These days, at the weekend I wake up to an Instagram feed full of lockdown rave culture. Secret forest raves, boat raves, people weaving their slalom six-am way through fields in the countryside surrounding London, private party lock-ups in unused clubs, above-board socially-distant outdoor club nights that descend into socially-un-distant after parties.
Visually, atmospherically, this summer’s party scene is seductively reminiscent of those brave counter-culture trailblazers of the late 80s. Private messaging groups sharing locations hours before kick-off, parties being shut down by the police, diving into the collective community spirit of things days before as messages are shared between ravers who haven’t met yet, clips to tease the location, DJs sharing their promo sets in advance of the big night. It’s tempting to see this as a second wave uprising, the vital progressive aliveness of youth, collective liberalism searching for oxygen beneath the heavy, airless weight of a for-the-few-not-the-many conservative government.
Lockdown rave culture is none of these things.
We are not techno rising up from a disenfranchised post-industrial Detroit; we are not a brave and anarchic musical revolution uniting East and West Berlin; we are not Danny Rampling and Paul Oakenfold emerging smiling and dancing from beneath the dark cloud of a brutish, capitalist Tory regime (more on the dangerous buffoons with bad hair later): we are fighting a global pandemic, and sweating your face off in a field with hundreds of strangers is at best a bit stupid, and at worst fatally selfish. (I have yet to see somebody describe the side effects of ecstasy as ‘just feeling really conscious of remaining at least 1.6 metres away from everybody else’.)
More than this though, lockdown rave culture is the individualist antithesis to the collective spirit in which the movement was born. Rave culture was, is, and should be, about love. About looking out for each other. The spirit with which contemporary lockdown rave culture is entered into, is much more closely aligned with the individualism of capitalist culture that this entire movement was built to resist. Modern UK sound system culture currently spearheaded by the likes of Extinction Rebellion, Eco Disco, and Stop Brexit Soundsystem celebrate music’s ability to unite, protect, and fight for freedom.
Put simply: the “squares” sitting at home, popping to the shops with a mask on, and keeping socially distant in company, are much more closely aligned with the brave community-spirited liberal ravers of the 80s. Just a bit less cool and unfortunately often sober.
But it gets a LOT more complicated than this.
Our government has created this issue, politicising partying by forgetting (as they historically always have done) the decades of good that the electronic music scene has done for society, LGBTQ rights, equality, tolerance, for culture, the millions of jobs it provides, the estimated £66 billion (yes, really) it contributes annually to the UK economy.
Our government’s inability to afford the nightlife economy the respect it deserves, to see Fabric, Ministry, E1, Tobacco Dock as cultural institutions that should be protected, has left the industry with no choice but to fight for itself. I hold no individual judgement for anybody organising and attending these parties, for the promoters desperately hoping to hold their festivals on Malta this year, for the parties rebranding themselves as under-the-radar rave events and fighting to survive. None of the recent support measures recently outlined by the government to support arts and culture venues will actually impact nightclubs, DJs, or promoters.
What is going to happen to people’s livelihoods? If you DJ, what else are you supposed to do but accept sets wherever they are? If you promote, what else are you supposed to do but try to keep working? I am at an age now (lol) where most of the DJs, promoters, and event organisers I know have families and young kids to support. But so what if you don’t? What if you’ve spent the last few years working tirelessly to build a career that was just getting off the ground, looking forward to summer 2020 and the biggest bookings of your life so far; are you mean to sit at home and watch it crumble and disappear with no financial support and little information?
And since it is being afforded the same level of indifference, mistrust, and ultimately obstruction, as it was in the 80s, rave culture is clumsily operating its own life support machine because it has no choice. It fascinates me that our authorities once again underestimate the power of nightlife culture with the same ignorance they did thirty years ago, despite seeing the economic weight it shoulders (and that’s just the bit of it that’s legal), despite seeing the pre-pandemic prosperity of party enclaves like Ibiza and Berlin, despite the evident reality that it will find a way to stumble on regardless.
But not realising that dance events are a breeding ground for progressive liberalism and musical talent is one thing; not realising that they are a breeding ground for coronavirus is a very different problem. We need to wake up and support this industry before we kill it; but we also need to wake up and support this industry before it kills us.