Digital artists in the age of Covid-19
2020. What did it mean for emerging artists?
Before the pandemic, a successful DJ and/or producer’s pace was set to 100 miles per hour. Mixes for prolific platforms and releases on established record labels paved the way to a packed schedule involving airports, hotels and thronged dance floors, all of which dominated Instagram feeds every weekend.
There was an unspoken demand to keep going. For those who were breaking through, it seemed they should follow the same pattern to a point where playing back-to-back gigs would take priority over exploring music creation in all its forms.
In March, clubs closed overnight. Artist’s plans to play anywhere were scuppered, followed by a question of how and when they were going to obtain an income. While venues were also left scrambling, up-and-coming artists had to figure out if they still wanted to pursue a path in music and if so, how they were going to adapt in an environment where club bookings were not an option. Despite the huge shift in the landscape of club culture that unfolded, many artists maintained a strong presence online in their own ways.
Berlin-based DJ Jesse G is a staple on HÖR Radio’s airwaves where she helms a residency with the Deep Trouble crew, the party she co-promoted before Covid-19.
‘I think streaming platforms are the winner of the pandemic. I played HÖR for the first time in 2019 just briefly after they started, and my streams now have a lot more views than back then. Of course, it’s not a lot in comparison to bigger names, I’m far away from that, but it’s more for sure.’
Around the world, radio and livestreams became the main source of discovering talent, and HÖR continues to be one of the most predominant outlets in Germany for live streaming. ‘HÖR got a lot of attention and many new followers last year,’ Jesse acknowledges. ‘Now you have more “bigger” names playing but still people who are not so well known yet, which is really cool.’
In London, the community-led Foundation FM continued to host sonically diverse DJs and broadcasters. One of its residents, Heléna Star, reflects on the challenges of 2020 and how radio pulled her through. ‘Radio was my first love, and having conversations with people is my favourite thing to do. You get some insight into their creative process as well as their lives. It adds another layer to the listening process.’
In October, Heléna joined Resident Advisor as an interviewer on their Exchange series. ‘I had some of the most exciting times. I’ve managed to continue creating and doing radio, and joining RA has been cool.’ Heléna takes naturally to the role of interviewer. This year she’ll continue her show on Foundation FM, between pencilled gigs and a full-time job. The values of the station resonate with her now more than ever. ‘Finding your own community has been super important. After this, I hope that we continue this mentality – it’s not a race, it’s about bringing up people with you’.
Irish DJ and producer Céilí is also based in London. The last nine months have allowed him to re-think his approach to music production, DJing and the sound of his show on Threads Radio. ‘I actually liked having a bit of a break from playing out, not that I was playing out loads, but it was nice to sit back and realise what’s important to me about music without that schoolyard system of impressing people.’
In creative fields, this system is relatively common. Pre-pandemic, Céilí says he occasionally fell down online rabbit holes. ‘I was getting engulfed in jazzy Instagrams and seeing people’s busy lives.’ Lockdowns and a lack of parties helped to bring him back into focus. Having produced a wealth of unreleased tracks over the last two years, a handful came out in 2020 on BPitch, Yin Yang Label and Lobster Theremin, to name a few. ‘Making tunes makes me so happy, it’s my therapy. Sharing it and putting it out there closes it all off.’
Greek DJ and producer MarcelDune relocated to London from Athens at the height of the pandemic. ‘2020 was the most challenging year of all for everyone but especially for artists, because everyone, myself included, was trying to figure out alternative ways of making a living.’
Marcel struggled with motivation to create but her move to the UK added a fresh dimension to her outlook. ‘I constantly tried to produce new music. I relocated to find something new and take this great opportunity to literally change my life and discover new paths.’
This year, her projects will go out online. ‘As well as releasing new music, I have an upcoming collaboration with London-based artist NARA; we have four collaborative tracks.’ Showcasing her work over the internet will be pertinent over the next few months. ‘I will also be part of some upcoming V/A compilations, plus I have a video coming out for Fact Magazine’s Patch Notes series.’
New Zealander DJ Fuckoff lives in Berlin. Her gigs before Covid-19 were non-existent, but the connections she made online during Lockdown 1.0 led to slots on HÖR, WIDE Radio, Fritz and more. ‘I met a lot of great people online and have started working on some exciting projects for this year.’
Her spirited sets of gabber, happy hardcore, psytrance, breakbeat and juke gained a lot of traction online. ‘I’ve never played in a club in Berlin before,’ Zoe explains, but she enjoys the process of livestreaming and recording mixes, and watching other streams too. ‘It’s one thing listening to a mix but also seeing the person DJing makes you feel connected to that moment.’
After the chaos of 2020 and the deluge of bad news that took over, and still continues to some extent, how do each of these artists feel about their futures in music?
Jesse G considers the landscape of club culture. ‘It’s an interesting question to ask if things should be like they were before or if nothing will be the same… which is not necessarily something negative, at least club-wise.’ She welcomes change. ‘I’m excited to see what will come music-wise and club-wise, like what will be gone and will be new.’ She notes that ‘capitalism will exist in 2021, so oppressive structures will keep on influencing. Politically, so many intense things happened or at least got so much attention that I hope I will see many empowered BIPOCs creating things.’
In London, Marcel holds a similar view to Jesse. She would like to see more inclusivity in dance music. ‘More female, POC and LGBTQ+ artists on the line-ups with equally paid opportunities despite their gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation.’ She would also like to see techno, in particular, evolve towards a ‘cancellation of the “techno bro” attitude wherever that comes from’ and ideally, ‘a safe space for everyone.’
Heléna feels hopeful. ‘My path this year is just to be surviving, chilling and eating good. I just want to preserve my mental health. I don’t think people talk about that enough.’ Overall, it’s about keeping it local. ‘I’m looking for an inclusive, community-based, positive and strong mental health-based future.’
Back in Offaly, Ireland where Céilí is staying before heading back to London, it’s about thinking in the short term. ‘I can’t think beyond tomorrow but I’m gonna really try and do more mixes and get the new label I’m working on to a point where it’s just about putting it out there.’ He will continue his residency on Threads but change things up a bit. ‘I want to have a contrast between the usual sounds and push experimental music because I realised experimental is more mediative, a lot more ambient—that’s a big part of me.’ He sums up the last year as a testing one but appreciates the time it provided to evaluate where he wanted to go in music. ‘I’m so grateful. I had a lot of internal growth.’
DJ Fuckoff is looking forward to playing out but not feeling rushed. ‘I’m hopeful that we can get on top of Corona and come together again on the dance floor. I have a lot of cool stuff planned; fingers crossed things all go well. Health first then dancing.’
All five artists are not aspiring to a quick-rise in recognition. The impression gathered is one of realism. You can still have hope and ambition with the ability to see beyond the Instagram bubble of what it means to be successful in electronic music. I ask Heléna if she has any advice for those who are starting out or feeling lost right now. ‘Take it slow, there’s no rush. If you wanna be in it you will; your time will come.’ Realness.