As the clock strikes 9 PM EDT, an eleven digit code drops in the Club Quarantine Instagram bio—the key to a virtual queer rave party that harnesses the power of corporate video conferencing tool Zoom to host up to 1000 clubbers every single night of the lockdown. Entering the club one Saturday night, I’m joined by 371 others, and, over the next two hours, I run into a friend from Montreal, one living in Lisbon and another based in Reykjavík. But these virtual run-ins won’t be the most surprising part of my evening.
A brief rundown of the night’s events: A Club Q regular named Camille lies in an inflatable pool inside their bedroom. Their phone, fastened to the roof, provides a ceiling cam view as they wiggle around below. Four new users log on under the Ariana Grande handle. In the bottom-left of the grid, a scene from America’s Top Model plays out and the chat goes off praising Tyra Banks’ savageness. Shock sweeps the meeting for a brief second as attendees try to figure out if Bernie Sanders has entered the club or if it’s just an extremely realistic filter. Big Freedia performs live as her two hype women twerk into the webcam. A shirtless guy moves closer to the webcam, brushing his teeth aggressively. Kim Petras cosplays Paris Hilton, and the chat is flooded with the words “TRANS RIGHTS <3”. Caroline Polachek performs a mime routine to Danny Harle’s set. A pickle with an animated face lip syncs to Ashanti’s “Rock Wit U”. Someone in booty shorts twerks to the beat of a techno track.
The host for the second half of the night takes over, instructing clubbers to drop “123” in the chat if they’ve also cried more than 7 times today. Tinashe downs a bottle of wine before retreating into the hoodie of her mouse onesie. A guy slowly, sensually rides a cross-trainer in nothing but a g-string, looking the camera dead in the eye. A queen in a cascading pink wig smokes from a candy cane pipe before squeezing oranges into her mouth—soundtracked by Doja Cat’s “Juicy”. And so goes another night in quarantine.
Club Quarantine was founded by Brad Allen, Casey MQ, Mingus New, and Andrés Sierra. Prior to launching the Zoom party series on March 15, the four creatives were customary club kids in Toronto’s queer scene who met on miscellaneous nights out in the Ontario capital. Sierra and MQ, however, go back even further than their clubbing days. They met at age 10, when they were both embarking on their careers as child actors in a show called Ricky’s Room. “It’s the Canadian version of Barney,” Sierra breaks it down for me one afternoon on a Zoom call with half of the founding crew. Sierra is backdropped by a still of retired pope Benedict XVI sinisterly hitting a photoshopped joint, while MQ lazes in the top left screen in front of an innocent Lizzie McGuire, circa season 1.
What began as an Instagram group chat for friends to stay in touch soon became the go-to source for updates on the impending closure of clubs throughout Toronto and Montreal due to the coronavirus outbreak. Pre-COVID-19, Casey MQ had been running IRL DIY parties alongside his collective Raven’s Vision, named in honor of That’s So Raven star Raven Baxter. The party changed location with every event, moving from warehouses to multi-purpose venues and then back again. “In Toronto, it’s less about the spaces and more about the collectives that move around and through the city,” Sierra says. Space was something they’d learned to work around, though throwing an online party every single night of the quarantine was new and unchartered territory. “We knew that this was something that our community needed— immediately,” MQ recalls. What the group didn’t expect was for the party to reach thousands of people worldwide and, in turn, involve some of the biggest names in both underground and mainstream music.
MQ consistently scours SoundCloud looking for emerging artists, going out of his way to keep up with local scenes on a global scale and connect with as many people as possible. “We aim to pair more established acts with upcoming artists to give everyone a platform to perform,” MQ notes, continuing, “But there’s no particular style. Club Q isn’t about that. I love to be taken on a journey when I go out. I want you to say we’re playing Enya, followed by some hard techno, mixed with a hyper-pop moment against some reggaeton. There’s so much good music out there, why would we limit ourselves? You wouldn’t be able to sell what we do on a bill at a venue. But with Club Q, everyone’s at home and more open to things. People can come and go whenever they want.”
Naturally, when booking the initial headliners, the Club Q founders looked to their inner circles, introducing attendees to Canadian acts Bambii, Chippy Nonstop, Martyn Bootyspoon, and Korea Town Acid. From there, the lineups began involving artists that were a part of the US underground, including GHE20G0TH1K founder Venus X and Discwoman affiliates Ariel Zetina, Bearcat, and DJ Haram. More recently, the series traveled to Mexico City for a N.A.A.F.I records take over and then to Paris for a hardcore special from Casual Gabberz member Krampf. Besides booking emerging artists, local scene staples and global sensations, the Club Q crew have an ongoing collaboration with PAPER magazine, which began after the publication slid into their DMs and initiated parties with pop stars Kim Petras, Tinashe and flashback “Friday” singer-songwriter Rebecca Black, who recently came out as queer.
Just days after Club Q’s inception, Charli XCX’s team reached out to the founders, dropping an email with the subject line: “Club Quarantine & Charli XCX?”. Brad, one of the co-founders, says that he peaked in that moment. “When Charli’s team contacted us,” Sierra says, laughing. “And that was only day 4.” A few weeks later, the British singer was DJing Aqua, Vengaboys and Pitbull live on Zoom, serenading her stans. “The exciting thing is that the participants get to be seen by their favorite artist, dancing to their favorite artist’s music,” MQ points out.
A-list musicians haven’t been the only ones with Club Q on their radar. During an Instagram takeover, actor and writer Jordan Firstman went live on the official Grindr account to shout out Club Q. A collection of the SNL cast and Euphoria star Hunter Schafer have also been among some of the surprise celeb pop-ins. “Others are definitely coming through to check us out, but with their cameras off,” MQ assures me.”You never know who you’re going to meet in the club.” For Sierra, reaching communities on a more global level has always been paramount, and through a series of collaborations, Club Q has been able to team up with NYC’s HalfMoon BK community radio station and Berlin-based platform 3’HI platform to host artists from their respective rosters.
The founders believe that allowing the performers and attendees to see each other levels things out. Clubbers are reminded that the DJ is providing a service, but it’s always in communication with the ravers. What sets Club Q apart from other online parties is their format, which prioritizes giving a platform to their community. “It comes down to the affirmations. Being recognized. Being seen. And for queer people, that’s kind of all we want, to be seen for ourselves”, Sierra reflects. “It’s a matter of making the isolation feel a little less isolating,” adds MQ.
From virtual DJing to iTunes and mixing with CDJs, artists are able to play with whatever they have at home and feel comfortable performing with. To keep things interesting, performers utilize multicam, cycling through their iPhone, laptop and iPad, simultaneously capturing their performances from different angles. But the performer isn’t the only one on display. Whoever wants the spotlight can have it, as long as they work for it. The criteria for getting “spotlighted”? If your video is on, then it’s fair game. Whether you’re serving a look, staring into your phone mindlessly or cooking dinner in the background, you could end up front and center on the jumbotron. On Club Q it’s possible to witness anything.
“Our space is a celebration of ourselves as human beings and a moment for us to connect,” says MQ. “We get on that ‘jumbotron’ and we all have a moment. The chat goes off, the energy is there, and everyone feels it. There’s a constant exchange of that energy. Unless the DJ is serving, you get bored only watching them the whole time.”
On night two, an unknown Club Qer tattooed Club Q on themselves, live on Zoom. “People were ready,” MQ grins. “In our local community, everyone’s an artist or loves to perform. This party does not exist without the community bringing their energy to the room. Everyone has to be connected. People want to perform, they want to be seen and they want to stay connected and stay close in whatever way they can.”
In another session, Canadian-American drag queen and Ru Paul’s Drag Race alumni Yovska created a moment that quarantine clubbers and hosts won’t soon forget: “Yovska dressed as a nightmare mop monster and performed “Dirrty” by Christina Aguilera,” Sierra recalls. “They had these big mop titties and were dipping them into a mop bucket.”
For many stuck in isolation, Club Quarantine has been a welcome escape. On multiple occasions, on- and off-duty nurses have dropped into the club. A Club Q regular often joins during their night shift break, tuning in from the hospital. On another occasion, a hospital patient joined the Zoom call and was flooded with love via the chat. “People were dropping all kinds of words of support: ‘Hospital QUEEN, we love you’, ‘Get better, you’re gonna make it through!’” recounts Sierra. “That is the kind of stuff that keeps us going, understanding that this is bigger than us. We get tired and exhausted, yes. We’re burned out, but we’re not in a hospital—and we’re not sick.” And while Zoom has not reached out to Club Q, their party has been an inspiration for many other virtual clubs utilizing the platform during the quarantine. “The world needs this, and we might have been the first to provide it, but now that it’s out and about, we’re glad people are using technology to create similar moments,” MQ adds.
Tiana McLaughlan is what the founders call an early adopter—she began logging on to the Zoom parties early on, back when their Instagram—where she’d discovered the series— boasted a mere 600 followers, compared to the now procured 57,000. But numbers aren’t everything and what attracted McLaughlan to Club Q came down to her incessant yearning for that weekly club hit. “Club Q has provided comfort in reminding me of the dancefloors I miss so much. It’s shown me that thousands of people value the existence of artists and their music. People all over the world still seek platforms like this to gather as a community seeking a healthy form of escapism. There are hundreds of people in their own little worlds, vibing to the same music. For some, they’re logging on at midday while the sun is shining, for others, it’s approaching 3 AM”, McLaughlan says.
Moderating a night with upwards of 700 attendees can be a difficult task, and between keeping everyone in the club safe, spotlighting keen clubbers in time with the beat, and managing technical difficulties, the hosts have their work cut out for them. Luckily, Club Q regulars jump at the chance to hype performers, shame trolls, and shut down anyone asking for song requests in the chat. “It’s cool to see how the community riles up against these trolls. We love it when they fight back with us and for us, it makes us want to go even harder”, MQ beams.
When the three hours of programming draw to a close, many clubbers drift off to continue the party elsewhere. “We have no idea what goes on beyond and outside of the scheduled sets that we’re doing inside Club Q. But people are connecting and throwing their own afterparties,” MQ adds.
Just like any reputable club, Club Q pays every artist a fee in exchange for their performance. The entirety of the money raised via donations goes directly to the artists, and regardless of the fact that Club Q has consumed every waking moment of their lives since March 15, the founders are yet to pocket a cent. MQ explains, “If we get to the point where we’ve run out of money to pay the artists, then what’s the point of continuing? It’s just not cool. You want to pay the artists involved.” Though that’s not the case for the majority of platforms broadcasting live during the quarantine. Excluding big-name brands, it’s rare for artists to receive compensation from livestream organizers in exchange for an equally enthralling virtual performance. The music industry has been severely impacted by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and artists who tour regularly continue to face uncertainty on when regular programming will resume. As what would usually be festival season approaches, normality seems intangible, and the ongoing financial stress felt by many is yet to be alleviated.
Montreal-based DJ and producer Martyn Bootyspoon had been on tour throughout Europe alongside Jacques Greene for two months when the effects of the coronavirus pandemic began to intensify in early March, bringing the tour to an abrupt halt. Bootyspoon played Club Q the day before Charli XCX and while that night’s party didn’t draw in excess of 1000 attendees, a clubber did pull out a pair of clippers mid-set. “The best part of my set was when someone shaved their head à la Britney Spears, live on camera during a very climatic blend. I also had to open my balcony door to let some cold winter air in because my laptop was overheating,” laughs Bootyspoon.
The next steps to ensure the containment of COVID-19 are yet to be determined and the quarantine’s duration is uncertain. What we do know is that clubs won’t be opening for a while— or if they can even afford to open again. But the party will rage on, online. “We want to continue showcasing new acts and doing everything we can do to support our community during this time,” MQ notes. And while the crew don’t miss lugging around sound systems and the clean-ups after IRL parties, they do hint that when this all ends they’ll be planning something big—and offline—to celebrate.
Club Quarantine is open to collaborations, donations, sponsorship. If you’d like to get in touch you can find them on email@example.com or send a donation via paypal.me/reachclubq
Claire Mouchemore is a freelance writer and radio presenter based in Berlin. She’s written for Boiler Room, CRACK, i-D and RA, and is currently the digital editor of Borshch Magazine. Find her on Instagram.