Wednesday 26.06.2024

Virtual Reality Raves: The Future of Clubbing?

As the temperatures rise, the clubbing season has come to its annual break. Club WAS. is preparing itself for Summer, in which the club nights will be put on hold, and everything is set up for Orbit Festival set on 27 July. While most of us naturally go along with this shift from clubs to festivals, a distinctive subculture has emerged where the clubbing never stops. And I mean literally never. In a world where technology continues to push boundaries, the electronic music scene could not be left behind. In recent years, a revolutionary shift occurred as clubbing entered the metaverse in virtual reality raves. While it might be too soon to prepare for the ‘real’ club scene’s demise, VR raves are gaining more and more popularity, eliciting excitement and dread among the rave community. Are VR raves the future of the electronic dance scene? And should it be?

In the documentary series SUBCULTURED, you can get a glimpse of the underground dance scene in the metaverse. Such VR experiences became especially explored after 2016 when consumer VR headsets were relaunched, but it was with the free platform VRChat that it could fully develop. With a bit of help from the pandemic, popularity rose. And understandably so: VRChat is not owned and operated by any big tech company, but users are in control: They can make their own worlds and avatars as they see fit.

This freedom is essential. One of the most compelling aspects of VR raves is their ability to transcend physical limitations. From anywhere in the world, visitors can be who or what they want to be. But this sounds familiar: Real-life clubs are constantly striving and working to be inclusive, and the dance floor is often described as a place where you can let go and be your authentic self. However, clubs can have physical barriers or limited capacity. Whether you’re unable to attend a live event due to mobility issues, your mental state of mind, financial constraints, or other reasons, VR raves offer an inclusive safe space where everyone can come together and share their love for music. You can be whoever or whatever you want to be, as the documentary shows clips of hybrids partying next to car-driving frogs. The freedom that real clubs promise can be experienced on a next level online.

But VR raves can do more than that: They can break geographical barriers and even set back time. ‘In Pursuit of Repetitive Beath’ (2022), is an award-winning VR-experience, which lets its users party at an illegal acid house rave in 1989. You get the whole experience: from being in the backseat of a car, meeting at your friend’s house, walking down a freeway, dancing in a forest, encountering the police. This all sounds quite accurate. In fact, writing this down, it feels like I am describing one of my own memories of illegal raves. While this attests to the reality of the VR experience, it also brings up questions: The experience is promoted as a transporter of time, letting ravers experience how partying was like long ago, but these vibes and raves are still here to experience in real life. So, what is the advantage here? Again, the answer must be found in the accessibility for people who do not want to or cannot go to such raves in real life, for whatever reasons.

But it is here a notable criticism lies. The similarities are sometimes, to be frank, a bit terrifying: In the online world, there are club owners who manage a team of DJs, hosts, and promoters. DJs play their own sets and can make a name for themselves. Like in real life, there is an age restriction, often 18+, which can be managed through adult-only discord services. Clubs also have a familiar interior, one more extravagant than the other, with light shows and all. Due to the similarities, people worry about the threat to the appeal of real-life clubbing, but there is also an underlying normative judgement. Writing this blog, I had a discussion with someone who considered the VR world an escape, an easy way-out sort to say, which builds no frustration tolerance for the real world. I’d say perhaps the real world did harm enough or did not accommodate people’s special needs, so why not be happy for people’s virtual joy? Still, I can understand the worry, and I agree with the mantra of facing your fears and standing your ground in the real world. But in my opinion, judgment is the last thing the electronic music scene needs.

Clubbing online and in real life both fulfil different needs, which is why I don’t think we’ll be shutting down clubs in favour of the metaverse anytime soon. But would it be the end of the world if it did? One of the event announcements on the ‘VR raves and parties’ Facebook community mentions that people are invited to ‘chat, dance, and meet up with friends’ – perhaps some things will never change.

Words by Indira Huliselan | 26.06.2024