New Frontier: For DJs, live streaming their content comes with its pluses and its perils

By April 7, 2020 No Comments

Illustration by Andrew Schubert

By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor

On Friday, March 27, Matthew Buchholz — armed with a playlist of dance tunes — logged on to Facebook Live for the first virtual installment of In Bed By Ten.

The concept behind the dance party series, which is normally hosted by Spirit in Lawrenceville, is all in the name. For people who want to go out and have fun — but because they have kids or early-rising pets, or just don’t want to stay out till 1 a.m. anymore —  In Bed By Ten offers an earlier alternative.

Buchholz co-launched the series in 2015, and now runs it alone. After the 2016 election, he started using it as a means to raise funds for various charitable organizations. As of this year, In Bed By Ten has raised more than $100,000 for organizations including 412 Food Rescue, Trans Buddy, City of Asylum, Latino Community Center PGH, and many others.

The virtual event was a fundraiser for SisTers PGH LGBTQI Emergency Relief Fund — people who stopped by via their laptops were encouraged to donate to the organization — and, Buchholz says, it was relatively successful. “I think as far as the response to it, it went really well, people enjoyed it,” he says. As one viewer commented to Buchholz on Facebook, “Man, you killed it tonight! We had a disco ball and we were SWEATING. The only time we stopped dancing was to watch you having such a good time.”

However, around 8:30 p.m. he had to shut it down. “Sorry to cut the live stream short but FB kept cutting us off,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “If anyone knows a platform for a streaming dance party that isn’t FB, Instagram, Twitch, or Zoom, let me know!”

When you’re DJing live in a club, the venue’s entertainment license, usually through the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) or Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI),  allows you to play music you don’t personally own the rights to, whether you’re a band playing a cover or a DJ playing a record. On the internet, no such blanket licence exists, however, platforms like Facebook are required to root out and get rid of infringing content under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. As soon as the Facebook algorithm recognized something Buchholz was playing, his stream was muted or pulled down. At one point, between less-well-known disco tracks, he played a Lizzo song just to “test the waters.” The stream ended after about 30 seconds.

“Facebook, Instagram, Twitch , I think even Zoom — have restrictions against copyrighted material. At the same time they have no option for you to purchase some kind of subscription that would let you do that,” he says. “There’s no user support, there’s no one you can talk to, there’s no way to appeal.”

Other DJs have had more success with live-streaming, but for everyone, it seems to be a matter of experimentation with the form.

DJ collective Hot Mass managed an extended Facebook stream live from the empty Hot Mass venue in the Strip District on March 21 with minimal shut-downs. The lineup featured Clark Price, Alex Price, Naeem, Father of Two, Boo Lean, and Jarrett Tebbets.

“We wanted to look at it as five one-hour streams versus one five-hour stream,” says Tebbets, who has been spinning disco/boogie/house tracks as part of Hot Mass for about six years. “It kind of breaks it up, it gives a chance to reboot and cleanse, and if there were any issues, now we’ve restarted, and my 55 minutes isn’t going to affect the next person’s 55 minutes.”

The trick is to stay ahead of the algorithm, which is always watching.  “Playing popular songs is going to get you flagged. I always try to tell people to think about being more thoughtful about the music that you’re playing. Or play music that maybe people haven’t heard about, and then go in that direction,” he says. “Or a remix of something, so it’s not a direct rip of whatever artist you’re trying to play.” The more underground a track, the less likely it is to be recognized by the algorithm.  “With some music,” he adds, “because you worked so hard to find it, it kind of gives you a leg up, because someone hasn’t searched it out as hard as you have, and now you’re able to play it.”

The consequences for playing copyrighted material varies. You could get a notification that your stream has violated copyright protections and you must remove it, or you can receive a strike. Too many strikes will result in banishment from the platform.  You could have portions of your stream muted or shut down entirely.

As for how many strikes a person can get, you’d have to get a job at Facebook to find out. According to the official website detailing Facebook’s enforcement of community standards, “[w]e don’t want people to game the system, so we do not share the specific number of strikes that leads to a temporary block, or permanent suspension.”

“I’ve never been on the side where, if you get too many strikes, what does Facebook do?” Tebbets says. “I don’t want to find out. Because that’s sort of my means of communication when it comes to promoting…I find Facebook to be invaluable, because I can reach a larger demographic, and I don’t want that to change.”

James Scoglietti, aka Selecta, has had relative success with streams, including shorter stints that drew as many as 1,200 viewers in real-time, with a total of 20,000 views overall, and a 10-hour stretch he did on Saturday, March 28. “I’ve learned that the way that the algorithm works with the music if you’re not a DJ that talks on the mic a bunch, it allows their detection service to pick up the music that you’re playing,” he says. “So I got booted every hour, sometimes less than every hour, once after 20 minutes.

Nevertheless, Scoglietti, for whom DJing is the sole source of income, has a relatively zen approach to the whole thing. “[Facebook] is a great platform, but I understand why they have to take us down,” he says. He always includes a disclaimer on his live-streamed videos that he doesn’t own the rights to the music he’s playing. “Some say that helps, others say that it doesn’t matter at all, and it totally contradicts me putting my Cash App up,” he admits. “I will continue to live stream, even when I’m employed again, now that I know it can open me up to a global audience too. Other than [being taken down] it’s a wonderful tool that I’d never utilized until this pandemic.”

Like Tebbets, Scoglietti, who spent his 10-hour stream playing lots of neo-soul, house, jazz and general “feel-good music,”  has used this as an opportunity to get a little bit innovative with his artform. “It changes how I present the songs,” he says. “The longer you play a song the more likely it is to be taken down, so it motivates me to play more remixes and things that it can’t detect.” When he really plans out his set, Scoglietti is able to make cleaner transitions which result in longer streams. “The 10 hours it was all just me going off the top of my head, so it wasn’t necessarily a performance, it was more just impromptu jam after jam after jam.” Regardless, at least one viewer was impressed enough with the stream to book Selecta for a wedding.

He, like most other DJs who are exploring streaming, is still learning. “Being taken down is the only issue because as a DJ it breaks your flow.” Of course, there’s plenty that can break a DJ’s flow in real-time too: your computer might crash, or the people on the dance floor might be unresponsive, or maybe someone comes up and interrupts you with a request. Digitally, you’re still trying to keep the party going, trying to keep engagement up. “It’s just like anything else if you’re sitting there playing to an empty bar you’re going to be on autopilot,” says Scoglietti.

There are financial reasons to keep dance parties going via the internet, whether it’s fundraising for charitable causes, or helping the DJs themselves survive. But the motivation goes deeper than that.

“Everybody’s reason for streaming is going to be different but i think the commonality is, you want people to hear your art,” says Tebbets, noting that the beauty of Hot Mass is that, as a DIY collective, they’re able to improvise and experiment with streaming without expensive or elaborate equipment. All you really need, he says, is a phone and a WiFi connection.

“Two Saturdays ago [Hot Mass] had like 20,000 people tune in over the course of six videos. That’s crazy! I mean, how often in Pittsburgh do you play in front of, lets say, a captive audience of 1,200 people at one given point,” Tebbets says. “It’s an interesting thing to see how even though we can’t come together, we can come together”

Scoglietti has, he says, the “DJ bug” and regardless of how much, or how little might be donated to his Cash App, he’s compelled to share his skills. And people have been responding, offering encouragement and thanks for helping them get through this hard time. Towards the end of his 10- hour set, he broke into tears, both out of general exhaustion and because of the outpouring of positive feedback from listeners. “Thank you for rocking with me all week,” he later posted on Facebook. “You are all amazingly beautiful & have aided me in getting through this trying period, one rekkid at a time.”

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