The future of clubs after the pandemic remains uncertain
'Unsplash' by Donny Jiang

The pandemic brought many pastimes to a screeching halt, but none so definitely as raving. Most other forms of collective entertainment could at least pay lip service to being “Covid-secure”, even if not necessarily wisely: socially distanced plays, crowd-free sporting events. But packed warehouses and basements crammed with sweaty bodies moving in time to the beat? Unfathomable.

There were attempts to provide a replacement for the club experience in real life, but it’s best to forget the naff cacophony of the drive-in rave that took place in the north German town of Schüttorf, where clubbers listened from inside their cars, along with the other socially distanced experiments. In the UK, nightclubs have been firmly shut for over a year. More than one beloved venue has closed for good; DJs’ livelihoods evaporated, with little concrete hope on the horizon.

And yet, since the pandemic hit, dance music has flourished creatively, politically and as a community. In March of last year, the streaming platform Bandcamp – a hub for independent electronic artists wary of the Spotify machine – waived its usual 15 per cent fee for one day in order to support affected artists. The dance community was at the forefront. Originally intended as a one-off, the fee is now waived on a monthly basis, and that is just the start of how the scene has pulled together.

Dancing in the kitchen

The real-life connections that form global and local club communities are also crucial to the aesthetic purpose of the music: bringing people together on the dancefloor. But at a time when that natural habitat was inaccessible, artists learned how to adapt. In the early days of lockdown, livestreamed DJ sets recaptured some kind of communal joy – though, like many aspects of that period, the novelty soon worn off. In April 2020, scrolling tipsily around the internet from your kitchen to discover the hottest, slightly glitchy virtual rave was something to cling on to. A year later, like Zoom quizzes, they were carefully left unsuggested.

Palimpsests of the real thing they might have been, but don’t dismiss the chaotic, desperate spirit behind them. My own favourites were Eris Drew and Octo Octa’s forest throwdowns from outside their New Hampshire log cabin, not least because the pair were visibly having such a good time. The guiding principles behind their T4T Luv NRG nights are earnest and unashamedly hippyish. Sharing the decks, the real-life couple manifest an uncomplicated joy that was all the more powerful to see in two trans artists.

Listening to dance music at home is often an exercise in imagination, in transporting yourself on to an idealised dancefloor regardless of whether you’re actually cooking or sitting down with a cup of tea. It’s a valuable form of listening in itself, but fundamentally different from the wordless mass connection of a real-life club. What marked out Drew and Octo Octa’s take on the streamed format was that it didn’t seem like an attempt to substitute the virtual world for the physical: the pair invited you into an experience that you sensed they would be doing even if the cameras were off.

In December, Fabric Presents Octo Octa & Eris Drew saw them capture the spirit of their ad hoc forest raves on an official release. The 70-minute mix rarely lets up in terms of pace or the kind of emotional pitch which wrenches listeners into the moment: the elongated diva wail, a second stretched out of pure feeling, or a kinetic beat breakdown which is both psychedelic and intensely physical. The rush they produce fulfils their stated emphasis on the healing properties of the beat. During lockdown, that was particularly useful.

The political nature of Drew and Octo Octa’s radical acceptance and what they call “love energy” lends their music a vital edge: it is, of course, deeply informed by their identities as trans women. But as Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson, co-founder of the Dweller festival, designed to spotlight Black electronic artists, wrote this year: “Politics have been continually normalised as peripheral to the [dance music] industry.”

Returning to the roots of rave

For much of this decade, the epicentre of the house and techno scenes has been Berlin. The post-Soviet fallout and a “poor but sexy” appeal enabled club culture to flourish in the German capital, but this reputation whitewashes the true origin story of the genres among Black communities in Chicago and Detroit. As Whitney Wei argued in an essay for Electronic Beats last June, “white people . . . took Black techno and co-opted it so heavily that they came to believe it was an inherent form of European cultural expression.” In the 1990s, Germany’s “no future generation” identified with the element of struggle. But by 2020, this had been lost to a middle-class, faux-countercultural hedonism. Wei writes of partying Berliners campaigning to “save rave culture” by downing prosecco on inflatable rafts, even as Black Lives Matter protests occurred down the road.

But amidst the BLM movement came a renewal of attention to the Black past, present and future of house and techno. Haus of Altr, the New York-based label founded by Wyatt D. Stevens, the artist and filmmaker known as MoMa Ready, went into overdrive. As well as MoMa Ready’s own startlingly prolific output, the label released three compilations highlighting mostly unknown new Black artists, released via Bandcamp. “Fuck whatchu heard about this . . . Black music,” runs the vocal looped through Devoye’s galloping “Whatchu Heard About This”, simultaneously a defiant reclamation of cultural territory and a statement that this territory is continuing to expand.

Meanwhile, London radio DJ Josey Rebelle, long a beloved staple of former pirate station Rinse FM, was flexing her formidable selector skills to tell another underwritten story in dance music. Like Eris Drew and Octo Octa, Rebelle’s debut official mix, Josey in Space, was ambitious and conceptual, aiming to bring together the disparate strands of British and American Black dance music. It opens with a rousing declaration of identity from Bay Area poets Tenesha the Wordsmith and Daniel B. Summerhill. “We are the manifestation of every dream dreamed before us,” proclaims Tenesha, reflecting Rebelle’s intent of building on the work of historic Black innovators to create an Afrofuturist vision.

For others, particularly DJs used to being on the road most weekends, being forced to stay at home simply allowed them more time in which to create music. Anz, the Manchester DJ and producer who is one of the UK’s leading young talents, set herself a goal of writing 40 new tracks for her much-anticipated annual self-produced mix in 2020. She ended up making 74, most of which made the final cut for Spring/Summer Dubs 2020. The result was a masterwork of feelgood heatwave vibes: zigzagging between UK garage, Afrobeats and funky house, Anz’s response to lockdown was to create the perfect form of escapism – the soundtrack to an imaginary summer.

Barely any of this music has been played in clubs; the future for both DJs individually and the scene generally remains bleak. While venues are opening up, the question of which artists and scenes can afford to get back on their feet remains unanswered.

But against the odds, dance music has used being shut down to find some fire, and to take several giant leaps forward. Whether the moment of reflection and the spirit of solidarity kindled by the pandemic will last is another matter. Decaiza Hutchinson has pointed out that among the more mainstream festivals tentatively announcing lineups for the coming summer, Black artists are still under-represented.

There’s certainly a danger that, as the dance music industry continues to panic amidst the heavy financial hit incurred after a long hiatus and continuing pandemic uncertainty, it defaults back to business as usual. But a seed of something fresh has been planted. That, when the dust settles, could be the pandemic’s legacy for club music.

This article is from the New Humanist summer 2021 edition. Subscribe today.