The Cultural Impact Of DJ Streaming
Richard Byers looks at how online communities like Keep Hush & Boiler Room are shaping the future of dance music culture.
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DJ streaming is here to stay. So what does its future look like? As we recover from the shock of a global club closure, how do we fit the ever-growing presence of the ‘virtual’ music scene into the ‘real’ in-person one?
If there’s one thing the 21st century has taught us, it’s that the ‘virtual’ and the ‘real’ are no longer separable concepts. As ‘virtual’ communities on Twitter and Facebook become indistinguishable from our ‘real’ communities, and more ‘real’ energy is spent on enhancing and profiting from ‘virtual’ spaces, the two are becoming equally important, and equally real.
There are fortunes to be made, bids to be won and empires to be created in this virtual space, and music is right in the middle of it all.
The Rise Of DJ Streaming
Dance music is prospering in the virtual world and a significant part of that is DJ streaming. Popularised in the mainstream by the likes of Boiler Room, which was first broadcast in 2010 from a corner of an old warehouse in Dalston, streaming a DJ set or live performance is not a new practice, especially if you subscribe to the idea of it being a natural extension of pirate radio. However, it's recent explosion has seen Boiler Room’s particular brand sell to Dice in 2021 for around £87m.
The live stream has helped create some of music’s best loved communities. Hör Berlin has long stood as the go-to stream for all things Techno, while crowd-focused ventures like members’ club Keep Hush have gained traction for their signature UK energy under hazy green lights. Late Night Shopper has emerged as a consistent, weekly showcase of emerging talent, while clubs like FOLD in London turned to weekly streams in place of their usual club nights, to keep the party going during lockdown.
Festivals and large warehouse parties have also recognised the benefits of streaming or professionally recording shows in the last 5 years, as the increased demand is driving up user traffic and ad revenue, as well as publicly showcasing the inner-workings of their venue to a near-limitless audience.
COVID created a landscape chock-full of DIY streams and online clubs as music lovers were forced inside, and the livestream became almost as commonplace as the house party. COVID’s glimpse of a clubless world made us recognise the innovative power of the live stream, and seeing our favourite DJs in their living rooms, hearing their latest digs, and imagining ourselves back in the club, made for a novel distraction from our daily banalities.
What we also learned, however, was that this new clubless reality couldn’t last. This was not a surprising development, but as the real replaced the virtual, the insurmountable differences between the two were highlighted. It’s always been obvious that streams could never be like clubs. There are too many sensory, emotional and social aspects to the real life club experience that debating whether it can be replicated virtually is pointless. But DJ streams don’t have to be like clubs. They can offer us something entirely different.
The Effect On Artists
A live stream has significant career-launching power, and if we examine the layout of a Boiler Room, it becomes obvious why artists are so desperate for an invite.
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The camera records the artist’s performance and the crowd’s reaction in the same shot, doubling the energy in frame and doubling the potential for picking up golden moments. The audience is bigger than any club, as the streams are posted later to Boiler Room’s 2.8m subscribers for viewers to watch as many times as they like, and in the social media age of soundbite circulation, a stream’s viral capacity is immense. So, artists benefit from an intimate atmosphere upon recording, but also from an infinite audience.
This atmosphere is unique to streams, unattainable in a club, and has helped to launch the careers of several household names and emerging newcomers alike.
Sherelle is arguably the UK’s most decorated beneficiary of Boiler Room’s format. Had the audience for her rendition of Fixate’s ‘Ripgroove’ been limited to those inside the club, we probably would’ve just had to take their word for it. But the footage has seared itself into public consciousness, and with it, the name Sherelle.
The Effect On Fans
Live streams are capable of maintaining communities that couldn’t exist in-person. Live streaming holds value in its capacity to connect people to music scenes in cities they could never visit, in clubs they could never enter, and with people they could never meet.
A 17 year old from Padstow would have had no hope of following Manchester’s scene in the 80s other than on Top of the Pops. Kids now can see, hear, and to an extent, feel what’s going on inside the clubs pushing the sounds of the city.
Streams can also build upon the in-person scene by offering a completely different experience than you’d expect in a club. It could be as simple as techno DJs playing hip-hop sets, or artists answering a Q&A, doing a studio tour, talking us through their favourite records, or divulging mixing tips. New presentational formats and virtual reality pose new frontiers not accessible by clubs.
The Future Of DJ Streaming
So, today’s issue, as our ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ worlds intertwine, is what the virtual world of DJ streaming can contribute to the real in-person scene, without detracting from it or encroaching into it. If live streams simply emulate clubs, and lazily commodify dance music into short, easily digestible Instagram clips for an increasingly anti-social and screen-dependent generation, we risk catalysing the post-COVID club decline.
In a piece called 'When Club Culture Goes Online', Guillame Heuguet writes:
“Video streaming seems to offer the promise of alleviating many obstacles to participation historically associated with underground culture, but in doing so it also threatens to undermine the specialist exclusivity that contributes to the community’s own sense of authenticity.”
Put simply, a scene as nuanced as dance music, at a time as delicate as the present, must find its balance. Just as we try to poise our real and virtual everyday lives, DJ streaming and virtual clubbing must find their place within a scene that is at a precarious crossroads. Streams have the potential to enrich the music scene by going beyond what the club can offer. It is up to us to drive it in the right direction.