Coronaraving: The Business Implications Behind All Those Livestreamed DJ Sets

Soul Clap
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for Clusterfest

Soul Clap perform at the 2019 Clusterfest on June 22, 2019 in San Francisco.

Four weekends in with no end in sight, livestreaming has become the centerpiece of the music industry. But in the process, the tone has shifted as fears grow and long standing systemic issues become more pronounced.

What did you do this past weekend? Unless you’re an essential services worker or just really into spreading contagion, you probably stayed home and watched some live music streamed to your phone or computer.

Livestreams of DJ sets have long been a staple of underground dance music culture, notably with the Boiler Room series and its many imitators. But in a matter of weeks, livestreaming event calendars have become more crowded than Florida beaches during spring break. As artists like D-Nice and Charli XCX create viral moments with their first forays into internet DJing in the era of social distancing, most dance artists have been dialed in for a while.

“I’ve been doing a regular radio show and live stream from The Lot Radio in Brooklyn for the last three years,” says Eli Goldstein of Brooklyn-based house duo Soul Clap. “When the gigs started cancelling, live streaming felt like the best way to stay connected with our audience and help keep people’s spirits up. It just felt natural to try it out as soon as possible.”

Goldstein and his DJing partner Charles Levine broadcasted their first “quarantine rave” via Facebook on the night of March 14, days after music venues had been ordered to close, but before anyone was sheltering at home. Feeling good about the first installment, Soul Clap ended up performing a series of livestreamed DJ sets that week, designed to replicate the gigs they would have played during the cancelled Miami Music Week.

That same weekend in Los Angeles, progressive house DJ Kristina Sky was staring at a suddenly blank touring schedule for the rest of the spring, if not longer. “I had lost all these gigs and was thinking about all these people going into isolation,” she tells Billboard. “I thought, 'Maybe I can just give them an escape, or give one to myself.' So I asked my fans what they wanted to hear.”

Heeding the call for uplifting trance, Sky delivered an impromptu set to an audience of about 5,000 on Facebook Live, telling them about each record she played, and even showing off a piece of vinyl if she had it handy. Like Goldstein, Sky saw the livestreams as both familiar territory and a good temporary solution. But what happens when the temporary stretches into the indefinite?

“There’s definitely a scramble to figure out anything possible to do,” says Cherie Hu, a music industry analyst who studies the ways technology influences creators. “There’s been a lot of inquiry into livestreaming. There’s also this reckoning with the economics of streaming and how it’s not a good substitute for the lost revenue from touring. There are tools out there where you can do livestreams behind a paywall -- but Facebook, Twitch, and Instagram are all platforms that are very much free.”

One byproduct of the EDM era -- in which DJs were branded as rock stars and encouraged to nurture their own cult of personality -- is that some artists have robust social followings they can reach organically, without paying for promotion, telling them to tune in. Conversely, some artists don’t have the same social clout and are at the mercy of algorithms.

“Discovery is still a big issue,” Hu says of the livestream ecosphere. “The biggest genre on Twitch is electronic, but its search functions aren’t that good. So artists are putting on their own shows, and the only outreach they have is to their existing audience.”

Hu cites Seattle’s Quarantine Sessions as a model of how artists can amplify their own music by taking a collective approach within their own music communities. That spirit might also mitigate some of the trolling that has escalated in the last few weeks. In some cases, it’s hard to ignore. After a late night set for Beatport on Twitch last month, Junior Sanchez addressed the issue in an Instagram post. “To see some of these nasty comments is perplexing,” he said. “We’re doing this to bring you music. It’s not about how we DJ or how we look. D-Nice did his stream and all I did was turn on my Bluetooth speakers in my house and dance around all night.”

Of course, not even a pandemic can stop haters in the comments -- but it begs the question of how much artists are willing to tolerate when providing a free service. Social platforms offer virtually no monetization solutions either. Livestreamed media has notoriously been a wild west of copyright regulation, but updated agreements between performance rights organizations and tech companies like Facebook have allowed DJs to DJ -- without being slapped with a takedown notice.

Though sometimes ungainly, the direct model of payment might be the only option for now. During her livestream last month, Kristina Sky’s fans were so touched by how much time she spent with them answering their questions that they spontaneously started to Venmo her money. “I almost started crying because I know these people might be losing their jobs too,” she says.

In the last week, SoundCloud has rolled out a feature that allows creators to add a button that says “SUPPORT” to their profile, so fans can directly give money to artists without any intermediary taking a fee. Though as techno DJ Mike Servito said in a tweet, “Support isn’t just about the money… support your favorite DJs and producers any way you can.”

Clubs remain the best place for a DJ to get paid to DJ, and right now, the future of nightclubs is uncertain. “We're really concerned,” says Goldstein, who also co-owns the Black Flamingo bar and club in Williamsburg. “Many of the bigger festivals are run by corporations who have insurance and deep pockets, but I know first hand how difficult the economics of running a club can be. Without leniency from landlords or some kind of help from the government, many clubs could go out of business.”

Whereas artists in other genres can rely on at least a modicum of revenue from record sales and streaming, not every dance and electronic artist produces music, many only DJ. Even though Soul Clap and Kristina Sky produce and release their own records, those records are primarily purchased by other DJs, who aren’t working right now either.

DJs have been stereotyped as spoiled and overpaid, but the reality for the majority is much harsher. “Most of us are just a couple gigs away from being in a bad financial situation,” says Sky. “We don’t have benefits. We don’t have a union.”

As promoters have increasingly consolidated under corporate ownership in the last ten years, any bargaining power artists might have had over various contractual terms has been weakened, including negotiating radius clauses. Burdensome in normal times, radius clauses are the contractual stipulation from promoters that an artist can’t perform in a given market for up to 90 days before and 90 days after their event. In practice, “market” is often defined as an entire region.

A district court ruling upheld the legality of these contracts in a case brought against Goldenvoice last year, but the ethical debate is only intensifying. Radius clauses built into the contracts of now-cancelled events in March and April meant that many artists were effectively blocked from freely earning a living in the first three months of 2020. How these clauses will be enforced for events that get rescheduled to later this year remains an open question. Compounding the financial stress for some artists, many festivals don’t pay a deposit on non-headlining acts.

There are concerns about how gaps in earnings might effect eligibility for unemployment insurance, made available to freelancers (including many DJs who file taxes as self-employed) for the first time under the CARES Act. But for the most part, there’s some relief at the possibility of a lifeline.

For Sky and others, the future is uncertain, but they aren’t giving up either. “I don’t have a backup plan,” she says. “This is what I’ve done for so long. I’ve never had another job. This is just so different from times in history when we’d be at war and people went to theaters for an escape. We can’t even do that now.”

“The music industry runs on momentum,” says Hu. “There’s so much uncertainty about when we’ll have events again that it’s hard to build momentum. For now, we might have to shift all of our focus online.”