The ongoing fight with COVID-19 has of course affected everyone's plans and arguably no sector has felt this more than the live music industry. Under normal circumstances we would be well into festival season now, with countless artists playing to adoring fans in all corners of the globe.
Soon following the tidal wave of event cancellations livestreaming became the face of live music. One of the earliest adopters of the online musical experience was the American silent disco leaders HUSHconcerts who've been hosting four sets daily across two channels since March.
We wanted to learn more about their Herculean efforts to keep people dancing during these anxious times so we caught up with CEO Robbie Kowal. Perhaps the most loquacious man in the industry, he's a wealth of knowledge and energy who's not only keeping busy with his company's daily HUSHcasts at 1:30 pm PT and 8:00 pm PT but he's also found time to set up a charity called Music For Masks which employs out of work music industry professionals to make much needed PPE.
Hi there, hope you're holding up OK through all of this. Why don't we start by explaining what the HUSHcast actually is?
Sure. As you know, we are the gold standard for silent disco and we've gained a reputation not just for having been there since the beginning but we have always applied a high value to our DJ sets and our battles and our channels and genres and that sort of thing. We try to go deeper than just red, green, blue or pop, hip hop, whatever. We feel that especially with the festivals that we are lucky enough to be a part of, the folks that come to these festivals are music aficionados, they're zealots, they really know their music. So having a silent disco that's kind of banal and mainstream and basic doesn't do justice to the event or people who attend them. So we've always tried to go really deep in our themes.
What we're trying to do now is through this work we've built this incredible community around the world of people that really want to geek out on DJ music, they don't just want to be told what to listen to. And one of the beauties of silent disco is that people really listen and they really can be rewarded for wanting something interesting and esoteric. And the DJs can be rewarded for really stretching and going deep. Our curational aesthetic is to the DJ community what jazz or jam band music is to rock and roll. We reward DJs for going deep and people who come to our events are rewarded because they get something really unusual and a little bit further.
So when we decided to take our silent disco formant into the virtual space, onto Twitch, it was important to us to create something that was really unique, where the genres and the battles between the DJs were thought out, something that reflects our curational aesthetic. We book real artists and give them freedom to fly. The challenge has been that we are really ambitious in what we're trying to pull off. We wanted to do something for families during the day, we wanted to do something a little bit more edgy at night and we wanted to do at least two channels for every time, so that means we need to book 56 DJ sets a week. And guess what, that's really hard [laughs].
We have a huge community of DJs and keeping them busy and giving them things to do and letting them express themselves on our channels, they've been extremely appreciative. But the reality is the majority of them had ever streamed before, they'd never done anything like this, so just getting them up to speed technically sometimes took as long as a whole set to get comfortable. And then also remember they're not performing on a stage that was designed to be a stage, with art and lights and lasers, and all the things that people have come to expect. They're just, in some cases, in their living room or studio, so the visual aspect of what they're doing isn't as exciting as what they'd be doing in a live setting. So there have been growing pains with a lot of the artists to get them to where their stream is as interesting as their music, their visual aesthetic is as interesting as their music aesthetic.
That being said, so far the HUSHcast has been spectacular in the sense that every single day at 1:30 pm, if you're some parent stuck at home with kids and you want to get them moving and dancing, not only can you do so, but you can pick between two very distinct styles of music. If you happen to be up at 8:00 pm and want to listen to something interesting, we always have something that's kind of EDM-y and dancey on one channel and something that's more funky/groovy, mid-tempo/down-tempo on the other channel at night. And every single day and every single night we have a show going. We started mixing yoga sessions into which has been great. And we're going to keep the flood gates open, keep bringing on new talent, keep it rolling for as long as our community needs it.
How did you decide on Twitch as your platform?
Was it Winston Churchill who said 'Democracy is the best form of government after you've tried all the other ones'? We tried Facebook, we tried Periscope and we tried Twitch and the reality is unless you're a huge artists with a personal and direct management relationship with those networks, like for instance Questlove can go on Facebook and play whatever he wants, but our local community of DJs are not people who have those personal relationships with Facebook so when they play three songs Facebook shuts them down.
The rights issues around streaming music have been extremely challenging for community type performers. Twitch seems to be a platform that's a little more Wild West, where they let people play what they want and do what they want. Twitch only cares that people are doing it on Twitch. The other thing for us that's really cool is that Twitch has a lot of built in elements around chat and it's really easy to embed, so it fit really well with our vision of having both of these DJ sets right next to each other and allowing people to pick back and forth what they like and want to listen to.
Yeah I like having a chat section beside the stream because it manages to have that community feel even when everyone is in their own house.
It's been really fun. It's also been really fun for me personally because I like to be able to write up my setlist as I go and kind of give people an idea of what they may be listening to be because a lot of what I play may not be something they know.
So how long have you been doing the HUSHcast now?
We were originally going to launch it in early March. All of our events started to cancel in February which was, you know, harrowing. Very soon after we decided we're going to do this so we built a studio in our offices the end of February, beginning of March. We have a stage, we have a three channel DJ setup, we have our webcams, everything setup ready to go and the idea was we were going to start bringing DJs into our offices and do the events here. Unfortunately literally on the afternoon we were dialling in the cameras and getting everything ready, that's when we got the notice from Mayor Breed about San Fransisco's Shelter in Place order.
Immediately everything we'd been working on for 5-6 days, poof, was out the window. We had to immediately rethink about how we were going to get everyone to do the streams from their houses, which we were worried about because it doesn't look as good. So it took about a week to pivot and don't forget booking 56 DJ sets a week is not easy. Communicating with that many DJs. It took a long time to get people ready to do it. Often DJs would say they want to do it and then the day before say, "Oh sorry, I don't have the equipment" or "I can't figure out how to make it work". The other thing is it's not just technical, this is a hard time for everybody. A lot of these DJs are people who have no work, they've been laid off.
Part of what we're doing is palliative and giving them something fun and joyous to do. To be able to do what they do best in spite of the fact that the entire industry that we work in has been shuttered and nobody knows what's going to happen. And so it's created a lot of worry and a lot of angst and a lot of fear. I have had DJs who've been crying, saying they want to do it but they can't because they got to figure out how to make another few hundred dollars to make rent this month. We've got one of our Chicago DJs who went to work in an Amazon warehouse. It's a hard time for contractors and it's really hard for the events industry.
What you're hearing a lot about is obviously the restaurant industry and servers and waiters and bartenders and that is 100% valid, but we must not forget that the events industry was hit on average two to three weeks earlier. DJs, production professionals, lighters, riggers, soundies, agents, managers, you name it, have been out of work three weeks longer than any other industry. So our first test sets went up March 21st and the official HUSHcast schedule started March 23rd.
I wanted to go more into the response because it seems like quite a lively atmosphere around livestreams.
So, you know, I'm thrilled we've been able to pull this off and more importantly I'm thrilled we've been able to be consistent about it. Keeping our DJs engaged, keeping our community engaged, being able to give people different and interesting things to do and listen to and stay in touch with each other and dance and work out has been extremely positive. Sometimes when I tune in and see our audience numbers and then see that Diplo or someone has 10,000 comments on his Facebook stream it makes me pause for a second. But then we realise that our community of DJs has never been some EDM, main stage group.
We've made our reputation by producing quality curation on stages. Like take Electric Forest for example. Bassnectar, String Cheese, Marshmello are playing the main stages and yet the silent disco is packed day and night because we're doing something very different. So judging it only on the numbers of people on the channel is not an accurate representation of the good we're doing and it never has been.
I think what we've been able to do is create something akin to the Electric Forest silent disco where you can tune in and go in there any time and get your mind expanded. You're going to hear something very interesting. You're going to hear people who are very passionate about the music they're playing for people who are very passionate about music themselves.
I like that you're keeping it live, not rehashing old sets. There's been such a varied reaction from festivals who are "live streaming" old sets which are obviously not live and the ones that are happening in the moment still somehow maintain that communal atmosphere, so I really like that actually.
I think it goes back to the question of 'what is live music'? And are DJs live music? That's always been a big battle in the festival community. In my mind if somebody can make a mistake then it's live. If there's an element of danger, then it's live. One thing about the schedule element is we spent a lot of time discussing when our livestreams should be. One of the parameters we had to consider was our DJs are coming in from coast to coast. We have DJs in New York, a lot of DJs in Chicago and then a bunch in San Fransisco, the Bay Area, West Coast DJs, so we needed to find times that made the most sense for all of them.
Also we had to consider we're doing this daytime set mainly for families so it had to be after kids' customary nap time, which is usually around noon. So we started our family event at 1:30 pm PT for that reason and then our evening event at 8:00 PT because the latest you're going to tune into something on the East Coast would be 11:00. So a lot of thought went into the timing and I think if it wasn't for the timezones we're dealing with we'd be a lot more flexible.
What is Music For Masks and how did it come about?
One of our partners has a sister who's a nurse in Chicago and she had a lightbulb moment because she remembered we have 3D printers in the office because we make displays for headphones and other festival things. The printers were sitting idle and she suggested we start making PPE and we thought 'let's do it!' And then when we started doing it we realised it's not that easy to produce this stuff, even with all the designs and videos other there, it's not simple to produce this stuff.
So it took us about three days to get the bands correct and then finding the shield plastic and elastics is difficult. But after a week we'd churned out a bunch and then the question became 'who's going to run the machines?' And then we had the idea about actually employing people. Let's raise money to put these event industry professionals back to work. You know, The GRAMMYS has Music Cares and they've been raising money for musicians and roadies and what have you and that's amazing. And there's a lot of people out there making face shields and PPE and we thought 'why don't we do both?' Why don't we make face shields and PPE and employ contractors at the same time.
So that's what we're doing. We're running a Music For Masks GoFundMe and hopefully we'll be able to raise some money. We're hoping to keep these machines going around the clock to where we're churning out about 100 a week. We don't think there's going to be any lack of demand in the next 3-6 months because everybody's going to need these, so we're working really hard to churn them out.
Talking about music more generally, what do you think of the state of electronic music? Obviously it's gotten super EDM heavy, especially in the States, but you look around and there are hordes and hordes of really good underground musicians playing all sorts of types of electronic music.
Well... The best thing I can comment on is how it looks from the context of the silent disco world because that's what we're laser focussed on. We produce 50 stages of silent disco at festivals so I don't spend a lot of time watching what's on the main stage. I spend a lot more time with the underground acts who are just coming up and end up wanting extra sets at our stages. So I see a lot of what the new DJs are doing and what the younger generation is trying to do.
A few things that have come to mind in the last few years. The first is that at European festivals the silent disco DJs are expected to play more esoteric music. For instance there's a group over there called Propaganda, they're a DJ collective. All they play is indie rock. I'm not talking about remixes, I'm talking about actual indie rock sets. Two or three channels of indie rock on silent disco stages at places like Reading and Leeds where the kids at these events sometimes aren't even 21. Glastonbury, Lowlands, etc, Propaganda DJs are playing the biggest festivals in Europe. They're not taking main stage or side stage DJs who want another set, they're just having indie rock at the silent disco. That was fascinating to me because what it reaffirms in my mind was that silent discos are great places for curation and esoteric music. And if people are really listening, they may want to listen to something more challenging than what they'd listen to on a main stage.
The other thing we've noticed from the DJs who are coming through on our stages is that it seems as if the Pioneer set up with flash drives, because it's the easiest and most convenient, has become the standard way that most new DJs are playing music. How does that effect what they're playing? Well, for one thing, they're having to learn how to use CDJs and turntables. So we're seeing a lot of producer types who usually play sets on Ableton, especially in the downtempo realm, even those guys are bouncing out their tracks and playing them live on flash drives because they don't want to travel with their laptop. It's forcing these DJs to get more skilled at mixing and as DJs. And that isn't to say the Ableton folks weren't skilled live performers but Ableton self mixes for you. What they were doing in and of itself is great because they had to build these whole DJ sets in advance, but when they get there it was mixed already. What the folks are having to do with the CDJs and turntables is a little bit more difficult, so you're starting to see a little bit of DJ skills starting to come back to the DJ world.
We're also seeing a lot more of a genre freedom. For a long time in the EDM world, it wasn't cool if you played an R&B track or a pop song or something. No because mainstream EDM is pop and pop is EDM, when Justin Bieber's putting out albums with Diplo as producer it's harder to draw those lines. So you're seeing the best DJs play every kind of music in their sets and it's not just what we used to think of as electronic music. We used to think of electronic music as: house, techno, drum & bass, breaks. And then dubstep and trap, etc came into it. Now remixing is so easy, editing is so easy now that you can basically pull anything into any kind of set and there is a remix of every song you might like in every style of dance music.
So the question becomes how creative are you? What's the point you're trying to make? What are you trying to accomplish as a performer? The tools are there for you to accomplish whatever you want. Whether or not you do it or whether what you have to say is interesting or hits with the audience you're playing for, that's up to the talent of the act. But the tools are there for you to literally do anything. And most people are showing up with flash drives and they're playing on turntables or CDJs. And they're live mixing. That's what I see.