Plague Raves, #MeToo, And Doing The Work: A Look Back At Dance Music’s Tumultuous Year

By a lot of measures, 2020 was one of the roughest years in dance music history - but there were some silver linings.

dance music peggy gou 2020 photo

In November, British-Canadian techno lifer Richie Hawtin released an EP called Time Warps.

On Bandcamp, the two-track release is described as Hawtin’s first dancefloor-focussed EP since Minus Orange in 1999. The accompanying video for title track ‘Time Warps’ features a dancefloor blurred to abstraction, with bodies moving in hazy slow motion.

Paired with the track’s mechanistic build, the images evoke a bleary morning in a cavernous hall at Germany’s techno festival Time Warp, where Hawtin routinely plays marathon sets. In any other year, this release would make sense. At the tail-end of 2020, it raises a question: of all the moments to drop your dancefloor comeback, why now?

By most measures, 2020 has been terrible for dance music. The year started normally enough in Australia with the likes of TOKiMONSTA, Jon Hopkins, Honey Dijon and Disclosure doing the New Year’s rounds.

On the first weekend of March, as COVID-19 anxiety crept in, Victoria’s house and techno-heavy Pitch Music & Arts Festival went ahead as planned, with a host of its acts also travelling to Sydney for Days Like This. By mid-month, DJ tours were cancelled and our new lives of Zoom drinks and snoozy weekends began.

This hard stop on dancing put producers in a weird spot. While dance music isn’t just a soundtrack to nights out, the new reality raised existential questions. As soon as cinemas started closing in international markets, film studios delayed the release of multiple tentpole movies. Would club music also wait for clubs to come back?

As it turned out, the releases kept coming. Cut off from its natural context, the flow of new dance music was inherently less exciting than in the past. And yet some tunes were undeniable, even if they never went beyond our earbuds.

Live Streams And Plague Raves

In place of nights out, we got a deluge of live streams. At all hours of the day, DJs live streamed sets in every subgenre, sometimes from empty clubs or the idyllic outdoors, but mostly in living rooms slightly cooler than our own.

International dance site Resident Advisor turned into its usually packed events listings into a hub for livestreams. Local initiatives such as United We Stream Australia raised money for industry workers impacted by the lockdown, while Sydney’s The House Of Mince threw a 24-hour party on Twitch.

Streaming fatigue soon set in, but a virtual party beats no party. It’s also a lot safer than attending what the dance music community coined ‘plague raves’: packed, superspreading parties in Italy, Tunisia, France and elsewhere. Top-earning house and techno DJs who elected to play a plague rave, such as Dixon, Tale Of Us and Nina Kraviz, faced the appropriate flogging online.

Doing The Work

With actual clubbing on pause, the lights have come up on a few elephants in the room. The pandemic has revealed the precarious livelihoods of the entire nightlife workforce, from DJs to venue owners to the hospitality staff pulling beers at 3am.

If COVID-19 cases stay low here, Australia has a chance to rebuild its industry on stronger foundations sooner than, say, Europe or the US. (The NSW government’s recent 24-hour Economy Strategy is a promising step.)

“While these various writing and curation opportunities are exciting, it is somewhat difficult for me to not observe some of it as performative opposed to actual change. — Ash Lauryn”

In May, the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer sparked a wave of global protests, including Black Lives Matter marches across Australia. The movement pressed several industries to finally confront systemic inequality in their ranks. At least, that was the hope. Dance music — a culture built by Black artists in Chicago and Detroit that now looks predominantly white and male — had its own accounting to do.

Following the protests, Detroit-born DJ and journalist Ash Lauryn, who runs the ‘Underground & Black’ blog, was asked to guest edit dance site Beatportal. In her first post, Lauryn struck a sceptical note about the kinds of offers suddenly hitting her inbox, writing, “While these various writing and curation opportunities are exciting, it is somewhat difficult for me to not observe some of it as performative opposed to actual change.”

The unfortunately well-founded concern is that, after a period of apparent soul-searching, dance music’s power brokers will get back to business as usual.

Australian dance festivals, on the whole, do not have a great record of racial and gender diversity. With pressure from punters to do better, 2021 should be the year that every dancer sees themselves represented in the DJ booth.

These restless months also threw light on issues of sexual harassment and assault in the scene. Australian journalist Annabel Ross has been at the forefront of this conversation. In a Mixmag report following the September 1 death of Erick Morillo, Ross presented ten accusations of rape and sexual assault against the veteran house DJ.

In a November piece on Resident Advisor, Ross spoke to 16 people with claims of sexual harassment and sexual assault by Detroit techno pioneer Derrick May. Responding to these revelations, techno DJ Rebekah launched the #ForTheMusic campaign to shift the scene’s “fucked up” pattern of sexual misconduct.

This is all weighty and crucial work, but dance fans, like any denizens of the internet, can be easily led astray. Take, for example, the recent pile-on inspired by disco selector Daniel Wang slamming the alleged bad behaviour of superstar DJ (and Wang’s former Berlin neighbour) Peggy Gou.

What started as an out-of-the-blue rant has, as usual, stirred up the misogynists and petty score-settlers. These internecine dramas inevitably distract from thornier conversations in the scene. What else are people going to do, though — watch another livestream?

It’s Good To Be Home

This has been a wild year, too, for Australian talent living overseas. Melbourne’s Roza Terenzi, for one, relocated to Berlin in March – a few weeks before Germany went into lockdown. Despite the blow, Terenzi channelled her energy into a killer debut album, Modern Bliss.

Other DJs and producers hopped on the first flights back to Australia to wait it out. In March, London-based Melburnian DJ BORING was halfway through an Australian tour before COVID shut it down.

Retreating to his hometown, the producer released the Like Water EP in June, powered by a banging title track that begs for a club sound system. Despite the lockdowns here and abroad, this was a good year for transportative Australian-made EPs in the ‘underground’ zone, with recent highlights including HAAi’s Put Your Head Above The Parakeets and Sleep D’s Freak of Nature.

Bassier names in Australian dance music found different ways to meet the moment. Anna Lunoe’s ‘Ice Cream’, released this month via Sweat It Out and Mad Decent, suggests a world in which clubs never closed.

Nina Las Vegas applied the same principle to ‘Busy’, a straight-ahead stomper released on her NLV Records in October. (“I feel like I still need that uptempo, hard-hitting bass in my life,” she explained, summing up a very late-2020 sentiment.) Alison Wonderland, meanwhile, leaned into the lockdown vibe on the oddball ‘WWCBD’ with Phem and the more openly vulnerable ‘Bad Things’.

And what about Australia’s biggest electronic act, Flume? After the pre-pandemic release of ‘The Difference’ featuring Toro y Moi, he was supposed to play three Flume and Friends shows at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre in June.

Instead we got a remix of Blue’s Eiffel 65 and a streaming playlist of songs he’d play out if he could. (Flume, Nina Las Vegas and DJ BORING are among the curators of Spotify’s curiously-timed ‘track IDs’ playlists, alongside DJs like Carl Cox and Jamie xx.)

Back to Life, Back to Reality…

As 2020 limps to a close, there’s good news for Australian clubbers. Around the country, coronavirus restrictions are easing, allowing people to dance again — even, would you believe it, indoors. Of course, this doesn’t mean a summer of festivals as we once knew them — far from it, in fact – but things look a lot sunnier than they did in March.

From Perth’s Origin Fields with hometown heroes Pendulum to Melbourne’s locals-led Animals Dancing, plans are underway for a better than expected New Year’s Eve.

One silver lining of a rapidly-reduced festival season is the necessary shift of attention from flashy internationals to Australian talent. This summer, locals are the main draw — which, it goes without saying, is rarely the case. Even as travel restrictions ease, we shouldn’t stop repping what we’ve got right here.

In the meantime, with so much in the world still uncertain, there’s only one thing left in this hell year to do. Let’s dance.

Jack Tregoning is a freelance writer based in Sydney — he was formerly the Editorial Director at Beatport and an editor of inthemix. Find him on Twitter.