October 16, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

For DJs, New Year’s Eve during COVID meant no gigs, money

On any other New Year’s Eve, the L.A. club-music DJ Heidi Lawden would have had at least two gigs in L.A. or Europe. It’s the biggest night of the year for her profession — typical NYE gigs net around $1,500 for working DJs like herself, with up to $1 million for A-list pop acts like Calvin Harris or Marshmello for a Las Vegas megaclub gig. If you can hop across town (or a border) to headline a few big parties, you can pocket a gaudy sum for a single night’s work.

“Honestly I can’t remember a year since I left school where I haven’t been prepping for some occasion,” Lawden said on New Year’s Eve, a few hours before the music world left the scourge of 2020 behind. “Last year I played in Switzerland until midnight, then went to Berlin and played Panorama Bar [at the globally acclaimed Berghain]. But right now I’m driving to take my dogs for a walk. I don’t quite know what to do with myself.”

Instead of spinning live for a packed dance floor, Lawden and her frequent DJ partner, Masha Martinovic, pre-taped streaming sets for the L.A. indie radio station Dublab, which were broadcast into the small hours of 2021’s first day (they performed for free). Across L.A., most DJs watched the calendar flip either bathed in the lonely screen-glow of a livestream or seething at home as packed house parties and illegal warehouse shows mushroomed across L.A. There, thousands of partiers gathered to dance and, in all likelihood, continued spreading a brutal wave of COVID-19.

Maybe a paycheck to perform was out there somewhere, but there was no way Lawton and Martinovic, co-founders of the local Dusk festival, would take it.

“I was offered to play in Tulum, where people think you’re immune when you step off the plane,” Lawden said. Promoters were indeed planning to roll the dice there: A planned two-week mega-rave, Zamna festival, was called off only days before its New Year’s Eve debut. A French warehouse rave with thousands of fans drew international condemnation and led to violent confrontations with police.

“To think your rave is so important it has to happen, it’s selfish on a whole other level,” Lawden said.

“These people are ruining it for everybody,” Martinovic added. “It’s irresponsible, greedy, and frankly these people should be judged.”

LAPD officers break up a large underground party in downtown L.A. on New Year’s Eve.

(LAPD)

Over the December holidays, L.A. became the epicenter of America’s pandemic, with a county resident dying every 10 minutes from the disease. Hospitals are resorting to drastic measures like storing patients in gift shops and confronting the dark possibilities of rationing care and turning away patients.

Yet on the biggest party night of the year, the pros largely stayed home, and the reckless tried to clandestinely cash in. LAPD officials told The Times they broke up parties of more than 2,000 people in downtown, including one with 1,000 attendees at a popular Agatha Street warehouse space. Another, on Broadway Avenue, was just steps from LAPD headquarters. Countless more stirred up anger and fear from neighbors across L.A.

TikTok videos showed hundreds of teens and 20-something influencers piled maskless into Hollywood Hills and Valley mansions and content-creator group houses, drinking and dancing and flaunting their disregard for COVID-19 safety protocols. These party houses, rented by social-media collectives like Drip Crib and Hype House, have been cited by local authorities for flagrantly violating pandemic-era rules around gatherings.

One app, Vybe Together, was created to foster gatherings at below-radar house parties (it was removed from app stores just hours before New Year’s Eve).

For Victor Rodriguez, the 54-year-old DJ and co-founder of the L.A. LGBT disco fixture Bears in Space, watching friends and peers in the gay nightlife world risk it all for an illicit night on the dance floor was especially unnerving.

“This is my second pandemic, and when I lived through the AIDS crisis I was going to three or four memorials a week,” Rodriguez said. “It’s so irresponsible and stupid, and a really huge disservice to the scene. I’ve already lost seven people to COVID-19.”

Rodriguez and Bears in Space pre-taped a DJ set from their beloved home base of Akbar, the Silverlake LGBTQ club that recently won a lifeline from devoted regulars. Rodriguez spent the night with his husband in their cabin home four hours north of L.A.

As places like Akbar and the Eagle wonder if they’ll make it through to summer, Rodriguez is doing everything he can to preserve what’s left of the underground scene’s institutions.

“We have such a beautiful underground scene in L.A., a big family where we all know each other,” Rodriguez said. “To have someone threaten the future of that, it’s such a shame.”

Gary Richards of All My Friends Festival

Gary Richards of All My Friends Festival.

Gary Richards, founder of Hard Events and now the boss of the festival and rave cruise All My Friends, spent most of 2020 trying to burn off the anxiety of his whole company going idle.

“I’ve been going on a lot of 70-mile bike hikes listening to audiobooks,” he said. “I’ve just put in my head that I’m semiretired until we figure out COVID-19.”

Large promoters were far from spared by the pandemic — Live Nation and AEG slashed salaries, laid off staff, and watched as revenue evaporated by more than 90%. There’s just not much for festival promoters to do right now.

Some tried to figure out a format — the DJ and electronic artist Deadmau5 threw a drive-in rave in San Bernardino on New Year’s Eve, and the EDM promoter Insomniac has a car-caravan festival planned at Santa Anita racetrack later this month.

But Richards went much simpler, DJ-ing from his home at 5 a.m. on a New Year’s Day livestream, a type of brain-cleansing sunrise set he’s played off and on for 30 years at clubs and festivals.

“I wish I could do more. I want to scream and punch the TV when I see what’s happening with the lack of leadership right now,” he said. “I always have a plan, and now no one does.”

As the statistics roll in from the post-Christmas, post-New Year’s wave of COVID-19 superspreader parties, most working L.A. DJs are right where they were at the beginning of March — holed up, hurting for income and reassuring their crowds that dance floors will return if people do the right thing until the vaccines settle in. They already are in Australia, New Zealand and much of Asia.

Lawden and Martinovic acknowledged that every text they got about an illegal New Year’s Eve party set that day back a bit, likely at the cost of lives.

Martinovic spent her New Year’s Eve at a cabin in Idyllwild. For the first (and hopefully last) time in years, she wasn’t behind a mixing deck. But as her set of intentionally exuberant house and disco streamed out to all of her friends in L.A. and around the world, they all shared one sentiment: maybe next year.

“In October things felt on the right track, but none of us predicted how bad L.A. would get by New Year’s,” Martinovic said. “So we were especially glad to do this set knowing we could help give people a reason to stay home.”