The bittersweet return of the rave

2021 in review: This year, we finally got to dance together again. But due to dodgy drugs, heightened concerns about women’s safety and the politically polarising impact of the pandemic, the euphoria was tainted with a darker vibe.

By the beginning of 2021, as we entered the longest, coldest, darkest lockdown to date, the novelty” of coronavirus had long faded.

Musicians, in particular, were having a dark one. Bandcamp Fridays had once been manna gratefully received; now they felt like a recurring bout of stressful self-publicity. After an initial outburst of online fundraising and virtual gatherings, the livestream parties had petered out. Folders of isolation jams” were emptied, uploaded and forgotten. The vibe was absolutely miles off.

For anyone who lives for the weekend, the first chunk of 2021 really was a slog, but we held on believing brighter days would come. We’d been promised a Hot Vax Summer! It was time to emerge from the chrysalis, chubbier but wiser, now dressed in bile-green swirl-printed flares.

We’d imagined it all wrong, though, because in the end there was no grand reopening. In England, restrictions on live music and clubs were lifted on 19th July. This was still before the under-30s had received their first vaccine, so the longed-for reunion was disjointed and laced with danger. Clubs reopened tentatively, sometimes at reduced capacity, but plenty of festivals missed the boat, from big beasts like Glastonbury down to minnows like Freerotation.

The lack of clarity from the government made it difficult to insure live events, which risked leaving organisers in the lurch and out of pocket. After months of uncertainty, a government-backed insurance scheme finally became available in September, but was of little use to most events due to its high premiums and limited cover.

For some events, the decision on whether to go ahead was made for them by unexpected new Covid restrictions. In the Netherlands, Amsterdam’s Dekmantel was forced to pull the plug weeks before it was scheduled to take place in August. And in November, the Utrecht festival Le Guess Who in November was slapped with an early evening curfew on the second day of the festival, due to the government’s introduction of a partial lockdown.”

For others this year, particularly smaller operators in the UK, the only sensible option was to postpone yet again and beg ticket holders to wait until next year. Clubs and promoters noticed low attendance even at sold-out events, with dropout rates of 30 to 50 per cent reported by some promoters in the autumn. As party season now approaches, big promoters are even pulling their New Year’s Eve parties due to low ticket sales. Since Plan B” restrictions were announced in England last week in response to the surge of the Omicron variant, there have been concerns that enforcing clubbers to show an NHS Covid Pass for entry could lessen the demand even more (it is worth pointing out, however, that proof of a negative lateral flow result is still an option for those who aren’t double vaxxed).

The bittersweet return to clubbing was not without its high points, though. Everyone will have their own nights-to-remember, but it was the events that brought together communities that seemed to create the best vibe and make the biggest impact.

In London, the Daytimers collective followed their Boiler Room breakthrough with an all-day party in August that cemented the South Asian-aligned underground as a force to be reckoned with. And for one day in October, Body Movements celebrated the vigorous health of London’s queer dance community by turning Hackney Wick into a breakaway republic of breakbeats and booty-shaking.

Yet the thrill of being back in the club was soon muted by reports of dangerous drugs and spiked drinks. Fake MDMA flooded the market as a result of supply chain disruption during the pandemic, and in August, several deaths were linked to a batch of blue Tesla” pills.

Amid the outbreak of spiking, dozens of women reported being injected with drugs, sharing pictures of their skin apparently bruised with needle marks. Within weeks, students launched a nightclub boycott to demand action from venue owners. While experts from drug safety organisation The Loop reassured clubbers that spiking by injection was very unlikely, but not impossible”, no one could deny the atmosphere of increased anxiety and anger.

Multiplied by the risk of Covid contagion, the familiar threats of sexual harassment, spiking and deadly strength pills made going out feel more dangerous than it has done in a long time. In addition, the irony of being given advice by the police on how to stay safe at night wasn’t lost on young people after the murder of Sarah Everard and the violence meted out on women who gathered at her vigil on Clapham Common in March.

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While the more cautious ravers stuck to outdoor events, the least cautious took to the streets to demand an end to lockdown. On 27th June, shortly after Boris Johnson announced another four-week delay to the lifting of restrictions, the campaign group #SaveOurScene called for a rally in central London.

Ahead of the Freedom to Dance protest, which opened with a speech from Judge Jules and featured sets from Hannah Wants, Eats Everything and Randall, DJs and organisers caught flak from the masked and vaccinated majority, who accused them of spreading misinformation about the jab from behind the cover of a sound system. In the end, the political impact of the 20,000-strong, mostly unmasked rave was negligible – undermined, perhaps, by the piss, litter and NOS canisters left in its wake.

But the protest exposed a complex rift in Covid politics. This wasn’t just about whether you were following the science” or following the sheep. Nor was it simply a choice between selfishness and solidarity.

When emergency coronavirus legislation was extended again this March – including measures that allow authorities to block protests, restrict travel, shut businesses and detain people suspected of having the virus – MPs on both the left and right of the spectrum voted against it. The Covid-19 debates are happening on a different political axis, one of authority versus liberty. And nightlife has always attracted its fair share of libertarians, from Thatcherite rave entrepreneurs to money-grubbing club magnates. It’s perhaps no surprise that the UK witnessed a Freedom to Dance” protest rather than Freedom to Go Indoor Bouldering”.

The protest had the backing of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), a lobbying group founded in 2015 which pitches itself as the voice of the nightlife industry and campaigns for policy change on behalf of venue owners. The NTIA argued that the government had switched the lights off” for nightlife as an industry, offering scant support for struggling businesses and leaving them with little choice but to fire staff or close down.

For sure, the government’s coronavirus provisions for the sector were indeed paltry. Little wonder that, by February, nightclubs had made 51 per cent of their workers redundant, while 36 per cent per cent of music venue staff had lost their jobs, according to a report from an all-party parliamentary group.

So after endless delays, the possibility that the third lockdown might be extended once again was too much for an already aggrieved sector. The planned exit date of 21st June was indeed delayed, with only four weeks’ notice, to 19th July. Cautious clubbers watched with interest as the NTIA came out in support of the Freedom To Dance protest.

Rather than focusing its campaign on demanding increased financial support for venues and furloughed staff – or delaying the end of lockdown until all workers had been vaccinated (specifically the under-30s, the cohort most likely to be working in a bar and exposing themselves to the virus) – the NTIA demanded that businesses be allowed to open again immediately.

The result, not for the first time in rave history, was an alliance of convenience between capitalist free-marketeers and conspiracy-minded crusties.

The history of club culture demonstrates that raving was never intended to be a government-sanctioned activity; dance music has almost always existed in opposition to the state and its racist and homophobic laws. But the healthy suspicion of authority that permeates the nightlife milieu is useless without an analysis on which to base our grievances. A tinfoil hat is not a political position.

Given that nightlife is so conducive to spreading Covid, and therefore so vulnerable to Covid legislation, we have to be ready dissect the government’s decisions more precisely. We have to work out which impositions are sensible (like wearing masks in public, which is easy and effective) and which could be exploited by an opportunistic government to further erode our civil liberties (like fines for breaching lockdown, which disproportionately target Black and Asian people).

Now, with the Omicron variant threatening to even tighter restrictions in time for Christmas, the end of 2021 feels eerily familiar. For dancers, DJs, bookers, bar staff and the rest of the sector, there will likely be further compromises and disappointments next year.

This time, though, we know the script. Is it possible to start bridging the divide between tut-tutting rule-followers and reckless recalcitrants? Can the obedient majority persuade the rest to get their vaccines, wear masks indoors and generally take care of each other without becoming shills for government interventions and draconian emergency powers which might not be reversed?

The wider dance music community, it seems, still has a long way to go. Only a few days ago, Hannah Wants tweeted: The best way to fight this new variant is to turn off the TV and your news notifications.”

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