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It was mid-March and DJ Platurn was worried. A two-decade veteran of the turntables, had set up various monthly residencies with local DJs at Hello Stranger, the bar where he works as the booking agent, and someone was scheduled to spin records every night of the week. But on March 15, the music came to a halt like a needle scratch.
“We had a gig. It was a Sunday day party, and it was the same day that [Governor] Newsom put out a statement that businesses needed to close their doors,” Platurn said. “We closed our doors that Sunday.”
Before COVID-19, Oakland’s nightlife was eclectic and vibrant. Every night, bars, lounges, and restaurants like District and Parliament in Old Oakland served up cocktails and dancing. Somar, dubbed “the people’s bar,” was a great place to grab an after-work drink and listen to someone mixing beats. DJ Lady Ryan was one of Hello Stranger’s more prolific DJs. AU Lounge on Broadway was a great retreat after getting dinner at Drake’s, and the scene of Sazon Libre‘s monthly soiree featuring DJ Baysik, Guapi, and DJ Mr. Lucky spinning Latinx sounds every second Saturday.
Since March, all of these clubs, and more, have been shuttered. The very thing they aim to create, crowds of dancers swirling together in intimate spaces, are now impossibly dangerous—and illegal. As of this week, bars, concert venues, and gatherings of more than 100 people remain off-limits. In response, some DJs have gotten creative and started playing music for virtual audiences on the web.
Some have weekly Zoom parties where DJs get together to spin virtual sets much like they would at a bar or a club, letting people dance the night away from their own bedrooms and backyards. Others use sites like Twitch. The livestream website was first made famous by gamers, but in recent months, DJs across the world have started using it.
This is uncharted territory for many local DJs who, up until early March, had a steady flow of income playing at one of Oakland’s many bars, restaurants, and lounges. DJ Platurn works full time in the music industry, and since bars and other events have been canceled, he has relied on unemployment to pay bills. But while people can collect unemployment, it’s more difficult for local businesses to survive.
“As far as us DJs, and what’s next, we need to see who can sustain,” he said about bars and clubs that are teetering on the edge of ruin. “We’ve already seen places that have already closed down, and certain restaurants that couldn’t keep up.”
In mid-May, the Stork Club closed. All of the staff for First Fridays were furloughed in April. A few blocks away, the restaurant Duende announced its temporary closure this past weekend. “Staying open during these circumstances is simply not sustainable,” the announcement read.
On average, Platurn estimates that a local Bay Area DJ can make anywhere between $100 to $800 per gig, depending on experience and the venue. For DJs whose income relies solely on playing events, the shuttering of bars, lounges, and clubs means reinventing the artform and pursuing an online business model, something that not all DJs have mastered. Some local DJs who have started playing virtual gigs find themselves competing with DJs across the globe for viewership.
“There’s a lot of competition for resources, for money, for people’s attention,” Platurn said. “If, as a DJ, you can’t figure out a way to reinvent, then it is going to be tough.”
DJ Lady Ryan says the pandemic has seriously affected her finances. In addition to having to learn how to produce appealing content for an online audience, she has had to confront disparities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Lady Ryan, a member of the women DJs collective, Peaches Crew, had monthly residencies at clubs throughout Oakland. Every Wednesday and one Friday each month she was at Hello Stranger for her YAMS residency. On Sundays, she was spinning at SoMar, and The Gallery hosted her on First Fridays. At Drake’s she held space on the second Friday of every month. And possibly Lady Ryan’s most-followed residency was at Soulovely, an LGBTQ event where she would play alongside DJ Emancipation and Aima the Dreamer every second Sunday. Soulovely has moved to a Zoom party on the 2nd and 4th Sunday of every month, but most other gigs haven’t transitioned to online.
“I still kept all my gigs on my calendar. I didn’t delete them until maybe June,” Lady Ryan said about her early hopes that the shutdown would be temporary. “I remember that sinking feeling of actually deleting out all the potential income that I had, and one by one taking out all of my residencies.”
Lady Ryan also realized that the idea of pivoting to streaming and creating online content was no easy task. Many DJs don’t have the equipment needed to edit video and put together online content for viewers. She also said it’s difficult to set up a remote DJ booth at home, a space similar to the booths in clubs and outfitted with all of the gear needed not just to play music, but broadcast it over the internet. And she says DJs of color and women DJs often have fewer resources to work with in the first place.
“We can say that this is happening because of coronavirus, but it has been here. Our wealth gap, systemic racism, patriarchy, and white supremacy has been here,” she said.
Lady Ryan emphasized how, to build a home studio or setup, DJs need thousands of dollars to create a space where they can produce quality content in an already saturated online market. “You need money, you need access to tech. To broadcast, you need two laptops and a good laptop costs around $3,000. You need a webcam, you need lighting,” she said.
“There’s so many things that you are trying to do. You’re trying to keep up with your own creativity. You’re trying to keep up with your sense of presence and your sense of mind and what you’ve been doing for so long,” Lady Ryan said. “You’re trying to still give people what they need for their own healing.”
For DJ Baysik, one-third of the Sazon Libre crew that played at AU Lounge every second Saturday, his way of transitioning online was Twitch.
As the pandemic kept clubs closed down, Baysik realized that playing live was not going to be an option. “I kept seeing the rates go up, people not paying attention and not wearing a mask, which is the easiest thing you could possibly do,” he said. “I lost hope, there was no point in holding on to that idea.”
When their usual monthly Sazon Libre party moved from the physical location at AU Lounge to the virtual world of Twitch, Baysik and DJs Guapi, and Mr. Lucky began streaming every Saturday. During the first few streams, they donated 100% of tips received to local nonprofits like Know Your Rights Campaign, Anti Police-Terror Project, and Calma. Initially, the Twitch streams were garnering around 5200 viewers per session. Now, it has significantly decreased to under 60 every week. Keeping a big audience online requires a different approach that many DJs are still trying to figure out.
Licensing issues with record labels are another obstacle. If DJs try to stream certain songs on Facebook or Instagram they can find themselves in trouble with record labels and artists who own those songs. If a DJ gets reported too many times for playing songs they don’t own and haven’t paid a licensing fee to use, their social media accounts can be suspended. On the Twitch platform, DJs are able to play any song unrestricted while the stream is live. Once anyone replays a streaming session, copyrighted tracks get muted.
When DJs play at a bar or club, there aren’t restrictions on what songs are played. The setlists are not being monitored by record labels.”We get our music through record pools, and we pay a monthly subscription,” Baysik said. “These record pool companies get the ok from the record label, but now they are shutting them down.”
Lady Ryan said the total impact of all this is that DJs feel like they’re being censored.
“This is on the record companies and the music distribution in the music publishers to lift these restrictions,” she said. “We are promoting your music for free and giving you more plays. It doesn’t make sense that we have these limitations.”
Platurn, Baysik, and Lady Ryan have all been offered paid gigs to play in person. For all three, safety comes first and they have declined. Lady Ryan has done some virtual corporate events.
“I feel like [playing outdoors] wouldn’t be safe,” Baysik said. “No disrespect to any of the clubs. I know that they are offering us money to play. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
All three are using part of their savings to pay bills. Unemployment benefits are scheduled to run out unless Congress finalizes a second stimulus package before going on a month-long recess starting August 7.
Platurn said he thinks that the first round of local business closures is just the beginning of more problems. “We’re probably going to see a lot more places close down to be perfectly honest. And, we are probably going to see a lot of DJs throw in the towel.”
Lady Ryan worries about what Oakland will look like post-pandemic. She said she is concerned about Black, brown, immigrant, and minority-owned businesses with fewer resources to survive the coming months. If the clubs permanently close, it could change the face of who is behind the DJ booth in the future.
“Who is going to have the ability, the resources, the access to wealth to open up something new?” she said. “I’m very much afraid that we won’t have anything to come back to.”