The Shape of Dance to Come: How Phoenix DJ Culture is Changing During the Pandemic

Recordbar Radio in Downtown Phoenix – Showrunner Erika (Left) and DJ Gilaman (Right)

As we move into month eight of the Covid-19 pandemic, uncertainty still lingers around the future of nightlife and dance culture. While organizations such as Boiler Room and Resident Advisor net hundreds of thousands of dollars from cultural grants, clubs, artists, and independent venues are left to fend for themselves, and Phoenix is no exception. When clubs and warehouses shut their doors, where do performers turn to in order to keep the party going? The answer is the internet. 

Broadcasting yourself to the internet is certainly not a new concept. While social media giants such as Twitter and Instagram began bringing livestreaming capabilities to their apps in 2016, there were already established streaming websites across the web. Twitch, arguably one of the most popular livestreaming platforms, established itself in 2011 as the premier way to broadcast yourself and interact with others playing video games. That same year also saw YouTube get into the streaming game – the very same platform that Recordbar Radio uses to stream virtual DJ sets in 2020.

Jake Stellarwell and Aaron Lim, the founders of Recordbar Radio, didn’t set out to launch a local livestreamed-only DJ radio station. Before the first stream of resident DJ Jules Quimby’s show Filmuzik in April, livestreaming sets was just a component of a bigger goal.

“It’s funny when people ask us ‘how did you think of it, it’s a great concept, and it’s perfect timing for Covid,’ because that’s really not what our idea was at all,” Stellarwell said.

Recordbar Radio was simply going to be a part of Recordbar, a planned brick-and-mortar establishment where locals could come together to discuss music, trade records, drink coffee and listen to their favorite DJs. 

“Our original concept was to do something that provided a space for local DJs, local artists, and local musicians to gather and enjoy company and music and have it always be DJ, artist, and musician-centric,” Stellarwell said. “The case is still the same with Recordbar Radio. It’s just virtual now.” 

During most weeks, you can tune in to the Recordbar Radio YouTube channel from Wednesday through Sunday and catch a mixed bag of DJs spinning different genres of music. From 70’s funk and soul records to heart-pounding acid, there is a Recordbar Radio stream for everyone.

“We want to make sure that Phoenix DJs, Phoenix artists, and Phoenix producers are getting an opportunity to showcase their talent, perform their craft, and have it be broadcast on the internet so that it can reach whomever, wherever they are,” Stellarwell said. 

While some would argue that a livestreamed DJ set can’t match the energy of a live performance with a crowd, the Recordbar Radio streams remain a great way to stay connected with community favorite DJs and friends, and provide a gateway for artists to be exposed to wider audiences outside of just a single night at a warehouse. 

“The internet is a practical function of the situation. We want to reach bigger, wider audiences but really, if you’re outside of Phoenix or Arizona and you’re tuning in that’s great, but we want people in Arizona to be really excited and energized and feel like there’s something here they can be part of,” Lim said.

While Recordbar Radio increases in popularity in Phoenix during the pandemic, Stellarwell and Lim have not gone through hundreds of livestreams without facing challenges.

“Our number one challenge is money. We’re not doing this for money, but we have some pretty good plans on how to make this thing sustainable. Our second biggest issue that we’ve experienced is that we have over 100 people who sign up to DJ or do a live set, but only about 15 sign up to volunteer to help us run the studio. We really are overwhelmed in that area,” Stellarwell said.

Alongside the Covid-19 pandemic, this summer saw a rise in mainstream social justice movements across the country following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black Americans by the police. Underground music cultures and DJs that primarily play music genres created by Black individuals have always used their platforms to raise awareness for change, and Recordbar Radio is no different.

“It didn’t seem intentional, it just felt natural to do what’s right. The DJs and artists that we work with on this project who come into the studio and play music are a mixed bag of anybody from anywhere, especially in terms of socio-economic and demographic backgrounds. We’re going to do the right thing,” Stellarwell said.

Recordbar Radio frequently uses their stream to collect resources for local organizations like Mutual Aid Phoenix, and other solidarity-driven projects in the local area.

“Part of our goal is that we have to give back to what we believe is real, and what we feel is right. That’s a big part of the Recordbar ethos, being able to give back through goods or services or time…it’s a big part of our structure,” Lim said.

Recordbar Radio continues to bring together artists from marginalized communities, which Phoenix DJ Emilio Felix a.k.a. Shocksite feels has always been a core part of the scene.

“A bigger reason could be to solidify to a community that is there for each other. A community who shares the same ideals on social issues and injustices.” Felix said.  

That bigger meaning Felix describes is to provide a place for individuals who might not have a safe space to come together, dance, and feel free from judgement. 

“It’s more to provide safe spaces for trans, POC, and queer people. I think it’s very important that money is raised for that,” Felix said. “There’s so many problems that trans, POC, and queer people already have to go through, it’s nice to provide a space for them to be able to be free and express themselves through fashion and not have to be stereotyped or judged by people.”

Felix says it’s not very clear what the underground rave scene will look like following the end of the pandemic.

“It’s hard to say what the future is going to bring. I think the real ones are going to keep pushing for (the scene), and a lot of clubs will close down because of what happened but that’s fine. If the real ones push for it, they’ll provide the spaces that will be needed,” Felix said. “Hopefully one day there will be a time next year when everyone can get back together. Through that time I think everyone’s going to have grown and been able to reflect on themselves through quarantine.”

Until that day comes, DJs will continue to interact with fans through the screen, and local DJ Nicolas Villagrana a.k.a. Sueño says that option is good enough. 

“I do miss the live shows, the raves, and the parties, but I think (streaming) is a good alternative to keep it going. I think this is a good way to adapt and transition into what’s happening now,” Villagrana said. “I know Recordbar records their sets and it’s nice to listen back later or review it or show it to other people.” 

Villagrana says that one of the most important aspects missing from livestreaming is the connection with the audience.

“It’s not a party or anything, you don’t know if what you’re playing is good or if people are liking it, or how many people are still listening,” Villagrana said. “If you’re playing a party or something, people are dancing and the room is full, and if you notice that the room isn’t as full as it could be you can just change what you’re playing, which you can’t really do when you’re livestreaming.” 

One concern that Villagrana has with using DJ platforms to raise awareness for social issues is possibly doing it for the wrong reason. 

“Something I would be concerned about is people using it as a way to virtue signal or a tokenization or something like that,” Villagrana said. “But I don’t really think that’s happening in our scene.”

Once, if ever, the Covid pandemic has passed, Villagrana hopes that streaming will continue to be a staple in the DJ community. 

“I definitely do think people are going to be excited to go back into the real world and dance, but I do think there will still be streaming, and I hope it is because I think it’s great. People are liking it,” Villagrana said.  “With people trying to raise money and raise awareness, I think that shows that while DJs like to party and have a good time, they still care about their community and care about people.”

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