Like many a DJ in 2020, the arrival of CoviD-induced lockdowns wiped out an entire calendar year of gigs. While it is too soon to say the already struggling nightlife scenes throughout the world will be able to recover or evolve in any significant way, it did cause a mass emigration by DJs along with musicians into online platforms.
Once it became clear that despite many major societal shifts, the world would not collapse overnight into the beginning of a George Romero zombie movie. I decided as a DJ in similar straits to leap myself. I decided in May 2020 to start streaming myself. Due to the sudden demand for streaming equipment creating delays in gear, I was not ready to begin streaming until late August.
There are far too many articles and videos out there about what you need to stream. This article is not about that. These are observations from someone who DJed both commercially and creatively for over a decade before live streaming. But for those curious, the exact set up I’m currently using is:
1. A laptop for DJing
2. A DJ controller (with headphones and mic)
3. The iRigStream device that connects the sound from the controller to:
4. My streaming laptop (with a separate webcam)
Let’s look at the advantages and challenges of doing so.
*Advantage:* The Audience is endless.
Instead of hoping you are not playing against another event that your local audience might prefer to go to, you have a theoretically limitless number of people not bound by geographic location to enjoy your show. I have had visitors from the US, UK, Germany, and Ecuador visit my weekly stream originating out of Winnipeg, Canada. It’s safe to say they would not have checked it out if they had to pay airfare to come here.
*Disadvantage:* The Competition is endless.
If you go in hoping for overnight popularity, that ship has sailed. It’s
possible if you had started when the first couple of months when everyone was exploring its novelty, but now the best you can hope for are double-digit viewers if you are fortunate at the beginning. More likely, you will have to do the hard work that you have to do as a DJ/event promoter and build community in the chat by greeting people who check out their feed and make them feel welcome and network with other DJs to cross-promote.
*Advantage:* You can indulge in whatever musical direction you wish to go in.
You can find DJs doing streams devoted to specific music genres, specific subcultures, specific decades, even just specific musical artists. With no worry about commercial considerations, one can find DJing at its most pure and passionate.
For someone who was finding oneself DJing predominantly commercial & wedding gigs near the end and suffering burnout, this has been a genuine creative renewal to connect with as many other people who are as passionate as you are. Also, knowing how esoteric your idea is will get at least some people checking it out.
*Disadvantage:* Not all subcultures are equal online.
An admitted self-imposed difficulty is my decision to rotate four monthly events of differing music styles every Saturday instead of just sticking to one genre. However, it gives me some idea of what communities are interested in the music and attending live streams.
The most popular is DOMINION, my goth industrial synthwave night. Its relative popularity compared to my other shows is due to a stable online community on Facebook for dark music aficionadoes, allowing FB events to be shared and promoted, which is reflected primarily on the Twitch platform where mutual support communities have spring up. There is a greater than average audience for it.
This interest somewhat carries over to ART TRASH, my night of the 80s & 90s Alternative. People in their 40s and 50s who might feel out of place going to a nightclub are more likely to enjoy the virtual experience of live-streaming. It’s where they don’t have to worry about being self-conscious over their age or having to worry about babysitters and enjoy the night at home.
JEALOUS LOVERS, my indie/nu-disco night, has the most negligible overlap with the people I know. It often seems to be a genre beloved by DJs but not necessarily actively desired by listeners in my subjective experience. As a result, most people interested in listening to it are too busy spinning it.
Perhaps expected by the sheer age of the music spotlight, but SHINDIG! my night of obscure 60s & 70s mod, garage, psych, soul & funk is extremely hard to promote online. Several middle-aged vinyl enthusiasts do their shows out of the UK, but there is a noticeable lack of interest in the visual style in these shows, being far more about collectors showing off the rare 45s they have. Even a survey of Facebook communities within the mod community shows it skews at most towards podcasts. Even on Twitch, the most popular platform, I have found at most a bi-monthly night where several DJs play throughout the day, as it seems even monthly is unlikely to attract attention. Without a retro-interested younger audience as there
was in the 90s and 2000s, this appears to be the maximum level of interest one will be able to find at the moment.
Speaking of Platforms:
*Advantage:* Multiple platforms support or tolerate DJing.
The flood of DJs onto online social media platforms hit a snag with
draconian algorithms on Facebook and Instagram platforms. Most followers are, could mute copyrighted music in mid-stream and even cancel it and ban the use of too many strikes are detected. As a result, two platforms have risen to support or at least tolerate DJ live streaming.
One is Mixcloud. The main advantage of that one is it was designed with DJs in mind, so all copyrights have been cleared with the six major music publishers, so DJs do not have to ponder what will get them in trouble or not.
Twitch, on the other hand, is by far the more popular of the two among DJs. The reason is it already had a pre-built audience originally of gamers, due to the popularity of gaming streams, but has branched as well out to art & music, and sports-based streams and channels.
Due to its origins in games, many interactive features are features that Mixcloud does not currently have, making the experience more enjoyable for the DJ and their audience. Custom emoji, the ability to “raid” other streamers allowing DJs to arrange back-to-back-to-back shows, is naturally excellent for building community. Perhaps most interest to DJs is paying monthly subscribers and “bits” that can be purchased and donated with actual cash value, allowing some form of monetary compensation.
*Disadvantage:* The DMCA and copyright, in general, is a ticking time bomb.
Unfortunately, due to Twitch being more tolerant rather than supportive of DJs, the RIAA sent many copyright claims last spring against users who had recorded videos of previous streams that happened t have copyrighted music playing in the background. Causing widespread panic within the gaming community as it turned out Twitch had not in any way factored in the use of copyrighted music as a possible conflict within its streaming capabilities.
As time has gone on, it seems Twitch, while publically condemning it, is not in any rush to conform to RIAA demands. Purely subjective speculation is that Twitch is hoping that when things return to semi-normalcy in hopefully the next few months, it can figure out how much it’s worth negotiating with the RIAA to come to an arrangement.
In the meantime, many alternative music communities have made themselves home on Twitch, hoping that they can remain at least until things sort of return to normal.
*Advantage:* When everything is working, you can see the true potential of the connectivity to lead to online nightlife like no others.
One of my favourite experiences as a viewer was a Friday night where a virtual art show gala in Philadelphia for a jazz musician/abstract expressionist artist. This virtual gala is where DJ Baby Berlin spun an excellently curated mixture of art-punk and no-wave artists of the era before “raiding” the feed of a costumed synthpop outfit in New York about to do a tribute to Devo. It was the most incredible Friday evening to have imaginable, but…
*Disadvantage:* There is no replacing the live experience.
I am lucky that my community is mainly friends and supporters I’ve known before I started DJing every Saturday. Under a mandatory lockdown that took part in fall and all of winter, it was the only place for us to bond over our shared love of the music I DJed and have private living room dance parties. Sure it’s nice for my listeners to not worry about creepy people coming onto them, able to drink without worrying about transportation home as they are home, and not worry about getting dressed up unless they feel like it.
But as a DJ, I miss seeing the audience. The early search to see who’s
swaying in their seat to the music I play, the suspense until the first
person hits the dance floor. The narratives that play out that night as you cause the ebb and flow of the mix to control the crowd’s energy levels and have the music play soundtrack to the glances met, the smiles made, and the energy of a communal experience. That is just not easily replaced online if it ever can be.
Perhaps when things return to semi-normal, this can start happening again, and we can then re-assess the role of live streaming.
Of course, due to the extensive economic damage inflicted on nightclubs and music venues, subcultural nights will have a set of new challenges to go with the ones of the old. Fortunately, there might be further opportunities to evolve.
But that is a story for another time.
TO BE CONTINUED.