(Photo – Christy Allman)
For everyone, COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown restrictions that followed have had unimaginable consequences.
Aside from the obvious fears of health and safety that came with the pandemic, music enthusiasts have been deprived of their fix of hedonism and escapism. Livestream organisers have put an incredible amount of time and effort into filling the void in our lives and despite some top-notch lineups along with some spectacular flora in the backdrop, nothing compares to the real thing. Hugs with strangers, sweat dripping off the ceilings and a rig that helps you discover ribs that you didn’t know existed to tie it all together swiftly disappeared.
As restrictions began to ease in the UK in July, some promoters and venues took the plunge to revive their respective scenes. It was never going to be as simple as re-opening the doors, with reduced capacities for social distancing, the logistics of table service and hesitancy from those worried about their safety all playing their part in making the whole situation as alien as it is ambiguous. In addition to these barriers, those who serve the night-time economy have seemingly been abandoned by the UK government. Minimal help has been given to the events industry, irrespective of the revenue it generates and the importance it has to the subcultures that form it. Yet in the face of these challenges music has returned to soundsystems and crowds of eager ears and shown its creative DIY spirit once again. We spoke to some of the people who have made this happen….
One of the first promoters to bring drum & bass events back to London was Rebel Music. Their presence has grown over the last few months, with the compelling Dub Wars competition, a recent release from the ever-intriguing Creatures and most notably, their events at Costa Del Tottenham. The regular events at The Cause’s new space have been a staple to those in London and surrounding areas, with guest artists including Threshold, Scar and Blackeye MC to name a few, as well as a roster of residents that oozes with class. Founder and owner of Rebel, Ben Green AKA OB1, talked about how a one-off live stream at the venue turned into a bi-weekly gig.
“We were doing a stream for an up and coming platform and needed an outdoor venue, so I approached the club and the manager was keen but he asked if I wanted to invite people along to it,” Ben explains. “It was a Monday because we wanted to do it when the club wouldn’t have anything else booked in and I said it would be nice to ask fans of the label and artists if they wanted to come down and jam. There’s food and a fully licensed bar and there was a really good turnout. At the end of the evening, one of the club managers came up to us and asked when we were coming back and that they’d love for us to do it again. He said that a lot of the staff are into drum and bass, the crowd was really cool and there was a really good atmosphere all night. So we said, “Let’s do it”. It’s something we can build on, so we’re doing it every two weeks.”
Since they were allowed to open, the venue has adapted incredibly to the situation. They’ve added additional outdoor tables along with a canopy, heaters will be fitted as we approach winter and to top it all off, they have the reassurance of an indoor space too. This has all contributed to The Cause becoming a comfortable and safe space that has excelled in giving people their subcultural fix in light of the circumstances.
People do want to go out and be able to hear music and stay connected to it.
A community atmosphere is something that is central to Rebel Music’s events. “Who cares if you come down in your work suit?” asks Ben. “No one does. Grab some food, listen to some beats and enjoy yourself. Everyone is welcome and that’s what I love about drum and bass. One person came up to me at one of the events and said that their friend had been really down recently and they’d had trouble getting them motivated, but he came to the event and the change in him already was so positive and he thanked us for putting it on. Things like that and seeing the joy on people’s faces is what it’s about for me. Just having the opportunity to go to an event means a lot.”
Another promoter that has made bold efforts over the last few months is Hit & Run. Initially co-founded by Riz Ahmed in Oxford and now run by Rich Reason in Manchester, their events have been at the centre of bottom-heavy music in the north of England for years. Having recently become a father, making a living from running various events and DJing has meant that Rich has felt the full force of the restrictions that were enforced on the events industry. “I don’t think Coronavirus would even have started in China when we found out that we were having a baby,” considers Rich. “So it’s become a very different world.”
Earlier this year in March, Calibre and LSB went back-to-back for the first time at Hit & Run’s 13th birthday. Two weeks later Hit & Run were scheduled to host Critical Music at the Mint Lounge and, although the event was allowed to go ahead, the decision was made to cancel it. “Kasra and I made the decision that even though the rave could have gone on that weekend, the responsible thing to do would be to shut it down because of how slow the government was to react to the situation.”
Unfortunately, I think that promoters have a bit of a gambler in them.
Despite the hiatus, Hit & Run have gone on to organise events at Social Avenue with the likes of Kings Of The Rollers, Randall and Halogenix to name a few. The events have proven to be significantly more costly to run because of the additional expenses that the pandemic has initiated. More than you might imagine.
“Before COVID, you were required to have one doorman for every hundred people,” Rich explains. “For a club with 500 people you’d have maybe six doormen. Now, you need to have one for every 40 people. That automatically puts your security bill at two and a half times of what it used to be. On top of that, you have to pay for St. John’s Ambulance and a health and safety officer to be on site for every event.”
These additional expenses have made the already laborious and stressful process of promoting events even more difficult.
An MC marshaling a crowd through a DJ taking risks is a special moment. It’s an important escape for people and it builds a new reality that people can dip their toes into. We all need a dance with our friends sometimes.
When weighing up the options – to wait until nightlife can return back to normal and make do with live streams for the time being or to go with the flow and organise a restricted event – for Rich the decision was centred around the crowd. As some promoters cut their losses and opted to focus on eye-catching events in 2021, the LEVELZ member and Hit & Run frontman decided to work with the restrictions and swiftly take action to bring back the interaction between audiences and performers.
“When you look back at what goes viral, it’s when there is a crowd,” states Rich. “The things that really stick with people involve a reaction, like that clip of EZ at the Boiler Room or Sherelle playing the Ripgroove refix. You get goosebumps because there’s an energy around all of it.”
He recounts the first socially distanced Hit & Run event in July, where two dubstep DJs kicked off the night. When Cartridge played the first D&B track of the day, the reaction was heartening. “It was like a collective catharsis,” grins Rich. “As if people had been waiting for that moment for months.”
Hit & Run have always represented the more soulful side of Manchester’s music scene, as they’ve previously hosted album launches for Children of Zeus, Black Josh and Abnormal Sleepz. However, the recent change in dynamics of live music events has pushed Rich to start a new event that is dedicated to showcasing deeper, more downtempo acts in an environment that embraces the current restrictions. The aptly named Sit & Bun takes place in Freight Island (formerly known as the smoking area of The Warehouse Project) and has a neo-soul and modern hip-hop focus, a venture that was born out of the restrictions placed on the events industry.
“We decided to call it Sit & Bun to make it clear that it’s almost like a cabaret,” says Rich. “You can sit down and you can eat whilst listening to live music.”
So far their lineups have included Jordan Max, The KTNA and LayFullStop and these sessions have given the talents a platform to be noticed along with a source of income, both of which are crucial in the current climate.
This change in dynamics is new to those who are more familiar with having a sip of a strangers water than digging into nachos along with their beats. But it’s something that many promoters have taken note of. A short trip across the North Sea takes us to The Netherlands, where restrictions have not differed much from the UK. AGORA Events, founded by Marijke Baks, promote drum & bass gigs in Groningen and did their first sit-down event in July. Naturally, there would be a difference in atmosphere because ravers had to be seated and couldn’t mix with anyone outside of their household, but Marijke took this a step further and revolved the event around food as well as music.
“I find it weird to have people seated with a DJ playing,” admits Marijke. “So combining it with the food was what made it happen. If it wasn’t possible to serve food, then I wouldn’t have done the event.”
I booked a local up-and-coming DJ and producer, Coastal, and he said that he could ask his friend, Fred, if he wants to join.
The more civilised nature of the event meant that the style of music played at the event would also shift. The event saw Hospital’s Fred V, headlining as a special guest alongside local DJs. It was a contrast to Agora’s previous events which have seen the likes of AC13 and Terrence & Phillip fly over from the UK to play.
“The plan was that the music would be more chilled because it was a sit-down dinner event, so I thought it wouldn’t be a good idea to book neurofunk artists,” laughs Marijke. “In the end, the music ended up getting pretty hard so … [laughs].”
Putting events of this sort together has been a new experience for everyone involved and they bring a unique set of challenges. Despite the increased complexity of running events in the current situation and the hard work that goes into them, they aren’t as rewarding as promoting raves pre-lockdown.
“I normally go on stage to take a video and usually end up getting quite emotional,” says Marijke. “But I didn’t really have that with the sit-down event. It’s less intense.”
Even if these restricted events might be less immersive and captivating, they still serve the critical function of bringing people together through music. Something that is scarce, yet highly in demand at the moment.
(Photo – Christy Allman)
Back over to the UK, on the South Coast of England is The Volks. Situated on the Brighton seafront, it’s arguably the centre of underground drum and bass in the city. Its rough aesthetic but welcoming atmosphere is the reason why it’s regarded as home to the many D&B heads in Brighton. Its doors finally reopened towards the end of July, with lineups featuring Calyx & Teebee, Workforce and Unglued to name a few.
General Manager of Volks, Will Vergano, has been at the centre of the re-opening process and talks about how the venue was initially cautious to re-open. Not only because of safety concerns, but also the impact that the reformed layout would have on the club’s capacity and eventually its income (which is especially crucial at the moment for independently owned music venues).
“Service has really changed, a lot of the measures in venues aren’t just in place to protect customers, they’re there to protect the staff,” Will explains. “People have forgotten that the staff are important and are exposed to a hell of a lot more people than they are. Getting people to take that seriously is really difficult, especially if they’ve had a couple of drinks. Telling people they can’t dance sucks as well. I hate it, but it’s necessary.”
It’s a reminder of what people have lost. The sweaty, lights-off immersive sound experience. That’s what everyone is missing. When you come to an outdoor seated event, you’re reminded of what you’re missing but you are grateful for what you have.
In the face of these challenges, events at The Volks have been popular. “The first few nights we did were just local DJs and were really well attended,” says Will. “For the bigger lineups, we’ve hit capacity in about 20 minutes. So many people turned up that we had to turn at least half of them away.”
The demand for these spaces reflects their importance to the musical communities they serve and the individuals that form them. And sadly it feels like we’ll see things get worse before they improve. The venues that are open aren’t operating at their desired capacities, promoters are juggling with frequently changing restrictions that are dropped on them with minimal notice and eager ravers aren’t able to go over and give their friends a hug. Yet there are still promoters and venue owners putting their necks on the line to give us our needed release after a rollercoaster of a year. They’ve not only given audiences what they need, but the whole ecosystem that is the music industry: artists, venues, bar staff, security, cleaners, booking agents, graphic designers, photographers, videographers, production technicians, the list of viable roles within this industry goes on.
A common theme that threads together the experiences of everyone that we spoke to is appreciation. As winter looms, hopefully we won’t take the current events for granted and when nightlife does return to normal, the freedom and rituals that club culture provides shouldn’t be taken for granted either. Frantically leaving work on a Friday. Nursing that luke-warm, flat tinnie on the train. The build-up of anticipation walking to the club, only to find yourself one of ten to witness the crafted warm-up set. Becoming best mates with that person you’ll never see again. Running into that person who you’d thought you’d see again and actually becoming friends with them. Hearing frequencies you didn’t know that existed. Reloads of that tune you’ve heard a million times, but nevertheless your drink coats the ceiling.
The resilience of musical communities through the pandemic has been encouraging, heart-warming and provides hope for the future. The resilient promoters, venues and all of the staff involved deserve a world of respect for it. Musical communities have withstood unprecedented difficulties and in doing that, have proven that they have their place in society and are here to stay. A huge thanks to all promoters who got involved in this article and maximum appreciation and respect for every other promoter and venue owner who’s battling these unprecedented and ever-frustrating restrictions. We will never, ever take raving for granted again.