around the bar when distancing is meant to be strictly enforced? Are sound engineers meant to double up as mask-dispensers? Someone sloshing a drink in their hand while shoving through a crowd was bad enough rave etiquette before, whereas now it’s a potential public health hazard.
Amsterdam’s high-end listening bar Doka provides some clues about how people’s behaviour might adapt, a trial run for manoeuvres in the dark. Carista, who played a sold-out “shift” (as they have been tactfully renamed) last weekend, used the Dutch phrase ‘knaldrang’ to describe the scene – an urge to pop out your seat. “I think it was a bit hard for everyone to sit still after a long time of clubs not being open,” she writes over email. “People needed that social contact; I can imagine after such a long time you’re craving for some interaction.” When another of the DJs, Margie, was in session, Carista and the other attendees “all stood up and danced near our seats, trying to keep our distance. Super weird of course, but it’s the only way to make it work.”
When it comes to off-location raves, safety is a renewed concern. Nostalgia in the UK that we’re due to live through another 1989-style Summer of Love has met a cold reality check: two weekends on the bounce, illegal gatherings have resulted in stabbings, shootings, and rape. As calling emergency services could tip off the party location, ravers have abstained. More upmarket invite-only events like The Sunday Afters have been ignoring or deleting anyone who airs safety concerns, even after a vetting process to get onto private communication channels. Their most recent event in London got raided all the same, a sign of rival promoters and disgruntled clubbers dobbing others in as retaliation. Will the transformation from bassbin-botherers to curtain-twitchers be permanent? Jury’s out. But the contours of a night out will feel very different for a while.
THE REIGN OF TERROR MIGHT BE OVER
In April, Bristolian producer/horticulturist Hodge tapped out an innocuous sentiment, wondering if DJs would play weirder music in the club upon their return. It sparked a predictable squall of bad faith takes. I’m going to take the liberty of speaking for Hodge here and assume he didn’t mean airing Penderecki at peak time, more breaking free of the orthodoxy of supermassive untz that had become fatiguing.
That doesn’t necessarily mean everything will slow down to a chug. Those that flit between juke, jungle, footwork, breakbeat, acid, pitched-up pop reshapes, percussive club trax, and everything in between should flourish. Some of the world’s most exciting DJs and producers are already found within this big tent, a mix of fearless new faces and veterans having a well-earned second wind. So expect speed to maintain, even if severity doesn’t.
But in the last couple of years, techno had reached the ‘Zone of Fruitless Intensification,’ to nab a phrase from Simon Reynolds. I’d wager that when clubs resume, fast and aggressive techno/hardcore will no longer dominate the zeitgeist. That’s not to say minimal 2.0 will suddenly take root (wouldn’t be a bad outcome though imo!) or ruthless rippers will fall away completely – to each their own, and wanting to be flattened by enormous kicks after climbing the walls in lockdown is fair enough – but it feels unlikely that the jangled nerves of trepidatious clubgoers will be assailed by a carnival of carnage.
Everything that lends itself to this scene seems incompatible with the softly-softly return of sanitised clubbing. Fetish nights in broad daylight with hourly health and safety walkarounds won’t make sense. Biohazard symbols and gory aesthetics are out the window – just look at the wincing reaction to corona-themed visuals displayed behind Berlin’s SPFDJ (without her knowledge) back in a February show. Add the fact that people have been kettled, pepper sprayed, chained, stomped and detained in protests the world over, and the tropes of punishment & control will be a tough sell.
I’LL SEE YOU AFTER THE FUNCTION
Connected to the above, there are big questions about the function of club records and the overchoice of options facing performers. After the Apollo/Transco lacquer factory fire in February, anyone churning out limited 12”s was already staring down inclement conditions. The environmental argument for shedding a reliance on vinyl had been getting louder, and now the idea of DJs endlessly teasing dubplates in clubs seems ludicrous – especially as a network of venues needed to build up a head of steam might simply not exist. Within weeks of isolation, some of the most sought-after rarities had found their way onto Bandcamp and other webstores, partly because musicians need to plug lost income, and partly because there are simply more important things in life now than hoarding your VIPs.
In a parallel twist, with the gears of the festival-industrial complex resting, 2020 will be the first year in decades with no elected Sound of the Summer – at least not one decided by consensus on terrazas, boat parties, and afters. On the face of it, this is a positive: with trend maps scattered and no need to drop the hit du jour, DJs are free to choose their own adventure when getting back into the booth.
But for most DJs, especially those that prioritise breaking new sounds and going deep on the endless rattle of promos to keep up with the Oliver Joneses, having 5000 unplayed tunes stretching back to autumn 2019 is a quandary. As the internet likes to ponder, imagine you’re at the controls: what would you play at the first gig back? You’re probably going to draw for classics to match the moment, aren’t you? We now have a few examples to go off. Watching Teki Latex drop Bobby Shmurda, Shy FX, and “Bring In The Katz” while celebrating Fête de la Musique confirms that assumption – though he laughs that he will be tormented by not having the chance to do so again for ages, “like a feral animal getting the taste of gourmet meat after eating dry dog food for three months.”
When DJ Scott Young returns to his native Hong Kong to play at celebrated space 宀 in July, he figures the safe road will be the one best travelled on. The set that Carista played at Doka speaks to this logic: Luther Vandross, 4Hero, Alicia Keys, Louie Vega, Frank Ocean; records bursting with heart and soul. “I wanted people to leave the venue glad they went out of the house for a few hours, to feel some sort of relief that they’ve spent their money right after a few intense months in their home,” she says. As for Manfredas, he left his “Promised Land” folder of classics mostly untouched at Opium’s comeback last weekend, but kept the audience flooded with positivity, even if “it took some time to shake the confusion and for the system to reboot.” Overall, it seems likely DJs will lean toward ‘entertainer’ rather than ‘educator’ for the time being.
REVERSE-GLOBALISATION MAKES PRIORITIES SHIFT AGAIN
It’s hardly news that dance culture in the 2010s took a global turn. As much as clubbers’ appetite for change was a driver, this could only have happened with free movement, an interlinked infrastructure that allowed artists from Shanghai to perform in Kampala and be broadcast to fans in Bogota or Bratislava. We have to prepare ourselves for the outcome that this is going to be significantly harder going forward. Things were backsliding already: when Tanzanian stars MCZO and Duke were denied entry to perform in New York last year, it felt ominous. The excuse that these successful touring musicians would flee onto the streets of America was preposterous and rancid – now the fuel of confected health risks is about to be poured on the bonfire.
Local scenes developing and thriving again is inevitable, and a healthy outcome. People half the world away will have to make peace with the phenomenon of missing out, as conjoined fringe scenes break apart and go truly underground again. But international tours for breakout artists are a huge part of the game, enriching in a broad sense as well as a way of keeping attention and money circulating to those on the come-up. So what happens now? Look to Scratchclart, who’s been making UK Gqom already – will we see more of that? Can someone in Watford credibly make singeli over a dial-up connection with musicians in Dar es Salaam? Will the reliance of western music media on the infinite resources of digital music cope with reduced direct exposure to it? Will hotly contested questions of authorship stymy surrogate scenes from growing? Essentially, is there any acceptable level of co-operation to keep boundary-pushing new music in rotation when artists are penned into their national borders and cultural exchange is restricted? We’re about to find out.
HEADING BACK TO BASICS
If all the above sounds like ‘not a lot of fun’ well… yeah. For the most part, live music as we knew it remains on hiatus, and little highlights we took for granted might never come back at all. A range of talented musicians, lighting and sound techs, illustrators, writers and event producers will be forced to seek employment elsewhere, especially in nations where healthcare is not guaranteed by the state – I know an armful who have got out the game already. If venues are too strictly regulated, a lot of clubbers will sack it off and devote their time to something else. Bluntly, the industry will come out of coronavirus smaller than how it went in. We’re staring at a lost generation.
The twist to that grim reality is a chance to reshape what has been, in many respects, a bloated mess for years. The option is there to vote with your wallet: attend smaller events, support independent publication, buy direct from your favourites, uplift those without a dominant voice, make green choices, reject the orthodoxy of corporate experiences, and so on. There will never be a better chance to do so.
I’d like to hope the joy of discovery in music, of actually feeling it, returns. Everyone gets soppy watching the first rays of morning light make their way through dirty windows and loves the communal rush of a masterfully executed build and breakdown. But when clubs return, in whatever form they do, more base joys will make themselves apparent. Once all this is done, hearing a thick bassline vibrate through a speaker is going to be fucking unbeatable.