Growing Pains: US dance festivals meet the mainstream
October 2, 2010, was just another lazy Saturday in downtown San Francisco. Streetcars made their way up and down Market Street, the main artery of the city. Tourists wandered around the open space of Civic Center plaza, stopping to take pictures of the imposing architecture of City Hall. Everything was normal. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, though. It was supposed to be a hotbed of activity, the site of the 2010 edition of the San Francisco LovEvolution parade. 100,000 people dancing the afternoon away to their favorite DJs in the city by the bay.
2010 was a challenging year for electronic dance music festivals both in the United States as well as abroad. Several high-profile incidents occurred at large events in California, including drug busts and overdoses. At the Electric Daisy Carnival over 200 people ended up in the emergency room, most of them suffering from drug-related symptoms. One person even died.
Dance music has reached a unique point in the United States. Festivals across the country reported record-breaking attendance figures in 2010: Electric Zoo in New York City had 50,000; Movement in Detroit had 95,000; Electric Daisy Carnival had 185,000. The HARD summer tour which hit 12 cities across the country was sold out even as Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) was reporting a summer tour slump for the music industry with mainstream acts like Christina Aguilera cutting shows due to soft sales.
The profile of the music and the artists in the mainstream media, meanwhile, is perhaps the highest it has ever been. Diplo is appearing in commercials for Blackberry; Deadmau5 was the DJ at the MTV Video Music Awards; David Guetta is slowly becoming a household name. For those outside the United States, this may not seem like a big deal, but for the American dance music scene, it’s unprecedented stuff. Dance music culture in the States has traditionally lived deep in the underground, out of view of the media, the music industry and the public eye. Now it’s beginning to boil over into the realm of popular culture.
But just as the music is breaking into new territory in terms of recognition and appeal, the scene is experiencing growing pains as it tries to shake off the stigma of its predecessor, rave. There were few better examples of this situation than October’s LovEvolution. Syd Gris, a spokesperson and organizer for the festival, told me that many of the organizers and city officials’ specific concerns can be traced back to the 2009 event. Crowd control was a serious issue, as a record number of dance music fans poured into Civic Center plaza. “We went into planning this year knowing the city had valid concerns (as did we) over capacity issues of the Civic Center site due to the growing popularity of the event,” Gris told me in an email exchange. “We had extensive plans to try and address these that we presented to the city, but after deaths at two other major West Coast EDM events in May and June, and then the Love Parade Germany tragedy in July, doing Civic Center was off the table regardless of the thoroughness of our safety plans.”
In response, LovEvolution organizers came up with an alternative plan: Move the event to the parking lot of Candlestick Park, a local sports stadium, and cancel the parade portion of the event. As a result, though, San Francisco bureaucracy came into play: Organizers were told they would need permits from the Parks and Recreation Department, but the process wouldn’t be completed until two weeks before the scheduled date—not enough time to organize what was essentially a brand new event. The LovEvolution organizers were left with no choice but to cancel this year’s celebration and instead focus on finding a new location for 2011.
Perception, as Gris, pointed out in his e-mail, had as much to do with the event being canceled as anything else. The organizers recognized potential problems before the event, and they were prepared to address them in partnership with the City of San Francisco. But, with the current news cycle focusing on tragedies at nearby, yet unrelated, events, LovEvolution was finished before it could even begin.
This is nothing new. The United States has always had a troubled relationship with the music to which it gave birth. The last time 4/4 dance music was considered mainstream in the U.S. was back in the ’70s with disco. When garage, house and techno began to emerge in the ’80s, it was quickly embraced by audiences in Europe, but in the States, the music remained beneath the radar of mainstream media outlets like FM radio and MTV. The result is that most Americans can’t tell the difference between various subgenres, like, for instance, techno and trance. No one knows this better than Lynn Tejada. Her Los Angeles-based PR firm, Green Galactic, has been representing electronic artists and events since 1993. Tejada explained to me how time and again she has encountered a complete lack of knowledge about the music in her contacts with the mainstream media in the States. In one case, she told a journalist about how she loved Detroit techno and the journalist responded that he liked Paul Oakenfold, too.
It’s this lack of knowledge about the music in the U.S. that has become the biggest hurdle for promoters to overcome. There is a big difference between techno and trance, not only in terms of the music itself but also in terms of each genre’s audience. In the same way, there is a big difference between a music festival and a rave. But try explaining that to local government officials and the media. Someone who is trying to educate the public about these differences every chance he gets is Gary Richards, the Los Angeles promoter and DJ who started the HARD events.
“From the very beginning,” Richards told me, “I told city officials… ‘Hey, we’re not a rave, we’re more like a concert.’ We’re trying to abide by all city rules and regulations… and we had [our own rules and regulations] before anything happened. We don’t allow backpacks, we don’t recommend glow sticks…we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on production…so people look at the stage, not at their friend giving them a glow stick massage or whatever they do.” Richards began throwing raves in the early ’90s in L.A., but then got into the music business working as an A&R for producer Rick Rubin. In 2006, he realized what he calls “the failing economics of putting out CD’s” and decided to go back to being a promoter. But Richards quickly realized the overwhelming misperceptions about the kind of music and events he promotes. “I think at first when I was telling people this, they really didn’t get it because most people think electronic music is electronic music and it’s a rave. I think we’re just getting over the hurdle, because they’re seeing what we do is different.”
Richards is quite vocal about his feelings on raves and ravers: “I think rave is played out, it’s yesterday news. I don’t understand why in Los Angeles raving is associated with people wearing furry boots and pacifiers and glow sticks—I don’t want to go and hang out with those people. I’d rather go hang out with Justice—they wear leather jackets and they’re cool cats; it’s just a different scene, and everyone just lumps it into one thing.” For Richards, his events are no different than a traditional rock concert. “I like Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Dr. Dre, Nine Inch Nails, I like all different kinds of music, so what I wanted to do was start HARD as something different, kind of like an anti-rave. I didn’t want it to be like little kids and glow sticks jumping around and going crazy till four in the morning; I wanted to make it more like a rock concert that has dance elements.”
Rave was exported from the UK around 1990 to US cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Detroit. From these major metropolitan cities, the rave scene took on regional flavors: Midwest techno, West Coast funky breaks, Florida progressive house. In the days before high speed internet, raves were the only place you could go to hear this music—the radio didn’t play it, MTV didn’t show it and few record stores carried it. But by the end of the decade, rave had runs its course: the kids got younger, the drugs more abundant, and it no longer became about the music. Except in California. The rave movement in California has continued to thrive in ways it hasn’t been able to in other parts of the country.
The reasons for this are myriad: A large population pool, nice weather, lots of space to throw parties. There is also an idiosyncratic element to many of these events. In most of the US, hippies listen to Phish and The Grateful Dead; in Northern California, they listen to psy-trance and dubstep at massive festivals in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. In Los Angeles, teenage “candy ravers” listen to European trance at above-ground “raves” all over the city.
It’s this youth element that has caused many of the problems for events in California, with Los Angeles acting as ground zero. Richards experienced this firsthand at a L.A. HARD event in 2009. Young concertgoers began jumping from the balcony to the floor of a venue to bypass security, and the event was shut down by the local fire department before the music even started. In addition, his 2010 HARD Summer event in July was rescheduled as a direct result of the incidents at this year’s Electric Daisy Carnival.
It hasn’t just been California events that have been affected either. In just two years, Electric Zoo has become one of the largest and most-respected festivals in the United States by presenting high-caliber artists on scenic Randall’s Island in New York City. When I approached the organizer, Made Event, about discussing the various issues of this article they declined, citing an unwillingness to participate in an article that was going to include the Electric Daisy Carnival. Their trepidation is understandable. With city permits, sponsors and public perception at stake, Electric Zoo doesn’t want any collateral damage from a random event on the other side of the country with whom they have no affiliation. Other promoters who declined to participate include Goldenvoice, the group behind Coachella, and Insomniac, which presents the Electric Daisy Carnival.
But for all their troubles, electronic music festivals in the States are beginning to catch up with Europe both in terms of size and musical content. There has clearly been an upsurge in interest for electronic music in the States over the past few years, and as attendance figures rise, it’s crucial for promoters to work hand-in-hand with local communities. Perhaps no event personifies this better than Movement in Detroit. Since local promoter Paxahau took over the event, attendance has grown from 40,000 in 2006 to 95,000 in 2010. I spoke with Jason Huvaere, Director of the Movement Electronic Music Festival, about how Paxahau has been able to develop their event in coordination with the City of Detroit. Huvaere told me in an email that “from the first day we inquired about becoming the sole producers of the festival, city officials held our feet to the fire to ensure we were putting on an event that benefited the city. With the issues that occurred before we were involved during previous festivals, the standards that the city set to host the festival became even more stringent.”
Paxahau was able to meet the high standards of city officials. More importantly, Huvaere told me, “We set out to create a lasting bond with the city so they got to know who we were and what we were all about while conveying that we have a sincere interest in making the festival a success for the greater good of the music and the city. We continue to cultivate the relationship with the City of Detroit and they appreciate our transparent approach to planning for the festival.”
Huvaere’s last point is perhaps the most important. For festivals to continue to succeed in the States, promoters must make their events as transparent as possible to their local communities, to show that, indeed, these festivals are concerts and not raves. The only way to change the public’s opinion of this music and culture is to show that these events are not only safe but a vital part of the local economy. It’s people like Fiona Ma, a California State Assemblywoman who represents the district just south of San Francisco, who need to see this. Ma recently introduced the US’s first anti-rave act, a bill that aimed to ban DJ-headlined events in California. Although Ma eventually withdrew the legislation after receiving heavy criticism for the bill’s broad scope, it shows that promoters have a long way to go in changing people’s perception about dance music events.
Now, more than ever, a new level of professionalism is required among those throwing large-scale events in the United States. As Syd Gris puts it, “It’s crucial the community understands they have to carry themselves with poise and responsibility because as rave hysteria has returned, the world will be watching.”