In a Time of Isolation, Dance Music Offers Community Through Streaming

Amid coronavirus, dance music mainstays like New York club Nowadays and the label Mad Decent are diving headlong into streaming.
April 13, 2020, 11:00am
In a Time of Isolation, Dance Music Offers Community Through Streaming

When Justin Carter and co-owner Eamon Harkin set out to build a club, they wanted to make a space that encouraged feelings of community. Everything they did with their New York club Nowadays—from making a vast space with lots of sitting room to programming panels and education events in addition to the parties—was designed with that guiding principle in mind: that dance music, at its best, has the power to bring like-minded people together.

"Eamon and I have come from a place of wanting to connect with people," Carter explained from the home on Long Island where he and his family are isolated.

Musicians from every genre and style have jumped to live-streaming and other forms of internet performance both as a means of keeping in contact with fans and opening new revenue streams in uncertain times. But for the dance music world, these sorts of streams offer something more, a lifeline to a community that has offered them a home and a sense of purpose. This is why, as orders have come down around the world to close clubs and other social gathering spaces as a result of COVID-19, Carter and others who are invested in the idea of the club as a communal space had to figure out ways to keep the music going. Artists like Los Angeles based DJ and songwriter Amber Giles—who performs under the moniker Mija—who've had to cancel tours and live dates are able to use streaming as a new, intimate way to stay in touch with fans. Labels like Mad Decent can bring their vast, geographically disparate stable of artists into closer contact with longtime listeners. And long-operating internet radio stations, like The Lot Radio, are able, now more than ever, to support the communities that they've always served—to make sure that people don't lose the bonds they form on the dancefloor.

Even before the state of New York instituted an explicit ban on public gatherings, Carter and his team at Nowadays decided to close their venue. They canceled all planned events, put out an Instagram post offering refunds to anyone who'd already bought tickets. Carter says that as he'd followed the news from around the world in the preceding months, he saw it as a distinct possibility that they might have to close at some point, but that if they did, the special thing that they did in those walls didn't have to stop.

The following day, when they announced their closure, Carter hit up the local internet radio station The Lot Radio to outfit the venue with a streaming setup so they could broadcast both DJ sets and "community events" during the season that hosting IRL events remains a safety hazard. They also quickly settled on the idea of doing a Patreon as a means of offsetting some of the costs they'll face in the coming months and set up a Venmo fund for the staff who lost their income as the venue closed.

Virtually Nowadays, as they've dubbed the event series, has so far been true to the spirit of Nowadays programming. They've booked boundary-pushing DJs like Jubilee and Jasmine Infiniti, as well as more ambient-leaning sets under their Planetarium banner, which they use for their cosmically minded, listening-focused events. But they've also kept up the more educational, out-there side of their events too—they had the Toronto-based DJ Ciel stream a workshop on music file organizing for DJs as well as a tutorial on how to set up a turntable with New York selector Douglas Sherman. They aren't able to offer much in the way of payment, but they do give participants in each stream the option to promote their Venmo, alongside links to Nowadays own Patreon.

Their Instagram page has been updated with the description that they're "live-streaming to keep our community together in this crazy time." This is evident in the chat that accompanies their streams. Alongside the mainstay chatters that often accompany The Lot Radio's daily schedule of streams, it's been common to see DJs and scene figures from around the community popping into the chat, nerding out over whatever track is playing at the moment, or offer general words of support and understanding in a time that's unstable for just about anyone in the community. During a recent stream, chatters were offering each other advice about New York's state health insurance, amid discussions of tastemaking record labels like 12th Isle and RVNG. It's a place where people can connect, just like the club would ordinarily be.

"People are getting in touch with us and saying, 'I'm so glad you're doing this,'" Carter said. "They're at home and they want to receive something—a taste of the thing that they get on the weekends. They want to partake in community."

Mija was a couple of weeks into a country-spanning tour that was planned to last for months when she was forced by the changing circumstances of the pandemic to pull the plug.

"Canceling my tour was devastating," Giles said. "My team and I worked so hard to build it out. We had months of rehearsals, production rentals, light programming, transportation, etc.—all upfront costs that came out of my pocket. Being a DIY type of person, you can imagine how difficult it was to shut it down and take the loss."

When she got back home though she was determined to not let all that built-up creative energy go to waste. She'd never really streamed, or watched any streamers, but friends—including one of her tour's openers, the pop singer and producer Hana—suggested she give it a shot. She's quickly taken to the format, streaming both full-on party sets from her home DJ setup, and low-key late-night sessions of the new Animal Crossing game. Though she says it's a different dynamic than when she's on stage performing, she's come to really like the special bond that can form between streamer and chat.

"When I'm performing, I'm feeding off [the crowd's] energy and trying to lose myself completely," she explained. "On stream, however, it's less about me and more about them. It's their turn to take the mic and say what they need to say."

In a way, she said, it reminds her of her own upbringing in the dance music community in Arizona. She'd attend and throw parties and hang out with her "rave family," but in between events she'd stay in touch with people on a website called Don'tStayIn. "It's because of those forums that I learned the politics of raving and how the community functions as a whole," she said. "I think technology—chatrooms specifically—[can] play a massive role in community building."

Mad Decent, the Los Angeles-based record label founded by Diplo, had already been thinking about the power that streaming has to form connections before the world was locked down. Over the past few weeks, they've hosted a wide variety of content on their newly active Twitch channel—from tense Fortnite streams to trippy live painting sessions to Diplo's own characteristically high-octane DJ sets—spinning out familiar formats and new ideas by the day. Per label president Jasper Goggins, when shutdowns started going into effect across the States, they simply accelerated plans they already had in place to dive headlong into streaming. They'd already bought a lot of the equipment necessary and had started building out a studio in a new office space, but the last couple of weeks have still been a learning process. The first couple of streams were just Diplo streaming DJ sets into a pair of cell phones, but as the days go on their plans get more and more ambitious.

"It's kind of hilarious, I'm basically producing live TV from my bedroom," Goggins said with a laugh. "It's really the ethos of Mad Decent to the core. Go go go, and figure it out as we get there."

Goggins said there have been technological hiccups along the way. But as they've hopped into this unfamiliar territory, they've realized that part of what they can provide to their community in uncertain times is just a place where they can all come together, live, whether or not it goes off without a hitch. "I'm seeing our employees, other artists, and our superfans in the chat too," he said. "We are all dealing with a loss of connectivity, so it's nice to have a hub to experience something together in real-time."

Even well-established hubs for online dance music, like The Lot Radio, have had to reconfigure and reimagine their purpose in this strange new era. Pauline Le Mell, the station's Director of Operations & Programming, said that they were "in the midst of implementing additional health and safety measures" at their studio when they realized that they actually needed to close altogether. In addition to helping Nowadays set up their streams, they had to quickly figure out how to keep up their own programming—which meant making sure that their resident DJs had the necessary equipment to broadcast from their homes. They've been figuring it out on the fly, but Le Mell said it's been good, both for the DJs and for the people that show up in their chat day after day that things keep rolling as usual.

"Even if you’re stuck at home alone, there’s someone on the other side of the world playing music for you, who’s also stuck at home," Le Mell said. "We’re all in this together."