One of Brooklyn’s most expansive, influential music venues hosted a donation-based music festival to benefit Good360 last week amid New York City’s stay-at-home order. Fans didn’t arrive via the L train this time. They logged in to Minecraft.
Via the Nether Meant festival’s Minecraft server, music lovers were able to experience the vast Bushwick arts complex Elsewhere as Elsewither, built to blocky scale within the game. And many more were able to watch the pixelated likenesses of performers like HANA, electronic band Ananamaguchi and the nostalgic emo/post-rock act American Football; the music festival, named for American Football’s cherished 1999 hit “Never Meant,” reached more than 100,000 viewers via Twitch stream.
“This whole thing has been about figuring out ways to be with people, with friends, who are far away,” says Eden Segal-Grossman, development lead and community support person for Open Pit Presents, the volunteer team that built the Elsewither world and organized the festival. At Nether Meant, users from all over the world bonded via chat, reacting together to the pre-recorded sets in real-time.
Open Pit’s initiative is perhaps the most earnest way the music scene is coping amid the isolation required to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Even when venues reopen, virtual events like these Minecraft music festivals can better include everyone who wants to attend, including people with mobility challenges.
The yearning many of us feel to connect, and the frustration at being homebound, is something people with disabilities and their advocates have long understood. And their concerns intersect with those in arts communities who’ve seen venues close due to gentrification, zoning laws, and permit rules. Virtual event sites, especially ones like Minecraft with low overhead costs, are showing their power. Square Garden, another Minecraft event produced by Open Pit and 100 Gecs featuring Charli XCX, Kero Kero Bonito, Dorian Electra, and others, happens Friday, April 24.
“Social isolation is a pandemic among people with disabilities,” says Mark Barlet, founder of the AbleGamers charity. Barlet and his team help gamers get access to assistive technology when they can’t afford the tools they need to play. When the AbleGamers staff met remotely — as they always do — after a stay-at-home order came down in the West Virginia town where they’re based, Barlet says, the first line of discussion was how “the rest of the world” was so quickly coming to understand the importance of virtual access to community through gaming.
Nether Meant has its roots in an online birthday party. Segal-Grossman was one of the minds behind the May 2018 event in honor of Max Schramp hosted in Minecraft. Pre-recorded sets by Schramp, who DJs as SLEEPYCATT, and Soundcloud staples like Y2K and Valentine, were streamed as those artists wandered around a virtual world they helped build. Charli XCX showed up. It was a runaway hit within a scene defined not by geography but by its taste in music and online games, and its desire to connect through them. Low overhead costs and an equalized sense of community drove Segal-Grossman, Schramp, and their friends to produce more festivals, like Coalchella that fall, and eventually named their volunteer-run operation Open Pit Presents. As leaders across the country announced stay-at-home orders last month, artists and labels from all over were sending emails to Open Pit with an urgent tone.
“There was a palpable need for things to happen,” Segal-Grossman says.
The “American Football House,” built by Cae (CQ) for Open Pit, sat atop a stage designed after the Zone 1 space at Elsewhere. (Photo courtesy Open Pit)
Art-focused NYC partiers know Elsewhere for experimental projects like October’s nightlife-themed scent installation by Marissa Zappas, and for its rooftop dance gatherings that nurture queer and trans communities. The 25,000 square-foot venue hosted its last show March 13 before shutting down indefinitely to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Open Pit approached Elsewhere to host on a quick turnaround because of the space’s maze-like hallways and dreamy, sectional layout. Umru Rothenburg, who coordinates with artists and runs marketing for Open Pit, played music at Elsewhere before; he helped create the virtual Elsewither world through memory, a basic floor plan and photos. Architect Scott Little led the team in constructing and decorating the venue.
Elsewhere evokes a whole history of Brooklyn. The lives of the club and its predecessor, the Williamsburg venue Glasslands, reflect the area’s stark transformation over the past 13 years. Glasslands was known as a DIY haven when it opened in 2006. The heavy industrial sounds and noise characteristic of Glasslands’ first years phased out some when the club changed hands in 2012. Lana del Rey and Franz Ferdinand played there; more raucous featured acts like Xiu Xiu would become mid-career headliners later, a testament to the cultural influence of the space since its beginnings. Glasslands held on until 2014 as rents in the neighborhood skyrocketed.
The team behind Glasslands opened Elsewhere in 2017 during a supercharged moment for New York City nightlife. Mayor Bill de Blasio came to the Bushwick warehouse to sign the bill that repealed the city’s Cabaret Law so clubs, bars and restaurants would no longer need an expensive license to allow dancing. (The rule had been in effect since 1926 and made clubs vulnerable to arbitrary shut-downs by authorities. Fewer than 100 NYC spots had a cabaret license at the time.)
Open Pit is looking forward to producing another event at Elsewither in May, to be announced soon. Meanwhile, arts advocates are trying to make sense of how the effects of venue shutdowns might— and should— inform communities in the future. Michael Bracy of the Music Policy Forum says that, for now, the energy boost created by events like Nether Meant is crucial for both fans and artists.
“The idea of utilizing platforms like Minecraft to build ‘virtual’ versions of beloved ‘real life’ venues can be a strategy to help enhance social cohesion when we all mourn the inability to access the physical spaces we rely on,” he says. “This also can help music fans keep these venues top-of-mind which is particularly important because of the fragile economic situation facing our live music ecosystems.”
The Open Pit team was intent on simulating the experience of the Elsewhere space as accurately as possible, including views of the Bushwick buildings right outside. This portion of the Elsewither world was built by Scott Little, Umru Rothenburg, Max Schramp, and Robin Boehlen for Open Pit. (Photo courtesy Open Pit)
Lyndsay Knecht is an arts writer based in Texas. As associate producer for KERA 90.1, Dallas' NPR station, she launched the online editorial presence of Think with Krys Boyd. Her work has been heard on Monocle 24 radio, in Southwest the Magazine, Texas Monthly, the Tulsa Voice, The Dallas Morning News, the Texas Observer, Bustle, and other publications.