It’s understandable that following UK nightlife's long-awaited return, headlines focused on teenage revellers enjoying their first nights out, and businesses finally getting a much-needed cash injection. What about the people behind the decks, trying to reinvigorate a decimated club scene and putting themselves at risk by doing so? Too often, the role of DJs and live performers in this cultural rebirth has been ignored. Most DJs have struggled financially during the pandemic, but when getting back to work involves weighing up legitimate worries about overcrowding, safeguarding, and infection risks, how do you manage it? To find out, I spoke to some of the UK club scene’s most exciting young selectors.
The scale of demand for live dance music became clear soon after clubs reopened in July, not least to the DJs involved in propping up the parties. One artist whose profile grew significantly during lockdown was Leeds-based DJ Tanya Sanadze, AKA Tañ, co-founder of UKG-championing label and clubnight Spin City. I caught up with Tanya over Zoom to find out her thoughts on the revival of UK nightlife.
"It was interesting to see how clubs came at it after lockdown. Some were proactive in making sure people were comfortable coming back to clubbing, because it definitely felt quite weird at first," she told me. "But I got into it quite quickly I think, just because I was playing every weekend. I was quite lucky in that sense - I came out of lockdown with a few bookings off the back of stuff that I'd done online. It was nice to get straight into it and meet all the people that I'd just spoken to online for the past year."
Those virtual connections forged against a backdrop of global turmoil have proved important to Tañ, who benefited from the digital audiences craving a replacement for live music.
She continues: “For me, it definitely worked in my favour, because before lockdown I was just playing bar gigs, club nights for friends and stuff. Over lockdown, [streaming] definitely had its place, because people were at home and had more time to spend listening to radio, watching live streams, and it was a way to connect when people had not much else to do. I made loads of friends just by speaking to people on Instagram, and it was only after lockdown that we started meeting up. It's helped a lot of smaller DJs to grow their platform and connect with more people, so for me it's been positive, but maybe not for everyone.”
One of the platforms responsible for helping Tañ showcase her sound online during the pandemic was KYSO Sound. The collective emerged out of frustration at what DJ co-founders Dan O'Kane (AKA O'Zone) and Thomas Murchison (AKA Tammy) saw as a lack of musical ingenuity in their corner of Northern Ireland. Hailing from Coleraine, in County Londonderry, the pair felt that their area was swamped by "shitty EDM", with an absence of the music they wanted to hear. I met the pair in the empty upstairs of a familiar New Cross pub. Its dim lighting and mismatched furniture had the charm of a natty old emporium, and a similar tiredness seeped through into Dan's reflections on his hometown club scene.
"We started off wanting to bring certain types of music, UK music, to our area, bringing UK bass music to Ireland," explains Dan. "Venues were taken over by people who were just trying to make money, and farmers basically; you wouldn't get much afro-inspired music like jungle or garage. We were given a boost by the fact that everyone in the area wanted it, and no one was doing it," he continued.
Filling a gap in the market is something the KYSO head honchos were forced to do again, when lockdown hit, and the idea of catering to virtual audiences became paramount to DJs across the UK. But Dan quickly developed doubts about the long-term viability of online streaming.
"I think with the virtual stuff, in terms of trying to keep an audience, it's good," he said. "But because it's the only thing anyone can do, it definitely was really saturated. There's only so many live streams you can watch before it gets a bit boring."
Tammy chimes in, "It was good fun, but I think everyone else had the same idea. We did try to keep social media going, we did one live stream from our house, which was good fun, but it was seriously saturated."
One artist who was also frustrated by the limits of virtual DJing is Dobbs, Reprezent Radio stalwart and pioneer of a unique sound that combines mainstream pop and pulsing club bangers. As part of club music supergroup 6 Figure Gang (which includes the likes of Sherelle and Jossy Mitsu), Dobbs was used to vibrant, energetic sets across the UK, so when lockdown struck, it was a shock.
“During the pandemic I did one live stream, then I did one pre-recorded set, and I really, really didn’t like it, so I just kind of stepped away from it," said Dobbs, whose real name is Dana Hurley.
"Both my parents were key workers working full time, and I also have two younger brothers who are on the autism spectrum. My youngest brother was in his final year of secondary school, so because I got laid off from my pub job, I was home-schooling him. But my childhood home back in London doesn’t hold very good memories for me, so being stuck there was not very good mentally for me, and I was really struggling… I was just feeling really burnt out."
It's hardly surprising given the steep contrast between the high-octane energy of Dobbs' live sets and the numbness of being locked indoors. So, what was it like re-adjusting to live performing?
“I was so anxious, especially because the week before lockdown ended and the clubs were reopening, I actually caught Covid," recalls Dana. "Thankfully I was alright by then, but I was absolutely bricking it. I was also intrigued to see if after everything that had happened, had anything changed, and had it changed for better or worse? I’m still not too sure what’s going on, especially seeing the reporting of spiking going up and stuff like that, but I do think there are a lot of hard-working people trying to push live music forward and turn it into a better space than what it was before.
"We couldn’t continue the way we were because so many things were happening that just weren’t getting spoken about, whether that’s sexual assault, transphobia, racism within clubs... I think now people are thankfully taking notice. I hope we continue fighting the good fight, and having fun while doing it."
Clearly, Dobbs is not afraid to address the issues which continue to plague the UK's underground dance music scene, but that doesn't mean they haven't been energised by the return of live DJing.
"Getting back into performing was cathartic, it was definitely needed. Music's always been my first love, even though I might have to step away sometimes. It can get too much sometimes, and you can get into your own head, especially with social media. With social media you're only seeing the best 15 seconds of a blend… so step away if you need to."
Online trends and social media continue to influence music consumption in both positive and negative ways. For Ross Harrington, lockdown actually ended up leading to great success. The 22-year-old producer and DJ goes by the name of Navos, and it's fair to say he benefited from the space and time isolation gave him for creating music.
"During lockdown we had time to get into our crafts and figure out what we liked to do. I was putting like 8, 9 hours a day into making music, and thankfully it worked," he said.
The rise of TikTok created new opportunities for sharing music, with certain songs plunged into the devices and ears of millions. For Navos, the exposure this phenomenon created for his single 'Believe Me' was transformational.
“Hearing it on TikTok and seeing people doing dances and stuff, I feel like that was the way people were really putting across that they were into it. Over lockdown, TikTok was the way you could see people reacting to music. So I think social media played a big part in my career. I feel like I can connect with fans in that way.”
Transitioning back into live DJing this summer was a big deal for Ross, who lives in St Helens, Merseyside, and was previously only used to playing small venues across Liverpool. With 'Believe Me' peaking at No. 3 in the Apple Dance Charts and getting remixed by Jaykae, and recent single 'You & I' going Gold in the UK, things were slightly different for Navos when clubs reopened.
"The first couple of events I was obviously really nervous, cause those were the first shows I'd done where the name Navos and 'Believe Me' was known, so I had a big pressure on my shoulders. It was a weird transition, but it was a good one. I feel like I coped with it by being like "people are here to listen to music, they're not here to judge you on your DJ skills". One of my mates said to me, "look, you could play a lullaby and people will probably still dance to it, they've been away that long".
That cathartic joy we all experienced watching live music this summer was evidently something that shaped Navos' performances.
“I’m just happy to see people back out there again, with a smile on their face," he said. "I think we’re still in the middle of it and people have still got to stay safe and stuff, but it’s a really good thing to see people back out there again… because as much as lockdown was a positive experience for me, for some people it wasn’t. People are starting to look happy again, and the world’s coming to a better place."
The KYSO Sound boys felt similarly excited to be back, although they noted several issues they faced when trying to organise events.
"It was very, very difficult to find a venue, more difficult than we've ever experienced before," said Tammy. “A number of venues have closed, very few have opened, it seems, and that puts a massive strain on getting a venue space,”
Health and safety concerns also troubled DJs and promoters during that transitional time for UK nightlife. "I think some people were very wary about the first night back, so a major thing we considered was being socially acceptable, you know, not throwing a party when you shouldn't and risking people's safety”, commented Tammy.
“Putting on or being associated with an event where there was an outbreak definitely was a worry... there's always a possibility someone gets seriously ill from it, or their family does,” added Dan. “But I was probably just excited to be back more than anything else.”
This positivity is shared by others. But can it be matched by progress within the industry? For Dobbs, things are moving slowly in the right direction. "I do hold out hope, and I know that me and my counterparts are doing the best that we can in enacting change and trying to push the culture forward into a more positive space, a more safe space. Collectively, we've suffered a huge trauma with the pandemic… but I definitely feel like I'm in a better space now,” they said.
Any complacency about the state of the UK club scene right now would be a mistake. Not only is the live music industry in serious financial trouble, it’s also facing a crisis of identity, with reports of spiking, harassment, abuse and other issues continuing to emerge.
“If you’re gonna be a dick, don’t go out," is Dobbs' simple advice. "If a space isn’t meant for you and the promoters of an event have made that clear, really try and figure out why you’re trying to go. Because there are a lot of queer events, a lot of black events, that are specific safe spaces for marginalised identities, and a lot of them are getting co-opted by people who just wanna come and stare. It’s not nice, especially when you’re there for your bit of escapism, and to be amongst your community."
Tanya concurs about the work that needs doing. “There were a lot of conversations over the past couple years, and in some ways it’s made people take active steps to be more inclusive or push a more diverse sound, but I think people fall into old habits quite easily. There’s been a few festivals that have got caught out and haven’t handled it well, but there are people who are genuinely trying to put on good events and be as inclusive as possible, and I think you can tell that it’s genuine and not just for show.”
The UK’s club scene is at a crossroads. As DJs, promoters and venues lead the fight to resurrect an industry that has been torn apart by Covid-19, it’s important that values of inclusivity, tolerance, safety, and fun are integral to that effort. There’s now a unique opportunity to transform UK nightlife for the better; long live the DJs trying to make that vision reality.
Since graduating from Goldsmiths, University of London in 2020 with a degree in English Literature, I’ve worked as a freelance culture writer for publications including NME, Resident Advisor, The Quietus, and Trench Mag. Alongside my music journalism, I work as a content writer for MindOwl, developing engaging digital content relating to mindfulness and meditation.
Commission Mission 2 was created by Young Guns Network to Commission 4 new freelance writers to create articles to inspire, inform and entertain young people in the music industry on the topic of The Return to Live Music After Covid 19.
The commission was funded by the Youth Music Innovation Fund.