As the world continues in its fight against the devastating impact of COVID-19, the club scene is just one of many industries that faces an uncertain future.
Clubbing has, for decades now, become a lifestyle choice for individuals across the globe, giving them a much-needed escape from the realities of their day-to-day lives. “We are realising just how important it is for our mental health”, says Wankelmut. And with festivals comes tourism, which means that the impact is affecting global economies as well. “Berlin is losing around 200,000 tourists a week, and so there is a lot of money that isn’t coming into the city right now”, he added.
Read on, as one of the most recognized figures in Berlin’s club scene, Wankelmut, gives us his view on the future of dance music post-pandemic.
Before we get into the main topic of our interview, we wanted to talk about your new imprint WKLMT which you announced at the beginning of the year. What inspired you to set up the label, and how long has it been in the making?
The label has been in the works for roughly nine months and came about as a way for me to get some independence and freedom from major labels. When you are working with bigger labels, there is always a lot of hassle involved when it comes to new releases, and I just wanted to create an outlet where if the music was ready we could release it straight away.
And is there a clear vision for the label, or is that something that will likely fall into place as the label grows?
I don’t have a concrete plan. First of all, I wanted to have more underground club tracks, but because of COVID-19, those tracks have been put on hold. I also wanted to have at least three songs released by now, but I am only on my second song which will be released in October. I wanted it to start with a club vibe and then expand into something more diverse.
Something that is annoying me right now in the German market, is the lack of vocal melodies. It just seems to be a touchy subject over here to have any vocals or catchiness on your tracks, which I think is stupid. That is why I wanted to build the label to sort of showcase more of this style of dance music.
Could this mean that you will be releasing music by other DJs?
I hope so. I will need to build up some sort of traction first, which was the hope by now, but then the coronavirus happened. I think it’s every artist’s dream to have a label where they can release music by other artists. At the moment though, I already have six of my own tracks lined up for release, so it will probably be some time before I can start to release music by other DJs.
So, COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on many industries around the world, including the club scene. With many nightclubs now facing permanent closure, have you been doing anything to help out your local club scene in Berlin?
I promoted the United We Stream initiative in the beginning, which quickly became popular. I think the awareness is already there, and the German government have done pretty well in providing substantial sums to a lot of music venues and clubs across the country. I think as an artist, there isn’t a whole lot you can do other than trying to stay afloat and to still be here when everything starts back up again.
You mentioned the United We Stream initiative which along with other virtual shows, has allowed fans to continue to see their favourite artists perform live. There has, however, been a surge in illegal raves which are endangering the lives of those who attend. Why do you think people are risking their health by attending these illegal shows?
Ultimately, I think it’s because people still want to dance and take drugs. The whole culture of live shows and festivals was massive before COVID-19, and so I think it’s normal for people to want to keep that alive. I think it’s also to do with the fact that there is a lot of disagreement about how serious this pandemic is, and so I think a lot of people are choosing to attend these illegal raves because they don’t think that there is any harm in doing so. I don’t like this because the longer people ignore the social distancing rules, then the longer nightclubs and music venues are likely to stay shut, which potentially puts people like me out of a job.
Do you think that this could be a blessing in disguise for up and coming DJs who are perhaps able to take advantage of illegal raves to establish themselves?
I think it’s a possibility, but it’s a dangerous gamble. This is because depending on how things pan out, they could end up getting incredibly bad PR. I mean, there was a carbon-monoxide poisoning at an illegal rave recently in either the UK or Sweden, I think, and that kind of bad publicity can stick with you. I think if you have got your wits about you, and play it right, then it might give you an edge. But the problem will be when everything goes back to normal because I know a lot of established DJs who have reduced their rates, and so it kind of means that there will be nothing left at the bottom.
In your opinion, what is it about being in a club that is so stimulating?
There are several things. For most people, myself included, it’s all about enjoying the experience of the music and for others, it’s become almost a lifestyle. However, I think the most important thing is that it gives you a way of escaping your ordinary life. I think the ability to go out and pay twenty or thirty bucks to escape your reality is overlooked, and now that we don’t have it, we are realising just how important it is for our mental health.
The clubs in Berlin are a part of the city’s DNA and attract millions of tourists to the city every year. Is there a possibility that the permanent closure of nightclubs could affect more than just the clubbing industry?
I think it already has. Berlin is losing around 200,000 tourists a week, and so there is a lot of money that isn’t coming into the city right now. I also don’t think a lot of the clubs will survive into next year if things don’t start to go back to normal soon. For me, growing older and entering new stages of life, clubbing isn’t as important anymore, but I don’t want to lose it from the city’s vibe. It’s what makes Berlin so special.
We have seen a lot of discussions on social media about DJs who have had to pick up regular jobs to pay their bills, and that DJing may very well just become a hobby if things don’t return to normal. Has it ever crossed your mind that you may have to reconsider your career choice?
Yes, in the current situation this has crossed my mind. I had been thinking of going back to school and getting a degree in IT and becoming a programmer or something. I mean I sit at a computer eight hours a day anyway.
Eight years ago, I decided to pursue a full-time career as a DJ, and I feel like it’s too early to give up on that dream. I will try everything to continue what it is I’m doing and avoid having to take up a regular job, although having said that, I can completely understand why some DJs need to have that steady paycheque right now.
Many nightclubs have been forced to change their business models and become beer gardens so that they can open to the public. While this is a good temporary solution, we don’t see how this can possibly become a permanent replacement. So ultimately, if government shutdowns of the world’s nightclubs remain in place, and the reworking of business models no longer fulfil the demands of ravers, could the club scene as a whole risk moving into the shadows, and become an illegal movement?
I think it’s possible to a certain degree, but not the whole scene. There is so much happening on social media right now, which means that you will have arguments all of the time about whether something is the right way to go or not. I mean, I hope that it doesn’t happen because, for the people who are trying their best to do stuff legally and above the surface, it just makes it ten times harder.
Parts of the industry are already moving into the shadows, especially here in Berlin and London, but as a professional who is making their money legally, I am pleading with people to stop doing it. Having said that, I am in a very privileged position, and I understand that the situation is different for other people.
Currently, the music industry is solely reliant on social media. Do you think that it could become increasingly difficult for old school artists who have never needed to create an online presence, to stay relevant?
Yeah, I mean there is the top ten or twenty, such as Carl Cox, who just because of their name will never need Instagram to stay relevant. But there are guys like Underworld who are trying to release new music and don’t have a big social media presence, and so I think that it’s probably a lot harder for them. I mean, I’m not a social media expert myself, but it comes more naturally to me.
I think it will become very complicated for the older generation who became famous by DJing without releasing music, because if you can’t stay relevant with gigs, and you don’t have social media, what are you going to do?
Hopefully, we can look forward to the return of nightclubs and festivals next year. We don’t know about you, but it’s definitely getting to us.
Definitely. I mean, I have enjoyed this summer because I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time with family and friends, but now, I just want to get out there and be in a field with like-minded people listening to music, without worrying about how close somebody is to me.
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