Can the club experience be truthfully emulated in solitude?
Written by Pete Armitage
For months Berlin’s world-leading nightlife industry was on hold. For the first time since the wall came down almost 30 years ago, dancefloors came to a standstill and revellers have had to find different ways to entertain themselves.
More than any other city, clubbing is a way of life in Berlin. Of the 13.5 million tourists1 that visited in 2019, one in three planned on partying. Add to that the vast reams of locals who have attended events religiously for decades. Berliners truly epitomize the old adage of ‘living for the weekend’.
The city economy itself has suffered a severe blow purely on the grounds of club closures. Naturally, innovations in quarantine-friendly clubbing started here, in the epicentre of European nightlife, as struggling businesses and gig workers desperately searched for new income streams.
To find out more we spoke to one Berlin resident about their club experiences in solitude.
It was 3am on a Saturday morning. Usually I’d be in the cab to Berghain. My mate who works on the bar would have linked me up with guestlist and I’d be meeting a couple of friends on the dancefloor - left of the dj booth downstairs, our weekly routine. We’d have sorted our drugs beforehand and be looking to spend a few hours at the club sweating it out ‘til sunrise, then probably head home for a quick smoke and bed around midday.
Instead, we were two months into the pandemic. I’d not seen my mates for ages. My drug habit was on sabbatical and the only techno I was listening to was bits of soundcloud and boiler room on my phone.
As with most locals, I’m looking for a particular type of fix when I go out. Something non-commercial. Something carnal and deviant to elude the humdrum monotony of ordinary life. To be honest the last thing I want to do is stare at a laptop screen watching some pixellated phoney bullshit. Yeah, EDM-loving 19-year olds might be able to get their kick from a shitty zoom ‘party’ but it’s just not gonna cut the mustard for me. If I want to have a ‘virtual’ experience I can just pack some changa in my pipe and listen to Brian Eno.
Regardless, out of sheer boredom that night, I decided to have a scout around on google looking for online zoom ‘parties’ to attend, largely ironically.
I swiftly discovered ‘United We Stream’, who’ve got a neat selection of Berlin DJs and producers livestreaming sets. There was nothing playing on the Berlin one at the time, so I switched to the UK site. Much to my disappointment, the mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, was on, cheesily bopping behind some CDJs to ‘Gerry and the Pacemakers’ in his garden. It left a sour taste in my mouth. Yeah, I get that shit needs funding, especially nightlife, but this was a total charade and the last thing I was looking for. Some white quasi-politician wanking himself off to his white quasi-political music tastes.
After another five minutes of trawling I find a forthcoming collab event between NYC pride and GLAAD held on zoom; ‘Black Queer Town Hall.’ Just the right tonic to Andy Burnham. The launch page2 advertises the online gathering as ‘...3-day virtual event to support and raise funds for black, queer organizations and LGBTQIA+ performers.’ Good cause too - sweet. I set a reminder on my phone to check it out.
I then stumbled across ‘Club Quarantine’, a queer party hosted on Zoom. After ‘queueing’ for a while, and making sure I was donning appropriate attire to get past the bouncer (fishnet shirt and chunky silver chain) I ‘arrived’ at the zoom party.
First thing I saw onscreen was the DJ. They’re holding court at the top of the window, drenched in ‘RuPaul’s drag race’ style clobber playing early Madonna with some astral psychedelic projection behind them. Beneath, there are loads of little windows of attendees in various costumes dancing away in their bedrooms sipping cocktails.
Upon superficial examination I clock a mischievous-looking Marilyn Monroe lookalike flaunting a cigarette holder and glass of champagne gyrating libidinously, and what appears to be a priest-gone-bad(/good?) hitting a glass bong. It was really surreal, but kind of entertaining in its virtual oddness.
I started a private chat with a tattooed guy from Montreal in a catsuit, who told me that the club had been attended by Michelle Obama and Charli XCX on other nights. Exclusive.
Anyway we get talking about the pandemic and how it’s affecting our lives. She’s pretty cool and doesn’t seem like the kind of dweeb I expected to find in a glorified internet chatroom. Her zoom background is a tessellation of cartoon dongs. Pretty funny.
I progressively get more drunk and chat to a scantily clad Argentinian couple about queerness. They’re fooling around with some handcuffs and drinking whisky straight from the bottle. Somehow, their horseplay is endearing and it brings a wholesome smile to my face.
I’m pretty spent so I say my goodbyes and close my laptop.
In retrospect, it was like group facetiming your mates in another country except you haven’t met them yet. And there’s mediocre tunes on in the background.
Did it possess the same appeal as a real night out in Berlin? No. It was insincere and distant.
The ‘intimacy’ of physical proximity just cannot be authentically emulated in virtual interaction. But you know what? This is a different kind of buzz. And it has an appeal. Even for a highly strung B-town club snob like me.
I would say that interaction of any form is valuable, especially during the excruciating loneliness of lockdown.
Overall, the rapidly disintegrating music industry needs any help it can get to stay afloat. It feels like the knee jerk response by promoters was to make use of Zoom, where artists can broadcast their sets with little expertise for donations and/or new followers. It’s making the most of a critical situation. A glimmer of hope for the post-corona future.
‘Club Quarantine’ have thus far maintained themselves on user donations, but that just won’t last forever. It may be rudimentary at the moment, but it’s a taste of the future of clubbing and with big players such as Amazon and Beatport investing, virtual gatherings are only set to become more mainstream.
Indeed, traditional clubs aren’t gonna be made redundant anytime soon, the virtual alternatives just aren’t compelling enough. But so many clubs and promoters have gone under in the last few months that newer, lower-risk alternatives for both consumers and investors need to be considered.
Promoters are desperate to maintain their relationships with clubbers, and isolated clubbers are desperate to maintain interaction with their peers.
Despite its current lack of investment potential/revenue, virtual clubbing offers far lower overheads for both brands and consumers. Far fewer staff are required, less security, no rent. The list goes on.
The technology just needs to be more engaging for this sector to cross from non-profit experimentation to being financially viable. Currently it’s just like youtube on acid. And people just aren’t that desperate nor adventurous yet to invest in a 200 euro VR headset.
User engagement remains passive and cumbersome, in order to make technology like VR headsets more appealing promoters ought to explore possible monetisation strategies like sponsorship and subscription plans. The proof will be in the pudding next year: if huge events like Coachella and Glastonbury are still disallowed, alternatives must be considered in order for industry actors to survive in the rapidly metamorphosing entertainment sector.
For now though, the somatic reverie of the traditional club experience, warts and all, is unsurpassable. Unadorned hedonism is, after all, post-modern bliss.