The Strange Intimacy of a Socially Isolated DJ Set
Tuesdays are usually days for DJ Tips but instead I bring you an article about DJing during lockdown.......which does hold a few tips too.
“This is gonna be horrific,” I texted my sister before going Live on Instagram for my first virtual DJ set. “Hopefully it’s over quickly and I can eat pasta in bed.” After working as a DJ for the past decade, I lost all my work for the foreseeable future over the course of a single day, March 12, as the city’s nightlife shut down as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
More than just my income, it felt like this crisis had also stolen the part of my job I love the most: the immense pleasure of unifying a room of complete strangers through music. But when a friend first suggested I do a set on Instagram to raise money for fellow out-of-work DJs, I scoffed. I’ve always considered DJing to be a fundamentally live experience, a magical communion experienced with a crowd of autonomous bodies who coalesce into one singing, dancing mass. The notion of DJing alone in my small Brooklyn apartment felt antithetical to everything I love about my work.
However, as the ennui of the first week of quarantine set in and I faced the prospect of not DJing for a very long time, I wondered about the upside of DJing from my apartment. I could play what I wanted, no small thing in a profession often burdened by demanding club owners catering to big-dollar bottle-service clients and drunk bros hounding me for Roddy Ricch. There was no line for the bathroom, and no need to call a cab home. Most enticing were the texts from anxious friends and family, stuck at home and dying for the release of a good dose of dancing and pop music, which I deeply understood. Maybe, I figured, I could help people, and myself, feel okay for a few hours. At the very least if I bombed, I could pull the plug anytime, jump directly from the booth to my bed, and have a built-in excuse to not show my face in public for a while. As I spent the afternoon digging out speakers, setting up my controller and duct-taping an old iPhone car mount to my wall, I felt anxious, my expectations perilously low as I envisioned doing my job without a live crowd to feed and feed off of. I draped a piece of pink fabric over an old Ikea lamp, trying to create a “club vibe,” but netting out more “OnlyFans,” a chilling omen of where my future might lay the longer nightlife stayed dormant. At 8:57 p.m., I went live from my bedroom, in my pajamas. (If I was going to work from home, I was leaning all the way in). My heart was pounding. Would anyone even show up to this bullshit? I scrolled through my library, trying to pick my first song. Usually, I do this by glancing around the room at the early birds. Are they in their 20s? Thirties? Are they mostly girls or boys? Gay? Straight? What’s the energy calling for right now? Hip-hop? House? Pop? Old jams or new ones? Do they need to ease in, or are they ripe and ready to dance? Now, standing alone in my sweatshorts with my perplexed Chihuahua mix staring up at me, I mostly felt like an idiot. Moments in, though, people new and familiar popped into my feed, folks who come see me DJ all the time, but also tons I’d have never expected: my sixth-grade teacher, a Grindr fling, my dad, an internet-famous cookbook author, my therapist, friends in far-flung places like New Zealand and Tokyo. WATCH
At first, it was strange trying to select music. Instinctually, I’d glance up at my iPhone every few seconds to see who was “there” commenting, parsing what would work for the strange melange of people gathering on my screen as I moved through the most exuberant songs I could think of by Kylie Minogue, Doja Cat, and ’90s house act Ultra Naté. “Is this…fun?” I texted my sister about 20 minutes in. Usually, I’m absolutely aware of whether my parties are fun or not.
But somehow, it worked. Fluttering hearts filled my screen. My friend’s boyfriend kvelled in the comments with the girl who used to make my iced Americano at the coffee shop downstairs, bonding over their shared love of Stacie Orrico’s 2002 hit “Stuck.” My mom texted me videos of her dancing on Venice Beach, others of them jamming alone making dinner in their kitchens or tapping their toes in the tub. My DMs flooded with videos of friends setting up Zooms and Houseparties, dancing in those boxes, stacked on top of one another.
About an hour into my set, I realized it was there: the magical communion, appearing out of nowhere just like it does live. I knew exactly where to go next, mowing through isolation slappers like Brandy’s “Sittin’ Up In My Room” and prescient Dua Lipa hit “Don’t Start Now” (sample lyric: “Don’t show up, don’t come out!”), unencumbered from hitting what I normally know “works” in a club, the expectations of employers or the hassle of requesters. I texted my sister: “This is crazy! I’m reading the room and no one’s in the room!”
As my phone began to die, I took a breath and felt fuller than I’d felt while DJing in a long time. Not only had my friends—Madison Back and DJ CFLO—and I raised more than $1,000 for cash-strapped DJs, but, for the first time since this whole mess started, I (and, I hope, everyone who joined) had forgotten about the layoffs, the sickness, the death, and the word “coronavirus” for three hours.
My phone battery reached 2% around 12:30 a.m., and I played Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” a song that assumes new meaning in the context of this virtual-party space. The comments rolled in: “Thank you so much for this”; “I’m crying. I don’t why!” I started to cry too. I felt a deep closeness to the people in that feed, the ethereal intimacy of a shared musical experience—even from a physical distance.
Since that weekend, open Instagram and you’ll find DJs nationwide throwing virtual dance parties almost every night of the week: DJ D-Nice’s set in late March was attended by more than 100,000 people, including former first lady Michelle Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Everyone from super-producers like Diplo to hometown heroes are jumping on Instagram Live to give a nation stuck inside a chance to hear their music and dance out some of the anxiety and fear inherent in our day-to-day existence during this crisis.
“My sister has corona, and I realized DJing on Instagram was a way for my family to connect around her and dance with each other since we couldn’t actually be together,” New York-based DJ Zeke Thomas told me, who now plays live on Instagram from 4 to 6 p.m. daily. “It reminded me of the power a DJ has always had to bring people happiness. A lot of people are miserable. DJing is my happy space and how I bring joy to random other people. That’s what we do.” Los Angeles–based DJ M.O.S., who has also been doing regular Instagram sets, goes even further, suggesting that the current boom of DJs on Instagram could have implications that go well beyond this pandemic. “DJs now have the opportunity to build an audience from our houses and that’s creating a power shift,” he explains. “There’s no gatekeeper, no waiting in line at a nightclub. If you want to hear a DJ, you can go straight to their page, and that gives us a lot of power.” Even on top of the harsh hours and often less-than-savory work environments, club DJing can sometimes be where creativity goes to die. Many venues, especially in high-rent cities like New York, demand that DJs tailor their music to the big-spending clients, or to any patron expecting a certain prefabricated musical program.
In a traditional nightclub setting, many DJs feel undervalued for the role we play in generating both the vibe of the club and it’s income. “As nightclub DJs, our main purpose isn’t always to flex our musical knowledge,” Brooklyn-based DJ K Styles says. “We’re there to do a job, produce energy, get people to buy drinks, and stay as long as possible.” If this new, virtual-nightlife space continues to allow DJs creative freedom, and the ability to earn cash and build followings without being beholden to the typical constraints of a nightclub, the industry may have to fundamentally change its model to get DJs back into the club at all. I’ve personally gotten more Instagram followers in the last three weeks than in the last three years, make a good chunk of cash in Venmo tips and get to play the music I love for swaths of people across the world who would never be exposed to me otherwise. Thomas agreed: “I’ve got people I’ve never met before, from London, Brazil, Nova Scotia, Trinidad, tuning in every day.” He continued, “It’s gotten to the point where I’m happier than when I’m DJing in clubs. Hopefully some of us can build this into a nightlife version of Disney Plus.”
When all of this is over, it’s likely that large gatherings of people in close proximity, the foundation of nightlife, will be one of the last things to return. By choice or not, it’s going to be quite some time before I go back to my normal beat DJing in clubs, if I ever do. I still dream daily about my first gig back, screaming the lyrics of “Formation” along with a sea with smiling, sweating faces. That’s why I got into this racket in the first place. But for now at least, this is my new normal. Every Friday night, I shuffle into my bedroom, snap my phone into the old iPhone car mount, and prepare to go to work. It turns out this virus hasn’t stolen my ability to share my love of music—it’s spreading it.
Louie spins every Friday night at 10PM EST on Instagram Live.
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