Clubbing and Connection in the time of COVID-19: Three clubs on their shift to virtual events
In mid-March, the true impact of the rapidly evolving global COVID-19 pandemic had hit Australia. Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced tough social distancing measures including bans on public gatherings, and the Australian live music ground to a screeching halt overnight. Bars, clubs, pubs, live music venues, warehouses and more went silent overnight, and now two months on, many of these fates are still up in the air as the world continues to grapple with the ongoing impact of the crisis. Thousands and thousands of jobs in the live music industry nationwide hang in the balance and the picture does not look any less bleak as, even though measures are being rolled back, no one (rightfully so) wants to risk the health and safety of patrons. It is a glacially slow return — and we’re not even sure if things will ever return to what “normal” was.
Clubbing has always been so much more than just a way to hear loud music. The dancefloor is a sacred space for many people and has been since the dawn of humanity. Its a place of escape, of emancipation, therapy, release and connection. Its a place where we can value culture, discover things about ourselves and those we love, and form deep bonds with people also there for the same reason you are. Further to this, dance music has always played a crucial role in history. Traditionally, it’s provided refuge for people to dance together without harassment and given people freedom of expression. Clubs and dance music provided a space for people to be themselves and meet others who are likeminded, and gave an outlet for that human touch we all crave. It’s no coincidence then that many of us now find ourselves longing for these places again and for human closeness and connection. If there’s one thing many of us are craving right now its this, and while for some it might come from a particular person, for many it comes from the dancefloor. As the time of social distancing continues to stretch on and on, it’s this that we’ve been yearning for along with people all over the world, knowing one day we’ll be able to return but not knowing when that might be.
In place of regular clubnights, many, many promoters have turned to technology in the hopes of providing some semblance of normality, usually found in clubs and on dancefloors around the country each Friday and Saturday night. In what’s been described as the “new normal”, these virtual clubnights are changing the way we engage with our communities. We’ve been spoiled for choice when it comes to weekend live streams from some of the biggest names in the world to local nights all doing their bit to help get through this together. We’ve turned our living rooms into nightclubs, we’re getting dressed up to dance in our bedrooms, and we’re all complimenting each other in the live chat about our “iso” looks. People we used to see in person every weekend we now wave to through Zoom. At “home clubs,” the drinks are cheaper but so is the soundsystem, and there’s no one around to bum a ciggie off.
Although it’s not the same as the real thing, for the majority of people, it seems the love for livestreams is there. Ultimately we’re grateful that they exist, and we’re donating if we can to the acts we’re watching or the charities they’re supporting. But, for those hosting the nights, the experiences of actually facilitating these nights seem to be resoundingly similar, even with the differences in how they’re being held. The main question is, how has moving to a virtual space affected our ability to connect with each other, and what does it mean to be clubbing in the time of COVID-19? We spoke to Sydney’s Room 2 Radio, Brisbane’s Shandy and Melbourne’s UMAMI Collective to find out.
In Brisbane, Shandy is normally held every one-to-two months at its home of Black Bear Lodge. Started by DJ and promoter Thomas aka Sweaty Baby, it emerged from his “own deep desire to create a space where the local queer community could emancipate themselves on the dancefloor to a heady mix of ’90s europop, disco, and left-of-centre house bangers.” Just as the restrictions kicked in, Shandy was meant to be celebrating its first birthday with a stellar line up including international artist, Dan Shake. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to commemorate the date, they teamed up with The Quivr to host a virtual Shandy in which a line up of local legends played from Black Bear Lodge (with Sweaty Baby also hosting) and the night was broadcasted via The Quivr‘s streaming capabilities.
“It felt a bit like hosting breakfast television actually, except it was night-time and we weren’t platforming racists,” Sweaty Baby said of the night.
For Sydney, Room 2 Radio quickly burst onto the scene after restrictions were announced. Calling themselves Sydney’s first online club, the news was quickly picked up by news websites as well as throughout the community. “We try to emulate a normal club as best we can, with lasers, a smoke machine, excellent DJs, club characters (we have an bartender named Bart Ender, a security guard named Seccy Roomtwo and a Venue Manager), a vibrant (moderated) chat room and Zoom call so you can view your fellow partygoers,” they said when explaining the concept.
Room 2 Radio runs every week, and organisers said that overall it’s been a “joy.”
“The hardest part of it all is making people feel connected whilst they are apart. We’re trying our best to make it more than just a livestream of a DJ set, with gags and social aspects that keep people interested and give everyone a shared experience to laugh about,” organisers explained. “That being said, it’s been hard to maintain large audience numbers. There have been loads of issues both financial, technical and logistical for us.”
Similar to Shandy in Brisbane, existing Melbourne collective UMAMI has also made the shift to virtual nights. “On a normal night, quarantine aside, we’d book an array of Q/PoC talent to showcase their craft,” said Stev Zar, DJ and curator of the collective. “Our ‘thing’ is that we organise these nights in non-club spaces; we’ve had nights at a small-capacity bar and at a restaurant as well.”
Explaining the reason behind moving to a virtual event, Stev said, “We wanted to keep the spirit of the club alive via online streaming. And also give us something to do, with all the pent-up energy we have on Saturdays.” For Room 2 Radio, they had been entertaining the thought of doing something similar prior to restrictions being put in place, but when it became clear that the tough measures were going to be implemented, the trio took three days to launch the night for that weekend. A key part of this has been the almost-routine way of Room 2 Radio happening: “I don’t know about you, but in lockdown each day rolls onto the next and you lost that sense of the weekend. Room 2 is at 8pm on a Friday – time to clock off and have a boogie like you would do if Coronavirus didn’t exist.”
For all three nights, funding for artists has been a major obstacle. “We have no revenue we are unable to pay our acts,” Stev said when discussing the issues that come with nights like this. “Some of our DJs also don’t really have a home set-up as well.”
The second issue all three nights all cited was that of technical difficulties. Each event has been facilitated in different ways. UMAMI uses Instagram live, and gives the login details for the collective’s account to the artists for their sets. Room 2 Radio uses the live feature on Twitch now, but was using Facebook which took down the streams due to copyright. “We also have a Zoom running at the same time so everyone can see each other dance and can interact with each other,” they said. For Shandy, livestreaming platform The Quivr were on hand to stream using their usual channels, but the whole night was broadcasted using a hotspot from Sweaty Baby‘s own phone due to the internet in the venue not being able to carry the stream. Zoom was also used for Shandy, as well as the chat feed from Twitch “to encourage interactivity” and allow “attendees to mingle.”
Despite the popularity of livestreams throughout the country and the world, interaction between promoters running streams seems to be at a minimum with only Room 2 Radio saying they had been in touch with other groups running similar events. Of course, Shandy did have The Quivr, but given this was a one-off event so far, it hasn’t extended from here, and UMAMI advised of a similar experience which could be because of how “casual” this series is, according to Stev. This could change though, as Room 2 did state their eagerness to share the love when it comes to facilitating livestreams, saying “It hasn’t been cheap getting all this gear to run Room 2 and so we’d love to be able to offer it to collectives.”
“We can’t see the lockdowns on clubs, bars and parties ending anytime soon, and so we’d love to continue to offer people at home what they would normally get in a Covid free world.”
Despite the obstacles along the way, feedback for all three events has been resoundingly positive from those involved. UMAMI said they have received feedback from the DJs playing in that they “seem to enjoy the experience of playing from their bedrooms,” while Shandy felt the love from both within their existing community and outside of it, saying “We even had some people from up in the NT joining us for a boogie.”
“The event happened just after we’d all started feeling a bit anxious and depressed about the dangers of COVID-19, and the effects it was going to have on everyone’s lives. People were so happy to have the chance to dance around, laugh, and have a bit of a hoon at home to distract them from what was going on,” Sweaty Baby said.
For Room 2, it’s been mostly positive with a bit of negative which they aren’t taking personally but “nonetheless always respond to so we can reach a constructive outcome.” They’ve seen over the weeks members of their existing community join in, as well as the nights opening up to other communities as well. “We had a lot of publicity to start off with and with that came a lot of comments. We’ve had people from all walks of life come to our club, from people in regional areas to those who have physical disabilities.”
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With the current state affairs we’re in, UMAMI would like to extend our love to all of our family and stress the importance of social distancing and keeping clean. Our socio-environmental status is not great folx, the arts industry across the globe has seen a negative impact. But if there’s a will, there’s a way; UMAMI is excited to announce a weekly livestream of DJs starting this Saturday the 21st, 8 PM AEDT on our Instagram live, and continuing for however long we have to be responsibly in quarantine. We want to stress that our first love has always been for the community, you can take our nights away but that won’t stop us online raving in our bedrooms. Be on the lookout for more info! 🦠🔫
Of course, trying something new in real time during a global crisis does come with its own fair share of lessons. Each event detailed that despite the relative success of their virtual clubnights, the main thing they’ve learned is that its still no substitute for the real thing. For Stev and UMAMI, the main lesson has been “how desperately we all want to get out of our houses.”
“The streams serves as a good distraction, but it doesn’t quench our thirst for being in a club space.”
Shandy-goers might be able to expect elements of livestreaming incorporated into future events as Sweaty Baby explained he can see benefits from streaming that aren’t offered in a regular club like “expanding who can access what you’re delivering, and really being able to have a much more direct interaction between performer and audience.” Ultimately though, he said a similar lesson to Stev though in that “Live-streaming is not a replacement for clubbing. There is nothing quite like finding joy and community on the dancefloor.”
Room 2 Radio also agreed, saying they’ve learned that “without culture, life becomes monotonous,” and cited the event as a key motivator in “giving the crew a sense of purpose” and helping them get through the disorienting anxiety that the pandemic is giving everyone.
While current restrictions are being rolled back gradually across the country, particularly for restaurants and cafes, there has been next to no mention of a contingency plan for the greater live music industry nationwide. With this, a key factor of life as we know it is missing: connection. While livestreams are indeed somewhat of a substitute, they have their fair share of issues which can make for a frustrating experience as a promoter, artist or punter. From streams cutting out to acts not being able to be paid, to promoters having to try and make do with what they’ve got or alternatively not do anything at all, it’s a rapidly changing landscape that many communities are figuring out together as they go. And while it is absolutely a great time to boogie with your housemates in your lounge room while streaming a DJ onto the TV, that only serves half the purpose that going to clubs delivers in the first place. You can hear music anywhere, but it’s the connection that keeps us coming back and its this that we are all desperately seeking. And until we can return to our venues and our physical spaces, we are lucky to have promoters who care about their communities enough to facilitate events like this in the first place. Let’s just hope we’ll be back together soon.
Thank you to Shandy, Room 2 Radio and UMAMI Collective for their involvement. All images are via Facebook.
Words by Emma Jones