Virtual raves have proven to be a popular entertainment option during the coronavirus pandemic. From festivals held online — Earth Night, Room Service, Club House and Desert Hearts are among those that took place just last weekend — to rooftop events headlined by the likes of David Guetta (from the Icon Brickell in Downtown Miami) and Martin Garrix (from the top of the 22-story A’Dam tower in Amsterdam; on May 5 he performs live from a boat) to living room sets by major names likes Diplo and by complete unknowns with little more than a pair of CDJs, a USB stick and an internet connection.
Then there is Insomniac Events. A behemoth of electronic dance music which puts on Las Vegas’ annual Electric Daisy Carnival, the company has been hosting weekend Virtual Rave-A-Thons (in addition to its round-the-clock #InsomniacRewind programming) since March 20, the day after Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued his Safer at Home order. Featuring an eclectic lineup of talent — Krewella, Audien, Chromeo, Kompany, Modestep, SAYMYNAME and Tokimonsta (pictured) have performed — and colorful themes (like the “Renaissance Era”), it takes place in-person at the company’s headquarters in Beverly Hills.
Why the need for physical presence by talent when the rest of the entertainment industry is on Instagram and Zoom?
CEO Pasquale Rotella, who regularly appears on the live stream, says Insomniac is an essential business. “We are a full-fledged media company,” he tells Variety via email. “Companies and workers who support radio, television and media services are categorized as essential workforce according to the Communications and Information Technology portion of the State Public Health Officer’s list of ‘Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers.’ What we are doing is not much different from any nightly news broadcast that involves a studio, anchors/hosts, and a small crew.”
But is that an imaginative stretch? What Insomniac provides in terms of programming, as it were, doesn’t reach beyond entertainment and certainly doesn’t compare to that of hard, local news, does it?
To be fair, in observing the webcast, it seems some social distancing protocols are in place for the virtual events every Friday and Saturday. Interaction between the DJs and Rotella appears brief. And by many accounts, Insomniac is diligent about maintaining a highly sanitized environment. Upon arrival at Insomniac HQ, the DJ is greeted by a single staffer and then ushered into a sterile area where they are briefed. Markings on the ground indicate six-feet-apart distances and everything that can be touched is cleaned, in the talent’s presence, with hospital grade spray. If they need to use the restroom, the area is cleared of any personnel on your way in and out. When leaving, they depart from a different sterilized room, in order to avoid any contact with the next DJ coming through Insomniac.
Techno producer and DJ SIAN (Octopus Recordings), who chose to participate in “Escape Halloween Virtual Rave-A-Thon” the weekend of April 17, thoroughly vetted Insomniac’s protocols and concedes: “It’s like a military operation,” he says, describing seeing the DJ decks cleaned between sets and two camera people shooting far apart from each other.
During SIAN’s set, including when he was on the microphone, he wore a mask and gloves. Rotella himself, however, doesn’t appear to wear any protective gear.
“It’s just not safe,” argues Marci Weber of MDM Artists, whose client MK (Marc Kinchen) is one of the artists who turned down the opportunity to participate in Insomniac’s Rave-A-Thons. “We wanted to do it and we were assured of all the safety measures, but MK has a family and we don’t know enough about what COVID-19 is and how it actually works. It’s too risky.”
Other artists have asked if they could participate remotely. When Weber inquired on behalf of MK, Insomniac didn’t offer the option. Out of the 100 or so artists that have performed in-person across the six Rave-A-Thons, 15 were approached to speak about their experience for this article but only SIAN agreed. One can speculate that the artists and their teams are reluctant to say anything critical of Insomniac out of fear of long term ramifications by one of the most powerful promoters in the dance music world.
With that in mind, SIAN says the reach he saw during the Rave-A-Thons was massive. “I got the biggest interaction of playing any festival on my socials,” he says. “I held off doing other livestreams from the bedroom, but this one, because it was theatrical and produced, it felt like a really good way to still keep a good connection with the kids that would see you at a festival. I’ve played a lot of Insomniac festivals, but there’s only a certain number of people at your set. We had everyone at home who’s into dance music fixating on this stream. It’s a concentrated beam on you for a little bit. All the messages I got were from one person, alone in their home, bored out of their minds, thankful for me doing the stream.”
The numbers Insomniac has provided across all six Rave-A-Thons are over 18 million views with an average max concurrent viewership of 60,000, mainly via YouTube, Twitch and China’s video live streaming service, Huya Live. There is a high level of engagement from viewers during the livestreams, the rapid scroll of comments almost impossible to keep up with. There is also no paywall to circumvent, no donation or subscription required.
Still, the production is costly. Says Rotella: “Any ad revenue generated is extremely minimal and goes back into the cost of producing the stream, which far outweighs any revenue. Our Rave-A-Thons offer something fresh and compelling so that we can keep our community at home. The hope is that watching these performances helps take peoples’ minds off of all the uncertainty and fear swirling around them. Maintaining mental health is so important right now. At a time when depression and suicide rates are running high, especially among young people, it’s extremely important that we do everything we can to help keep people’s spirits up.” (This includes a character named “Disinfecto” who mimes the surface-cleaning procedure.)
But viewers may find it difficult to get beyond the mixed messages. Despite the hashtags “#StayHome” and “#WithMe,” Rotella, by pulling DJs out of their homes and into Insomniac’s physical space, seems to be doing neither. And considering the Insomniac audience’s demographic makeup of 18- to 34-year-olds reportedly exhibit the least concern about their personal health as it relates to COVID-19, such actions could have even more dire consequences.