© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Clubbing In The Time Of COVID-19: Berlin Clubs Are Closed, So DJs Are Livestreaming

Wearing a black baseball cap, black shirt and black pants, DJ Tommy Four Seven bobs his head to the beat as his hands move over the turntables like a nimble chef juggling four scorching frying pans at once. He looks lost in his own musical world. And that's probably a good thing, because nobody in sight is dancing.

Tommy Four Seven's audio gear is set up in a white-tiled room facing a window overlooking an empty Berlin street at midnight in the middle of a global pandemic. Tommy Four Seven doesn't seem bothered by this. That's because he's being streamed to thousands of homes where Berlin's clubbers are doing something they likely never imagined they'd resort to: dancing alone at home.

This is clubbing in the time of COVID-19.

"If you're a DJ like me, I kind of react from the crowd and I like to read the crowd and look into their eyes and kind of bounce and vibe off them," says Tommy Four Seven, who prefers to use his professional name. "It's very strange just to be isolated, deejaying to a camera."

But for how odd it seems, DJs, promoters and club owners in Berlin are adjusting to the times. Each night at 7:00, they offer the free clubbing service "United We Stream," billing it as the world's largest virtual club. They might be right: After just two weeks, the site attracted 5 million viewers from across the world and nearly half a million dollars' worth of donations.

The Berlin Club Commission, a trade group, created the site to try and revive the city's club industry, whose revenue has been gutted by COVID-19-related closures. The club scene in Berlin brings in around $1.6 billion a year for the city, and now dozens of clubs face bankruptcy.

Lutz Leichsenring, co-founder of the Berlin Club Commission, says 30% of travelers to Berlin come for the nightlife, and COVID-19 put a stop to it all.

"I think this is probably the most difficult time since World War II, to be honest," says Leichsenring. "Everything is shut down. There are 9,000 people who are directly employed in clubs and without work right now."

Leichsenring says he's worried about saving clubs that will be soon be forced to shut down permanently due to a lack of revenue. "The very critical question is: can we keep all the spaces?" he asks. "Can we save the spaces we have in this city for this culture? Because I think once they're gone, they're gone forever."

View of the Holzmarkt 25 bar area, close to the Kater Blau club in Berlin last month. All Berlin nightclubs have been closed since March 13, causing employees and artists to lose their livelihoods.
John MacDougall / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
View of the Holzmarkt 25 bar area, close to the Kater Blau club in Berlin last month. All Berlin nightclubs have been closed since March 13, causing employees and artists to lose their livelihoods.

DJs like Tommy Four Seven are also worried. "The first week when the news came out and I just had two months of gigs cancelled, it was a huge shock," he says. "I just laid on the sofa. I couldn't really focus on anything creative."

But now, he and other DJs are back in their booths.

Promoters and artists elsewhere in the world have been trying to relieve the devastation to their bottom lines too — such as Discwoman in New York City, and Resident Advisor's "Save Our Scene" global campaign.

Berlin clubber Lars Schott, 45, watches United We Stream a few times a week. He says ever since Germany restricted public gatherings, he's been pretty lonely. "And in Germany, there's a law that says you're only allowed to go out with your family," says Schott. "Here in Berlin, the problem is 50% of all people have no family."

So Schott watches United We Stream with his other single friends in other cities over the video messaging platform Zoom. "And I share my experience with other friends," says Schott. "For example, in Frankfurt or in Hamburg, and they have the same music on. We drink a beer together and chat via Zoom."

And sometimes they dance alone in their respective empty rooms. "But the dancing is only working if you're drunken," admits Schott. "We are here in Germany, and to be honest, it's not our culture to dance in front of Zoom, but if after two or three hours, maybe."

And if he's had even more drinks — then Schott will close his eyes, focus on the music and manage to put the quarantine and the loneliness out of his mind. He'll pretend he's back at his favorite crowded Berlin club with all his friends, and he will dance as if this virus never existed.

Esme Nicholson contributed reporting to this story in Berlin.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.