• Radio Monash Journalism

The Dance Music Festival In The Age of the Coronavirus

Written by Patrick Daitya.

Alright, look - even people living under rocks (metaphorical or literal) could not ignore the awful hand we’ve been dealt in 2020. And while you’d expect us here in Australia to be happy about the world turning upside down, the events of the last few months have really been some testing times. The global pandemic has completely deranged our way of life. Everybody’s had to adapt. And if it isn’t too privileged to think about (thinking of how many other countries or industries have had to deal with much worse), us music fans likely already have an idea of how terrible this is going to be for our scene in particular.

All the way from local shows to headline tours, the music industry has been thoroughly disrupted. Considering how much musicians make from streaming (hint: not very much), it’s going to be especially hard on those who depend on the live music industry for their livelihood - who are mostly smaller artists.

But in the midst of all this chaos, there’s hope. We’re finding ways to band together. Music purchasing portal Bandcamp has waived their cut of royalties three times this year, attracting over $10.4 million in sales going 100% to the artists. And while music venues are experiencing unprecedented losses driving them towards shutting down, artists are stepping in to plug the gap by playing online shows in their benefit and launching national campaigns such as Save Our Venues in the UK.

Hopefully, this article will bring your attention to some of the ways we can rediscover and engage with our love for music during isolation. I know it was hard for me to be regularly listening to new tunes as normal when I felt this hollowed out by external events. But music is as much social as it is personal. We’re going to explore how the internet can help recover and reshape those social experiences around music.

We'll look at some of the coolest events that the dance music community has put on/is putting on in Part 1, tips for artists or wannabe organisers to navigate this new frontier in part 2, and then finally Part 3 looks at exactly what might happen to this space once this crisis passes. Feel free to skip around to the parts that strike your interest - different parts will appeal to different people, and that’s okay. I focus specifically on the dance music community, but these words will often ring true for many other scenes. Okay, we good? That’s my disclaimer - now onto the fun stuff.

A group meeting in the VIP section of the Open Pit event Square Garden hosted on Minecraft.

Part I: So, What Exactly Are They Doing?

Blair is a 17 year old music fan from New Jersey, who’s no stranger to concerts. Be it attending venues sold out by a crowd crazed to see Twenty One Pilots or supporting her local DIY scene which spans across punk, folk and gabber, she’s a regular. It's a surprisingly wide range in taste, but what might come as a bigger surprise is where she's had some of her favourite live music experiences: Minecraft.

On 24 April, the popular video game saw a concert headlined by the likes of Charli XCX, Kero Kero Benito, 100 gecs and... Parry Grip. Yes, the same 2000s internet famous creator of faux-jingles. The concert, 'Square Garden', was hosted and run by Open Pit, self-described “leaders in the virtual event space”.

It’s an assertion backed up by proof, because - believe it or not - this isn’t the first event of its kind to be run by the group. Though it definitely would be the biggest, having come far from the days when a Minecraft concert was something put together to celebrate a friend’s birthday. These days their events pull in thousands, both in cash flow and audience, but still manage to keep true to the values of the internet community through which they have been able to grow.

As Blair logs in, she’s joined by others in the VIP section, reserved for attendees who chose to contribute to supporting the organisers and the event's chosen charity, which in this case was Feeding America. All Open Pit events raise money for charity including beneficiaries such as the Trevor Project and Rainbow Railroad. It’s a key part of their ethics. And so far, these events seem to have done a good job of not betraying DIY culture and running after the money - because boy, is there money.

Back in the days when real life still existed and all, electronic music festivals were known for their extravagant ticket prices. Your average ticket to Ultra Music Festival, one of the biggest events in the scene, would set you back about $1682 USD. While Ultra does sit at the higher end, it illustrates a significant issue in the community when it comes to accessibility: the typical festival experience so central to EDM culture comes at a price tag which reaches the high hundreds, and regularly runs into the thousands.

But what’s interesting about these online music festivals is that they're quite the opposite: you’ll find that the common thread that ties all of these festivals together is their accessibility. There are no paywalls. Even though 'Square Garden' was set in a game which must be purchased, it was not ticketed and freely open to all through an audio stream and the recently implemented Twitch video livestream. Open Pit’s mission statement outlines that they strive to make their work “accessible to their community”, and they’re not alone in that sentiment. Many more people can now actually attend these events who may have been locked out of the traditional music festival either by geography, finances, health or other issues.

What’s surprising is that despite their free-to-play model, these festivals are still seeing incredible amounts of money. Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised, considering the major popularity live-streaming services like Twitch in recent times, but it was still mind-blowing to see digital promoter Proximity’s live music festival 'Digital Mirage' pull in over $300,000 for Sweet Relief Musicians Fund over a weekend. It feels a little absurd that people are perhaps paying more for something that’s free... but it also feels just right. URL fest culture, as it is now known, aligns itself with the same DIY local culture that prides itself on pay-what-you-can ethics with a focus on supporting the scene instead of chasing profits.

Minecraft isn’t the only unique platform where electronic music fans are congregating: online radios like datafruits, existing social media like Facebook and Instagram’s livestream features, and also niche platforms like Discord. What’s interesting is that communities, particularly on Discord, had been running these online live music events long before the pandemic hit. The Porter Robinson Discord server runs 'LANGUAGE FEST', a URL festival run in the voice chat feature of the application where artists as illustrious as Au5, nanobii, umru and Jaron have played.

It’s important to note that artists like umru and Jaron, both now well on their way to becoming established names in PC Music and the indie-electronic genre, found their roots in these online communities. These festivals started as just that - a way for these communities to meet and support each other from the ground up through a medium unimpacted by geography, bringing down barriers that mainstream festival culture demands.

Dylan Todd, community manager for major indie label Monstercat and founder of URL festival 'Excalibur Fest', notes:

“I just wanted to help shine a spotlight on all these fantastic newer artists that are rising, something more than just posting their music. Making a URL festival felt like the next logical step, following Open Pit’s lead.”

Dylan ran Excalibur Fest twice, the first time through Discord and the second time over on Twitch. Interestingly, the second time was smack-dab in the middle of this pandemic, and he has reason to believe it might have actually hurt the audience the fest was able to pull because of the increased competition.

It’s true; as much as I love to harp on about how democratic the Internet is as a medium, it’s also one full of noise. During this pandemic, somehow all the eyeballs keep reverting back to the same top-billing artists who are doing just fine and, as a consequence, those are the acts that online festivals want to book to draw attention in the first place. We could be, but aren’t, taking the kind of risks we’ve grown to associate with the disruptive power of the net and new media. We’re playing it safe.

And as movements like Black Lives Matter come to the forefront, let’s not forget to walk the talk - for all the praise I’ve given Open Pit here and the respect I hold for them, the artists on their last four events have been 71-94% white. 'Digital Mirage 2.0', a re-run of the amazingly popular online festival mentioned before, is fundraising for charities working toward racial justice... but only 4 out of the 60 artists on the bill are black. While this is symptomatic of a larger problem of appropriation in the dance music community, it’s up to us, the ones on the forefront of new technologies, to do better.

Our first instinct might be to think this period of isolation means people are hungry for content, but it can also mean the opposite, that it’s an over-saturated market of attention that now everybody needs to vie for.

A scene in-game during LONER Online, an event run by Loner, an electronic music crew based here in Melbourne.

But I’m getting carried away. Let me list off some of the insane things that the electronic music community has achieved with their festivals over the past months:

  • Run a festival with over 77 artists. By my count. I’m not kidding. It ran for over 30 hours.

  • Shambhala organizers are putting on Electric Blockaloo on Minecraft for 3 days, with over 300 artists. They also get the award for worst poster design ever.

  • Electric Hawk ran their 'Harmony' festival for 30 hours and raised money for the musicians who played.

  • For Drum and Bass aficionados, Onyx Recordings and Goat Shed’s 'Stay At Home' festival raised over 20,000 pounds for the COVID-19 effort in the UK.

  • Melbourne-based events runners LONER has been running club nights in... VR Chat. Yeah.

  • You could be a worm in Porter Robinson’s much loved Second Sky event, 'Secret Sky'. Yeah, really. Perfect for asking your partner virtually if they’d still love you if you turned into one.

Part II: So How Do You Do This Thing?

It’s definitely hard. Dylan’s done it twice, but he still would say the biggest challenge is lack of experience. And who can really say they have experience in a completely new field. But I asked around and managed to collect a few pointers for artists or, just generally, anybody who just wants to be involved with this cool new online phenomenon.

1. I can’t believe I have to say this, but don’t have a paywall.

I’ve said why before - but URL festivals align themselves really strongly with DIY culture. So don’t sell out. There’s no reliable way of monetising this market yet anyway. Do it for the audience. Do it for the music. Don’t really bother doing it otherwise, cause there’s much smarter things you could be making money on instead if you really wanted to.

2. However, try to pay everyone involved.

I know that sounds a bit hypocritical, given I just asked you not to have a paywall, but it’s possible. Take Electric Hawk’s example: they take all their donations and split them amongst artists and anyone involved in the production. I know it feels like every online festival that’s put up has to be for a charity, given all the shit that’s going on in the world, but don’t forget that you’re building this off the work of likely starving artists themselves. From what I gather, a 50% split between artists and charity is seen as fair. (Don’t forget to pay the VJs too, if you’re hiring some).

3. Make it unique to the Internet.

There’s things you can do on these URL fests you could never dream of doing anywhere else. I think a perfect example of this is how emo rock band American Football treated their headline set at the Open Pit hosted Minecraft event, 'Nether Meant'. Even though their set was pre-recorded to avoid interruptions in stream quality (something a lot of these festivals do), they started the show as if it was a real one, with sounds of pretend-tuning their guitars. They went on to ‘play’ crowd favourite and now internet meme song 'Never Meant' in Nintendo64 style. This goes to show the prankster quality of URL shows that allows them to have the kind of fun that you just can’t have in real, live shows.

Seriously, if you’re an artist reading this, have fun with the possibilities. Chiptune legend nanobii played a really cute set with his MIDI keyboard and guitar in the outside (I forgot that still exists), and PC Music head A. G. Cook unleashed a….acoustic EDM set. I can’t really describe it, if you like the sound of that go check that out.

Pictured: A. G. Cook. We love him so much

Push the boundaries of what’s possible. While a fair amount of artists do treat it the same as a live DJ set, mixing tracks on decks and weaving a rhythm through the night, some artists are taking this opportunity to expand the bounds of what’s possible. Drum and bass artist gyrofield makes all her mixes in the DAW FL Studio, and treats almost every drop as a double drop between two songs, taking her sets to a hectic, frantic level that people wouldn’t dare try in a club where if you mess up you have to deal with a crowd of drunk, angry dancers in the flesh.

It doesn’t mean artists make sets with no consideration for the audience. gyrofield explains she creates more chill sets for shows late at night, while she feels more free to go wall-to-wall with manic energy if the set is part of a smaller show and/or it’s in the middle of the day.

4. Keep it accessible.

This is perhaps the most essential takeaway - you want your event to be as accessible as possible. Not just because it means more people can come, but also because online festivals have become a haven for people who couldn’t find a home in mainstream festival culture. Maybe you have sensory issues, or you’re situated continents away from where your favourite music is regularly played. Maybe social anxiety makes it hard for you to be in a crowd, or you don’t pass some arbitrary age limit for a show. There’s tons of barriers that make music festivals IRL inaccessible. But all those barriers can be torn down with the internet, so make best use of it.

But what are some more practical implications? An anonymous respondent said: “don’t have your shit on something unconventional like Zoom or IG live, I just won’t come”. While it’s interesting to note that Instagram’s live feature might actually be more accessible to a larger majority of people, what this translates into is this: have multiple ways to watch. Definitely aim to have an audio stream on a website if you can, use something like Mixlr, and platforms like Discord, Twitch, IG Live, and YouTube are all great for getting live feedback which can be incorporated into the festival experience.

There are pros and cons to each platform, of course, and it’s worth it to consider what your main audience is when picking the platform. If your community is based around niche social networks like Discord or groups on Facebook, it makes sense to use the features present there. But if audio quality matters to your listeners, perhaps consider Mixlr or Twitch instead where you have the opportunity to control that. And innovative mediums, games like Minecraft, VR Chat etc. which allow you to play an audio stream? *Chef’s kiss* mwah. Now you’ve got it.

Part III: So… What Happens Once This Is Over?

I think the biggest question on everybody’s mind after realising all that can happen virtually is... what happens when we get real life back? It might feel like an impossibly far time away - for American artists, and by extension a major part of the industry, people are predicting it might be as late as 2021. Australia and New Zealand can hope to be a bit more optimistic given their relatively better handling of the crisis compared to the rest of the world, but given a large majority of international artists aren’t based here, we won’t see the big festivals returning anytime soon.

Maybe that’s a good thing- we’ll finally be noticing local talent more. While globalisation of music has brought a lot of good, it’s also brought with it a lot of bad. But even if it all goes back to normal, there’s reason to believe virtual festivals, as we know them, are here to stay.

“While corporate structures and traditional record labels continue to struggle with how to address this current situation, it will be artists centralized on the Internet and within the underground culture who shall pave the way again.”
- Meishi Smile, head of Zoom Lens Label.

This is a sentiment I need to echo. URL festivals existed before this pandemic, there’s just a ton of them now all vying for your attention constantly as you’re stuck at home. When we get back to real life, they’ll still be there. The only thing that will have changed is how we view them. Livestreams used to be seen as “nice-to-have”s, something brands can do to further interaction and engagement. After this pandemic they’re going to be seen as essentials for artists to maintain a foothold in this attention economy. They won’t replace live festivals, of course, the way they sort of have to do now, but according to our old friend Blair, someone who frequented both before the pandemic, “it’s like comparing apples and oranges”.

We’ve always considered the digital a replacement for the mundanity of real life, but that’s simply not how it goes. It was just a year ago that Grimes said she wanted to do a hologram tour- and I think we know now how corny that would be. Virtual shows don’t exist to provide some half-baked simulation of the real thing - instead, they both satisfy vastly different needs for their audiences.

Virtual is not a replacement for the physical for fans - it’s simply an augment, one where creativity can flourish, unchecked by gatekeepers.


A still from reinabe’s set during Zoom Lens’ event, ZL420.

In fact, part of the virtual festival’s appeal might be its capability to combine big money blockbuster production value with DIY atmosphere. Seeing artists as big as Charli XCX perform on Minecraft for free with profits going towards a generous cause and getting to experience smaller acts who you might not have heard of but know how to utilise the unique space afforded to them on the internet masterfully - it’s a unique experience that’s only competing with itself.

And hopefully there’s one thing we’ve learnt from this terribly isolating time in human history, and that is how to use music to connect better to each other and create safe, encouraging, creative spaces online. Music festivals had never been just about the music, they were always about the community. That doesn’t have to change, and there’s no reason we can’t recreate the feeling of finding that group of people who accept you through something as universal as music, even if it’s over the internet this time.

Hopefully, when we were boxed in, we found a way to create hope through these networks. And hopefully, if you were feeling disillusioned at the state of music right now, this can help you feel that hope again.

And finally, hope you’re doing well.