How to DJ in a Pandemic

An anonymous local Oslo DJ shares his/her experience from the booth during 2020 and the pandemic that saw her/him do every form of DJing possible from the forest rave to the sitting disco.

In retrospect I should’ve taken the situation as an omen. This guy was in a complete biohazard outfit, dressed like a nineties raver who saw too many Altern-8 videos. He was probably just doing it for a laugh, but since this was the weekend before the restrictions that forced every bar and restaurant to close in Norway, it became a real prescient event. That was the last normal weekend in the history of planet earth, the last weekend before everything shut down in Oslo and a lot of us were thinking we’ll never DJ again.

I’m very pessimistic by nature, and of course like everybody else, I spend way too much time online. I knew pandemics don’t blow over in a couple of weeks and when the government shut down the country, I came to the conclusion; 2020 can just fuck off now. I unpacked my record bag and resigned myself to a life without Djing.

Before the corona pandemic I was Djing around 12 to 15 times a year, and as a local Oslo DJ winters often provided more opportunities to play than summers. Like most DJs in the city, Djing was a nocturnal and weekend pursuit, and a day job in a fairly secure industry left me free to indulge a lifelong passion for Djing and club music whenever I could. Djing was never something that could constitute a living for me, so when the coronavirus hit the city, I would be reluctant, but not completely despondent in packing away my record bag for the foreseeable future.

Who’s watching this anyway?

During those initial weeks, and being the incurable optimist that I am, I was convinced I was going to die of corona, so I made it my mission to make a lot of mixes before I drew my terminal breath. I don’t know why, but when it comes to recorded mixes, some latent perfectionist in me boils to the surface, and because I spend so much time doing these mixes and I’m a lazy bastard I usually only do one a year. This time however I did three in a month. It had to be a testament to music and life and all that, reflecting the nuanced style I have cultivated as a DJ and could entomb a personal legacy in music. 

I assembled my music for three mixtapes on three different outlets and if the coronavirus were to be my demise, I’d be content in leaving these three tapes as my will and testament to the rest of the world. I was sure that would be the last of it, but it seemed that DJing had become more than just an aural experience of late. Things like social media live channels had started a DJ stream culture that was already more than enough before the coronavirus, and by the time of the pandemic it started bursting at the seams. Hundreds of DJs with nothing to do and a GoPro, started flooding social- and some unsocial media outlets with live mixes recorded from their bedroom/club/studio/living room.

Who watches these things? I never have, but like so many DJs with nothing to do and a wall of records (not the cardboard cut-out kind mind you) I too was lured into a live stream for a local club-night/label turned online- broadcasting entity. I did my research, watched a few mixes, but I got bored quickly. In the end all I did was put up a camera, and the people behind the event did the rest, making a whole production out of it, with five hours of music from a host of some of Norway’s more obscure DJ talents. The one-off event was a little different from your average live stream with extended sets and interesting graphic elements interspersing the DJ action, but for me as a DJ live streaming is a weird experience, nonetheless. You can see that people are watching, but you have no idea who they are, so I decided to make a little spectacle out of it, to keep people entertained and informed about the music I was playing. Sill, it’s not like the whole world is watching and you have no idea if it makes sense for the people out there. You’re quite isolated, and you’re never quite sure how it will be interpreted on the other end. Will people be dancing, working, working out, having dinner or doing other nefarious things people usually do in front of their computer? All I could do was assemble a bunch of records and present them in a cohesive set for the purpose of… well… these records.

Sitting room only

After these diversions on the recorded format, it was good getting back in front of some real people when Norway lifted some of it’s restrictions on the 6th of May. It seemed more DJing was to follow for me. The city sprang to life with the spring as bars, restaurants and club spaces opened again. It was conditional and it required every place to serve food and everything had to shut by 12:00 AM, but Norwegians are nothing if not resilient and living under heavy licensing regulations under normal conditions, there’s very little that will stop us from putting up a pair of decks and having a party. Most places offered some kind of warm food with everything from pizza slices to toasted sandwiches on the menu, but the food wasn’t why people came out.

I was still in my paranoid phase and a month of not socialising had only intensified my neurosis. I was unsure about going out, and uncertain about my own responsibilities. Something banal like a dinner with a friend suddenly was an alien experience. How do we do this? Maybe we should sit outside… is that safer?

It didn’t take long for those worries to fall to the wayside as the infection rates started to go down with the warmer climes and organisers approached me to play at a few local bars and clubs that could operate, somewhat uninhibited under these circumstances. Some of the places I played at felt like they were taking the regulations more seriously than others, and there were times when I felt like I was DJing merely for the other DJs on the lineup. It still feels like boxing with one hand even now, because you’re playing to an audience that’s not allowed to dance.

Fortunately, a lifetime spent playing all kinds of venues and events, has made me nothing if not versatile with a wide sonic palette. You leave the bangers at home – not that I play a lot of bangers, but the tracky Chicago stuff tended to remain on the shelves. What’s good to play during the pandemic is Techno with a bit of ambience to it and electro that is not that aggressive, and what I’ve found is that people are drawn to these sounds, with queues forming now at the most unexpected places I play. These, mostly small DIY venues might not be thriving, but they’ve become increasingly popular during the pandemic, as they offer something more appropriate for a intimate, seated audience. During that glorious short-lived period where everything opened to 3AM I even played a five hour set, but with the no dancing rule enforced all over Oslo, the situation still wasn’t ideal, for the music or my consumption. On the rare occasion people started dancing or simply looked like they were moving a bit too far from their designated chair, somebody would have to come around reluctantly, and tell them “sorry, no”.  I have to commiserate with the bar staff, who have had the role of being the mayor of Footloose unfairly thrust upon them in this situation. More than that I also feel sorry for the 20-somethings who just want a place to go out and dance. People in that age group who are now finally able to go out because they’ve reached an appropriate age, suddenly can’t for a whole different reason. 

Run for the woods

Under these regulations it didn’t surprise me when house parties and illicit raves started cropping up around the city over summer, and wouldn’t you know it… yours truly would also be invited to play at both those situations.

I made a mistake with the track selection for the house party. For some reason I got the idea that I wanted to play an introverted Techno set and I forgot that people haven’t been allowed to party for a while and were desperate to go wild. I managed to save the end of the night, playing a small batch of more energetic tunes in the bag, and it was a revelation and a relief to see people dancing to the music again.

I was hesitant about the forest rave however. I played an event like that a few years back, and the memories of that still come flooding back for all the wrong reasons. This one was a little bit inaccessible, and it came down to the wire whether I would commit, but this wasn’t a cave and the people behind it were as dedicated as anybody I’d ever known. I’m glad I did in the end, because even after the expensive taxi ride and the lengthy hike, it turned out to be my only real “party” set of the season. I was playing records the way you should, and I could hear actual responses from the records, even though I saw little through the dark and the clouds of insects attacking me. With a fair few people in attendance, but with wide open spaces and way out of earshot of any neighbours, this was an event as responsible as any, and yet there was still a palpable party vibe.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Moments like the rave and a few nights at some of my favourite venues, are memories that will probably stay with me for some time. I was too eager to write off 2020, and it turned out to be one of the busiest periods for me as a DJ ever. I’ve had about a dozen gigs since the “lockdown” began, which is almost the same I do in the course of a full year and 2020 is not over, with more gigs lined up.  

There seemed to be more room for a local DJ during the pandemic even though there were probably less venues. It feels peculiar now when we have an out-of-town DJ visit, but I don’t know if it is going to have any long term consequences. There were a lot of international artists being booked just before this for instance – is that going to carry on after the pandemic?

I have some sympathy for the mid-level DJs who don’t necessarily have a market in their hometown. For a lot of these people, music is their livelihood, and they don’t make any money from streaming, obviously. DJing is their only income. I’m one of the lucky ones; I’ve kept my job and I work in an industry that is largely unaffected. At times it’s almost like I need a break from it all, but this situation is also so tenuous that I might as well make the most of it and bring a little semblance of joy into the people’s life in the only way I know how.

It’s a conflicting experience nonetheless, because you’re a DJ playing music, but at the same time you also share in some of the responsibility in this community. During the summer, at one of my favourite venues, a dance floor started to emerge during the seating room only policy period and I was faced with a feeling I had never felt before. On the one hand, it was getting the old feeling back as people responded in visceral terms to the music. I was in the zone, but at the same time I thought I should probably not play at this level, because it’s going to get out of hand and the venue is going to lose their license and I’m going to be responsible for all of it. It’s a feeling I can truly say, I’ve never had before – people dancing to music and you’re not sure you want them to. And now as we face more stringent regulations again, it seems that it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I always knew that it was going to be easier in the summer, that it was going to seem like it’s blowing over, and in the autumn it’s going to be back to square one. Well here we are again, back at square one… I better pack my record bag.