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Cloud raves suck, but they don’t have to

Livestreamed music has the potential to be so much better.

Negative Gemini's set on 'Beyond the Virtual Utopia'.

The ubiquity of the online live streamed party would have seemed comical only months ago, but if a fix of live music is what you’re after, you really have no other choice but to turn to Instagram, Facebook and Twitch. Yet, despite music performance being pushed into an avenue of delivery it so inherently resists, the innovation in response to a lack of physicality and presence has been slow at best. Even the biggest and most resourceful of organisations have put on some truly tear-jerking yawn fests: look no further than the all-reaching Boiler Room, who have been flooding feeds with phone-streamed sets where the DJ has their back turned to the camera.

Even with the most pristine sound quality and razor-sharp images, there’s no denying your regular cloud rave feels like watching a lifeless fever dream. The music is there for you to dance to and you certainly could drink, but the prospect of doing either of those things requires a suspension of disbelief that takes more than a little practice to keep up enthusiastically. And with big media conglomerates very much on-board the cloud train, it’s difficult to find any streams that aren’t bombarded with visual or audio advertising at every turn. When a live event, which carries its own annoyances of buffering, dropouts and quality degradation, also contains more unskippable marketing than your regular Soundcloud playlist, it’s difficult to imagine that we won’t  totally burn out on the idea of live streaming altogether in another few weeks.

Perhaps the argument could be made here that the online experience could never replicate the viscerality of the club, and that my frustrations are therefore invalid. And to some extent, I would agree. However, shouldn’t a medium that undergoes such a fundamental transformation of environment try to account for the new conditions of its evolution? Can we not do better than a propped up camera and a few smoke machines? Ironically, the people who get up in arms about bad press for their COVID raves are the very same people that will liberally shit-talk the major clubs in favour of their quickly homogenising warehouse parties.

With thousands of underwhelming Saturday sets, there are, however, are a couple of hidden gems buried in the knobs and faders. 100% Electronica, a now-legendary vaporwave label founded by George Clanton (fka Esprit), held perhaps the world’s first interactive VR cloud rave two weeks ago. Under the banner ‘Beyond the Virtual Utopia’, Clanton and his crew of vapor-adjacent producers including FM Skyline, Negative Gemini and Satin Sheets put on two hours of the most acid-trippy audiovisual nonsense one could ever hope for. Placing the audience sometimes in surrealistic video game environments, other times in the very laps of the DJs themselves, the event transported its attendees beyond the living room and into something entirely unfamiliar. Listeners were even treated to an afterparty hosted by Death’s Dynamic Shroud, whilst being able to snuggle up in their VR beds and pet their VR cat. 100% Electronica wasn’t trying to half-assedly emulate a physical party – they were taking advantage of the virtual cards that they had been dealt. 

A moment from EQUIP’s set on ‘Beyond the Virtual Utopia’.

Similarly, last weekend also saw the nascent world of video game music festivals reach their full potential. Hosted by the memetastic 100 gecs, whose debut LP last year sent shockwaves through both the mainstream and underground, ‘Square Garden’ was a multi-act concert series streamed entirely through a Minecraft server. Users were able to join, customise their Minecraft avatars’ appearances and outfits, and dance – literally dance using their mouse and keyboard – to blistering sets by some of the most talented producers working today. Not only were you able to listen to blocky AG Cook pump out some bubblegum bangers, but you were also able to explore the bizarre and wonderful Minecraft world that gecs had set up as the backdrop – full of easter eggs to discover and places to socialise with other pixelated concert-goers. Instead of being one name in a thousand scrolling Twitch messages, attendees were able to visualise and interact with each other at a deeper level than an off-colour alcoholism joke that gets buried by a chatroom within seconds. Indeed, with new Fortnite and Minecraft concerts on the horizon, including the Massive Attack-attended ‘Block by Block West’ this Saturday, it seems that formal creativity might finally return to live music performance.

Though the COVID crisis looms over artists like the grim reaper itself, it presents its unique opportunities to innovate in ways that would have previously been seen as mere gimmicks. With more and more people paying for and demonstrating a willingness to pay for digital streaming content and stream subscriptions, a well-produced, fun and interactive cloud rave may just be the next viral success to help creatives get through this difficult time. Watching someone rub a couple of CDJs alone in their basement is just not going to cut it for that much longer.

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