On my last trip of the year, through Sonoma County, I stood at the gates of Camp Newman, outside Santa Rosa. Fire consumed much of the property and the surrounding area. Yet, across the street, some properties operate seemingly untouched.
Now, instead of campers and counselors, its inhabitants are maintenance and security staff, EPA and insurance inspectors. No one is sure of the future of the camp.
Fire has nipped at the heels of most of my childhood retreats. Years ago, much of Camp SWIG suffered the same fate. It was sold off. The Yosemite fires nearly consumed Camp Mather, and Strawberry Bluegrass Festival may never return to that magical home. I remember when flames have threatened Brandeis-Bardein Institute in Simi Valley.
And in this year, fire has consumed homes of many I hold near and dear. Farms, animals, livelihoods. Some will rebuild. Some will leave it all behind. I weep for you.
These reflections, on physical space in rubble, weigh heavy on my understanding of Community. That is, the people that are bound together by some invisible or physical space: common belief, shared experiences, family bonds.
The most powerful of these forces is the physical venue. Shared space allows for repeated exposure, nostalgia. In the nooks and crannies of outdoor retreat, in particular, a sense of ownership builds a deep connection to the land.
Community, in the digital realm or ultra-temporal shifting festival circuit, lacks ownership. Rare is the place with permanence. Like in so many movements before us, the call back to land ownership is being answered all over the world (NuMundo catalogs so many of them including Heartland and Trillium).
But repeated fires remind us that neither land ownership nor standing walls protect communities from the wild. Ravaged, one day, it will all burn down. Through fire or erosion, we, and our memories, disappear.
In our earlier evolutionary states, we could not so much as leave a community without suffering a deep sense of loss, and potentially, death. To the modern observer, the idea of excommunication or exile seems a bit silly: just find a new home. It didn’t used to be so easy.
The state of being separate, Other, or cast away were once deeply traumatizing. It still is. So many of our decisions are based on avoiding the pains of Shame, Loneliness, and Disconnection.
When we avoid it, when we pretend like we are calloused from the pain of disgrace, we’re being delusional. We’re showing strength when what’s needed is weakness. The fear of loneliness, of being without Community, is built into our DNA, and when we deny its force, we delude ourselves.
Memory is not tradition.
When homes burn down, and especially the communal spaces that we return to in retreat, we lose a place where we feel welcome, where we can be ourselves, where we can reconnect with the selves that we discovered beyond our normalness. We lose the shortcut to center and we must start anew, often without the physical realms that we once traversed in our own personal journeys.
This is the place I kissed her. This is the place we fought. This is where we all held hands under the stars and I realized that I was one of many.
Now, our social networks give a sense of continuity: those that we knew one place are still in our lives. The memories, in pictures or thoughts, live on. They flood us in their significance, but they don’t sustain us. Memory is not tradition. One is past, one is present. You don’t mourn a memory, you mourn the tradition which is no longer available to you, to sustain you, to keep you at center.
Even if it was many years ago, the loss of physical retreat dizzies us. Grief is the realization that you cannot return.
The idea was always that you could come back and be reminded. But you can’t go back. You can only start over.
But now back to AEG! Which owns Goldenvoice which is in a joint-partnership and may or may not own a controlling stake in Red Frog Events which produces Firefly Festival in Delaware. This Firefly of course is not to be confused with the exquisite Firefly GATHERING in Flagstaff, which many of us are waiting anxiously to return from hiatus.
Yes, a friend shared an article with a jarring headline:
Music Festival: Pay Us $500 to Shoot Concert Photos for Us.
It’s a bit of an overstatement, or an oversimplification. Firefly decided to offer, as one of its premium experiences, the opportunity to “play photog” for a set. They’ve since taken down the offering, maybe realizing that the direction was all wrong. It was someone’s good idea on a marketing call, and they didn’t think through the implications. It happens.
But is this any different than any other number of premium options that festivals are trying to capitalize on? West Coast festivals are eagerly hyping up educational experiences, premium VIP camping, fancy ass meals or wine or spas or weed or… The list goes on.
As to whether what Firefly was offering was different…
It is, but only by a few degrees.
I watched at Lucidity Festival as participants in the InnovationWorks track learned from Bamboo-wizard Gerard Minakawa. They spent almost a week building one of the installations, a bamboo temple, and learning how to work with the material. Yet, essentially, they paid to help us build the festival. The space wasn’t a core component of the event (say, the commissary or a stage), but nonetheless, they were paying to work on the build.
It got me thinking, what else could we convince people to pay us to learn how to do? Would participants take a week to learn conscious cooking and catering with Collision Cuisine’s kitchen, essentially paying us to cook? Could they learn how to provide festival medical services, earning hours toward an EMT license? Or could we teach a budding photographer how to develop their festival photography brand?
The difference was that Firefly was like, “yeah, we don’t actually want to *teach* anything, we just want you to pay us a bunch of money.”
That’s the difference between a consumer experience and a truly engaging offering. It requires very little vulnerability between either party. You pay us. We give you. End of transaction.
It’s more or less the same disease that destroyed Fyre Festival. You pay us lots of money. We give you status. Unearned status, by the way, except for the fact that you’ve got the money. It’s the same disease that infects some Burning Man pay-for-play camps. It created a sense of Holier-than-Thou at Further Future… It’s those PREMIUM EXPERIENCES that seem to buy your way into something that you aren’t.
(We’ll have to talk about Fyre here once the heat’s died down. It’s a trendy topic that no one inside the scene will be hurting from in in six months, at which point it will ACTUALLY be useful to mine it for knowledge).
Here’s an example of a premium experience that’s priced appropriately and truly is what it says it is: hot air balloon rides at Oregon Eclipse. Or riding the ferris wheel at Coachella or EDC.
But in the cat-and-mouse game of hand-wringing investors, festivals are really trying to think outside of the box to find additional revenue streams. That’s all this offering was. If the goal was to provide incredible EXPERIENCES, they would have offered this as a giveaway. Or a contest. Or a lottery for people who buy their tickets between certain dates.
Firefly offers a lot of premiums: equipment rentals, travel packages, a spruce up zone with A/C restrooms and a lounge. 79 bucks per person. Just to make it feel less like you’re camping. A “Carefree Camping” package for four for $500. Collectables.
VIP AND Super VIP, just to make sure your VIPs don’t feel special enough.
The shitty part is that I know this isn’t the Firefly that the production team sees day in and day out, but they have to keep the lights on and the money flowing. Their marketing is heavily reliant on being “fan-curated,” and they’ve got some cool initiatives. For example, they’re pulling in fan mail for all of the artists on the lineup and will drop it in their dressing rooms. Cool! But like, also, whatever.
DSLR cameras aren’t allowed in for guests at Firefly. Same goes with Coachella. Hell, last year, Coachella told its media that they could only use their in-house photo pool. Anyway, I digress.
The problem comes to the forefront when a festival confuses EXPERIENCES with ACCESS.
To contrast, Bumbershoot in Seattle offers (or offered, I’m waiting on a confirmation) a photography TRAINING PROGRAM for youth, where they’re partnered up with media professionals to learn the tools of the trade in an amazing environment.
No, Firefly offers premiums like:
• Stage Wing Seating for Two
• Soundboard Seating for Two
• Shoutout on the Big Screen
• Experience the Festival as if you were an artist (rider, concierge, etc.)
There are some other cool opportunities, like having your own beach house bash or some other kind of Party in the Woodlands prior to the gates opening. But it’s run-of-the-mill stuff, no? “Wine tasting… Beer pong tournament… Karaoke…”
How about MAYOR OF FIREFLY for a day? You command a small battalion of city employees to enforce your (legal and silly) edicts. All attendees will spin until they fall down. How about your own pimped out golf cart filled with water bottles and thousands of snacks to give out. I don’t know, I’m just vamping here.
Again, ACCESS vs. EXPERIENCES. There’s such a big difference.
The festival industry wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the free work of attendees. Festivals literally could not turn a profit without volunteer programs, or “Interns,” or “Apprentices,” or “Lightning Teams,” or “Dream Makers,” or whatever you want to call them.
But a good volunteer program is *WORTH IT* for certain kinds of folks. You don’t just get access (in the form of a ticket or working backstage or sorting trash), you meet lifelong friends, learn new skills, arrive early, stay late, and become part of the very fabric of how that festival is seen to the rest of the world.
Idealistic, I know. But this is how festivals should approach their guest experiences: how will this be a life-changing moment? That’s where you make your fortunes.
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Hear Ye, Etc.
C3 Events and Insomniac teamed up for a monster collaboration on Middlelands. It makes sense for them to work together: C3 knows Texas better than any other company. And they bet big with this one, putting on an EDC-level production deep in Texas, about an hour from George Bush Airport in Houston.
For the remainder of this email, I might just be using Insomniac and C3 interchangeably. They have the same parent company (Live Nation), so it’s hard to tell exactly what the difference really is.
In a tiny city, in a tiny county, on a 55-acre property that hosts the nation’s largest renaissance faire. Not your typical EDM wonderland.
So you’ve got an interesting combination to start with: Insomniac is the gold standard of mega-raves. And C3 puts on some of the world’s best city-oriented festivals (Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, Voodoo in New Orleans).
And they’re smart; they have a venue that’s been hosting the Texas Renaissance Festival for 40 years. That’s four decades of event procedures in place, built-in plans for water, power, parking, camping. And it was a necessary hedge to the risk of throwing this kind of event out in Texas, because it was a camping festival. Insomniac estimates that 15,000 attendees camped at Middlelands. And 90,000 attended.
Those are some serious numbers. And I wanted to root against it. I’m always rooting for the little guys, but these big guns are still the entry point into smaller boutique events. Coachella leads to Lightning in a Bottle leads to Lucidity leads back up to Burning Man leads to buying land or joining a monastery.
And that’s all I want from consumers, is to drop out completely and shave their heads and take a vow of celibacy from corporations. Sarcasm.
The difference is that Insomniac wants to keep their fans inside of the sales funnel. They’re smart. They have Big Data on their side. Once you opt-in to an Insomniac event, you’re subscribing to the rest of Live Nation, to C3 (which Live Nation also owns a controlling stake in), and you’re hooked on the vibes. On the hot chicks and the DJs. On the RUSH and the thrill.
Have you considered that you’re already addicted to the good vibes?
They want to get you hooked on their smaller events (Beyond/Nocturnal Wonderland or the poorly named Audiotistic) and drive you forward to city-wide, multi-day events like Lolla or Life is Beautiful or campouts like Electric Forest or Middlelands).
You’re sold to advertisers. That’s the cost beyond the ticket, and for the level of production they provide, the WOW factor is worth it for hundreds of thousands of fans.
So back to Middlelands and where those write-off-able risks really came in. It’s one thing to create a safe container for tens of thousands of people to come in the afternoon and leave sometime before sunset (see EDC). It’s no small feat on its own, and Insomniac has failed many times, especially in the early days. How would they handle a 96-hour straight party when it’s target population might not have a lot of experience with camping festivals?
These aren’t production companies that have a lot of “gettin’ natural” in their DNA.
But you have to remember that Pasquelle and Co. have a major camping festival in their bullpen: Electric Forest. This wasn’t a festival Insomniac built from the ground-up, but they’ve been absorbing the knowledge for the past three years of operations.
How Electric Forest came to be in the Insomniac/Live Nation family is a whole other story. Needless to say, producing the premiere camping festival in the Midwest, with some 45,000 attendees, Insomniac has learned how to create a safe-enough all-night experience.
I have to say that I have wondered out loud to many friends whether they could pull it off. The reviews have been mostly positive. 42 or so arrests, some noise complaints, traffic problems, the usual for a big event in a community that’s never seen the likes of a rave in their backyard.
And it was a rave, have no doubt about it. But it blurs the line. The camping changes it all up. In reviewing the coverage, I see domes and sound camps, I see “Leave One, Take One” boxes, albeit with kandi and a Bud Light.
And I see the payoff of CAMPING, of being able to go back to your tent and relax, and to meet your neighbors.
Ultimately, it’s still a rave. It looks like a rave, it smells like a rave, and it’s drawing the PLUR’d-out fans of Insomniac to a truly immersive environment, much in the way that Electric Forest has gone over the last few years of Live Nation ownership.
And just like when HARD Events banned kandi and glow sticks to adjust the optics of the experience (without addressing the actual safety problems: free water, safe medical routes, etc.), it will require more than just putting up signs or flow zones to turn Middlelands into a net-positive for the community of Todd Mission and beyond.
The production team and the land owners (who surely made a mint) will be meeting with the community on May 18th. In their press release, they offered that:
“Middlelands has the potential to be a fun—and safe—destination for locals and travelers, not to mention a huge economic boost for our community, and we look forward to working with local residents and business owners to make this a successful experience for all.”
As is the case with these, they’ll either need to figure out a way to greatly lesson the impact or grease the community coffers in some tangible way. Unfortunately, the agreements tend towards the latter: a scholarship fund or payments into infrastructure or some other civic bribe in the form of an entertainment tax.
So here’s an opportunity for Insomniac and C3 have to boost the local economy in a way that would have a lasting impact. Beyond updates to the Ren Fair site, what ideas might drive Middlelands to become the Electric Forest of the South?
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