For Many Touring DJs, Returning to Normal Seems Less Likely Than Ever

Back in March, Shawn Reynaldo took an in-depth look at COVID-19’s impact on the electronic music world. Six months later, he’s looking at where things now stand. In this first chapter of a three-part series, Reynaldo checks in with several artists, to understand their general state of mind and outlook for the future.

13 min
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Sept 9, 2020
Shawn Reynaldo

Jessica Gentile (AKA Jubilee) is tired of being asked how she’s doing. “How is anybody doing right now? I am literally breathing,” she says with a bemused laugh. “I know that no one is okay. Every time somebody has asked me that, I’m like, ‘How dare you even ask that question?’ I’m alive. I’m healthy as a second.”

Back in March, Gentile was getting her head around the cancellation of Winter Music Conference and a couple months’ worth of gigs. She was worried then, but living through lockdown in New York City has seriously altered her worldview. “Everybody’s like, ‘What have you learned about yourself?’ There were freezer trucks for dead bodies in my neighborhood. That’s what I’ve learned about myself. I wasn’t learning a skill. I was fucking terrified.”

“I’m just not thinking about nightlife right now,” she says. “I don’t know when it’s coming back. This is not my career right now. If things happen, cool.”

Gentile’s words may sound harsh, but she’s got a point. The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the entire globe upside down, but the electronic music industry has largely ground to a halt. Most nightclubs are closed (often by government decree), and international travel restrictions have put a major damper on fly-in DJ gigs; depending on an individual artist’s passport and country of residence, they might even be impossible right now. Across the industry, layoffs and furloughs are widespread, and parties — at least the legal ones — have largely been postponed or canceled outright. “At first, the instinct was to move shows,” says Andrew Kelsey, President of North American booking agency Liaison Artists. “We moved March dates to June or July, then moved July to November and then moved them again or just canceled them. Eventually, it became apparent that it wasn’t worth moving shows anymore.”

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Over in Rome, all of this uncertainty has left Marco Passarani (of Tiger & Woods) feeling gloomy. “My entire life depends on traveling outside of the country,” he explains, “plus the gathering of people.” The last gig he played was in February when Tiger & Woods performed in Venice on the same night that the region was put into the COVID-19 “red zone,” and though he’s worked to keep busy over the past six months, testing out new production techniques and even dropping some high-profile remixes for Christine and the Queens and Sebastien Tellier, he’s doesn’t expect to get back on the road until next year at the earliest. Moreover, he doesn’t really want to. “I don’t think it’s really right to play at the moment,” he says. “I don’t want to be part of any potential future hotspot.”

Not all of his colleagues feel the same way, and Passarani has watched as videos of top-tier DJs playing to packed — and frequently unmasked — crowds continue to surface on social media. Many of these events took place in Italy, right up until fresh outbreaks prompted the government to shut down nightclubs there for the second time. In the eyes of politicians and the cultural mainstream, electronic music often has a troubled image, even during the best of times, so now, during a global pandemic in which asymptomatic young people are increasingly being blamed for the continued spread of a deadly disease, it’s no surprise that these parties are stirring up a serious backlash, even amongst fans of the music. “You didn’t see people talking about DJs when we needed help at the beginning of the quarantine,” says Passarani. “Now people are talking about DJs and clubs like they’re evil. It’s not helping my life.”

“People don’t see our position as a real position,” he continues. “People think you’re either a rich, superstar DJ or you’re a guy who has a hobby.” Outside of electronic music circles, there’s not a whole lot of sympathy out there, even for middle- and working-class DJs — not to mention other industry professionals — with no real timetable for getting back to work. That’s prompted some artists to seek out new ways of making ends meet. “I was just getting comfortable with making all my money and paying rent from gigs at the beginning of 2020,” says Isaac Treece (AKA DJ Swisha). “Once March hit, it definitely all fell out.” While many of his friends and colleagues in NYC’s club scene began to panic, Treece threw himself into mixing and mastering. He’d only begun offering his services professionally last year, but it didn’t take long for his calendar to start filling up, especially once it became clear that selling music online was going to be one of artists’ only potential revenue streams as long as parties remained on pause. “I have crazy amounts of people hitting me up for mixing and mastering work,” says Treece. “I’ve gotten to the point where I’m considering hiring somebody to do more of it — I never thought I’d be passing work off.”

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Oddly enough, the popularity of Treece’s own music has also exploded during the pandemic. He’s just released Nothing But Net, his first EP for Fool’s Gold. And alongside fellow NYC producers like Kush Jones, AceMo, and MoMA Ready — who also happen to be some of his closest friends — Treece is at the forefront of a new generation of young Black artists who’ve found success while effectively ignoring the electronic music playbook, freely hopping between genres and releasing tons of music, usually directly to their fans. “We are literally letting shit loose, making a song and putting it out the next day,” says Treece. “We’re trying to represent this music for what it is and not allow people to tell us how we should do things, whether that be labels or bookings or anything. We’re going to make it happen regardless.”

If the pandemic wasn’t happening, Treece and his friends would likely be busy touring the world. Even before COVID-19 hit, he’d lined up tours in Europe and Asia, which have now been shelved, and in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and widespread Black Lives Matter protests, there’s now a bigger focus than ever within the industry to celebrate and support Black artists. For Treece, it’s disappointing to be stuck at home when he should be the toast of the DJ circuit, but he’s not especially eager to get back to gigging too soon, and he’s definitely not up for playing at the many illegal parties that have sprung up around NYC. “These illegal things are marketed in a very cringe way,” he says, “where it’s powered by protests or there’s some ‘radical’ agenda behind it when realistically it’s just people all wanting to get fucked up under a bridge.”

As long as the virus is out there, it’s difficult for DJs — and the industry that supports them — to plan much of anything. Clubs will likely open and close as outbreaks arise and subside in different countries, and any sense of “normality” will be hard to come by. “Before corona, I was really accustomed to thinking about things six months to a year ahead of time, more or less knowing where I was going to be almost every month,” says Mor Elian, a Berlin-based DJ and producer who also runs the Fever AM label alongside Rhyw. “Now, I can’t even think beyond November. I think we’re going to have to live with this for quite a while. Until there’s some kind of cure or vaccine, it’s going to be very hard to come back.”

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For many DJs, the prospect of coming back has already lost some of its appeal, particularly if it means a return to constant travel, careerist thinking, industry expectations and the constant need to put on appearances. Elian admits that the pandemic has been something of a wake-up call, and has prompted a re-evaluation of her priorities. “Performing is wonderful,” she says, “but I don’t need to do it excessively. I need to do it in a way that feels wholesome and purposeful — and fun. I don’t need to chase anything.”

Back in NYC, Gentile takes a less measured approach. “I don’t want to go back to normal,” she says. “I was feeling crazy. There were a lot of things that I was doing that weren’t normal.” For her, even the idea of trying to remain “productive” as an artist seems ludicrous right now. “Being productive for what?,” she asks incredulously. “So everything can crash down in one day and then the 10 years you worked on something is gone? Like cool, I put my whole life into that and it’s not coming back.”

“I care about being alive and helping my friends and family,” says Gentile, who’s currently focusing her efforts on defeating Donald Trump, phone banking and writing letters to prospective voters in her native Florida. Her efforts are admirable, but for other artists, it’s more difficult to know what to do next. “I’ve been doing music for 28 years,” says Marco Passarani. “I’m not a kid. It would be really difficult to reinvent myself in a different field.” He may be discouraged, but he’s not ready to quit yet. “The pandemic didn’t change my vision,” he says. “I still live a dream, like when I was a kid watching Beat Street. My vision is a dream about music and people gathering together. It will work again. I don’t know when, but it will work again at some point. We’ll just have to find a way to resist until then.”

This is part of a running series on the effects of coronavirus on the dance music industry. We’ll bring you part two soon.

Shawn Reynaldo is a freelance journalist and editor based in Barcelona. Author of the weekly First Floor newsletter, he was a longtime contributor to RBMA, previously served as Editor in Chief at XLR8R, and has also written for places like Pitchfork, NPR, Resident Advisor, DJ Mag, Bandcamp, and Electronic Beats. Find him on Twitter.