Monday, April 20, 2020

Philly DJs are still spinning — now virtually — but some platforms are cutting the music during coronavirus pandemic


Written by Cassie Owens — He was going with the groove. He couldn’t say what he was going to play next. Bobby Flowers, who used to go by DJ Lean Wit It, has held multiple party events and when the coronavirus hit, he didn’t want to put those nights on ice.

So you could go on Instagram and catch Hips and Uptempo, dance parties where he plays beats from throughout the African diaspora. You could until this week, anyway.

At the last IG Live party, on Tuesday, he improvised a mix that included house, Afrobeat, and hip hop; Spanish, English, and Yoruba. Instagram cut him off five times in a single hour, and now he’s vowing to find another platform.

By text, he explained why he just can’t on Instagram anymore: “Every time they cut it I was trying to figure out what record wouldn’t be cut.”

At a time when norm after norm has been lifted out of touch and onto the internet, recorded DJ mixes and livestreamed sets have become regular fixtures. Some Philly DJs said they do so to spread joy during a period of dread. Unlike the musicians performing virtual concerts with their own material, DJs offering the experience of a decentralized house party can have it shut down in an instant over issues with copyright.

Ash Kernen, a Kensington intellectual property and entertainment attorney, cited two reasons why marathon celebrity livestreams are happening with ease: Record labels, social media apps, and streaming platforms all could be pleased with six-figure audiences enjoying these events, or they could be trying to avoid “disastrous” press for ruining the fun during a dark time.

D-Nice, who popularized these pandemic streams with #ClubQuarantine on Instagram Live, has spoken with reporters about Mark Zuckerberg appearing in the comments. The DJ asked Zuckerberg not to cut the feed.

“I think we were at 95,000,” D-Nice told the Los Angeles Times. “People were commenting: ‘Mark, you need to take care of the algorithm here, baby!’ I started yelling into the mic: ‘Mark, c’mon, Mark! We don’t want this thing to crash!’ And then Zuckerberg posted: ‘You got this.’ ”

Depending on the platform used, explained Kernen, digital DJ sets require licensing for the composition and the master recording, and this nuances depending onhow it’s used. Video streams call for synchronization rights, the same rights needed to include an artist’s song in a TV commercial, as well as a master use license. Turntablists, Kernen continued, would need to seek permission from each rights holder — and that can include publishers, record companies, among other entities — on every song played. DJs don’t have a single institution where they can receive a license that would cover all the rights necessary, Kernen said.

“Frankly, it’s sort of the Wild Wild West right now when it comes to the licensing landscape,” he said.

The sole platform that Kernen has seen where DJs can upload sets without issue is MixCloud, a platform that only plays longform audio and limits how users can rewind and replay. And Diplo, who is paying royalties for his Corona Tour, has been a outlier. Since many DJs lack the time and resources to acquire the rights for every clip, Kernen has observed that many DJs are simply facing the consequences of having their streams yanked. Others, given the times, are appealing for leniency.

Many platformshave content identification systems that recognize copyrighted material, but DJs might “outsmart the algorithm,” Kernen said, if they give the song a different sound.

DJ Diamond Kuts, who spins for Philadelphia on Power99 every morning and is known for speeding up beats into high gear, hasn’t had too many issues on Instagram. She threw a virtual party this week called The Cookout. Fans prepared food. Someone streamed as they made a puzzle. One woman listened as she blew a hookah.

Diamond Kuts has done livestreams before at the radio station.

“The difference between now and then is that being live from your house — it feels more special. It feels more intimate, you know what I mean?” said Diamond Kuts, who grew up in West Oak Lane. “Everybody’s at home.”

Since it’s not radio, she doesn’t have to play all the biggest records of the day. She can go back in time, to the ’70s, the ’90s, whatever she likes. Since it’s not a club, she can’t check the energy in the room for a sign of what song should come next.

“All you can do is go off people’s comments. So it’s different because you’re reading and you’re trying to feed off of what they’re saying through your phone,” she explained. “I have to read the comments to see if people are really rocking with it, or see how many hearts I’m getting.”

She plans to keep up the livestreams two times a week. Due to the pandemic’s impact, she’s had 11 gigs postponed, one has already been rescheduled to 2021. Jason Weiss, DJ and owner of Double Down Entertainment, a booking agency for DJs that focuses on events in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, said his agency has lost 300 events so far.

“We were just looking for something to keep ourselves from going insane, and keep ourselves staying sharp on what we do,” said Weiss, explaining why they’re posting mixes daily to SoundCloud from a lineup of big-name DJs. “More importantly than anything, that we had a lot of industry friends and family and a lot of bartenders and operators and venue owners that are really kind of struggling right now.”

The collective 24HRPHL, an advocacy group that focuses on Philadelphia nightlife, has produced a directory of resources for workers in the nighttime sector. Cristina Caudill, who DJs as CristiΓ±a and is an advocate at 24HRPHL, said the livelihoods of workers were among her biggest concerns, particularly for those who don’t work other jobs. She’s also worried about smaller venues.

“Will they make it?” she wondered aloud. “Will everybody make their mortgages? Will these places be there for us after this is said and done?”

Michael Fichman, founder of the 24HRPHL who DJs as Michael the Lion, echoed Caudill’s concerns. He hopes that Philadelphia can follow in Berlin’s footsteps. There, one initiative has used livestreamed DJ sets to raise $1 million for the city’s club scene.

While it’s too early to define the exact impact of the pandemic on livestreaming, analysis from MIDiA Research, a UK data and consulting firm following streaming trends around the world, suggests that streaming services can expect subscriptions if the economic outlook stays grim.

“Music streaming levels are up in some markets but down in others,” according to a recent MIDiA Research report. “Italy has seen a decline because a) the commute has gone, and b) people are spending more time watching and listening to news.”

Fichman favors a coordinated fund-raising initiative. He spoke of everyday livestreaming with less optimism.

“Trying to make money off streaming is like running around with a pint glass in a rainstorm,” Fichman said.

Flowers, who is hoping to get back to sharing his DJ sets online next week, said people who can support DJs in this moment should do so.

“Donate. Hit their Cash App. It can be something as small as $1,” Flowers said. “Realizing that we may not be able to work for the next two to however many months is a scary place for a lot of us to be in.”

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