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What we can learn about Covid-19 from 90s rave culture

Raves weren’t simply spaces for hedonistic pleasure (although certainly one benefit) but provided a “safe space” for protest.

Empty dancefloors and cancelled live music events could have far more impact than just the businesses that rely upon them. It is impacting the way in which culture and some sections of society are developing as a whole, says Darrell Nelson, head of culture and content for Asia Pacific at Havas.

As with every industry, the massive impact of Covid-19 has reverberated loudly within the live music and events scene. The wholesale cancellations of concerts and festivals across the world, as communities are shuttered inside their homes, has decimated the thousands of businesses the live music scene touches upon. But there is also a more hidden cost, one that could impact youth and marginalized populations across the region.

To understand the importance and power of live spaces we need to just look at the rave scene of the 80s and 90s. Contemporary club culture is really a product of this period, when clubbing became a mainstay of youth culture and broke into mainstream consciousness, assuming both transgressive and corporate traits.

In the UK, rave came at a time of political unrest under the then Conservative government, who were increasingly austerity-driven. In fact, in 1994 the British government passed the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which outlawed gatherings of a hundred or more people with loud music “characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. In other words, raves.

In making them illegal, it actually galvanized the underground communities further, in particular a now disenfranchised youth, allowing those who attended the parties to connect with others who they perceived having a similar outlook under the banner of music. Raves weren’t simply spaces for hedonistic pleasure (although certainly one benefit) but provided a “safe space” for protest and the development of alternative ways of life. Coming together under one beat was more than just dancing but, as Matthew Collin in his book Altered State argues, triggered the most vibrant and diverse youth movement Britain has ever seen and which continues to reverberate both culturally and politically, almost twenty years later.

Undeniably, the life of a 90s youth is far different from that of the 2020 version where tech and media changes have altered nearly all facets of life. Indeed, Covid-19 has acted as an accelerating agent to online communities and digital alternatives, from live-streamed lockdown sessions and Houseparty or Zoom online nights. However, as much as these online formats have a temporal ability to unite and entertain, they lack the social cohesion and sheer freedom to experiment with alternative versions of oneself that comes with a mass, communal experience united under music.

Across Asia, the comparatively rapid economic rise has brought about its own set of problems, with many countries in this region still affected by deep disparity, inequality and less progressive attitudes. Communities here, just like in the UK in the 90s, have that same feeling of being disinherited from a stake in the cultural life of a country where marginalized communities are ignored. Add to this, now with the cancellation and shuttering of live spaces, there are whole sections of the society without any spaces in which to make sense of the world around them and with others who they can identify with.

The loss of “underground spaces” often regarded as a refuge and a place that celebrates and allows for difference and revels in its own invisibility, anonymity and obscurity could have a dramatic impact in countries with more oppressive laws on personal freedom. The queer parties held in countries across Asia, and the world, are not only club nights but also a platform for education and information for the LGBTQ+ community and have been the ground swelling for many movements fighting for equality.

You just have to look at the attendance at festivals and live events that has soared over the last 5 years to see that the desire for people to connect still exists. The incredible popularity of Ultra Fest which now holds events in 20+ countries across the world including Asia has shown that not only is the festival creating economic opportunities but also cultural dialogue which is widely inclusive — from entrepreneurs to clubber kids, to the LGBTQ+ and creative communities. Whether a nightclub, gig, or festival, these spaces are an outlet of expression for a youth that feels somehow pressured by modern society. Attendees still chose to enter a world of dance and music that holds the promise of connectivity and belonging.

With the future restrictions almost certainly going to affect us for time to come, and as the world slowly comes to terms with the social and economic impact of Covid-19, we will need to find a way in which we can safely open live venues up again. The avatar in which they spring to life will be dependent on advice from health professionals, but it is up to us to do what we can to support and bring back these spaces as soon as we can.

There will be a tremendous opportunity for brave brands to act as guardians in the re-emergence of these spaces, helping youth and marginalized members of society reconnect and explore the future together. It is just as much the responsibility of brands who claim to embody this culture as it is those of us who benefit from it and to ensure we find ways back when the time comes. The live music scene isn’t just about congregating in sweaty dark rooms to dance the night away but holds far more significance in shaping our culture as a whole, and if we have ever needed a release and a space to reimagine our futures, it is now.

Darrell Nelson is the head of culture and content for Asia Pacific at Havas.

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