The New (Virtual) Normal
Online clubs like Club Quarantine are creating global communities and providing opportunities for DJs and drag performers to continue their work.
To say we’re living in unprecedented times may feel a tad hyperbolic but the Covid-19 Pandemic will likely change our lives in fundamental ways we have yet to foresee. Already, we’re seeing attempts by artists and creators of all kinds to move further into the virtual space of the Internet, where anything is possible—through a webcam.
Social gathering is one of the most important tenets of artistic practice: Can you have an opening if no one attends? Can you perform to an empty crowd? Can you have a premiere with no audience?
Technically, yes but one thing that gives art its richness—the act of sharing it—is lost completely.
In Toronto, over the past month, we’ve seen a rise in new, innovative initiatives to keep that richness alive. Club Quarantine, one of the more popular examples of people coming together online, has tapped into a crucial need for community and filled a void left by the absence of nightlife and electronic music culture for the foreseeable future.
Club Quarantine, or Club Q as it’s referred to by its patrons, is an online queer club hosted on Zoom. It was created the week of March 16 by four friends from Toronto: recording artist Andrés Sierra, artist/producer/DJ Casey MQ, comedian Brad Allen and digital creative Mingus New. They have vowed to go live with new djs and drag performers every night while social distancing measures are in place. As long as we’re all stuck at home, Club Q is offering an escape. Partying from home also allows many members of Toronto’s queer community who find clubs inaccesible (for a number of reasons) to participate.
What started as a small gathering of 50 people tuning in to see their friends DJ has grown exponentially into a global community. They have around 45,000 Instagram followers and hundreds of people attend the club each night from New Zealand, Italy, France, India, the United States and more.
Club Q pays their performers through PayPal donations, trying to alleviate some of the financial strain felt by the nightlife industry abruptly shutting down. A sponsorship from Red Bull provided enough funds to pay the DJs and drag queens for three weeks. “We're working on new sponsorships to hopefully keep growing it and to pay people even better,” said Casey MQ.
The definitive moment for Club Q was when British pop singer Charli XCX performed a dj set, requiring them to up their capacity to Zoom’s maximum of 1000 people. They hit capacity in two minutes. All of sudden Club Q was on the lips of tastemakers across the world and a collab with New York-based Paper Magazine, leading to performances by American pop singer Tinashe, German pop singer Kim Petras and Brazillian drag queen Pabllo Vittar. Booking these artists for a regular night in Toronto (especially on the same bill) is well out of the financial reality for most hosts and promoters—but that’s the magic of the Internet.
Through all this international attention, Club Q has stuck to its roots and the hometown emphasis on highlighting local talent. It’s clear they’ve created something with staying power, that could outlast the quarantine as a beacon for the global queer community.
I spoke with seven Toronto DJs (Ace Dillinger, Jelz, Myst Milano, Sailor Q, Sammy Rawal, Sofia Fly and Zzzemen) about their time on Club Q, the benefits of the platform, the resiliency of the queer community and the post-Covid future of clubbing in Toronto.
Going live on Club Q
JELZ (JELDIN OKURAPA): “I tuned in the night Sammy Rawal was DJing and I was not expecting to have so much fun. Me and my sister were on the spotlight dancing and sweating. After that, I said I need to DJ this party.”
“[The spotlighting feature on Zoom] is what made it feel more like a real club because you really get to see everyone. I would get super excited each time I saw one of my friends pop up.”
SAMMY RAWAL: “It had this sort of exciting energy that you would get from being out. I just really needed a good dance party and it just felt so cathartic and therapeutic in this weird way.”
“I know a lot of people are doing Instagram Live but there's something really communal about being able to see people's faces that are sharing the same digital space as you as opposed to just watching the one person performing on screen.”
“We're so used to putting a look together when we go out in real life and seeing how that translates digitally, people are still putting looks together, they're curating their physical space around them. It's kind of a new form of theater. “
ZZZEMEN (ZEMEN TESHOME): “People go off in the comments [while you play]. It's really fun and people are really supportive.”
SAILOR Q: “It’s not the exact same, but seeing people comment and the interactions and the love that you get afterwards, I still got some kind of satisfaction from knowing that I had a really good set and people enjoyed themselves.”
All eyes on Toronto
MYST MILANO: “I played between Tinashe and Kim Petras and it was probably the biggest bill I’ve ever played and it was virtual, which is wild.”
SAILOR Q: “I'm an up and coming DJ and one thing I really applaud Club Q for, they put on your faves like Chippy Nonstop, Bambii, Karim Olen Ash whose parties we all go to, but they also put on people who are new to the game. It really gave me an opportunity to be visible on that platform. We love and support the typical DJs, but it’s also nice that they give an opportunity to people that aren't always as heard or seen.”
“I gained a lot of followers from Club Q and I want to keep those followers and keep them interested. I'm creating content, like mixes, to keep them engaged.”
ZZZEMEN: “They promote you while you're playing and then people end up following you, which is great for smaller and even bigger DJs.”
“It’s a good way to connect with other artists. With Club Q, you might be playing with somebody who you would have never had the chance to play with. It's really great because I find that even when they have bigger artists playing they always have local Toronto artists playing too so it doesn't lose its core.”
Goodbye social gathering, goodbye income
MYST MILANO: “A lot of my yearly income comes from Pride. So, that's just kind of over. All of my gigs are cancelled for the foreseeable future.”
ACE DILLINGER: “After Club Q, I was still on a high and then a couple hours later it sunk in that I don’t know the next time I’m going to DJ in a real space. It doesn't look like it’ll be anytime this year and that’s really heartbreaking.”
“Nightlife is going to take a huge hit and it's gonna take time for us to adjust. People aren't going to want to interact and be in clubs as much anymore. The longer we're in quarantine, I feel like the less people are going to be open to the idea of being in a public place with a whole lot of people.”
JELZ: “I had just reached the point where I was comfortable in my career. I don't have any other job, my main income is from DJing. I was tracking my self employed income, everything was going really well and then this came out of nowhere.”
“I don't really know when I'm going to be able to DJ next and I’m counting on unpaid invoices and obviously the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit. It's just really disheartening, because in April, I had one of the biggest events of my career, Pep Rally, coming up.”
SAMMY RAWAL: “My regular day job is in the film and right before this whole lockdown happened these big jobs I had booked got canceled. And right now in Toronto, they're not giving out any film permits. Also, a lot of my work happens outside of Canada and traveling is impossible right now. So, it's been really tough for me having all these jobs going away and potential income going away. But, you know, I'm also quite lucky that there are different methods of making a little bit of income. Like, Yes Yes Y’all* is hosting our 11-year anniversary on April 17 with Club Q thanks to a partnership with Music Together Ontario. We had resigned ourselves to the fact that it wasn’t going to happen and Music Together swooped in and saved the day.”
Adapting to our new normal
SOFIA FLY: “I am definitely scrambling and wondering what kind of choices I need to make if social distancing lasts for 18 months because being a DJ is not exactly a viable career option. I'm definitely focusing more on my online content. I’m making connections with artists to start producing, because my background is in production.”
“The level in which I need to adapt is wild because like the music world and the entertainment world is not going to be the same again for a long time.”
“Club Quarantine is a great example of that. I know the guys who run it and Casey was throwing mid-sized parties in Toronto before and now because he and his team were the ones to come up with this idea and do it well, all of a sudden he’s doing things with Charli XCX. It’s a perfect example of how, as an artist if you can adapt you can survive. It's like we were operating with one set of rules before and all of a sudden, the rules have changed.”
MYST MILANO: “I definitely think that the virtual party thing isn't going to die off with the quarantine.”
SAMMY RAWAL: “Music Together Ontario, who are funding Yes Yes Y’all’s anniversary, have rounded up a bunch of money to give to Ontario-based artists to perform virtually to help musicians and bands make ends meet. It’s quite interesting seeing, in the few weeks we've been in the situation, how much things are adapting and sort of pivoting to accommodate this new reality we're living in right now. It's sort of a testament to the power of culture and nightlife.”
ZZZEMEN: “I'm kind of worried about the venues that are going to be able to survive this. Like, what's going to be left? And I hope that we're able to maybe return to more DIY spaces, because those spaces are safer for the dance community, the queer community and the POC community.”
Queer resilience in a crisis
SAMMY RAWAL: “With Club Q’s Toronto roots, its success is really a strong indication of Toronto’s resilience, the queer culture here really stepping up. It’s this kind of very tangible cultural zeitgeist happening in Toronto.”
ACE DILLINGER: “I just feel that Toronto’s club scene, especially the queer club kids, are so powerful and so rooted in community and now it’s being seen on a global scale. International pop stars want to DJ Club Q because they realize the power that we hold and the sense of community that we uphold with each other.”
It’s integral that this moment be documented to create an archive of the ways Toronto’s arts community survived this period of uncertainty and learned to adapt to our strange new reality. Uncertainty may be omnipresent currently but so are resilience and optimism.
It’s clear from many conversations that the community is prepared to survive together and to continue thinking collectively to find innovative ways to continue their art making.
*Rawal is a founding member of Toronto queer party collective 'Yes Yes Y’all'.
Kelsey Adams is an arts and culture journalist from Toronto. Her writing explores the intersection of music, art and film, with a focus on the work of marginalized cultural producers. She's written for The Globe and Mail, CBC Arts, The FADER, NOW Magazine and Canadian Art.