On Friday 30th April and Saturday May 1st, Liverpool club night Circus hosted two clubbing pilot events, billed as a first step towards re-opening the UK club scene. These events were part of the UK government’s Events Research Programme (ERP), headed up by a theatre director and a businessman, with the stated purpose of exploring how mass events can be resumed following the COVID-19 lockdowns.
The headline DJs were Sven Vath and Fatboy Slim, with a host of other well known names on the line ups, including the Blessed Madonna, Hot Since 82, Heidi, Jayda G. The events were promoted by Yousef, who also DJ’d. The 3000 attendees on each night were reportedly required to have a negative lateral flow COVID test result from that day or the day before, and were invited to take part in further PCR testing before and after. Once inside the venue, there was no requirement to wear masks or socially distance.
Looking at the reaction amongst the dance music accounts I follow on Twitter, many seemed emotional on catching a first glimpse of what could be the return of UK clubbing. Media coverage of the event was similarly upbeat, on both specialist dance music websites such as Mixmag and DJ Mag, and more mainstream outlets such as BBC News and Manchester Evening News.
Notably absent in this coverage was any critical analysis. If the pandemic created a situation in which searching questions about dance music have begun to be asked more openly – about egregious racism and sexual abuse within the scene for example – the implicit message around the pilot raves seemed to be that it is now time to put that stuff back in its box. No more awkward questions.
A closer look at what was being glossed over is revealing, however.
There has been very little scrutiny to date of the “scientific” dimension of these events. I have so far been unable to find anything in the public domain about the research design, methodology, ethics, or how the results will be made available (if anyone reading is aware of anything, please drop a comment or get in touch via the contact page and I will update this post accordingly). The terms of reference for the Events Research Programme briefly state that the governance of the programme will include a “Science Board with an independent chair [to] provide scientific assurance across the programme and ensure events are following ethical and scientific principles and will generate evidence of sufficient quality to inform decisions” which is considerably less detail than would be needed to achieve a pass in an undergraduate research assignment.
This absence of detail is particularly concerning given the UK government’s track record through the pandemic of claiming to be “following the science” whilst also regularly going against scientific advice, in ways that have created thousands of additional, avoidable deaths. So while some of the publicity around these events has referred to them by the bizarre term “science parties”, it would be more accurate to describe them as a temporary suspension of normal COVID infection control measures for 6000 people, with no serious public discussion of the rationale, risks or mitigating strategies.
On the subject of risks, a number of accounts on Twitter (e.g. here and here) pointed out with dismay that the headliner of the first Liverpool pilot rave, Sven Vath, recently toured India. He is one of many high profile DJs who have continued to play raves during the pandemic, regardless of the obvious transmission risks of large crowded events, and despite various pleas for such events to stop.
A review of a Vath performance in Goa from 20th February offers the following description:
“Even during these unprecedented times, the dancefloor did not fail to fill up with a mixed crowd of Goa’s residential global urban nomads, old school hippies and excited Indian tourists, who flocked to Hilltop from all over India in big numbers, eager to see the evolution of electronic music.”
“Unprecedented times” is a mild-mannered euphemism for a pandemic that has, at the time of writing, killed at least 225,000 people in India. My overall impression reading about the dance scene in Goa during the pandemic is of a culture so addicted to its own hedonism that serious risk to life is simply ignored. We may never have the data that would be needed to conclusively demonstrate whether these raves contributed to the rapid escalation of the COVID crisis in India, but looking at the images of packed dancefloors, and based on what we know about COVID transmission, it seems highly likely.
For any DJ involved in that situation to then headline an event whose stated aim was to test whether club events could be made COVID-safe speaks volumes about the nature of dance music culture, and its almost complete lack of accountability. These events were the first proper legal raves in the UK since the start of lockdown, and as such were extremely high profile. Any competent DJs could have been booked and the events would likely have sold out, so it is instructive to look at the choices made, and the people to whom this opportunity was given.
It is hard to avoid the impression that a marker has been laid down, whether intentionally or not: that established big name artists will continue to be given preference, and that they will continue to be free, as the Ultra Naté song puts it, to do what they want to do.
These events were therefore tests in another sense, insofar as they can be read as a first indicator of what UK dance music culture might look like at the other side of lockdown. Based on this initial evidence, it would appear that dance music has no more been reformed by the pandemic than Boris Johnson was by his hospitalisation with COVID.
Dance music apparently continues to be a culture in which reckless and irresponsible behaviour can take place in plain sight, without raising much in the way of comment from the other artists on the bill, from the journalists covering the events, or from the government-backed scheme of which they were part. That complicity may not be intentional, but it surely can’t be accidental. Those of us who love dance music are embroiled within a culture that routinely avoids accountability, through a tacit agreement between many of its key players not to ask difficult questions of each other.
This absence of accountability means that the raver ethos of peace, love, unity and respect can be cited to provide a welcoming appearance, without addressing the more difficult issues of how to translate those ideas into reality. Thus Yousef is reported in Mixmag as saying about the Circus events, “I just want people to kind of feel connected to one another this weekend and have that kind of original rave ethos where it’s inclusive.” That is an aspiration to which many dance music fans will relate, but which means little without any discussion of what it would require in practice. As Frankie Hutchinson puts it (full article here):
There’s no better way to avoid accountability than by promoting platitudes that brand yourself as so full of love that you couldn’t possibly have space for hate.