Diving into the livestream

Social distancing forces DJs to adapt with online sets

DJ Mark in the Dark's home setup.

I own a lot of music. I’ve managed to turn this goofy obsession into gigs as a record store clerk, a music journalist and, for more than decade, a DJ around Portland, Ore. (OK, it’s essentially how I’ve justified spending thousands upon thousands of dollars on music over the past four decades.) The last time I spun records around a large group of human beings was two months ago … which, now that I think about it, feels like more than a decade ago.

The COVID-19 pandemic has all but crushed bars and music venues across the world, taking with it our entertainment sources, creative outlets and, more serious, our livelihoods (the service industry makes up a huge part of Portland’s economy).

Over the past two months, bands and artists have flooded Facebook, Instagram, Zoom and platforms like StageIt with livestreaming performances in order to recoup losses from canceled tours and shows. Plus, let’s be real—they’re just trying to maintain their sanity like the rest of us, as we all (well, most of us anyway) do the right thing and stay home. DJs have also found creative ways to stay busy, and even keep income flowing, by streaming their sets from home. While livestreaming sets are nothing new, apps like Twitch (used mostly by gamers) have quickly become popular among DJs while they’re hunkered down staring at the walls.

Amber Rihm—aka DJ Amburgers from KZFR 90.1 FM’s “Funky Reservation” and “E-lectronic Phonics” shows—got right to streaming sets on Facebook after California’s shelter in place was enacted on March 19. Rihm lost her regular DJ gigs, including the popular DJ Dance Night at Duffy’s Tavern, which is always a party that brings the sweaty, inebriated human interaction DJs love (except for creeps or those oblivious song requests—don’t do that).

DJ Amburgers

She still has her radio outlets (Rihm also works for North State Public Radio 91.7 FM), and began streaming during the pandemic mostly for that immediate connection, even if it was via chat. Rihm got creative with her livestreams, inviting viewers to choose a numbered section on her record shelf, and then pick another number to determine which record she’d pull from it. The sets were unpredictable and interactive. Rihm calls what she does “music social strengthening,” an obvious response to our least-favorite phrase, “social distancing.”

“I live with my records. I am music,” she said. “Now people can come into my music bungalow.”

I tried my hand at “DJing” from home a few days into Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s announced stay-at-home order on March 23. I put “DJing” in quotes, because it was hardly DJing. It was essentially my 5-year-old and me picking out some records and playing a few songs to have fun together, and maybe connecting with friends and family. A few days later I did a late-night “solo set” called Dark Arts with DJ Mark In the Dark. I admit my intention was strictly to entertain only myself. I set up some candles and glowing skulls, and picked out the weirdest and most abrasive records I could dig up.

I chose to stream via Facebook Live at first, mostly for the ease (by then I was already looking into other options). And the entire operation was completely slipshod and ramshackle. I really just wanted my friends who were mindlessly scrolling through Facebook late at night to randomly stumble upon this ridiculous scene as Bruce Haack or Suicide played in the background. What ended up happening is a bunch of friends “showed up” and began chatting among themselves and requesting Willie Nelson and Slayer songs. It was a total blast and, if I recall correctly, the whole set ended around 1:30 a.m, with me about five or six whiskey sodas deep.

It was just what I needed. As a full-time, stay-at-home father, DJing has played a huge part in breaking up the challenging and sometimes monotonous 10-hour days chasing around a toddler and a preschooler. And I probably needed something like this even more since hadn’t left my house in two weeks (boy, those were the days!). That said, I knew I could do better than just playing records over a Facebook Live stream.

Mistina La Fave is a good friend of mine. I admire her a lot. She plays bass and sings in the long-running Portland band the Prids. She has also DJed all over Portland for more than 15 years, most notably with her Expressway To Yr Skull post-punk dance parties. Just as I was looking into a better DJ setup—including researching mixers and different streaming platforms—La Fave’s DJ MisPrid was up and running on Twitch. (I should note that CN&R contributor Ryan J. Prado has also been streaming DJ sets via Twitch.)

DJ MisPrid spins for the “Unhappy Hour” on Twitch.

Being a musician who’d lost income due to canceled shows (including a record release), La Fave saw DJing online as a way to connect with friends, fight boredom and perhaps make a little money.

“Soon after quarantine started a lot of folks were complaining of being bored. I did for a moment,” she said. “I soon realized I was doing the same things with my time that I did pre-quarantine, just in different ways. What the hell was I complaining about? So I can’t go to a club, or play shows. What was I doing instead? I was recording music at home, and DJing virtually.”

She jokes that the benefits of watching virtual DJs are that the drinks are cheap, and you don’t have to scream over drunk 21-year-olds. La Fave has also made money from tips, to the point where she could buy groceries or gear, and still use some of it to make care packages for friends that she delivers herself.

“I’m just as productive as ever, but in a different way,” explained La Fave. “I think at first my mind couldn’t wrap itself around that. I think we can all find stuff to do; we just have to break away from what we’re accustomed to.”

I loved this approach. And through my sometimes mind-numbing research, and with a couple of friends as valuable resources, I was already kicking around options for setting up a legit—better sound, more professional presentation—online DJ rig using my somewhat limited resources. At this juncture I was doing it purely to stave off boredom, with the hope that I’d be rewarded with a potential creative outlet as well.

What I discovered is that there was a steep learning curve. And with that my setup is as simple as it gets (for now, anyway). My iPhone 11 basically runs the audio and video to my Twitch stream. This is not the ideal method, but it’s a quick and dirty way to get up and running (I have the issue of owning an older computer that doesn’t have streaming capabilities).

First I plugged an old Audio-Technica turntable and my MacBook Pro into a Numark M4 three-channel mixer. I ran a 15-foot cable (with RCA connector on one end and 1/8-inch plug on the other) from the mixer’s master output into a TRS to TRRS adapter (basically, a poor-man’s iRig, providing an interface between the analog mixer and the computer), then into an 1/8-inch-to-lighting adapter before plugging into the iPhone. I also downloaded Virtual DJ, a program that allows you to cue and play mp3s on your computer as you would vinyl on turntables.

The club is in the house.

Once that was set, I could create a Twitch account and get that set up using the dashboard (that’s a whole other process I won’t go into here). There is also the option of using OBS or Streamlabs OBS—free broadcasting software—to stream to Twitch. This gives you options of adding logos to your stream, or even multiple camera angles (I used Streamlabs to personalize my stream with my website’s logo, as well as add a virtual tip jar). I just downloaded the Streamlabs app and logged in through Twitch.

I’ve done a couple livestreams with my upgraded setup so far, and while there were a couple minor bugs, things overall went pretty smoothly, and I had a good time. Honestly, my biggest fear, after all the research, purchases and troubleshooting, was that the payoff of finally streaming a live DJ set would a complete letdown. I mean, I think it’s fair to say that fatigue has set in to the point where virtual music performances, DJ sets and Zoom hangs have lost some of their novelty. Do people even care about this shit anymore? Would I even enjoy the act of DJing in my garage?

Even if only a handful of people tuned in, I still had a blast cranking tunes through headphones from my record collection and the endless music on my computer (thank God of Thunder for that!).

While DJing and working at a music venue made up a substantial part of my income pre-pandemic, I have zero illusions of recouping lost pay through streaming DJ sets. I’m more concerned about the businesses that have allowed me to spin records for the past 10 years. As states like Oregon and California begin reopening their economies, bars and venues will be the last businesses to open their doors. And when they finally do, they’ll mostly be operating at smaller capacities and with restricted hours.

I hope they can weather this. I hope we all can. In the meantime, if I can maintain any sense of normalcy—while doing the right thing and staying home—I’m all for it. Plus, cheap drinks.

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