Virtual Dance Floors and Club Reality

The announcement back in September of Fabric’s forced closure – one of London’s longest-running house and techno clubs – sent shockwaves around British media in unexpected ways. It wasn’t just the music press that reported Islington Council’s decision, but national broadsheets and broadcasters. The majority of them expressed a profound sense of indignation at the loss, even if many of their readers and viewers had never visited the club.

Much of this reaction was spurred on by a post-Brexit dread; ‘youth culture’ and its attendant hedonisms were being curtailed by an increasingly reactionary and disenfranchised sector of the public – just as out of touch with ‘youth culture’ as the ‘youth’ was with them. Since opening its doors in 1999, Fabric became a representative symbol for clubs in their ideal incarnation: a communal space where different types of people – normally isolated by their online echo-chambers – could come together on the sacred, sticky space of the dance floor, united by a passion for music and a willingness to escape the daily grind for a night.

Yet, Fabric was and is a commercial venture, not a utopian community co-op project. Tickets started at £20, pricing many out of the market, and of course the club is located in London, meaning many would not be able to afford the transport costs, never mind entry fees. As increasing pressures from the council to clamp down on drug usage weighed on the club owners’ desires to focus primarily on the musical experience, door searches became more and more intrusive. Soon the eulogised ideal of the club as meeting place for all seemed a past myth. Enter, virtual reality.

Virtual reality has been the clunky sci-fi realisation of the past decade. Not only of appeal to gamers and artists, the technology seems to have the potential to seep into all aspects of our lives, enhancing media broadcast, healthcare, education and tourism, to name just a few areas of influence. Musicians have been using VR for some time now, mainly as a private replication of the public immersion of the live experience. Artists as varied as Dawn Richard, Bjork, The Weeknd, Avicii and Run the Jewels have all used the technology to revitalise music videos – an increasingly stale format. Their videos are, however, pre-recorded performances. They lack the spontaneity and unpredictable excitement of the live show itself, often stalling at the level of technological novelty, in the imitation of an experience created every time a viewer puts on their headset.

Ninja Tune electronic experimentalist Ash Koosha takes VR to another level in incorporating the technology into his live show as a means of creating the music itself, merging the immersive capabilities of VR with skilled impulsiveness. Yet, Koosha himself has lamented the limits of the technology in its current iteration, restricting the ways in which he can live-trigger his music. Additionally, Koosha’s live shows place the burden of the technology in his hands as he wears the VR headset, cueing samples and creating a projected background, which the audience witnesses on a screen. It creates something akin to a conventional live experience – except that the performer can’t see his audience.

Perhaps, therefore, VR shouldn’t be attempting to mimic the live experience, but should create a new experience in and of itself. It was the announcement of a new Boiler Room VR venue in October that posited a more radical reimagining of the use of VR in music, specifically with a focus on regaining the elusive communality of the club experience. Designed in partnership with VR company Inception, the venue will enable performers to be filmed in 360 degrees so that viewers can witness live sets from the comfort of their chosen space, provided they own a VR headset and a decent sound system. It won’t provide the bustling intimacy of the club space, the rattling sub-shake of the speaker stacks, but a different, digital intimacy.

Sceptics may argue that VR removes the nuance from clubbing, the thrill of the physical in favour of the isolated individual. Yet, it will enable you to experience music without the fear of being refused entry if you’re a person of colour, or being constantly groped on the dance floor if you’re a woman. There is still a communality in being tuned in simultaneously with others; you can ‘opt-in’ or out whenever you choose to, and there are no age restrictions. In theory, VR can game-ify the way in which we consume our music. It could democratise the live experience to include those who would be unable to access it, or who might feel uncomfortable in doing so.

Of course, the process is still monetised, but with cheaper VR options coming on to the market every day, perhaps we’re moving closer to a realisation of the ideals that caused Fabric’s closure to become such a statement. Following an outcry from clubbers, musicians and London Mayor Sadiq Kahn, the plans to revoke Fabric’s license have been undone – but under the agreement of 32 strict conditions for the club. Perhaps with virtual reality, we can further remove live music from governmental restrictions of intrusive door policies, raised age limits and covert surveillance, and reconnect with others – even if it is with a phone glued in front of our face.

[This piece was originally published on Jazz Standard on 15/12/16]