Plague Raver Reflections: What Happened in the Pandemic Stays in the Pandemic
University of Liverpool (United Kingdom)
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 led to sixteen months of closure for UK clubs and dance music event venues. During this time my research into underground dance music scenes was forced to follow the field online. One aspect of this realignment examined the discourses emerging within dance music focused social media groups. Prominent among the narratives emerging in response to media reportage was debate focused on the phenomena of Plague Raves. Looking back now, just over a year since COVID-19 restrictions/protections were lifted in the UK, lockdowns seem like a long time ago, perhaps even a world away. Opinions and actions that until only recently were deemed so important have seemingly evaporated. What follows are reflections on contemporaneous responses to select DJ behaviour during the pandemic and musings on whether these have any lasting relevance.
Plague Raves as a term was probably born from UK tabloid newspaper headlines expressing outrage over prohibited unlicensed dance events held during the latter stages of the UK’s first national lockdown. Moral panic over illegal raves was rebooted into the national psyche. However, within dance music scene rhetoric and its associated specialist media there emerged a distinction between unlicensed parties held in locked down countries—illegal raves; and legal club events taking place in countries with limited/no pandemic controls which were termed Plague Raves.
Initially the publicity around such activities focused on high profile DJs invited to entertain wealthy patrons in Mediterranean retreats, in purpose-built party rooms, or for billionaires in the Middle East on their private yachts (Williams 2020). As the pandemic’s duration extended, control measures between countries varied enormously and consequently the extent to which dance music events were curtailed was highly inconsistent. Western European promoters eyed opportunities in nations with fewer COVID-19 cases/restrictions and initiated a steady migration of dance music personnel and capital from countries where parties were prohibited into the global south. Name DJs could tour as porous border restrictions facilitated what were considered legitimate business reasons to travel. Florida and Dubai were the initial destinations, but these extended to Bogota, Columbia and Tulum in Mexico both of whom experienced verified club superspreader infections (Business Teshno 2020). Amnesia, an Ibiza based party organiser invited European DJs to fly in and entertain predominately wealthy white patrons at beach parties in Zanzibar since “no cases” were reported in the country courtesy of Tanzania’s COVID-19 denying president, who subsequently was suspected of dying due to the disease.
Whilst Plague Raves were legal in their host countries, the DJs playing at these events were conspicuously coy in documenting their participation. Appearances in these countries did not feature on their social media timelines, except perhaps holiday snaps on a beach. The events themselves were not advertised on listings sites such as Resident Advisor (Gillet 2020). The Berlin born mantra of no phones so as to be in the moment, underwent a transference into a rider for DJs not wishing to be identified in their locked down home countries as having played at these parties. Online criticisms of such DJ behaviour suggested they were taking advantage of other country’s less strict COVID-19 rules.
If you’re throwing, playing, or attending “secret” parties right now, and asking people not to take photos and videos, it’s because on some level you know what you’re doing is wrong, and that you’ll be judged poorly by your peers and community for it (plagueravers 2021a).
There were DJs who spoke out and directly condemned Plague Rave DJs such as the UK’s Dave Clarke, Bicep and Bushwaka. Dedicated social media accounts such as Business Teshno and Plague Ravers were set up to comment on and expose such practices and their direct correlation to rising Covid-19 cases in the aftermath of such parties (Business Teshno 2020; plagueravers 2021b).
Some DJs who had not played at Plague Raves suggested boycotting future events featuring DJs who had:
All artists that stayed home following life saving measures (the vast majority) should consider refusing to perform with colleagues who preferred boosting their ego by touring during a pandemic, making all of us look like pieces of shit in the process. (Darko Esser 2021).
Such commentary initiated numerous discussions and reactions within dance music communities’ social media posts. Internet spaces were significantly amplified as sites of virtual gathering for dance music audiences in the UK and other Western European countries who experienced over a year of curtailment of dancing activities. In my tracing of dance scenes’ online dialogues, I conducted an online survey [n=194, F=47.6%, M=53.7%] which revealed that Facebook remained the predominant method of discovery about events for 70% of participants, even amongst younger respondents and despite the rise of Instagram. Over half reported using Facebook Groups. These function as nurturing places in which members garner a sense of support and community. They are also a well-suited medium for debate, so from June 2020 I scraped selected conversations across a range of UK-based dance music dedicated Facebook Groups, applying manual data anonymisation before undertaking conversational and discourse analysis of the threads and comments. This data was supplemented with reflections from survey respondents and in depth semi-structured interviews with dancers and local scene infrastructure practitioners [n=29], to examine how scenes responded to the idea of Plague Rave DJs and what resonance this may have, if any, within dance music cultures after the pandemic’s long moment.
Reactions to illegal raves generally deemed these irresponsible, despite most sympathising with participant’s desire to dance again. However, Plague Raves elicited much more divided discussions. The idea of any post-pandemic shunning of Plague Rave DJs was met with mixed and heated responses. Whilst some commenters suggested there should be accountability for such DJs’ actions, many expressed a distaste for any form of blacklisting, likening this to cancel culture. Others declared the whole debate as simply “moaning” and that such concerns should be left behind—“it's over”.
The findings point to a fractured response. One interpretation is that by this stage in the lockdowns the longing to dance and reexperience its sociality after a protracted denial negated the relevance or importance of Plague Raves for many UK/Euro clubbers. Preoccupied with their own restricted situations, the events in Tulum, Mexico seemed very far away. Debates were often polarised but most who commented tended towards continuing their support for DJs regardless. A certain reverence for favourite DJs and their right to “make a legal buck” prevailed: “A few of the DJs I cherish the most performed at these events but that’s not going to stop me paying to attend their gigs in future. No way!” (Facebook respondent 1 2021).
For some local DJs there was a certain reticence to criticise others too much. This anonymous DJ expresses a civil, sympathetic response, recognising the grey area around finance and risk taking choices, “It was a lot of the bigger DJs and we don't know what sort of massive mortgages… massive teams they have to pay” (2020). In contrast, a female DJ observed that name DJs perhaps didn’t face serious financial threats given the high fees they’d charged prior to the pandemic, whilst also expressing an awareness of the local public health situation in Mexico,
These people will still get booked even if they didn't do those gigs. It was quite unfair that the rest of us were all waiting at home and doing the right thing. In places like Tulum the local people were really suffering (2021).
She went on to equate Plague Rave DJing as an example of a wider pattern of behaviours reflective of amorality amongst mostly male DJs:
The more money and fame you have, the more responsibility you have, because you have more influence on people. The people who were doing it, it wasn't a surprise. The guys mourning Erick Morillo…. It was immoral (2021).
A local DJ with an existing international profile similarly rejected the idea:
For so many reasons I wouldn't have wanted to do it. It was morally wrong. It wouldn't be worth the backlash for a few grand. I said to my management and agent, let's not even entertain it… and nipped it in the bud before the offers came in.
As social commentator Nina Power suggested, the pandemic had forced people in their isolated spaces to confront and, “balance the relationship between their individual desires, their concern for people they know, concern for people they don’t, their general appreciation of risk and the laws, rules and guidelines” (Power 2020). The mood of ambivalence towards the health risks Plague Rave DJs took that could affect themselves individually, party attendees or the wider, generally poorer communities in these global south locations, prompted a search for theoretical basis that could underpin an understanding of the motivations behind such behaviours.
That humans have innate and motivational needs is a very prevalent and popular scientific idea. Many people are familiar with Maslow’s idea on hierarchy of needs (1954). Whilst Maslow was critiqued for lacking academically robust methods, a recent large-scale global study on motivational theory by Tay and Diener largely vindicates Maslow’s hypothesis that “once basic safety needs (such as health) are met, individuals seek out fulfilment of ‘higher’ or psychosocial needs” (2011: 361). Dancing, in collective, mutually supportive environments can be considered as constituting one means to fulfil subjective well-being and psychosocial needs within the “social support and love” and “feeling respected” categorisations outlined by Tay and Diener (2011: 361). This reflects earlier works on dance as an affective life enriching force (Malbon 1999; Pini 2001; Garcia 2020).
The global pandemic however, was a novel disruptive force to the stability of basic safety needs. In the global north, where collective provision of health services to all in society is perceived as a “public good” (Hodgson 2013; Sekera 2014), this sense of security was shattered. As COVID-19’s risk to health became paramount, it was evident this risk was not equally shared. Seemingly non-threatened (younger) individuals could consider themselves as facing a low risk. This distinction complicated the protection of health as a public good. Western European countries, dominated by neoliberal ideologies, emphasised individualised risk responses, rather than a reflexive empathetic solidarity which would require negotiation and perseverance (Bauman 1998; Giddens 1999). Were DJ needs prioritised due to supposed minimal individuated risk, at the expense of the public good?
It could be argued that DJs from affluent European countries were seeking out fulfilment of their own higher psychosocial needs of feeling esteem and a sense of personal recognition. For one anonymous Belgian DJ, who travelled to play in Tulum in Mexico, such motivation appeared a key consideration, “DJing is my life, my passion; I’m not made to play for a camera, I longed for a real human connection” (Lion 2021). Individual DJ posts on Instagram tended to reflect this lacking, expressing how much they’d missed seeing people enjoy themselves. Prominent Swiss-Chilean selector Luciano didn’t shy away from the fact he played at parties in Zanzibar, posing pensively by his hotel’s pool with the accompanying text reading, “thinking about next time we will all hug” (Luciano 2021). Evidently a message for his global north Facebook audience, unable to meet socially, never mind swim in a pool in a tropical paradise.
Financial needs were not far from the surface of Plague Rave DJs’ concerns. For the anonymous Belgian DJ, “It’s like I'm on my own. I don't receive any benefits, money was running out fast, the offers kept coming, and I wouldn't be doing anything illegal” (Lion 2021). This isn’t mentioned to negate this, and many other DJs’, often precarious financial situations. Their economic problems were likely very real. This particular DJ took the risk and was in fact infected whilst playing in Tulum, becoming seriously ill, no doubt alongside many others. Established name DJs however hold significant economically privileged positions. Some command per show fees said to be in the region of £25k. Their pre-pandemic fame enabled them to travel and bypass not only COVID-19 prevention controls but their own lack of patience in waiting for the European club circuit to reopen. There was an overall sense that the pandemic was a very different experience for the rich and famous. Arguably maintaining the status of being rich and famous was perhaps the driving motivational psychosocial need for Plague Rave DJs, alongside an economic compulsion to maintain currency through exposure.
The predominant acceptance of Plague Rave DJs behaviours evidenced in the above analysis of social media posts and comments is reflective of a dance music media culture in which journalists foster an adoration of DJs. This can be seen represented in Manchester super-promoter The Warehouse Project’s feature on the DJ wAFF, describing them as, “a DJ and producer who, while embedded within the Ibizan club culture, brings a more underground and eclectic offering to the hedonistic home of the super club” (2016). Rhetoric which randomly name-drops the term ‘underground’ to confer authenticity is rarely disputed. wAFF however exemplifies DJs whose performative actions as being underground are entirely at odds with their earning disproportionately mainstream, even elite salaries. During the pandemic wAFF distinguished himself as a DJ who both organised and played at an illegal warehouse rave in London and played at Plague Raves in Tulum, Bogota and Phuket (Business Teshno 2021). He never stopped. Yet when DJing at Parklife Festival in the UK two months after club events reopened he wrote afterwards, “It’s so nice to see so many people back on the dance floor” (waffdj 2021b). This of course wasn’t something he himself had missed out on at all over the last 16 months. This extract from his pandemic experiences best exemplifies this:
By far one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, not only did we get one of the biggest private jets in the world to fly us to Colombia, we had a full on party in Pyjamas 39,000 ft in the sky, and it was the best time (waffdj 2021a).
Clubs have now reopened and many take comfort in a sense that ‘What Happened in the Pandemic Stays in the Pandemic’ as communities attempt to put distance between now and the pandemic’s stark moment in our lifetime. Dance music events are happening but have not sprung back to a 2019 normality. Economic precarity and uncertainty has been exacerbated. Issues around safety at dance music events prevail, particularly for women. White males continue to dominate line ups at the expense of female and black DJs. Whilst touring DJs continue to accrue a massive amount of air miles in the midst of a climate crisis (McLaughlin, Fineberg and MacWilliams 2021). Dance music scenes continue to be confronted with fundamentally ethical issues. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the behaviour of select DJs, for a time, polarised dance music scenes. For some, the issue added to a weariness of saturated moralism amidst a drawn-out continuum of curtailed freedoms. For others, the few Plague Rave DJs were found wanting ethically, chasing dollars whilst engaged in performative rhetoric.
Richard Anderson is a University of Liverpool PhD candidate and MA
graduate. His dissertation focused on aspiring musicians’ use of
internet platforms for career development. His PhD investigates
underground dance music scenes in the face of the threats of
gentrification and COVID-19.
Bauman, Zygmunt. 1998. Life in Fragments: Essays in Postmodern Morality. Oxford: Blackwell.
Business Teshno. “Plague Raves: What Were They Thinking”. Medium. 16 November 2020. <https://businessteshno.medium.com/plague-raves-what-where-they-thinking-124d1cf4473a>, (accessed 5 May 2021).
Business Teshno. “wAFF May 4th 2021”. 6 May 2021. Facebook. <https://www.facebook.com/businessteshno/posts/255079269635818>, (accessed 5 May 2021).
Esser Darko (DarkoEsser). “Something to chew on”. 23 February 2021. Tweet. <https://twitter.com/DarkoEsser/status/1364126094518059009>, (accessed 5 May 2021).
DJ Mag Staff. 2020. “Erick Morillo dies, aged 49”. DJ Mag. 1 September <https://djmag.com/news/erick-morillo-dies-aged-49>, (accessed 1 October 2021).
Franzke, Aline. Anja Bechmann, Michael Zimmer, Charles Ess, and the Association of Internet Researchers. 2020. “Internet Research: Ethical Guidelines 3.0”. Association of Internet Researchers. <https://aoir.org/reports/ethics3.pdf>, (accessed: 17 February 2021).
Garcia, Luis-Manuel. 2020. “Feeling the Vibe: Sound, Vibration, and Affective Attunement in Electronic Dance Music Scenes”. Ethnomusicology Forum 29(1): 21-39. <http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17411912.2020.1733434>.
Giddens, Anthony. 1999. “Risk and Responsibility”. The Modern Law Review 62(1): 1-10. <https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2230.00188>.
Gillet, Ed. 2020. “Plague raves: is clubbing in a pandemic ever ethical?”. DJ Mag. 9 September. <https://djmag.com/longreads/plague-raves-clubbing-pandemic-ever-ethical>, (accessed 24 October 2020).
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. 2013. From Pleasure Machines to Moral Communities: An Evolutionary Economics Without Homo Economicus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lion, Jonas. 2021. “Belgian DJs touring abroad during the pandemic: both sides of the argument”. Red Bull Elektropedia <https://web.archive.org/web/20210426170111/https://redbullelektropedia.be/article/belgian-djs-touring-abroad-during-the-pandemic-both-sides-of-the-argument/>, (accessed 07/09/2022).
Luciano. “Thinking about next time we will all hug”. 21 February 2021. Facebook. <https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=273435737475083&set=a.2354232979429>, (accessed 11 September 2021).
Malbon, Ben. 1999. Clubbing: Dancing, Ecstasy and Vitality. London and New York: Routledge.
Maslow, A.H. 1954. Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper.
Matthew, Terry. 2021. “‘Sociopaths in Headphones’: What Happened When Plague Raves Came to Zanzibar”. 5Mag. 11 June. <https://5mag.net/features/plague-raves-zanzibar/>, (accessed 1 September 2021).
McLaughlin, Eilidh, Eva Fineberg, and Fallon MacWilliams. 2021. “Last Night a DJ Took a Flight”. Cleanscene.club. <https://cleanscene.club/report.pdf>, (accessed 5 September 2022).
Pini, Maria. 2001. Club Cultures and Female Subjectivity: The Move From Home to House. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
plagueravers. 2021a. “It's called accountability sweetie”. 12 January 2021. Instagram. <https://www.instagram.com/p/CKVDj5Cg_kg07MolzVQSANSXJoXSlQT3h4Nq5I0>. (accessed 1 September 2022).
plagueravers. 2021b. “We don’t really even know what to say anymore…”. 26 April 2021. Instagram. <https://www.instagram.com/p/COIxKekhmzk/>, (accessed 1 September 2022).
Power, Nina. “The Politics of Care: Rethinking Collective Being in the Wake of COVID-19”. Nina Power. October 26 2020. <https://ninapower.net/2020/10/26/the-politics-of-care-rethinking-collective-being-in-the-wake-of-covid-19/>, (accessed 11 November 2020).
Sekera, June. “Re-thinking the Definition of ‘Public Goods’”. Real-World Economics Review. July 9 2014. <https://rwer.wordpress.com/2014/07/09/re-thinking-the-definition-of-public-goods/>, (accessed 22 June 2021).
Tay, Louise, and Ed Diener. 2011. “Needs and Subjective Well-Being Around the World”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 101(2): 354-65. <http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0023779>.
The Warehouse Project. 2016. “WHP FEATURE 009 wAFF”. <https://www.thewarehouseproject.com/feature/waff>, (accessed 22 June 2021).
waffdj. 2021a. “One of the best experiences of my life”. 9 April 2021. Instagram. <https://www.instagram.com/p/CNc3EIPhWSq/>, (accessed 26 August 2022).
waffdj. 2021b. “Wow…. What an amazing weekend that was”. 13 September 2021. Instagram. <https://www.instagram.com/p/CTxNt6sIFOI/>, (accessed 13 September 2021).
Williams, Ollie. 2020. “How The Rich Partied During Coronavirus Lockdown”. Forbes 20 September. <https://www.forbes.com/sites/oliverwilliams1/2020/09/20/how-the-rich-partied-during-coronavirus-lockdown/>, (accessed 12 December 2020).
 Use of social media datasets raised several novel ethics concerns, particular issues relating to data ownership, privacy, and anonymity. As described in the Association of Internet Researchers' Internet Research: Ethical Guidelines 3.0 informed consent for “big data” projects in which many thousands of users are potentially involved is not feasible (Franzke et al 2020). Consequently, my research has taken an approach to pseudonymise using key matching, and deletion of usernames and other highly identifiable information from the dataset when storing and processing. This includes postdates and Facebook Groups names. In cases where the content of individual comments is referenced directly, phrases have been paraphrased, rather than being quoted directly to avoid the feasibility of reverse searching which could identify specific Facebook users.
 Facebook respondent 1, posting in a Facebook Group (on Facebook), February 20211.
 Anonymous DJ 1, interviewed by the author (UK), September 2021.
 Anonymous DJ 2, interviewed by the author (UK), September 2021
 Anonymous DJ 2, interviewed by the author (UK), September 2021. For reference, Erick Morillo was a renowned Columbian American DJ Producer who in August 2020 faced charges of sexual battery upon a woman. Within a month of his arrest, he died of a suspected suicide drug overdose (DJ Mag Staff 2020).
 Anonymous DJ 1, interviewed by the author (UK), September 2021.