NEW YORK CITY (SBG) - “What do you do if you can’t do the things you normally do?”
That’s the question that Justin Carter, DJ and co-founder of New York City venue Nowadays, asked himself while sitting at a Chinese restaurant. Carter was dining at that particular restaurant to support it amid reports that coronavirus anxiety was taking a toll on the city’s Chinese businesses. His question was born out of his consideration of a hypothetical scenario in which Nowadays would have to close. How would he deal with the closure? How could he continue to support the Nowadays mission and his creative outlets without the use of the physical space?
Not too long after, that hypothetical scenario became a reality. Nowadays, temporarily closed its doors on Friday, March 13, out of concern for the safety of their staff and their guests.
Having already floated this exact situation in his head, as well as the most appropriate ways to navigate it, Carter was prepared to launch into action. He enlisted the help of Francois Vaxelaire, creator of The Lot Radio, a livestreaming radio station housed in a shipping container. Vaxelaire brought his mobile setup to Nowadays and was able to assist Carter in setting up the capacity for livestreams quickly.
“We had an event that night,” said Carter. “There hasn’t been a single day since we closed that we haven’t streamed.”
Carter described himself as skeptical of technology as a means of feeling connected; one of the longtime rules at Carter’s parties is no phones on the dance floor. But taking Nowadays into the virtual space was an obvious decision for him. “In this moment where we can’t be in the same space together because it’s putting people at risk, it feels really, really good to be able to have this as a means to communicate with each other and to be able to share these community moments,” he said.
For many, the importance of nightlife has been brought into the spotlight during the past few weeks, even as the possibility of attending a concert or drinking at a neighborhood bar has been extinguished.
I personally went from thinking that livestream parties sounded kind of lame or awkward to dance for hours on a Monday night with Club Quarantine. Club Quarantine, known as “Club Q” for short and described in its Instagram bio as “an online queer party,” fully understands the importance of keeping the party alive during the quarantine; the virtual “doors” are open every single night from 9 p.m. until midnight.
Inside of the club, partiers will find an incredibly welcoming environment with guest DJs playing killer music. The soundtrack may resemble the hottest nightclub you’ve ever been to, but there’s a somewhat surprising element of connection that elevates the entire experience. While the typically dimly lit interior of a physical club encourages anonymity, being able to see those dancing around you is essential to the vibes at Club Q. Throughout the course of the evening, the host can choose to spotlight the video streams of different attendees. Some react to the spotlight by dancing their absolute hardest; others cheer or kiss as if they just made it onto a jumbotron.
In the chat, other guests leave supportive comments for the person in the spotlight. When the party ends, the chat becomes filled with requests for afterparties, but if you can’t find one, there’s always the next night. And the next night and the next, and all of the ones after that as well.
Club Q was started by four Toronto creatives who discovered the power of Zoom as a party platform when they started using it to hang out with each other. Their virtual party grew rapidly after they snagged the Instagram handle @clubquarantine and has become a place for queer people to feel safe and connected during quarantine, especially as they might not have the same support systems to turn to right now that others do. As the physical clubs that served as a sanctuary for so many in the queer community have temporarily shuttered, Club Q has stepped up to bring people together in an essential way and keep spirits alive.
Tasha Blank, founder of the popular New York City dance party The Get Down, wasn’t initially confident that the magic of her in-person events could be recreated virtually. No longer able to hold a planned in-person event on the evening of March 19, Blank decided to “just livestream something and see what happens.” “I really didn’t even think it was going to be cool,” she said.
To her surprise, the event sold out in about two hours. Blank had to continuously upgrade The Get Down’s Zoom account to accommodate the number of people who wanted to attend her virtual events. She also decided to hold a second event the very next night.
“We’re suddenly faced with a more intense collective situation than we’ve ever been in, and we can’t express it in our normal ways. We can’t go out, we can’t move, we can’t go be with our friends and do the things that we usually do when we’re going through something hard. That’s a lot of energy that gets stuck in our bodies, that tension and stress and trauma that’s living in our muscles. People need to shake it out, and we need to move our bodies in order to process it; we can’t just process it with our minds,” said Blank.
The chat during The Get Down’s April 2 event made it abundantly clear that people need this type of event right now.
“Was feeling so tired past 2 days and that gave me some divine burst of energy. Thank you Tasha for your voice and your words always so comforting and centering,” wrote one attendee. Another exclaimed, “Tasha4Prez!” These expressions of gratitude poured in throughout the entirety of the Zoom party. At the end of the party, Blank unmuted the participants, and they were able to verbally offer their appreciation for the virtual space and the special guests who contributed that night.
“We’ve been such a strong party for such a long time, and it’s been really fulfilling, but at the same time, this moment feels like kind of the coolest thing we’ve ever been able to do,” Blank said.
All of The Get Down’s parties are held on Zoom. It was a priority for Blank that others would be able to join in with their videos, in keeping with her event series’ mission to explore the magic created through community.
“It’s so interesting having everybody in these little virtual boxes. I love calling out people’s names when they pop in and shouting out where people are from,” said Blank.
One difference between Blank’s in-person events and the livestream? At the former, drinks are not allowed on the dance floor. But when someone chatted about “breaking the rules” by having a drink on the virtual dance floor at the April 2 event, Blank responded that there were no rules; people were allowed to do whatever would help them get through this difficult time. Someone in the chat joked that the only rule was to stay home.
The first Zoom party that I found was a one-time event, rather than a recurring series. Feeling slightly bored on a Saturday night, I browsed an event newsletter called Nonsense NYC. The newsletter had long been my way of discovering slightly offbeat art events and parties in New York City, and I was pleased that the editor of the weekly email, Jeff Stark, had continued to publish his list even after in-person events had ceased to be part of the city’s rhythm. That night, an event called “I’m Not Dancing, I’m Struggling to Survive: Shelter in Place” caught my eye, and I found myself entering a Zoom party for the first time, accompanied by very low expectations.
This party, in actuality, was not just any party. It was an online adaptation of a performance by artist Jesus Benavente.
“[Benavente] stages what he calls ‘sad parties.’ And they are anything but sad once the music starts and everyone dances together. However, Jesus’s performances also acknowledge that we are living in extremely challenging times. As coronavirus is ravaging our communities of artists, freelancers, and teachers and will eradicate many small nonprofits, we wanted to reach out to each other and connect, even through a screen,” said Eriola Pira, curator at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics.
I continually discovered new sources of surprise throughout the evening — surprise at how willing I was to let go and dance in front of my computer screen, surprise at the diversity of the attendees, surprise at the supportive nature of all of the participants and the delightful comments left in the chat, surprise at the impact of the music on my emotions, surprise at the fact that I was still dancing when the party drew to a close at 2 a.m., and surprise at the tears that flowed freely at one point of my experience. It was a truly fun night, while also feeling more impactful than almost any night out I’d ever had.
“Dancing and singing are being recommended by health professionals as something people do during this time as a way of breaking up their day, adding movement indoors, and releasing tension and feel-good chemicals in our brains. Dancing with other people is even more rewarding and it’s not surprising you and many others found our dance party fun,” said Pira.
Pira also acknowledged the diversity of the audience that had been obvious to me that night. “I think what also made this particular party fun was the diversity of the audience from places as far as Australia, Spain, Mexico, Canada and from all over the United States. More importantly, and this may be because the center is located at The New School, it attracted students, faculty, and deans of the school and was intergenerational in a way that maybe only family reunion parties or weddings can be. And those are always fun, even if Uncle Joe pulls out his awkward dance moves, or maybe because of it,” she said.
Just like Club Q, the spotlight feature added an element to the event that I’ve never quite encountered at an in-person party. You could tell when others were particularly enjoying a song, and the setlist, spanning all genres and moods, included something for everyone.
As much as these nightlife happenings are benefiting the attendees, many of them are also playing an important role in raising funds for those in the event industry who have lost their usual form of income as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
Taking place from April 3 to April 5, Digital Mirage is an online music festival that was planned with the intention of bringing the electronic music community together to raise funds for those in the music industry who are suffering financial instability during the COVID-19 pandemic. With a stacked lineup of DJs like Kaskade, Adventure Club, and Kill the Noise, the festival is donating 100% to Sweet Relief’s COVID-19 Fund.
“We decided to support Sweet Relief because they have been helping those who are unable to make ends meet for a variety of reasons in the music industry since before COVID-19 made this a bigger issue,” said Blake Coppelson, founder of Proximity, one of YouTube’s most well-known EDM channels.
Proximity joined forces with Brownies & Lemonade, a Los Angeles-based collective, after both brands realized that they had published their tweets to gauge interest in a festival-style livestream. The lineup is made up of many artists with whom they have prior relationships, and a good number of the musicians taking part had to cancel their shows or even full tours due to the coronavirus outbreak.
“We take tremendous pride in curating our events and providing those that come to our events with a unique and unforgettable experience. We took that same mindset when creating this lineup,” said Alai Tseggai from Brownies & Lemonade.
“It’s been amazing to see so many artists continue to find ways to connect to fans through all the various channels available to them,” Tseggai continued. “We’re excited to do our part with Digital Mirage and bring folks together while raising money for a great cause.”
On April 2, with about 24 hours to go before the start of the festival, Digital Mirage had already raised over $32,000 for Sweet Relief.
In addition to their YouTube livestream, Digital Mirage has also partnered with Playstation and Littlstar to create an immersive VR experience that can be viewed with a PS4. On the Facebook event page, guests have shared additional ways that they have transformed their living spaces into festival-appropriate settings, complete with light projections and camping tents.
“I want to stress that this is not only possible because of Proximity and Brownies & Lemonade but because of everyone in the music industry and the fans for making this come to fruition. At dark times like these, it’s amazing to see everyone come together to help each other in both the good and the bad,” said Coppelson.
To both provide people looking to help out with a list of ways to support those in need and supply resources to those needing assistance, the Vera List Center has published a “COVID-19 Resource Toolkit.” The toolkit lists programs and events, grants, crowdfunding campaigns, teaching tools and impact surveys, as well as additional resources beyond those categories.
“The impact of COVID-19 in the arts is already being felt by artists and workers in art institutions, big and small, and they will need your support in the coming months,” Pira said.
The Get Down and Nowadays both have campaigns running for financial support; The Get Down has set up a GoFundMe to raise money for their crew, while Nowadays has a Venmo to collect donations for their staff. Nowadays also has a Patreon, which allows fans to subscribe to their archive of streams, along with other benefits, for a monthly fee ranging from $5 to $50.
For many in the music and event industries, the future is uncertain. When asked about how temporary club closures and the rise of virtual parties may affect the nightlife scene when businesses are able to hold in-person events again, Carter said that it was too early to fully understand. But one of the things that he’s considering as he contemplates his venue’s mission to create a safer space is how Nowadays can protect the people who are most vulnerable.
Even as he has lost security surrounding his future income and the fate of Nowadays, Carter believes that, at the same time, he has gained a greater awareness of his privilege. “I know that if everything totally hits the fan, I have some things that I can fall back on,” he said. “But think about right now what it feels like to be an undocumented worker in New York City. You have to deal with all of the same stresses that everybody else has to deal with, but you can’t apply for unemployment. There are big questions you have to ask yourself about going to a hospital.”
“I don’t know the answer to this, but I’m thinking a lot about that as I’m thinking about what we might do and how Nowadays might be different when we come back, based on this experience of understanding privilege and understanding vulnerability in a much more real way and a much less theoretical way than I’ve ever understood it before,” he said.