‘There’ll be nowhere left to dance’:
the great Covid myth
Mike Boorman is a DJ in Ibiza who performs at the likes of Hostal La Torre and Pikes. He is also a distinguished journalist and broadcaster.
There’s a difference between the demise of a business model and the demise of a creative scene. I speak to you as someone who has lost DJ income this year and who doesn’t know where the next gig is coming from, or if I will even have any decent-paying gigs when this is all over. And yet I am optimistic for the future of the art form.
Because chaos will hand an advantage to the people who haven’t made it yet. The people with hunger, the people with anger, the people with nothing to lose. These people can drive a creative scene. Closure of venues will not equal the closure of creative minds, especially among those who don’t feel the scene owes them a living and thus have the good fortune to see change as an opportunity rather than a threat.
The people who have already made it are going to have to compete with everybody else on an almost-level playing field. Their status has not disappeared completely, but if what sustained them previously starts to crumble, they won’t be able to survive on reputation alone. Reinvention is surely the only way to keep up with the next wave of creativity and I for one am very excited to see how this plays out.
All that said, I am sad to see good people suffer. The people who constantly took risks and innovated before Covid do not deserve to have the rug pulled. But this does not represent the majority. How much of the industry really cared about the bigger picture and the human meaning of what they were part of? Most start out like that, but the industry makes it difficult to stay that way.
A DJ who gets 10 grand for a gig may well still care about the good stuff, but the process that got them to that level will have stifled many others along the way. Even at 10 grand, they might still essentially be an underground act who won’t pull more than a couple of hundred people on their name alone. Their agent will only sell them to the highest bidder for most dates - the creative concept is usually irrelevant if the price is right - and as if it wasn’t enough for the small promoter in a 300-capactiy venue who couldn’t justify paying 10 grand in a million years, the agent may also break the news they can’t even attempt to book the DJ again for six months because their club is within a 50-mile radius of the big festival that just outbid them.
Is this really something we want to go back to?
I’m not going to start bashing DJs and agents for taking the money that was once on offer (let’s be honest - who wouldn’t take it?), but I am staggered by those who think it is their divine right to carry on just as they were in a world that has changed so spectacularly. Over in the UK the government is being hammered for not doing more to save our industry, but let’s face some facts here: the industry as we knew it was not some kind of socialist panacea that only did good. Entertaining, culturally important and yes, it does employ a lot of people, but there is a certain irony that seems to have been lost in the current debate.
When the industry actually functioned as an industry it did almost nothing to look after the people at the bottom. There are some notable exceptions where venues/co-operatives did brilliant things for the wider scene and their local community, but broadly speaking, there was hardly any redistribution of wealth or any kind of consensus from the major players to preserve those beneath them. If there had been, the superstar DJs of this world wouldn’t have launched the oh-so-insensitive campaign to get fans to dip into their pockets and donate to their management teams during the biggest recession of the century.
Now the major players in the industry are lobbying the government to do what they failed to do for 30 years. If the government doesn’t act now, they tell us, there’ll be nowhere left to dance. What they really mean is there’ll be nowhere left that can get away with charging stupid money for people to dance.
The enterprises who barely broke even and did it for the love are the real victims here (hopefully some of the good guys in clubland will be able to tap into the £1.57bn the UK government has already pledged towards arts and culture, but that remains to be seen). Sadly, the people who deserve to be saved – the people who are indeed important to the nation’s culture - are part of an industry which only seriously thought about philanthropy when the big boys felt threatened, and even then, they are expecting somebody else to do the philanthropy.
We hear tales of sound engineers and lighting techs who can’t pay their rent at the moment, but we all happily endorsed a process that saw our favourite DJs earning more in one night than they could earn in a year.
We stood by and accepted the majority of underground promoters would make a loss the moment they began to book their favourite acts, while the large music groups made millions from big festivals and contrived warehouse events. We even bought tickets to them and put thousands behind their bars, and to be fair, we probably enjoyed ourselves for the most part. It wasn’t an evil conspiracy – it was a formula that used to work for a lot of people.
But it doesn’t need to be like this!
It certainly wasn’t in 1989. In what is widely acknowledged as the most significant year of growth for the scene in the UK, the nation’s towns and cities were not full of nightclubs with purpose-built Funktion One sound systems and nice toilets, primed for the latest superstar from overseas; and the rural areas were not full of dance festivals with the same 20 international headliners on rotation, booked by the same booker and backed by the same corporate music group. Yes, there were legendary venues and legendary outdoor raves with professional setups, but the infrastructure was nowhere near what we see today. It didn’t need to be a coherent national industry for people to have a good time and for the creativity to multiply, and the fact that most of the scene hated the government as much as they do now was probably an advantage.
A lot of the things under threat from Covid may appear to be fundamental to the scene, but they don’t have to be. People need jobs to pay their bills and they are entitled to fight for them - that much is true - but the closure of nightclubs and the cessation of certain events will not stop us having a party. A global recession will not stop us having a party. A global pandemic currently is stopping us having a party, but it should only stop us for as long as there is a risk to public health.
I’m not saying we should go back to exactly how it was in 1989, but the DIY ethic of those days is what we need right now. The crisis that is threatening venues is the very same crisis that will cause the closure of offices, shops and warehouses in towns and cities across the world… and therein lies the opportunity. If you want an example of how a DJ scene can be inspired by social unrest and a proliferation of empty buildings, just look at Berlin.
What we do next does not have to be packaged to 2019-standards. We can still have a good time, we can still innovate and we can still pay people for their creative brilliance - we just need to be smart about it. Would it be the end of the world if the higher-earning DJs and their agents received half of their usual fees up-front with the rest being contingent on door money and bar spend? Would it be the end of the world if our favourite monthly club night didn’t feel compelled to book a headline DJ every month and instead had more nights with their residents? Would it really matter if promoters hosted their nights in a multi-use community space with a temporary events licence rather than a nightclub?
The answers to those questions will vary depending on who you are. If you owned or worked in a nightclub that is forced to close then it absolutely does matter, but the public’s right to dance does not disappear with it. Surely the public will find a way to do it somewhere else and there will be a long line of DJs, promoters and alternative spaces willing to facilitate it?
With less money flying around, this is the time to streamline what we do to make it more sustainable. The performers, venues and promoters need to work together to find a different way to share the financial risk. If you’ve gone bankrupt or lost your job, it’s totally understandable that you might not be thinking about high-minded business models for the sake of the greater creative-good, but for those who are able to be flexible, it’s time to step up.
The punters also need to be flexible. In Europe we’ve got very used to the idea that Saturday nights must have a range of international acts performing in multiple nightclubs in the same city all at the same time, and sometimes we’ll get on planes to other European cities to see the very same acts, just because we can. My DJing livelihood in Ibiza only exists because of the culture of people getting on planes for clubbing holidays, and I am very thankful for that, but I don’t believe it is my right to profit from it indefinitely. If Covid means people are more inclined to stay local and do things on a smaller scale, then so be it. It’s then up to me to add some value to my local scene and to not price myself out of anybody else’s.
You guys in New Zealand are a good example of how to sustain a vibrant DJ scene without relying on too much gluttony. When the big names from Europe and the US make it over, it’s a big event. But it is not an expectation. The party goes on without them for most of the year because the creative concept is normally bigger than the names on the flyer.
I want to reiterate that I have sympathy for the good guys who are struggling at the moment. From the underground all the way up to the biggest earners, there are some truly brilliant people that give a lot to the scene who are understandably very fearful for their livelihoods.