Dance Like Nobody's Watching: Why GTA's Virtual Clubs Have Saved Dance Fans

Speaking to Rockstar Games Music Director Ivan Pavlovich, we find out more about Grand Theft Auto’s new virtual club The Music Locker, featuring Moodymann, Keinemusik, Palms Trax and more.

15 min
Dec 22, 2020
Ben Jolley

As Grand Theft Auto launches its biggest content update in its history, The Cayo Perico Heist, which will see Moodymann, Palms Trax and Keinemusik added to the game and DJing at all-new underground club The Music Locker, Ben Jolly talks with Ivan Pavlovich, director of music and audio at Rockstar Games.

As one of the driving forces behind the legendary video game’s club world, the former Chicago house DJ and producer offers the inside scoop on what we can expect from The Cayo Perico Heist mission and The Music Locker club. He also discusses the increasing importance of virtual clubbing communities, and explains why music has always been at the heart of GTA.

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How long have you been working on this new online update? Has it been quite a challenge?

We started as soon as we went into lockdown, around nine months ago. So the idea that we’re putting out the single biggest thing that’s ever hit in GTA and we’ve done it all under these circumstances — it’s pretty mind-blowing. My part’s the easy part, but all the developers and departments working from home and still being able to do that is wild. Everyone has just come together and managed it, but they were ready. It’s really impressive.

What can people expect from The Cayo Perico Heist mission and The Music Locker club?

As we were considering this pack, we came up with the idea of adding a club to the casino. Therefore, we needed DJs for the club, and we used DJs to get over to the island where the player is pulling off the new heist. So the music actually serves the game, but it’s also serving the storyline. It’s not tacked-on in any way; it’s integrated into the story, which makes it even more powerful. So once we figured that out, we started going after the DJs and considering the other directions.

Had you always wanted to bring the club scene into the world of GTA?

All of us grew up on dance music, from the founder, Sam Houser — whether he was in London or I was in Chicago, there’s so many people that were into all this music that was coming out when we were growing up. Sam even started out in the music industry, so for us this is just a continuation of something we‘ve been into our whole lives. I got Moodymann’s first record in 1994 — I think I got a test pressing back then. We’ve been a part of this; it’s not foreign to us. We live it.

It seems as though the clubbing side of GTA is helping to build a community, allowing players around the world to come together, virtually, for a shared experience.

We’ve created an environment where you can go hang out and listen to great music and have fun with friends. It’s just a cool place to go. For now, it’s the best way. It’s authentic and real. We’ve paid so much attention to detail. We’ve used the artist riders, everything from the type of tequila they drink to the type of equipment they’re using. Everything has been meticulously mapped out to allow them to give the best and most-authentic performance.

It’s about the music and the experience as much as the idea that you can go to the club and be social, especially in these times when it’s not possible for any of us to do those things. It’s a great meeting place. And I think we all need to get out right now, so I admit it made me miss going out, but it felt so good being in there. It’s kind of filling the gap while we can’t go out, but even when we can it’ll still be there. It serves all those purposes.

And you’re offering players a feeling of escapism too, in a difficult year where physical connections at clubs are pretty much impossible.

That’s what we need right now, right? We need a connection to people, and at the moment we don’t have that. So this is a very fun and good way to have that connection. Being able to socialise in this club, when we can’t go out, it’s a huge thing for people — and it puts you in a good mood.

How do you go about channeling the energy and atmosphere of an IRL club into the game?

I walked into the club, which is kind of funny to say, but I walked into the club in the game and, when I did, Palms Trax was playing. It felt so good and natural. I felt like I was at an actual club. And the way that we’ve designed the club, it has more of an underground feel, and the selection of music that Palmsy was playing, it just hit the right spot. I was like ‘shit, man, I want to get a drink and hang out with people and talk to people.’

It’s the space, the lighting, the crowd, the way that you dance now — it’s all much more natural. Even the fact that Moodyman’s mix ranges from 85-139BPM, so the range of dancing that you have to do in order to make it all work, it’s pretty incredible from a technical point of view that we can cover that wide a range of tempos. That’s the next level of doing something like this — replicating a club experience.

Tell us about the curation side of things. How do you pick which artists and DJs you want to get involved in the game?

For us, it’s always personal. We love this music, we love these artists and DJs. Moodymann, specifically, was somebody that we wanted to work with for some time. And I think it was the right time to work with him. With everything that’s going on in the world, he’s adding something that’s extraordinary to the game. And he’s just a legend; the fact he’s a fan and he wanted to do it and did so much to make this such a great experience . He DJs in the club, talks on the mic and has dancers with him that have been motion captured. So they’re actually in there and they’re doing all these routines while he’s DJ and jumping on the mic. He’s one of the greatest spokesmen for Detroit, so it feels like you’re on a roller rink in Detroit with him DJing. It’s very cool.

And then with Palms Trax and the Keinemusik guys, all of the mixes are very different, but they’re all phenomenal, and they’re fun. Keinemusik have two totally different mixes in the game: one in the nightclub, and one on the beach (in the new map area), so that’s the device to get you over to the island. You go with them, on a private jet, as they’re hired to DJ a party. It’s a great set-up and is totally integrated into the storyline.

We also have Joy Orbison who has a station in the game; the whole concept is that he’s coming over to Los Santos from England, and he’s setting up a pirate radio. And you can only hear it in one specific area of the game and, in order to open it up so you can hear it everywhere, you actually have to go and set up antennas, so it unlocks the radio station. That’s the way that we can take something that’s musical and then you start playing these missions and are rewarded with opening up the station everywhere you are. It’s just for us to keep thinking of ideas, like ‘what’s next’?

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During the creation of this update, were there any lessons learnt following the 2018 After Hours pack with The Blessed Madonna, Dixon and Tale Of Us?

Definitely. I think this is the next level up from that. After Hours is a player-owned club, and a front for your businesses, whereas The Music Locker is a public club, and it’s there literally to push forward ideas of what you can do with social spaces in games. From a technical point of view, we had to actually nail all the motions and the animation, because we licence music and create a record box for the DJs. And then, this time, we had them do their mixes live in the studio so when they’re touching a knob, something’s happening — they’re filtering something or they’re bringing out the low end or whatever. Moodyman is literally on the mic and also DJing on vinyl, so you see him pulling out the records and putting them on. We’ve gotten to a point where it’s half DJ set, half performance. He’s there, he’s got back-up dancers; they’re hitting their steps and moving. Talking about this kind of hybrid performance that Moodymann does, we’ve gone beyond just DJing, which is very cool for us, thinking about what we can do in the future.

What has the reaction to the new update been like?

Our department has never got more calls from artists, managers, booking agents, expressing their excitement and trying to figure out what we can do together. It’s struck a good nerve with people.

How would you describe the legacy of music in GTA and how it has developed over the years?

There’s two aspects. There’s GTA, the game that people understand, the action parts and stuff like that. But what we have always built into the games, from the very earliest days, is the idea of ways to be more social. This is something that we’ve been pushing for forever, and the clubs are just a natural extension of it. But they’re perfect for right now.

Sam started the music industry and that’s why it’s such a big focus of our games. If you look at GTA III and this idea of the radio stations and the support of indie music, whether it was drum & bass or techno or New York hip hop… Sam, growing up in London, was experiencing all of those things. These things were all massive around the world, and you see that kernel of music there. And now, it’s just an evolution of what we can do, asking ourselves how we can take that love and passion for music and then figure out ways to integrate it into the worlds where it becomes part of the experience for the player.

It’s fair to say that it’s provided a platform for discovery too.

It’s a place for people to come and find new music. We can continue with Giles Peterson and Flying Lotus and have them do their third shows and they just get better. I think with the respect for music that we have, the people we’re creating these stations with and collaborating with, that’s how they return the favour, by finding all these exclusive tracks, and giving us unreleased music. Whether you’re in the US and you’ve never heard of Joy Orbison, or if you’re a 13-year-old who doesn’t know much about classic rock, and you have Julian Casablancas on the station.

Everybody involved is a big music fan and we go to artists that we love and respect, and we treat them that way. In return, they’re giving us a piece of their soul. Therefore, people playing GTA will hear new music: some artists are debuting music, or playing things that they’d never been able to licence before because of samples. And that makes the whole experience completely unique to our world. And, really, that’s the legacy: evolution, and a respect for music.

Watch our livestream with Grand Theft Auto Online x Palms Trax on Youtube.

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