Digital Audio

How DJs can stay happy and productive during a pandemic: Lessons from China

Gigs and festivals are cancelled, clubs and bars have closed, and “normal life” is postponed indefinitely. This is absolutely necessary to defeat the virus, but the financial and mental health effects have hit DJs and other music industry folks especially hard. If there is an upside to this once in a lifetime pause, it’s that you get tons of time to work on music. If you manage your time right, you’ll have a bag of new skills and tracks when the clubs finally open again.

Here in Shanghai, clubs closed abruptly in late January and some have just started to reopen, with temperature and ID checks, masks, and capacity limits. Watching the American remix of all this feels surreal. As someone who has been going through this for almost two months, I want to share some advice on how to adapt and thrive in the time of the pandemic.

Build a New Daily Routine, Set Goals, and Make Small Achievements

First priority: Accept that normal life is over and craft a healthy new routine. What do you want to get better at? Production? Scratching? Finally getting your social media or website on point? You’re going to be inside for a long time. Stay focused, limit your news and social media intake, stop watching the disease tracker climb, and start making music.

What worked for me is making bigger goals, creating tasks and weekly plans to reach those goals, then spending 20-30 minutes of intense focus on each task every day. For example, I record a half-hour mix every night then listen back the next day while cleaning or cooking. Later, I’ll do a 30-minute session of organizing songs, or dig on Discogs for 30 minutes.

For production, I go through at least one Ableton tutorial on YouTube every day and try to finish a beat every day and a few edits every week. I apply these 20-30 minute increments to other healthy habits like cooking, reading books (I’ve finished six since this started), studying Chinese, and body strength exercises.

Mental health is just as important as productivity. One key to staying happy these days, says DJ and Scandal Co-Founder, Everlast Phantom, is to

“Find small things to enjoy, like a nice clear day with good weather. And get closer with each other.”

Try to keep a healthy media diet too. Producer Knopha told me,

“During quarantined times, I watched a couple documentaries about musicians I admire. Learning how legends dealt with obstacles and struggles in their life really is uplifting.”

Get Into The Habit of Daily Practice and Recording

Playing to a busy dance floor is easier than playing on wobbly turntables in your bedroom for your cat. Listen back and you’ll notice crucial areas for improvement, like mismatched track volumes, timing, and the energy flow of your mix. I’ve practiced more in these two months than I had in two years.

To stay focused, concentrate on specific skills each day. Choose one for a day and stick to it as your focus point – some ideas include:

  • scratching
  • dropping tracks exactly on time with the fader open
  • adjusting only the pitch fader (no platter nudging!)
  • gating/cutting a channel with a filter/input toggle/EQs instead of the line or cross fader
  • or just sticking to a genre or vibe for a whole 30 minutes.

When you’re finally back in the club, you’ll play so much better.

For more tips on practice, check out this DJ TechTools article.

Find Zen in Music Organization

Those 729 tracks in your downloads folder? Find peace in turning off your wi-fi and sorting them all. Those old pirated music folders you had to move to an external drive to make space? Sort those too, and go buy high-quality versions of the tracks you want to keep. This kind of organization can be more fruitful than digging for brand new music.

Sometimes organization means subtraction. If you’re on the fence about certain tracks or just don’t love them anymore, toss ’em. Less ingredients is better.

Tip: If you’re not already using a spectrum analyzer like Spec, get in the habit before you go through your folders, so you can replace any files with sketchy bitrates.

Produce Something Every Day

Everyone is a DJ, so having your own edits and tracks is crucial. If you’ve been kind-of-dabbling in production for years, or never opened a DAW, now is time to get into the habit of producing tunes and watching tutorials – especially since you won’t be busy with / tired from gigs. Producer and Medusa co-founder, Michael Cignarale says,

“Making music is the best thing u could do. It’s productive in a time headlined by a downfall to productivity.”

Producer Conrank is heading back to Shanghai and doing 14 days of in-studio quarantine. His advice is,

“Basically do what I do everyday when I’m home from tour. Wake up, exercise (gets your brain going), have a coffee and just put yourself in that seat ready for inspiration, DON’T push it, DON’T force anything, it will come. And switch between songs, limit yourself to an hour on a track… and try and make two sketches you’re into a day. If at the end of an hour you don’t like what u made, dump it and don’t stress. :)”

He also plans to release a line of merch and a sample pack on Splice soon.

Support Artists Through Music, Merch, Mixing, and Mastering

Artists with canceled gigs need support, so try to buy some music, merch, or even a mixdown. Bandcamp waived all revenue share for 24 hours on March 20. Lots of artists sell merch or vinyl directly so consider hitting them up in the DMs.

I’ve seen a few producer friends offer mixdowns and mastering on their social media lately now that they have extra time. It’s a win/win – your tracks sound better, and you get to directly support an artist you like. Even if they’re not advertising, it never hurts to message one of your favorite producers and see if they’re up for this kind of work during the downtime.

Livestream To Connect

Jaya dropping anime soundtracks on Shanghai Community Radio

We all need connection during this special period, and livestream parties can keep your local music community together while everyone is inside.

Shanghai Community Radio (SHCR) normally broadcasts from a studio downtown, but during the quarantine, they had dozens of DJs from across China livestream from their own homes. This only required a free software called OBS and a stream key. Altogether, SHCR hosted over 100 streams that built the community, gave DJs a chance to share music with an audience, and let clubs like Elevator throw raves in the absence of a physical space. As a viewer and as a participant, their streams really helped me get through this.

Read DJ Techtools’ complete guide to streaming in 2020 here.

The community is in the comments section

Speaking on the benefits of livestreaming, artist and Shanghai Community Radio co-founder Katy Roseland says,

“It’s a good time to build local community and check in with people and see how they are holding up… In an instant you’re in another home. It’s another way to be mobile when the general feeling of the city is stuck in one place. Online and offline are not two separate worlds.”

However, she adds, “Try not to overdose on the online simulation of human connection. If you are quarantined with family or close people try to be present with them. Take walks. Look at stuff that’s real.”

Livestreaming offers others advantages too. Elevator club co-founder and Medusa resident DJ, Sam Mau Mau points out that:

“People can actually listen with real attention which is sometimes tricky when that drunk guy looks like he might spill his drink on you and maybe it’s time to go out for a smoke and is that my friend coming in the doorway now etc that goes on in ‘real life’ situations.”

You could easily start a platform like this in your city, either as a crew, as an individual, or as a venue. The only cost is time and maybe a super cheap webcam. And there are ways to monetize with Streamtick, Twitch, or Patreon. Within a month, tons of venues in China, both underground and commercial, started doing livestream events. The same will probably happen in the West, so get on it early.

Keep The Clubs in Motion!

Dada Shanghai, circa 2019

Clubs often run on thin margins in normal times. They are in survival mode now.

As patrons, reach out to your favorite spot and see how you can help them through this.

As a venue itself, your crowd will be looking for connection these days, so keep the mixes, photos, and music recommendations flowing on your social media.

Consider using livesteaming to host “nights” and look for ways to charge entry fees or accept donations for online events. If you haven’t already, talk with your landlord about rent reduction or deferred payment. If that isn’t an option, look at using GoFundMe for rent costs.

The situation is tough, but as always, the good sounds will get us through. Be safe, stay inside, and keep the music and creativity flowing!

Images by Cecilia Chan

Ian Louisell, aka DJ Heatwolves, is a writer and DJ based in Shanghai. He is the co-founder of Love Bang, Hologram Dreams, and Barbarism.

Author: DJ TechTools

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