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Year in Review: Trekking Through the Uncanny Valley of DJ Live Streams

In an era of vacant club streams, collectives like PC Music and NeuroDungeon are providing attention-worthy alternatives.

In a video excerpt from simulation artist Lawrence Lek’s new film AIDOL 爱道, a solitary singer (voiced by a vocaloid, the class of vocal synthesizers that birthed virtual pop star Hatsune Miku) steps out onto a neon-lit stage platform. The crowd goes wild—except there isn’t any crowd in sight. The more the camera pans out, all that’s visible are lifeless, hovering drones and the synthetic stars of a futuristic night sky. We assume the crowd is recessed somewhere in the darkness, but we can’t really be sure where they are, or if they even exist.

In his past projects, like 2017’s Geomancer, Lek has criticized the ways that technology has created a world that feels, despite its futuristic sheen and utopic exterior, increasingly lifeless and unfeeling. Humans rarely walk the crystalline surfaces of his rendered worlds, but its the places where they should be that are the most unsettling.

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Take this as my personal opinion, but this is exactly how live streams feel. Before COVID-19, streams of DJs and live sets provided a fantasy that was attainable; there really was a party to attend. You could see the people standing behind the DJ, or at least you knew they were in the building. That energy flowed through the camera and out of our computer screens, affecting how much we enjoyed the performer’s set. But the streams of our current era ask something different of us: Pay attention to the performer, pretend the crowd is there, and imagine what it would be like if you were in that pretend crowd—for, like, multiple hours. It’s a step too far that creates an incredibly deep uncanny valley, and that has arguably made the club space feel even further away than if we’d just left it alone since lockdown.

This phenomenon has shifted the balance of importance in the club music sphere. Before, getting that crucial spot on Boiler Room or another comparable video streaming platform—so the people could see your face, your image, and imagine themselves in your crowd—was a covetable career landmark. Now, it may be more detrimental than beneficial. Now, maintaining a veneer of mystery can make a mix or set more engaging. It’s a peculiar predicament, but it makes sense that an animated video (or no video at all, for that matter) can be more exciting than a stream of an empty club, the strobes and lasers sadly still running yet only ever coming into contact with the venue’s vacant floors or back walls.

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Live streams feel wrong, or too realistic in an “old world” sense, in the same way that our public, in-person lives continue to feel more distant by the day. But as our online personas inside of social media or video games have felt more and more real, exploratory forms of performance that play to our fantasies and imaginations have offered us new types of escapist moments, even if they can’t fill the void that club closures have left behind. Before, holding a rave in Minecraft felt like a gimmicky move. Now, parties in explicitly virtual spaces, where ravers can log in, create avatars, and watch DJs’ over-the-top characters play on blocky, pixelated decks, are more relevant in a twisted, home-bound world than watching an actual person DJ.

NeuroDungeon, a virtual rave which previously took place in the “online metaverse” of IMVU, has found a home in Club Cooee’s 3D chat service, which is characterized by its “cool style” and users’ ability to own “magical pets” and “groove to sick beats in hip clubs.” The site offers a surprising amount of customization: NeuroDungeon’s venues resemble the crude floating islands of ‘00s-era Super Smash Bros., and DJs perform wearing dragon wings. The music on offer is comparably whimsical and over-the-top; NeuroDungeon’s residents soundtrack your bobble-headed sim’s comical gyrations with a heady mix of cranked fantasy psytrance, bubblegum pop edits, and absurd hardcore. If any of this piques your interest, it’s worth listening to Genome 6.66mbp and Slagwerk affiliate Kurama’s mix, which originally aired at NeuroDungeon’s 15-hour nu:cenosis festival.

NeuroDungeon’s residents soundtrack your bobble-headed sim’s comical gyrations with a heady mix of cranked fantasy psytrance, bubblegum pop edits, and absurd hardcore.

Over on the experimental side of pop music, a similar phenomenon is taking place, thanks in large part to UK label PC Music. In the lead up to the release of label founder A. G. Cook’s new album, Apple (which we reviewed alongside his previous debut, 7G), the label hosted Appleville, a live-streamed festival that featured bite-sized audiovisual performances from Charli XCX, 100 gecs, Dorian Electra, and Amnesia Scanner, to name a few. Each played out somewhere between a live show and a music video. Amnesia Scanner’s performance was a vertical video of their album Tearless being sung through an animatronic mouth, leaving space for AI-generated banter between each track. Pop experimentalist Dorian Electra directly poked fun at the DJ live stream trend, performing behind an unplugged DJ controller and wearing a fedora while the crowd and lights were supplied by very obviously overlaid effects. While lacking immersion compared to NeuroDungeon’s playable virtual raves, Appleville’s performances accomplish the same goal, creating a concept for a festival and a version of each artist that would be impossible in the real world, that plays to the strengths of the internet as a performative space, and that feels more natural when it’s the only space we’re allowed to attend.

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That’s not to say that PC Music hasn’t also dabbled in video game-level immersion. On Halloween, the label pulled a similar stunt, presenting Pop Crypt, allowing artists like Kamixlo and umru to explore their most extreme visions of an October 31st DJ set. You can view the entire festival on YouTube, but my pick would be the set from DJ Fuck (AKA digital artist Sam Rolfes), who built his own kitschy, Tim Burton-esque virtual world to DJ inside of, capturing his IRL mixing (and scratching) using motion capture while nü metal videos and esoteric YouTube finds play behind him. Rolfes’ use of game design software and VR makes his virtual environments, while maximalist and cartoonish in aesthetic, feel enthralling and alive.

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Pop Crypt, Appleville, and NeuroDungeon succeed where COVID-19 era DJ live streams fail, offering viewers an experience that’s native to the platform it’s presented on. While a live stream from a vacant club only serves to deepen our sense of dread that we may never return to that place, virtual performances and club experiences that couldn’t possibly have any real-world equivalent work in the opposite direction, helping to ease our enveloping, existential FOMO. It remains to be seen if their validity will persist when we’re finally able to safely club in person, but for now, you don’t need to be anywhere else. The party is right here.

Zach Tippitt is an editor for Electronic Beats. Follow him on Instagram.

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Published December 25, 2020. Words by Zach Tippitt.