Editor's Note: This piece is a reflection on a weekend in November, several months before coronavirus concerns caused our nation to begin social distancing. We're publishing it now as a way to recognize the values that bring us together during difficult days.
Chapter one: Into the unknown
“Are you crazy? Those things are dangerous!”
That was the recurring sentiment among my journalist peers upon learning of my plans to attend EDC Orlando. EDC, short for Electric Daisy Carnival, is a world-renowned brand for music festivals featuring electronic dance music (EDM). In other words, I was going to a rave.
My 19-year-old son, Kyle, already in his fourth year of college pursuing an engineering degree, had invited me several months back to EDC Orlando. It's immensely popular and was returning for the ninth year to Central Florida. At first, my answer was a definite no, gradually evolving into a maybe. But he persisted.
We do a lot together when he’s home: working out, shooting hoops with his older brother -- typical stuff. But the thought of going to a show...no, THAT show...was a little beyond the pale, even for a pretty hip 56-year-old like myself.
The more of my skeptical associates that I mentioned it to, the more I started to consider it. As journalists, we’re taught to be objective, but the sentiment was nearly unanimous that nothing good could possibly result from me going to an EDM festival. Of course, this only piqued my interest. I accepted my son’s invite, but on one condition. I would attend EDC as a journalist, objectively observing and documenting everything that I could at my first rave.
EDC is produced by Insomniac Holdings, out of southern California. They’ll host festivals across the globe this year, drawing millions of fans, and leaving in their wake an enormous economic impact in those communities.
The Orlando show, for example, brought with it more than a $50 million-dollar economic impact to the Central Florida region, according to Rich Thomas. Thomas is the Vice President of Culture and Content for Insomniac. I met with him a few times over two days. Thomas is an outgoing, well-spoken guy who looks like he could be your next-door neighbor. He could pass for a high school teacher, or hell, a doctor. He exemplifies the point that the electronic dance industry is rife with stereotypes. But as I found out, there is no typical anything -- promoter, performer, or even fan.
“Our tag line for EDC is 'All Are Welcome Here," Thomas told me. And they don’t just say it, they live it. The slogan is visible everywhere, from the literal back of the workers' shirts to official signage that’s visible everywhere, to the home-brewed banners that are brought by festivalgoers and hoisted high into the air to emphasize the point.
Chapter two: No TV cameras allowed
“It’s about the positive spirit of inclusivity”, Thomas said. He cited the acronym PLUR, which stands for “Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect”, a longtime rave culture mantra. While that may sound like an outdated Woodstock reference to the outsider, it’s the foundation for everything EDC.
That was evident from the time I arrived at the media headquarters to register for my credential. First off, they don’t classify journalists according to our specific job functions as videographers, technicians, or correspondents, as typically happens at large-scale news or sporting events. We are all referred to simply as “historians”. We’re also not allowed to bring with us our traditional recording equipment, like cameras. We can record anything we want to with our phones, or perhaps a Go-Pro type camera, but no larger, traditional TV cameras are permitted. The promoters are keenly aware of the generally negative public perception of events like EDC, and they’re eager to spread their positive message. So, they welcome the press, although they prefer us perhaps to be a little more covert.
Raves originated in western Europe in the mid-1950s and appeared decades later, in the states, as events where attendees gathered to listen to music, dance, be uninhibited, and in many cases, do drugs. Therein lies the rub: raves and EDM music festivals, in general, have historically been treated by the media and by the public itself, as wildly taboo, dangerous, drug-fueled gatherings attended by troubled youth, drug addicts and ne’er-do-wells. I’ve read many such accounts myself.
Certainly, there’s no disputing the fact that bad things have happened in the past at large-scale EDM festivals, as they have also occurred at music festivals of every genre. A 15-year-old girl died from an apparent drug overdose after attending an EDC event in California in 2010. In 2016, at the Sunset Music Fest in Tampa, Florida, dozens of people were hospitalized, and two later died. Their autopsies listed “accidental drug overdose” as the cause of death. Despite drawing the admonition of the local authorities there who vowed to rid Tampa of that show, it is scheduled to return to Tampa for its ninth year over Memorial Day weekend in 2020 -- assuming it doesn't become the latest cancellation due to coronavirus fears.
Tragic events -- like what happened in 2016 -- and the public’s perception are not lost on promoters like Insomniac, who put the safety of their fans, workers, and performers above all else.
There is an extensive list of permitted, and prohibited items, that is published long before the event comes to town. There is a zero-tolerance policy for illegal drugs. Security is tight. Nobody enters the grounds without a photo ID, and everybody is treated to a TSA-style pat-down in order to limit contraband from getting into the venue. Bags are thoroughly checked, and everybody and everything goes through a metal detector. You must be 18 years of age to attend EDC. Everybody, even folks like me who watched live on TV as Apollo landed on the moon, must have a government-issued ID at the point of entry. People of legal drinking age are given a wristband with the color de jour that is placed tightly around their wrist. Is it possible for someone of legal age to purchase a drink for a minor, once inside? Of course, and surely it occurs to some extent. The same thing happens all over America, every day of the year. It’s no different at EDC, although they do their best to deter it. Security personnel are visible everywhere.
Dehydration is a common malady at dance festivals. Heat and alcohol use are contributing factors; but dancing for hours on end, which is the point of it all, also plays a significant part. To combat this at EDC, attendees are permitted to bring or purchase their own empty water bottles to fill up at huge, free water-filling stations throughout the grounds. Free bottled water is available at the first aid stations.
I spoke with a uniformed City of Orlando paramedic on day three of the festival. He was a guy about my age, standing at the entrance to a first aid station where one young woman was being treated for what appeared to be a minor issue.
A large sign at the entrance of all of the first aid stations reads: “THIS IS A SAFE PLACE. You will never be judged here. Our Medical Team and Ground Control are here to help. You will not get in trouble for seeking medical help. Neither will your friends. On site medical care is free. LOVE and CARE for each other. If you see something, say something”. At the bottom of the sign were the hashtags #ItsOkayToAskForHelp and #NoJudgements.
I told the paramedic that I was a journalist and asked for his perspective of the weekend. He told me that they had been busy as expected, but mostly with garden-variety ailments. He confirmed that dehydration was a huge culprit. I asked him what other issues they had encountered, and he acknowledged that “bad decisions and overindulgence” were two other things that came to mind.
The Orlando Fire Department confirmed a busy weekend, telling me that over the three days, 89 people were transported to area hospitals. Considering that the official attendance figure for the three days was 225,000 people, the percentage is very small indeed.
Abby is 19. She was one of those people taken to the hospital after suffering from a medical issue on the second day of the festival.
“I had a seizure," Abby said. “And they were so patient with me and caring and getting me into a wheelchair and to the first aid where they gave me medication and an IV drip."
She had become separated from her friends and was taken to the hospital with no phone or ID. She was given medical care, and an ER nurse loaned Abby her personal cell phone. Abby used the nurse’s phone to sign into her social media accounts and was reunited with her friends. When she left the hospital, she was concerned about the cost but was told that it was covered and that the well- being of everybody was the only concern.
Abby says she is veteran of many such festivals and has never suffered from a medical issue in the past. She’s thankful for the care she received and the compassion shown to her.
“I’m just so grateful for not just the workers at the event and hospital”, she told me. "But also those random people at the event who helped me get where I needed to be."
Abby joined the United States Army, and since EDC, has reported for basic training. She is looking forward to serving her country. She’ll be a transportation specialist but has her sights on doing something in the medical field.
The safety and the comfort of their guests is so top-of-mind at Insomniac, they spare no expense when necessary. In August of 2018, they put on one of their largest events of the year, in Fontana, California, called HARD Summer. With the temperatures in southern California, they installed 102 misting fans, two water cannons, numerous free water refill stations, roaming misting teams, and over a half-mile of misting line running through a structure called "Shady Lane" that led attendees from Stage 1 to Stage 2. They also built more than 168,000 square feet of shade structures and blanketed the Fontana Speedway with 1.2 million square feet of ground cover to help cut down on dust, providing protection from above and below. Some of that was planned well in advance, while much of it was unbudgeted, and done last-minute to provide the safest and best experience for the fans.
Chapter three: Thou shall not judge
EDC began its three-day Orlando run on a Friday, and my son and his friends danced for hours in the rain on a cool evening. I joined up with them the following day. The Saturday weather was Chamber of Commerce pristine, textbook fall Florida weather. I had dug out the coolest-looking, most colorful t-shirt I own, and it was off to the show in the early afternoon. The first thing I noticed when we arrived, besides the impressive crowd of people waiting patiently, almost happily, to get through security, was how well-mannered everyone seemed to be. Standing in line sucks, but it soon became apparent that grumpiness isn’t really appreciated here. Everything about the event is part of the event, and to be enjoyed. Standing in line was nothing more than an opportunity to make new friends.
Who then, is the typical raver? The answer is, there isn’t one. From the outset, it appeared that the dominant demographic at this show was college-aged, white kids, but I quickly realized that fans came in all shapes and sizes, from all walks of life, and of various ages and races. The more I walked around the giant venue that surrounded Camping World Stadium near downtown Orlando, the more I realized how eclectic and diverse the audience was.
I saw baby boomers such as myself. I introduced myself to one such, professional-looking couple, who told me that they were there with their son and daughter, who were about my son’s age. They shared with me that they were not there to chaperone their kids but rather to share the whole experience with them.
The official attendance figure, announced after the festival, was 225,000 people over the three days. On this sunny Saturday, most of those people there were dressed up -- wearing everything from silly hats, wigs and glasses to colorful clothes, or elaborate costumes that ranged from the obviously well-planned, to the last-minute dollar store variety. Since we were in Central Florida and the fall temperatures were still relatively balmy, the young ladies were dressed predominantly in bikinis, lingerie, underwear, or a combination thereof. Body glitter, and body paint, was prevalent.
To say it was surreal would be an understatement.
It was like something out of a movie, and my son, myself and our friends were smack-dab in the middle of it.
But just like anything else, you quickly get used to the spectacle, and it eventually blends into the background -- just a sea of shiny, happy people enjoying the moment, the music, and each other. There is no such thing as a fashion faux pas here. Anything goes, and nobody gives a crap about what anybody else is wearing -- the exception being the constant posing for pictures, most of the time with complete strangers who, if just for the moment, were besties. There is one rule here, and it’s unwritten, but universally understood: thou shall not judge another. Everyone is just here to have a good time, plain and simple. The Golden Rule rules over EDC.
I had the opportunity to interview Black Caviar, one of many artists performing over the weekend. The festival runs 11 hours a day for three days, simultaneously on several stages, from the more intimate to the cavernous. Black Caviar is a duo originally from Pennsylvania but now hailing out of New York City.
Their real names are Troy Hinson and Jared Piccone, and although they’ve been making music for 20 years, they’re relatively new to the EDM festival scene. They were excited about opening the show on Sunday at Kinetic Field, a massive stage that towers high into the sky, featuring a mind-bending display of lights, lasers, pyrotechnics, and a waterfall. They spoke of the meteoric rise in popularity of EDM music across the globe and how thankful they are for what they called their surprising success.
Both men were very successful in the business world before turning their attention full-time to making music. And, like Insomniac’s Thomas, they defy any predisposed physical description. They could have just as easily been sitting across from me trying to sell me a life insurance policy, further disproving the stereotypes that exist about EDM artists.
Chapter four: Booming bass
Besides the safety and convenience of everybody performing, attending or working at EDC, the biggest priority of the promoters is the EDC experience itself. No stone is left unturned. The music is obviously the main focus, and the different stages are all themed. The two largest stages, called Circuit Grounds and Kinetic Field, are reminiscent of stadium-style setups for superstar rock groups like U2 or the Rolling Stones, set in front of grassy areas larger than football fields.
The music is as clear as it is loud, the high notes piercing the sky and the bass relentlessly beating you in the chest, and the sound quality is amazing, much better than one would expect at a venue this large.
To go along with the music, and carefully choreographed down to the nanosecond, are countless lasers, spotlights, smoke machines, and pyrotechnics that make for a virtual audio-visual orgy. You don’t have to be under the influence of alcohol or any drug to enjoy the spectacle. It is at the same time as exciting as it is uplifting.
Seeing tens of thousands of people dancing makes you forget about your problems, and even those facing the very world in which we live, at least for a while.
Although the music is the star attraction, and many of the performers at EDC are global stars, the festival is far more than a few stages erected in a stadium parking lot.
Insomniac hires hundreds of performers who roam the grounds day and night, in colorful costumes, posing for pictures with giddy fans. If the creative genius Walt Disney dropped acid, this might be what it would have looked like.
Besides the music and the performers, there are free carnival-style rides, which are very popular. There are several smaller attractions featuring lights or lasers or a combination thereof. The truth is, in a day and a half, I didn’t even cover one half of the festival’s broad grounds.
The food choices are as varied as they are healthy, surprisingly. This isn’t a state fair featuring anything and everything that can be deep-fried, it’s bowls and wraps and other things that provide attendees with something substantial to put into their bellies, in between traveling from stage to stage for hours on end. There are vegetarian and vegan options offered as well.
Portable restrooms are ample and not nearly as offensive as one might think. For an additional fee, you can get a VIP wristband that gives you access to areas parallel to the main areas, with more elbow room, shorter lines for food and drink, and portable bathrooms that are continuously cleaned.
On Saturday night, I was introduced to another artist, Mauricio Arroyave. Mauricio is from Orlando and has been part of the EDM festival scene for more than a couple of decades. On this night, he was there simply to enjoy the music, like everyone else; but he offered some great perspective.
Arroyave formed his group, Prophecy Collective, in 1997, and they played at Cyberfest on Labor Day weekend in nearby Melbourne, Florida. Cyberfest was a precursor to the mega-festivals that exist today. He estimates 50,000 music fans attended that event over the holiday weekend, as we watched about that same number of fans watch the night’s last artist, Excision, perform.
“Look at this. Crowds of 90,000 people”, Arroyave said. “No fights, everybody looking out for each other and their well-being."
He pointed to people sharing water and cigarettes and 60-year-olds hanging out with 20-somethings.
"Nobody battling an eyelash."
I asked Arroyave about the stigma that dogged the EDM scene in the early days and persists today.
“Aren’t these festivals what we want to achieve as a society? If we could just look at that part of it. Yes, there are drugs, etcetera, the same as every generation had theirs, but at these parties, they make sure everyone is okay."
Ultra is a well-known EDM brand that began in Miami in 1999 and was set to draw massive crowds again this spring, before being postponed due to the world-wide COVID-19 pandemic that is affecting music and sports events everywhere. Prophecy played Ultra in 2000. Even though the music industry changed dramatically since then, Arroyave describes the EDM scene as somewhat of an outlier.
“This is a musical Disneyland”, he said. “It’s more about the deejay wanting to make the music more of a live experience. It’s art, it’s visual, it’s a story.”
Arroyave himself used to wear an 80-pound light suit that was literally plugged into an electrical outlet. Things have gotten quite a bit more sophisticated since then.
Chapter five: Edge of the volcano
Excision, whose real name is Jeff Abel, is a 30-something Canadian DJ and music producer who has a global fan base. We were watching from a VIP area to the right of the massive crowd as he mesmerized them with his bass-heavy dubstep music. Dubstep is a genre of EDM that is very popular, as was obvious by the crowd.
I was content to watch everything from right where we were, like standing at the edge of a volcano and feeling the heat but being guaranteed not to get burned.
My son had other ideas.
“Let’s go," he said. “We’re going to rush the stage."
I looked at him and then at the crowd of people, crammed in like sardines and stretching back farther than a football field. There were at least a half dozen guys in our group, and all I could envision at best was us not getting very far into the crowd, or at worst pushing the wrong person and getting involved in a dustup.
He wanted us to navigate through a mosh pit that was bigger than your average Home Depot store. Turns out, I had no choice in the matter. My son led the way along the perimeter of the crowd in the safety of the VIP section, towards the back of the crowd, and then we made entry.
My son Kyle is 6-foot-3, and he took the lead. He instructed us to grab onto each other and not let go as he would navigate through. His height made it a little easier when we would occasionally get separated. I followed along in amazement as he tapped people on the shoulder, one after another, and one by one they just smiled and attempted to give us enough room to pass. Sometimes this was mere inches, and there as significant body contact with complete strangers, but nobody seemed to care.
We never made it to the front, but we made it quite far before we decided to plant ourselves and watch the rest of the show, which was fast drawing to a close.
I looked around me and realized that we had achieved the holy grail of EDM music, the middle of the mosh pit. Everybody I could see, in every direction, dancing in unison to the thundering music. It was impossible to describe other than it felt great to be alive in that place at that moment as if each of us there was part of something bigger. It mattered not how many birthdays you’d celebrated, the color of your skin, who you slept with, what was in your bank account, where you were from, or what you were wearing. It was a collective rush of well-being and empathy, fueled by lights and music and the positive vibes of tens of thousands of fellow human beings.
My son and I, and our group, enjoyed a long day at the show on Saturday, had precious little rest that night, and returned Sunday morning for more of the same. The contrast between the late-night, full-on sensory overload experience, and then the same thing at high noon, was of course much different, but very much the same. The energy, the enthusiasm, the overall feeling of goodwill toward others was as pervasive on Sunday afternoon as it had been Saturday night.
When I returned to work, my co-workers were eager to hear about the show and my experience. There was a hint of disappointment, and certainly surprise, when I had nothing but great things to say about EDC. I saw no people having sex in public, nobody wheeled out in a body bag, no shady characters peddling drugs by the portable bathrooms. Just a lot of people having a great time, listening to the many different genres of electronic music, making friends and memories, and of course, dancing. The biggest issue that I later learned about was that of stolen cell phones. Dozens of people lost their cell phones, and police in Orlando -- and later even in south Florida -- ended up recovering dozens of them after arresting a couple of men on unrelated charges.
One thing is certain: the EDM music genre is here to stay.
It's globally popular and experiencing massive growth due primarily to easy access on music streaming sites, not to mention huge festivals like EDC that are held in almost every corner of the world.
We’ll continue to hear about isolated, albeit unfortunate events that occasionally happen at these events because nobody wants to report that a bunch of people got together, and a good time was had by all. But in the end, that sums it up perfectly.
My son and I can’t wait to go back again this year, and this time we’ll have his older brother and their mom along to enjoy the spectacle.
The family that raves together, stays together?
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