This open-air venue has been throwing legal raves in full compliance with Berlin's hygiene regulations. Will Lynch hears about the thinking and the methods behind their approach.
The reality of these events, though, is very 2020. Masks are mandatory, registration is required for all attendees, and awareness teams patrol the crowd to make sure everyone respects the rules. Parties are over by midnight, and capacity is capped at 500 people, a fraction of what it would have been in years past. Overall, the club is in full compliance with Berlin's hygiene regulations—they've already been inspected twice by police.
At the time of writing, Berlin has had 11,703 cases of coronavirus and 226 deaths since the pandemic broke out. Since mid-August, Germany's reproduction rate has been "around 1 or below 1," according to the Robert Koch Institute. As Jean-Hugues Kabuiku wrote in a recent review of one of Else's parties, going out "won't be entirely safe until there's a vaccine or effective treatment found."
Whether it could ever be responsible to host or attend a rave before then is very much a matter of debate. But Else hope to provide a model for what responsible club events could look like today. Sebastian Voigt, the club's main booker and resident DJ, says he and his colleagues want to prove it's possible for clubs to adapt to our current moment and provide a safer alternative to illegal and unregulated events. But he admits their open-airs are also a matter of survival. Even on top of government support and successful fundraisers, these parties may not be enough to save Else and Renate.
This week, Will Lynch caught up with Voigt to hear about his experiences throwing raves in the age of Covid-19.
How were your parties this weekend?
Pretty good, I have to say. I wasn't there for Friday and Saturday, I was in the countryside with my family. But I was there yesterday for the party with Ricardo and Craig and it was really good. I'm still slightly hungover, a little bit tired, but I'll manage.
Can you paint a picture for me of yesterday's party? Every time I've seen Ricardo Villalobos in Berlin it's been a madhouse, totally packed. It's hard for me to picture a Covid-era version of that.
Sure. It's like any party we're doing. We have a limited capacity now, and everybody has to wear a mask all the time—at least, while they're on the dance floor and while they're walking around. They can take them off when they're sitting. It's the same as in restaurants here—when you walk around you wear the mask, at your table you can take it off.
For the longest time we were really hesitant to reopen. Others were already doing it, and we weren't sure if we should do it as well. I personally had a lot of concerns about it. But we decided to give it a go and it went really well. From the first time onwards I was pleasantly surprised that people are complying, wearing the masks, and also dancing their asses off. Everybody needs it—the artists, the crowds, everybody is keen to go out and have a dance. If that's the choice, that you either wear a mask and can go out, or you stay at home watching DJs on a stream, then, well, that's what it is. And by now people are so used to wearing masks all the time that it's kind of OK.
Normally we have a small indoor area but that's closed. So we're completely open-air. That, plus the masks, makes it pretty safe. As long as everybody's wearing a mask, there doesn't need to be distancing in place, people can dance like normal on the dance floor, the same way they sit near each other on the S-Bahn or stand near each other in the supermarket.
Aside from the masks and the limited capacity, what changes have you made to comply with hygiene regulations?
There's a few. We have this whole list of hygiene rules that we have in place. You have to register when you get in, scan this QR code on the door and fill out a form with your name, address, email, contact details. It sends you an email you have to show at the door to get in, so you can't give a fake name or fake email address. That's fairly quick and easy. When you get in, obviously masks are required and hand sanitizer is everywhere. We have a team of "rangers," an awareness team that walk around the venue constantly reminding people to leave their masks on.
It's still a learning curve for us. This was our third weekend. When we started—actually, you published this review, and observed that, while it worked pretty well, later in the day people get more loose, more drunk and high, maybe the masks are not up all the time anymore. We realized that, too. In the beginning we had two rangers, now we have four, constantly patrolling, making sure people are complying. And it works pretty well.
Yesterday I was there. As you say, Ricardo and his crew, they're the perfect example of loose and wild partying, right? But it was fine. There are always some people you have to remind again and again, but 98 percent of people are doing it really well. I think we had one case two weeks ago where we had to get security because someone was refusing to put their mask back on. He was wasted and it got a bit weird. But security had a long chat with him and then he agreed.
That sounds like more compliance than many places in Berlin.
Exactly. When I take the S-Bahn there are always people without masks. Obviously everybody has to decide for themselves which kind of risks they're willing to take, what they consider a risk and what they don't. And of course it's safer to stay at home or take a walk in the park. But if you want to participate in everyday life, going to Else is not that unsafe compared to other things you do on a regular basis. And it's completely in line with government regulations, that's really important to us.
Also, part of why we decided to give it a go was that we actually see it as our mission to make a point that, even during times of all this shit happening, during times of global crisis and a global pandemic, it's still possible to do high quality dance music events with proper lineups, and comply with all the regulations, offering a safe alternative to all these illegal open-airs. Some of the illegal events really put a bad light on our scene. They were entirely unregulated, no masks, no registration, if there's a case no one knows who was there. So I think it should be in the best interests of the Berlin authorities to have something like Else happening. People obviously want to go somewhere, they've been sitting at home for months, and we're offering a pretty safe way to go out, to have fun. At the same time, if something happens we have all the contacts, it's all regulated.
It was funny, the police came last weekend. We have this 32-page document detailing our hygiene concept, they read through it, said, "Ah, hmm, OK, looks nice." Then they went inside the venue. It was a techno party with Blawan playing and it was raining really hard. Everybody was going wild, proper hard raving with it pouring down... but everybody wearing their masks! The police looked around and said, "Wow OK, thanks very much, have a nice evening." So yeah, it feels good to be doing something again, and if there's no major change in the situation, no big spike in cases or new government regulations, then hopefully we can also continue for a while.
I've heard of some parties where everything looked good on paper—a good hygiene concept, strict rules and so on—but for whatever reason when the event actually happened it was out of control, no one following the rules or wearing their masks, and the promoters didn't really know how to handle it. How would you react to that?
Yeah, I've heard stories like that, too. We're very strict, and people notice. Yesterday, when I took off my mask for ten seconds to have a sip of my drink and forgot to put it on immediately, one of the rangers came walking and said, "Hey, please put it back on." They were super on top of it.
We don't want to be cheeky, you know, like, "Ooh no one's looking, let's be naughty," stuff like this. I've seen this at other clubs. I won't name names, but I've heard there was a police check at another club, basically they heard that they were coming in, so the DJ turned off the music and shouted, "POLICE ARE COMING, EVERYBODY PUT YOUR MASK ON!" The police came in checked, all good, they left, everybody took their masks off. Then they came in again two minutes later, and saw that everybody was taking the piss and they got really upset.
This is not what we want to do anyway, we wouldn't feel safe or comfortable doing that. We want to make it right, we want everybody wearing a mask, and we communicate that from the start—online, at the door, when people get in, and then they're constantly reminded while they're in the event. They see that that's the vibe, and that we'd call security if you don't comply. They see that, and they feel it.
So to answer your question, so far I didn't have the impression that that's a risk, even at the wildest party. We had some pretty crazy raves, proper rowdy raves with hard techno, and everyone's wearing their masks. In fact especially the techno people... maybe it suits techno in a way, wearing a mask? [laughs] As I said, there are always individual people who might be less understanding, who might have a kind of "fuck you" attitude, and they need to be reminded more often. But in that case you just say, if you are reminded three times, we might have to ask you to leave.
It sounds like you're saying: you create an expectation and you can get people to respect the rules.
Absolutely. You set the tone, right? You say, this is how we do things, and they do it. It's not like they all wanna get really wasted, fuck around and forget everything. It's not like that. They want to come hear a good lineup and have a fun party, but at the same time they want to be safe. And the majority really appreciate that we're acting safely compared to most other places. So i think that's also why it works.
You mentioned before that you want to keep this going for a while. So in other words: as long as the weather is warm enough?
Yep. Chances are we may continue into autumn. We'll see how it works, and maybe do outdoor events during winter. If last weekend showed anything, it's that people are willing, they don't care if it rains or whatever. The party with Blawan and Dasha Rush, it was absolutely pissing for five hours solid, hammering it down. I was super worried when I saw the weather report, but when I got there I was amazed to see everybody just going really hard, dancing like there's no tomorrow, some of them half naked, topless—but with their masks. Completely soaked, but everybody really super into it.
People are really hungry to go out, from the side of the punters, but also the artists. Some kind of have a touring schedule a little bit, but everybody's free and really up for it, same as the people who want a dance, and are really keen. They'll be happy with their jackets, their scarves, even if it's five degrees. Indoor raving isn't coming back this year, not before next summer probably. Unless next month there's a surprise vaccine, which of course, chances are not so high. So probably this will be the only thing people can do, maybe until next summer. Maybe there will be others like us. I don't know what the other open-airs are planning to do. When winter comes I'm sure people will have no problem dancing in the cold.
How do these parties fit into the overall long-term survival plan for Else and Renate?
Like any other cultural institution we've been hit quite hard. We received some help, which was quite nice, but in the end it's not that much. We have two clubs to operate, a lot of staff, lots of things to pay every month whether the places are open or not. We had a successful support campaign, a donation campaign where we collected slightly over €100,000, which is obviously a big help, but that only helps you survive X amount longer. It's not that much in the bigger picture. So, being able to [host these parties] is a big help.
We did whatever we could to find alternative streams of revenue. With Renate we've had the beer garden open for maybe a month longer than Else. We have this theater thing at Renate, Overmorrow, it's this walkthrough theater, immersive theater we call it. That also helped a lot. It's nothing compared to our normal operation, having two clubs open to full capacity, but every little bit helps, and these events help for sure.
Would it be accurate to say that the government support is not enough to stop you from closing down? That you need to find alternative revenue streams in order to survive?
Yes, we have to. But even with everything we're doing at Else, if we continued this way I'm not sure if we could survive on that, at least not on this scale. We have this whole other club that's completely closed, aside from the beer garden, which will close soon, and the theater. With just the open-airs it will be hard to survive. Then again, maybe combined with money we raise, and possibly with more funds from the government, and maybe if we find other income streams as well, we'll be OK. We have to be a bit innovative and find new revenue streams to try to make it happen.
We'll see how winter goes, but we know that every weekend might be the last. Tomorrow there might be a huge outbreak followed by an immediate shutdown. Anything is possible right now. This is all new territory, anything can happen at any time.
On a personal level, how do you feel overall about putting on events right now? Is it just, "It's great to be back," or are you more ambivalent?
Oh, it's very ambivalent, of course. There is definitely that feeling of, it's amazing to be back, to be doing something again, and that's reflected in the support we get from artists and other people, pretty much everybody I'm talking with is super supportive and happy to be participating, everyone is really thankful. But obviously there is that other feeling, too. Are we doing the right thing? Is this responsible? People are suffering right now, should we be doing this? Is it right, or not?
As I explained, though, we are making a huge effort to be as responsible as possible, which was the #1 condition we set for ourselves when we decided to do this again. Honestly, the alternative would be to shut down the company and close both clubs. So for us, it's a question of survival. But it's mixed with that feeling that I explained earlier, the feeling that it's almost our job, our mission, our duty, to show that it's possible to do this in a responsible way. There's always things to be improved, and we're always making a big effort to improve, but ultimately I think we're doing it pretty well. That's the feedback I get from the artists playing, and also from the police, from the authorities. In the beginning I was a lot more hesitant, but now I feel we're on a good path with what we're doing, and I think we need to show that we can do it. I really think the pros outweigh the cons.
Disclosure: Tickets to the events mentioned above have been sold via RA.