Late April’s Liverpool test event gave many in dance music hope for a return to normalcy. The decision to give Sven Väth the first night’s headline slot concerned those who would rather see a lasting change to the industry on the other end of the COVID-19 pandemic, however.
Yousef‘s Circus event brand organized The First Dance in partnership with the U.K. government’s Events Research Programme (ERP). 6,000 revelers attended the event over two days to see performances by Jayda G, The Blessed Madonna, Enzo Siragusa, and Fatboy Slim, among others. Data collected from tests of entrants before and after the two-day event will inform lawmaker decisions regarding the safety of large-scale events as their tentative return draws near.
— CIRCUS (@CIRCUSmusic) May 1, 2021
Väth, a 35-year veteran of German techno and founder of Cocoon Records, seemed a fitting face for the first warehouse rave back. What organizers didn’t appear to take into account was the message it might send in light of his gigging history over the past year, especially in the past few months.
In February, Väth performed in India for the first time in 30 years, visiting Goa and then Hyderabad before closing out the run of dates in Bangalore. He couldn’t have predicted that the country would eclipse all others in daily case counts two months later, with the situation in Goa especially dire. That hasn’t spared him the ire of some of dance music’s more outspoken commentators.
With one caveat: I hope Sven Vath trainwrecks every mix, the plague rague twat.
Previously had a lot of respect for him, loved his early work too, but anyone who’s been off playing gigs in India during the pandemic, with no remorse, or statement of apology, can fucking do one.
— Posthuman (@posthuman) April 30, 2021
Josh Doherty of U.K. duo Posthuman tweeted words of encouragement for The First Dance’s organizers ahead of its second night, but he followed them up with pointed commentary regarding Väth.
“I hope Sven Väth trainwrecks every mix, the plague [rave] twat,” Doherty wrote. “Previously had a lot of respect for him, loved his early work too, but anyone who’s been off playing gigs in India during the pandemic, with no remorse, or statement of apology, can fucking do one.”
“Why is no one reporting the fact that the lineup included Sven Väth, who has been playing plague raves for 12 months,” tweeted Indian-born, U.K.-based DJ Yung Singh in response to Mixmag‘s glowing post-event coverage. “Including in India, which is seeing the worst COVID-19 surge on the planet?”
To a lesser degree, Solardo also raised eyebrows for appearing as the special guest during Yousef’s Saturday set. In March, industry watchdog Business Teshno shared a video of the Manchester duo allegedly performing in Tulum on January 21st – around when Mexico’s COVID-19 case counts reached an all-time high.
The Flip Side
Circus has not responded to Selector’s request for comment. Maurizio Schmitz, Väth’s in-house booking agent and longtime colleague, replied to questions about his recent gigging history in a series of emails.
“Sven is a professional artist since over 40 years and has always acted responsibly,” wrote Schmitz. “He has been protecting the scene with the best and positive intentions and would never put the event guests at risk on purpose.”
Schmitz argued that Väth has adhered to the local guidances of any location he visited during the pandemic, including for gigs in Switzerland and Italy in summer 2020. He also denied claims, such as the one published in an Attack Magazine column, that the 56-year-old artist toured in Mexico, clarifying that his January performance at Zamna Festival‘s Renaissance event in Tulum was postponed to an as yet undetermined date.
Addressing the biggest point of contention, Väth’s India gigs, Schmitz reiterated that lawmakers approved the appearances, including PCR tests upon arrival and departure. Perhaps more importantly, the dates fell almost exactly at the point in which daily case counts reported by the country reached an eight-month low, contrary to Clash Music‘s claim that Väth performed there “just as the country’s coronavirus nightmare was beginning to deepen.”
“There is no time or place connection between Sven’s gigs in South India and the current, very sad situation,” Schmitz wrote. “Countries like Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and the USA as well had events running when incidences where low and authorities allowed it.”
“The U.K. government/National Health Service (NHS) allowed the test event in Liverpool based on similar requirements such as low infection rates,” he continued. “We didn’t experience any significant backlash to the performance and Sven was honored to be part of this NHS test series at Circus Liverpool.”
One might find it unfair, then, to single out Sven Väth for his part in The Last Dance when DJs like Jamie Jones, Nastia, Oliver Huntemann and Stephan Bodzin apparently also performed in India. For that matter, “plague rave DJs,” as they’ve been termed, are neither new nor exclusive to the country.
Amelie Lens, DJ Tennis and Michael Bibi capitalized on loosened restrictions in France and Italy over the summer, only for case counts to trend upward again in both countries soon afterwards. More damningly, Dixon, Claptone and others performed in Tunisia the day after authorities declared the country’s COVID-19 situation critical. Ricardo Villalobos and Dirty Doering also accepted gigs in Tanzania earlier in 2021 despite local lawmakers’ controversial coronavirus policies.
Sven Vath is certainly not the sole object of criticism – some of which may well be misinformed. Fact checks and whataboutism do not absolve him from guilt in the eyes of his recent critics, though.
The Indian Health Ministry did indeed report that case counts had consistently decreased for five months by February, when Väth tour dates fell. Whether their figures could be trusted is a different question. The country’s lacking COVID-19 response has been well publicized for the better part of the year, most notably in regards to insufficient testing.
The problem persists today. Even with India now reporting the highest case counts of any country during the pandemic – more than 400,000 cases for four days in a row – experts estimate that the true numbers are 5-10 times higher. The argument against “plague raves” has always been that artists should not defer to lawmaker judgement in countries with questionable COVID-19 response. If current affairs serve as any indicator, India fits the bill.
Moreover, as one of the most successful acts in techno, Väth was arguably in a position to refrain from gigging over the past year. There were plenty of U.K.-based techno DJs to choose from who have opted not to play out during the pandemic, after all, and it only compounds the case against Väth that he accepted gigs in a developing country during a pandemic that pushed 230 million of its citizens under the poverty threshold.
Selector asked Schmitz whether he felt a responsibility as Väth’s agent to weigh local lawmaker response to COVID-19 into booking decisions, and how he justified Väth accepting gigs at all. He declined to answer, writing that he would not “jump into ethical or moral discussions.”
The First Dance may well produce data showing that events of its size will be safe moving forward if similar studies in Germany, Spain and the Netherlands hold merit. Most in nightlife would consider such a development cause for celebration, but others view Circus’ decision to book Sven Väth as indicating an unsettling industry trend affecting nightlife from a separate angle.
Contrary to early speculation that the COVID-19 crisis might lead to increased bookings of up-and-coming artists, in reality promoters must honor makeup gigs agreed upon when events were first canceled. Some see the Liverpool trial event as a sign that ethics will also have no bearing on these decisions, and superstar DJs who placed personal profits over public safety will only be rewarded further for their opportunism.
The First Dance was part of a series of events organized by the ERP in April and May ahead of Step 4 of the U.K. government’s reopening timeline. If the gathering is not linked to a significant increase in transmission, social distancing guidelines and all other nightlife restrictions will be lifted from June 21st.