Brooklyn houses one of the most diverse club scenes in New York, founded primarily on the creative expression of queer people of color. Establishments like BASEMENT, Bossa Nova, and Nowadays provided safe spaces with sounds mirroring the diversity seen in the crowd. DJing has advanced into a sort of sonic mixology, where sets are infused with varied selections and genres that give clubbing a full-bodied identity. This level of detail, in contrast with the mainstream style of DJing a single genre (think dubstep festivals), brings these artists loyal followings and local support. But nowadays, the sounds coming out of Brooklyn are anything but local. Instagram and music-sharing platforms serve two purposes: exponentially growing a fanbase within a short amount of time, and broadcasting local talent to larger audiences that traditional media (TV and radio) used to have a firm monopoly on. Now, with the help of sets uploaded to SoundCloud and regularly updated social media feeds, non-locals who missed live performances are front row. COVID-19 has forced DJs and performers to integrate their entire professions to digital workspaces, effectively democratizing the field. While artists are adapting to Zoom parties, will it be enough to maintain livelihoods that otherwise would have been supported by weekly gigs and summer festivals?
Black and Brown queer youth culture has produced the most influential parties to come out of New York City. Parties were made out of necessity and created safe spaces that weren’t predominantly white. In the shadow of the pandemic, it’s become evident that these parties facilitated more than entertainment. Accessibility to sponsors, media, and joint ventures with larger organizations are byproducts of any successful event. When production is exclusively queer and POC, financial opportunities are created and sustained within these artist communities. Papi Juice and Dick Appointment, both Brooklyn-born POC-heavy parties, consistently hired artists and staff from within Black and Brown queer communities, providing real financial security. Social media personalities of artist participants bolstered this security, effectively promoting them to a global audience and providing visibility to marginalized groups in less tolerant areas.
Social media has allowed the various counter-culture communities to promote their artistry on a leveled playing field (as opposed to print media) alongside their mainstream counterparts. Brooklyn artists, both queer and ethnically diverse, benefit tremendously from the agency that Instagram and Twitter provide. This relatively new freedom has allowed for a more diverse creative environment and hiring pool for clubs and corporate-sponsored events. Carefully curated artist personas like @Homosinner and @RomanSensation project darker club aesthetics found throughout Brooklyn nightlife. Like an echo chamber, the music gives way to style, style to music, and so on. Their followings are standard for most in the scene, where digital influence, sometimes more than networking, boosts booking rates and frequency. When New York City began to enact stay-at-home quarantining in late March, socio-digital influence became the sole source of income for the majority of creatives. Enter the brief era of 24/7 Instagram concerts and Bandcamp days where artists receive 100% of their profits. Now, if you want to party in isolation, you have club Zoom. Imagine 50 to 200 of your closest internet friends turning up together on FaceTime. It’s not perfect. There are relentless audio issues. But it presents a decent imitation of life. Bright colored lights flash from attendees’ individual video cells, many of whom have converted their bedrooms into dancefloors. Roommates stream together, drinking and dancing, and DJs are never overpowered by 100 people talking. More positives: Internet clubbing has made time and location restrictions obsolete. Queer POC who’ve gone without socializing with people who either look like them or have the same interests, are now participating in culture. Reservations aside, Bearcat, a constant in BK’s club scene, said, “Zoom is a cool way to connect. We as queer people are often alienated by family. There’s a lot of importance and necessity behind the Zoom linkups.” The Saddest Spiral party, an IRL party that now lives on the internet, has found admirers outside of its Los Angeles base and now boasts attendees all the way from South Africa.
Zoom stock increased over 100% from Jan. 31 to the end of March. Many industries successfully bridged the quarantine gap through telecommunication, yet club culture took another loss. Doormen aren’t collecting cover at the Zoom rave. People aren’t opening a tab at the Zoom bar. For most who use it, Zoom is free. The freedom digital clubs provide comes without the typical booking rate and bar agreements that performance spaces provide. Artists are currently in a position that leaves them solely dependent on donations in exchange for their labor. Since DJs depend on relevance for work, the business model as it stands is the dreaded “working for exposure.” Once again, QPOC artists are more at risk of being exploited by this model, losing the security and control cultivated by real-life interaction. Not to say that there haven’t been major successes within these groups. The Saddest Angel, creator of The Saddest Spiral party in LA, held multiple fundraisers through his party, receiving donations exceeding $10,000. The funds raised were then donated to charities on behalf of the party. Successful fundraising proves that funds are there and able to be crowdsourced, but the question of generating even one-quarter of that per week, for a full lineup of talent, still remains.
Pandemic Unemployment Assistance was passed on March 27, addressing many workers’ short-term financial concerns. Newly out-of-work club staff, as well as performers with day jobs, receive this aid. Unfortunately, those without the work history or tax status required have been left to fend for themselves. While certain countries like Britain and Germany have created artist grants and freelance incentives, America’s federal government has a glaring lack of concern for this affected group. It’s become commonplace for artists receiving aid to distribute a portion to those who don’t qualify. Solidarity, a testament to the bonds forged in line for the bathroom, doesn’t change the fact that PUA ends July 31. DJs work for years to get their booking fee to a point where they can live comfortably off performing. Bearcat, a prominent DJ from New York City’s Discwoman collective, deftly shifted her career trajectory in response to the shutdown. One half of the group responsible for the traveling party “SELTZER,” she quickly realized that opting into the digital sphere as a DJ wasn’t a good fit.
“I did a Zoom set and made $80,” she said. “It’s incomparable, the money that you make.” As a woman of color with a following of almost 10,000 on Instagram, the difficulty for artists with a fraction of that audience is unimaginable. Sponsored events have been popping up in trace amounts, and though able to secure one with the premier platform Boiler Room, Bearcat was quick to clarify, “These gigs are few and far between. I haven’t had an offer like that since.” Bearcat spoke at length about the need for power and authority over QPOC artists to be held within their own artist circles.
She revealed that she’s working on a project to facilitate empowerment. “This situation has pushed me and forced me to find new ways to connect with my community,” she said. “There’s more work to be done.” As an artist, Bearcat has used her relationships with Brooklyn’s club owners to open the doors for new queer talent and women of color. Her pending project will undoubtedly continue to benefit those communities.
Pandemics impact subcultures in ways that necessitate immediate and structureless change. Brooklyn’s nightlife is no exception, and artist minorities will have to adjust like everyone else. Bossa Nova Civic Club owner John Barclay said he has zero interest in opening under the current conditions. Many establishments echo that sentiment, even though they are dependent on steady traffic to stay afloat. For the foreseeable future, spaces like Bossa, promoters of inclusivity and diverse creativity, are down for the count. Though administrative action and resource allocation are nowhere to be found, the community of QPOC that created a new wave of club culture is organized and resilient. DJ culture hasn’t given any indication of slowing down, but the novelty of Club Zoom may soon run out.