Busier than ever, virtual clubs are here to stay

No longer seen as a poor imitation of the real thing, virtual clubs are creating thriving communities and unique musical experiences.

The party starts at midnight sharp. Eager ravers rush through the club’s glossy foyer to catch the first set. I follow downstairs to a corridor of pulsating pink lights drawing us forward—a wormhole to the dance floor dimension. The EDM and dubstep star Slushii is on the decks, working through a rowdy selection of pop edits, sugar-rush melodies and thundering bass drops. Around me on the dance floor: a punk with a mohawk, a witch with glowing hands, a humanoid dog with generous cleavage and a fleet of anime girls. A stick of butter moonwalks on a speaker stack. Together, we dance.

This is Tube VR, one of the hottest parties on the social virtual reality platform VRChat. This particular event broke records for the platform: the most attendees at a user-created event, with 7,000 viewers split across Twitch and VRChat.

At the height of the pandemic, this type of story was common. As lockdown forced many elements of daily life online, from business to socialising, virtual clubs emerged as an antidote to isolation and cabin fever. They offered a lifeline for people by simulating the community and musical thrills of the club. Yet today the pandemic is waning and clubs are open again in many parts of the world. People are sick of interacting through screens. They want the real thing. 

So why did last month’s Tube party set a record attendance? And why are virtual parties continuing to flourish and evolve? 

Any clubber could imagine the crucial features of a party that are lost when you go virtual. You can hear the music, but you can’t feel the bass thrumming through your ribs. You can see the crowd, but you can’t feel them pressing up against your body. There are no smells, no tastes, no touch. You lose the feeling that you’re all responding to the music together in a moment of communion; the harmony of minds and bodies that makes the best club nights feel like a religious experience.

Yet while much is lost, new possibilities are also unlocked in virtual parties, features which could never be possible IRL. They are not just pale imitations of the real thing. Some promoters of digital events want to stay online to cultivate this virtual space, not as a replacement for physical clubs but rather as an alternative that can give something completely new to the club music world.

What defines a virtual club night? You attend these events from home via a smartphone, computer, gaming console or virtual reality headset. They take place in 3D digital spaces like video game environments, and attendees are often embodied as customisable avatars. Parties come in many forms: from dubious “metaverse raves” in spaces like Decentraland, to events in games like Fortnite that are attended by millions. However, this article will not focus on tech corporations, but rather the grassroots promoters who are building thriving digital events and communities. 

Each of these projects presents a different vision of what clubbing could feel like in the virtual world. They differ over which platform they use and how much emphasis they place on realism, immersion, interactivity and socialising. This technology is still in its infancy, making many virtual events feel both clumsy and thrilling—everyone is experimenting, every parameter is up for negotiation. 

Back in the VR party at Tube, I’m attempting to coax my avatar into throwing some convincing shapes on the dance floor. A pair of cat girls and a small hooded goblin nearby are dancing with remarkable elegance while I’m flailing in virtual space, my physical body trying to avoid tripping over the cat in my IRL bedroom. The DJ playing is Hadean, AKA Laurie Denman, a producer and promoter based in Brighton, UK, who is also the founder of Tube. His black-clad avatar bops convincingly above the digital decks—in the real world, Denman has his Oculus Quest 2 headset balanced halfway up his face, so he can look up to see the VR club or look down to see his DJ controller.

Denman bought his VR headset at the beginning of lockdown, primarily to hang out with friends virtually while he was stuck inside. As a regular promoter and DJ of IRL events, he was soon booked to play at Loner, one of VRChat’s biggest regular parties. “I was locked in my music studio going through lockdown alone,” he told me. “I was just moping around. VRChat became my one outlet for DJing and social interactions—all the stuff that’s essential.” Before long Denman had launched Tube, which now runs every two weeks.

The promise with virtual reality technology is that it offers greater immersion than other digital platforms. You have the illusion of occupying a 3D space rather than staring at a screen. This is enhanced by spatial audio with a distance roll-off that mimics real life—the closer you get to someone, the louder their voice sounds. At my first event, I was impressed by how realistic it felt to walk around the dance floor and eavesdrop on the conversations of users as I passed. You can decide what you want to hear. If people are talking too loud or you just want to focus on the music, you can mute all voices. If you don’t like a song, you can turn it down and just chat with your friends.

For some users, the sense of embodiment in their avatars can go deeper. While there is no collision detection on the character models in VRChat, meaning other avatars can literally run through you, some people experience “phantom sense,” a trick of the brain that gives your real body the sensation that it is actually being touched when another avatar touches yours. You can purchase accessories such as haptic vests to feel the vibrations of music in your chest, or sophisticated sensors that recreate every movement of your body in the virtual world—in Tube there was an avatar faithfully replicating someone’s IRL pole-dancing.

VRChat has limits. Its rooms can host a maximum of 80 people, after which an identical version of the space—an “instance”—is created to allow another 80 people to take part in the same experience. Still, platform regulars say it has advantages over IRL events. “Sometimes you don’t want to mission out to the club and get an Uber,” said Denman, “you just want to sit at home, drink a few cans of beer and go party.” 

Another regular, Joseph Greene, who works on the tech for Loner parties, said there are also more opportunities for aspiring DJs. Since nobody is limited by their physical location, they can message any venue owner in the community and ask to get on a lineup. “It’s super easy,” he said. “We’ve had folks who have gone from never having DJ’d before to playing their first night a month or two later. It doesn’t take long for somebody to become a recognised performer and get into the circuit.”

Both have noticed an increase in new clubbers and performers in the VR club space, particularly as the Oculus Quest 2 headset makes virtual reality a more affordable and user-friendly proposition. “People aren’t leaving this space,” said Greene. “Every party there’s someone new who loves it.”

Just like physical club nights, virtual parties are fundamentally social experiences. Strong communities flourish around platforms like VRChat. Among them are groups of people who may feel marginalised at real-life events, such as LGBTQ users or furries, who can use avatars to experiment with their image and identity in digital space, presenting themselves however they feel comfortable. “I feel more at home, welcome and accepted at virtual shows,” one promoter told me. 

Brad Allen, co-founder of Club Quarantine, a queer webcam party that emerged during the pandemic, said that the rise of virtual parties revealed and helped many people who are excluded from club spaces. “Whether it be for financial reasons, ageism, mental health, social anxiety, not feeling safe enough, physical disability, or not being publicly out—it shone a light on these people” they said. Online there are fewer barriers to entry. All you need is a device and the internet. While harassment can still occur on the internet—there are always going to be trolls—on most virtual platforms you can mute or block any user and they disappear instantly.

Promoters with a budget to spend don’t need to rely on pre-existing platforms like Zoom or VRChat. When Paul Jack, director at London Warehouse Events (LWE), and his team realised their festival, Junction 2, was going to be cancelled by the pandemic, they decided to move it online. In the renamed J2V, each attendee could run between stages as an avatar to watch various livestreams. The event pulled in 3.2 million viewers. 

They incorporated a chatbox which, Jack felt, made a crucial difference. “People were saying: Can you do this? Where’s this person? Why is my avatar flying upside down? It was that random conversation that made it feel exciting and busy like a real event,” he said. Attendees from all over the world—126 nationalities in all—were talking to each other from their various time zones in different languages. “You go clubbing to meet people, right?” he said. “This was clubbing on steroids.”

Jack wanted to continue entertaining ravers who were stuck at home, but during lockdown it felt like the internet was saturated with livestreams. He wanted to do more than simply filming a DJ behind the decks. What if he could throw the considerable resources of LWE behind a fully-fledged immersive party?

He decided to build a digital replica of a real club, which would feel familiar and therefore approachable to clubbers not used to complex technology. The obvious choice was LWE’s signature space, Tobacco Dock in London. Photographers captured every detail of the venue in over 9,000 photos, and the digital space was rendered in 3D on VR platform Sansar, right down to the cracks in the tiles.

They opened their digital doors in April 2021 to 3,200 avatars spread across multiple instances. Some wore VR headsets, others logged in from desktop computers. Including livestream viewers, 1.5 million people tuned in across six hours. Meanwhile, LWE was busy behind the scenes: Tobacco Dock’s lighting engineers worked the virtual lights while another team directed virtual cameras to make the Twitch stream dynamic and compelling. These details helped recreate the experience of a real party. “It translated really well to virtual space,” said Jack. “It felt like a proper rave.”

LWE has shied away from reusing the virtual venue over the past year—as the pandemic began to wane, Jack noticed that the concept of digital socialising became less popular, but they are planning a return for a Halloween party. “I think the hype will die down,” he said, “but I do think virtual clubs will continue existing.”

Several promoters suggest that the future of digital clubbing may lie in hybrid events, parties that occur simultaneously in physical and virtual space. This is one of the reasons that LWE created a model of Tobacco Dock, so in the future they could throw parties in the real venue for those in London, with the DJs and music also beamed into the virtual space. Alternatively, musicians could add a few virtual concerts onto the end of a tour of IRL venues. “If you introduce this hybrid format, where virtual parties aren’t a replacement for events but instead something that expands and enriches the events for more people, then it will be embraced,” said Jack. 

One of the most remarkable qualities of the virtual club scene is its versatility. The only ingredients you need to make a party are a platform, a soundtrack and an audience. If you don’t have a big budget or sophisticated tech, you can still hold an event. This was the case for LiveJar, a group of three French friends who created an event in Minecraft based on Berlin club Griessmuehle. Kélit Raynaud and Jean-Baptiste Krauss were school friends on their semester abroad in Berlin when the pandemic hit. Bored at home, they spent time experimenting in Minecraft, where Krauss had previously created a model of Berghain that garnered some attention online.

At that time, Griessmuehle was facing closure. Krauss had loved going there, so he thought he’d commemorate the space by building it in Minecraft, with the help of Raynaud and a collaborator from Reddit who goes by the username “devbowman.” Their project was spotted by DJ Franklin De Costa, a Griessmuehle associate who connected them to the club, which put together a great lineup and paid the server costs for a virtual farewell party. 

The trio, who named themselves LiveJar, added details to make a club on a platform as rudimentary as Minecraft feel engaging and surprising. They placed a virtual record shop in their map, designed virtual avatars for each of the DJs and even added ambient bathroom sounds for the toilets or the distant noise of the S-Bahn train outside the club.

In the event, avatars spawn outside the venue, pass the bouncer and enter to explore rooms playing different music. After a test run went smoothly, they prepared for the actual party. “We opened the gates of the server,” recalled Krauss, “and we were just flooded. The servers were instantly brought to their knees, with hundreds of people trying to connect every second. Some servers were crashing, but people didn’t really notice because they were there to listen to the music.” Over eight hours the Minecraft map had 1,000 visitors, with around 300 concurrent across six instances.

LiveJar stood out for how much they leaned into gameplay. “Nobody wants to go into a game just to stand still and listen to music,” said Raynaud, “you could just do that on YouTube or Twitch. We wanted to connect the experience of clubbing with gaming.” They created many opportunities for interactivity in their map: players could buy drinks that would have various effects on their characters, like warping their vision, making them run slower or jump higher. There were hidden messages and secret rooms to be discovered, and even an item named “suspicious powder.” (They planned to add non-player characters who would offer challenges or tell stories of Griessmuehle’s history, but did not finish this feature in time.)

Krauss points out that a real club night is a little like a series of quests. Someone asks you to fill up their water or buy cigarettes. You have to find a friend whose phone is out of battery. “There are these micro-stories that happen during a night out,” he said, “we wanted to recreate these inside a video game.”

Club Matryoshka, another virtual event series that runs in Minecraft, leans into traditional video game formats to add entertainment to their parties, ranging from racing to role-playing to fighting games. “Enjoying mini-games while listening to deconstructed club music made people feel like they were in on the experience together,” said co-founder Jorge Juan B. Wieneke V.

There is even potential for interactive virtual spaces to open up new possibilities for music creation. There was a primitive example in LiveJar’s party, with a sequencer built out of Minecraft’s pressure plate blocks. Standing on different plates would trigger a clap or kick inside a sequence, while another would adjust BPM. “At the end of the event I teleported everyone left [in the event] onto the sequencer, and everyone ran around together to make a beat,” said Krauss. “It sounded terrible but it was funny.” 

It’s easy to imagine how these ideas might be developed as technology improves. Two DJs in different countries could play back-to-back in a shared digital space. A producer could perform live to a huge virtual crowd from their home studio. Promoters could incorporate rhythm-based gameplay in the style of Guitar Hero or Dance Dance Revolution, which could shape the soundtrack. 

While virtual promoters are keen to embrace many unique possibilities of digital space, most still seem reluctant to experiment with fantastical environments. Instead, they create digital approximations of clubs with low ceilings, laser lights, decks and speaker stacks. Given that one could fashion literally any kind of space from pixels, why are these clubs so aesthetically traditional?

VRChat clubbing veteran Greene thinks it’s because that’s simply what the audience wants. “It’s not that they can’t imagine more, because people create those worlds, and nobody uses them,” he said. “It’s a strange phenomenon—people definitely gravitate away from fantastical, overdone stages.” 

Club Matryoshka is unusual in this regard. A virtual event series that started life in the Philippines before the pandemic, their team take months to plan and organise each in-game world, with imaginative spaces inspired by brutalism, aliens, insects or the experimental American architect Lebbeus Woods. “We really embraced the infinite potential of URL,” said Wieneke.

No matter how fantastical or realistic the vision, many non-gamers would find it hard to feel immersed in a space like Minecraft, with its blocky, low-resolution graphics. This issue speaks to an unresolved problem with virtual club spaces. Promoters have to make a trade-off between technological accessibility and the complexity of the experience. With basic tech you can draw in more attendees. Go for more sophisticated software and you will get better graphics and perhaps deeper immersion, but you might exclude the average punter who doesn’t have a gaming computer or VR headset. “We don’t expect everyone to have the liberty or the luxury of high-end machines that can handle more demanding software like VRChat. We decided to run our club on Minecraft because even a potato laptop can run it,” Wieneke said.

“That’s the big challenge of virtual clubs,” said Raynaud, “this compromise between technology and accessibility. We chose Minecraft because it’s one of the world’s most-played games, and so many people already have accounts. We wanted this to be as simple as walking into a real club.”

Over lockdown these teams built servers, communities and digital environments that will outlast the pandemic. They aren’t the same as a real club with real bodies, nor do they need to be. They have their own qualities, their own ways of encouraging people to share and interact with music. “There’s still people interested,” said Krauss. “These spaces aren’t going anywhere.” 

As long as virtual parties are meaningful for digital ravers, they will have a continuing place in our cultural firmament. “VR parties and online shows make me feel like nothing is impossible,” said Wieneke. “If you feel lonely or out of place where you are, I learned it’s possible to find your people elsewhere. Virtual clubbing makes me feel less alone.”


Tips for aspiring digital promoters:

  • Try building on an existing platform before creating your own.
    • Metaverse platforms like Decentraland and Sandbox are eager for digital event content, while platforms like Minecraft are open for all. “Try being a promoter in a digital space owned by somebody else,” recommends Jack. “If you get traction from it, then you can go off and start something on your own.”
  • Get involved in your chosen platform’s community before you make your own event.
    • Become immersed in a scene to see what people have already built, so you can come up with a unique concept. “You need a selling point, rather than just being another space,” says Denman. His USP with Tube is being the first space for underground UK music in VRChat.
  • Keep on top of the tech.
    • “Get help for the technical side or make sure you have sufficient knowledge and experience,” says Krauss. “The technology isn’t quite there yet to make virtual parties happen easily. You need to know your shit.” If you are struggling, you will often find helpful communities of programmers and makers on online forums like Reddit.
  • Don’t forget to have fun.
    • “Don’t think of it as a business,” says Raynaud. “The fun, music and gaming experiences should be the primary ideas that you always stick with. If you get to a point where you’re no longer enjoying it, maybe you’re going in the wrong direction.”


Words: Tom Faber

Lead image: Loner