The optics of his booking detract from a positive step forwards…

For UK club culture, it’s been a long 12 months. The coronavirus pandemic almost immediately shuttered live venues, shattering the communities that coalesce around them. From door staff to bar vendors, to the people who work in the cloak room, 2020 was an extraordinary year, one filled with doubt and no small degree of fear.

The weekend just gone saw the first real, true step forward we’ve taken since the club world paused last March. A government sponsored trial rave took place at Liverpool venue Circus, with 6000 ticket holders descending for two days of electronic music. It was intended as a carnival, a safe space – entry required a negative COVID test – and a means to try and kick-start the live sector in some way.

Looking at the clips that emerged from Liverpool, it’s clear that the weekend was dominated by unquestionable experiences of joy. Who, after all, could fail to be moved by Jayda G working a capacity crowd, a crowd who haven’t been able to cut loose and enjoy a truly communal experience in so long?

Jayda G INSIDE LIVERPOOL! This is going OFF Never Grow Old at CIRCUS pic.twitter.com/GEZB1iTYN1

— Liverpool Events (@liverpool_event) April 30, 2021

Yet there was also an unavoidable strain of negativity that surrounded the event. Vastly successful German producer Sven Vath headlined the Circus weekender, delivering a typically show-stopping set to the packed crowd. The decision to include the Cocoon legend at a government backed return to clubbing didn’t sit right for some, due to his decision to play so-called plague raves during the pandemic.

salute perhaps summed up the doubters’ argument by commenting “business techno is back in motion” while explaining: “They could have booked ANYONE to play that warehouse show in Liverpool yesterday.. but they had to go and get Sven Vath, a man who has spent the last year selfishly and unbelievably playing huge plague raves to headline it.”

There is definitely a point here. The pandemic may have had a universal impact but it certainly effected some DJs more than others. For rising and left-field talent, it was an unmitigated disaster, depriving artists of their only source of income, with outside support found to be scant or non-existing. For huge names such as Sven Vath, however, the picture was somewhat different. One of the biggest names around, the German producer is worth about $14 million, yet still broke cover to play huge events in India and Mexico – two countries that have struggled to deal with coronavirus.

Indeed, Vath’s itinerary doesn’t stop there – he is reported to have played India in 2021, just as the country’s coronavirus nightmare was beginning to deepen.

Even while news was breaking, this was a huge talking point. Bicep – who hunkered down in their studio during the pandemic – called DJs who played plague raves “disgusting”, with Matt McBriar telling the Independent: “It’s drawn a line between the artists who think like businessmen and strategise on how to extract as much money as possible from everything, and the people who are driven by creativity.”

Bicep’s Andy Ferguson added: “They don’t need to do this. Take a year off, write an album. So many people lower down in dance music are struggling and this paints the whole industry in a bad light. It’s just that their egos need constant massaging.”

As the conversation spread, Attack Magazine warned “We need to talk about plague raves” while DJ Mag asked simply: “Is clubbing in a pandemic ever ethical?”

Ultimately, this whole issue is one of ethics. Sven Vath didn’t break any laws during 2020 – he wasn’t charged with manoeuvring around COVID restrictions, and the events he played issued statements confirming that they were abiding by the health and safety legislation that had been provided to them. Also, he’s not even the only DJ on the Circus line up facing criticism – Manchester duo Solardo are also accused of accepting questionable ‘plague rave’ bookings.

Yet it’s not possible to look at the heartbreaking scenes in India right now, without wondering if the decision to host any kind of huge, club culture event didn’t contribute to the situation in a negative way.

There seems to be a divide in club culture right now, between those who held back from performances – sometimes to the detriment of their career – and those who simply carried on. If the weekender at Circus is to provide a launching pad for how club culture could operate in 2021 – our electronic music road map, if you will – then the line up needed to be water-tight. Sven Vath’s inclusion doesn’t sit right – much like his bookings in India last year, it’s one he could have sat out, but chose not to. The optics here distract from what should be a moment of unadorned bliss.

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Thank you Liverpool 

We’ve waited so long for this, let’s do it all again tomorrow then? pic.twitter.com/ZKBqeiEPA4

— CIRCUS (@CIRCUSmusic) April 30, 2021

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