What It Was Like Being A DJ In A Year Without Dancefloors
"I can see a light at the end of the tunnel, but it still feels like a really long tunnel."
At the beginning of last year, Andrew Levins was so busy he barely had a moment to breathe.
The veteran Sydney spinner and writer was DJing a minimum of 12 hours every weekend, with regular six-hour shifts at clubs on Friday and Saturday nights. Most likely he’d be doing similar hours on Thursdays and Sundays too — meaning a busy weekend could see him on the decks for a whole day.
Outside of that, Levins was writing food articles and pulling together the next installment in his series of children’s books — Nelson 3: Eggplants And Dinosaurs comes out this August — as well as running his two podcasts, Hey Fam and Serious Issues. On top of all that was the not-at-all stressful situation of raising two young kids and trying to be a normal, functioning human being.
The DJing brought in the lion’s share of Levins’ income — he and his wife had bought a house in 2019, so he had pushed himself to secure those precious residencies and hours. The rest of 2020 looked sweet: he’d locked in pretty much every weekend of the year, and knew exactly where he’d be every Friday and Saturday; festival slots were locked and loaded, ready to go.
“I realised I’d done all that hard work in locking in those residencies,” Levins told Music Junkee recently. “So I was actually looking forward to having a really busy and cool 2020, filled with lots of gigs and festivals and supports and things like that.”
Then, as Levins aptly puts it, it all got “shit-canned”.
Plugs Pulled, Pennies Dropped
He remembers when the penny dropped: He was doing his usual residencies on the weekend of March 13 and 14. The 14th was a Saturday, he was blasting through a set of 2000s bangers, and he had the distinct thought that he shouldn’t have been there.
“I’m like I’m being really aware that I was trying to keep my distance from all these people that were in the club, that maybe didn’t think that the incoming pandemic was that serious to deal, as I had suddenly realised it was going to be,” he says. “We cancelled a trip to Japan in April, and I was going to go to Hong Kong and New Zealand in March, but all that started getting cancelled. Once that weekend got over…I was happy that I was able to actually do the gig, because it was a good paid gig.”
Panic began to set in, and Levins was hit with a double-whammy. Not only were the months of gigs he’d lined up suddenly cancelled, but he knew there was a good chance he would struggle to get paid for the gigs he’d just done, as clubs shuttered doors and became unable to pay out artists.
“I know a lot of other DJs…that are still chasing invoices or have just accepted that they’re never going to get money from that period.”
“I spent a lot of those first few months just chasing invoices. So, that wasn’t a great time because you don’t want to lay on too thick with the venues, because you know they’re going through so much strife trying to balance paying their stuff and stuff like that. But at the same time I needed the money that I worked for, I managed to get everything paid up, but I know a lot of other DJs and entertainment workers that are still chasing or have just accepted that they’re never going to get money from that period, which is a shame.”
At first, Levins was just in a “crazy state of disbelief” — trying to homeschool the kids while his wife, a primary school teacher, was trying to work out how to remotely teach her own classroom of kids. At first, he was totally consumed with that, but then the reality set in: he had effectively lost his job, and he wasn’t sure when it would be returning.
The JobKeeper subsidy hadn’t yet been announced, and then when it was it was initially unclear whether sole traders would be included at all. Levins watched the livestreams explode — every DJ was livestreaming, it seemed, but he didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon. He’d used Patreon, a membership platform that allows people to operate subscription services, for his podcasts for ages; it seemed only natural he could give it a crack for his DJing.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I wonder if I could just stay on something like that for my DJing’. Like I could make mixes and things like that. So I kind of started making a few things and then putting it up and their response was really, really awesome. And now I just think it’s going to be like something that I do forever.”
He committed to just making one mixtape a month for subscribers, but if he hit 100 subs, he’d make two mixtapes. He hit the 100 mark in about three days. He’s operating three tiers at the moment — $7 a month will get you the monthly tapes, $14 will get you access to every single one ever made, and $27.50 will get you a personalised tape all to yourself.
“I haven’t seen anyone [else do it],” he answers, when asked whether he’s noticed other DJs follow suit with Patreon. “I thought I was onto this groundbreaking thing that everyone would try. But I mean, it’s a lot of work making the mixes. I get obsessive, I have a very hilarious tendency to really put way too much effort into things that I like. They’re like a gig and an hour-long mix will take me a minimum of a day. [For] the Kanye samples mix, or the MF Doom samples mix, I found all the songs they sampled in their music over the years…we’re talking like 50 songs that aren’t like actually electronic. So you’ve got to really stretch them to make them beat match with other songs. And like the snippet of sample doesn’t happen right away. And then so it was like editing them..so it’s a lot of work.
“Even researching that — you’ve got to go through the entire back catalogue of the rappers and find out which of them have been noticeable samples and then figuring out which samples sound well next to each other. It’s a process that’s infinitely rewarding, but it’s not something that I can’t do that level of work on a mix every single month, because some of them are like ones that are almost recreations of what I would be doing if I was DJing. And then others are passion projects.”
For the six months or so when there wasn’t any DJing, Levins was just happy to use that part of his brain again — the fact it was financially sustaining was an incredible cherry, a small lifeline in the shit-canned year.
A Lonely Dancefloor
Since the main NSW lockdown ended in mid-last year, and patrons began timidly returning to venues around the city, Levins once again found himself with gigs to play — but they weren’t anything like he was used to.
“Mostly I play in restaurants or bars, and a lot of places you do just feel like wallpaper. Like I’m just there in the background, and most of the time people have no idea that I’m there. There’s no sense of being the backbone of the party, that you’re the one dealing out the excitement levels in the room and keeping them there, or bringing things down when they need to get down things — that’s what I enjoy as a DJ. You’re just providing background music that people can bob their heads to, at best.”
“You’re just providing background music that people can bob their heads to, at best.”
The restrictions were fiercely enforced: Levins remembers a group of women being asked to leave a venue because they were simply moving around too much and singing along in their seats while he was playing a set of 2000s tracks. As Levins notes, that’s hardly an unusual site in NSW venues — lockout and licensing restrictions over the years have created horrible situations for venue managers and staff, who need to crack down on patrons or risk running up tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
“I’d see licensing police hit up the same venues three times in one night, sometimes, and it was a regular occurrence. Each time they find some tiny bit of an issue that hasn’t been done. You know, a dotted I or a crossed T, they’d get fined hundreds, thousands of dollars. And so it just seemed like such a shitty role for failing club owners to be doing.”
And while NSW was still labouring under tight COVID-19 restrictions (mostly eased a couple of weeks ago, announced the day Levins and I talked), other states had fully functioning dancefloors, had thrown the proverbial doors open again.
“Melbourne had the strictest longest lockdown ever, and there you can go to nightclubs there again, there are dancefloors, and that’s been going on for [a while],” Levins says, laughing hollowly. “We haven’t felt like we’re anywhere near that yet. It just feels so crazy to me.”
As for what the dance scene has learned over the last year, Levins laughs: “Never do charity gigs for anyone ever again! We need charity. No one’s going to be there for us. No that’s a joke, that is a joke!”
He laughs it off, but he’s highlighted something which has royally pissed off the arts industry over the last year — namely, that musicians and arts workers are often the first to pitch in when money needs to be raised for a cause, but when the tables were cruelly turned, that support wasn’t reciprocated. No one was there for the music industry.
“People like me, like DJs and performance and producers and things like that, like there are other avenues we can do to create an income,” Levins says. “But I feel so sorry for roadies, especially like sound guys and lighting guys and AV guys like who are just… they’re just out on their arse. Those first few months it was like, ‘Oh, well, it’s bad for everyone’. And you know, no one in the entertainment industry is like ‘Woe is me’, but we just want people to know that there is no one lower on government’s priorities [than the arts industry].”
There needs to be a lot of funding from the NSW government to get the state’s nightlife going again — an ‘apology package’, as he puts it. For now, he’s still plugging away in the corner of restaurants, waiting for the time when he can put on club nights again. At the moment, he needs to work double the hours to earn what he did pre-COVID.
As for the mixtapes, they’re staying put — he’s just passed his one-year mixtape anniversary, having created 24 of the things (his pervious record was seven in a year). “I think I can see a light at the end of the tunnel, but it still feels like a really long tunnel, at this point,” he says. When it comes to NSW nightlife, is there anything but?
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Listen to an exclusive mix from Levins below.