Photo by Cap Blackard
My time at Perry’s Stage during Lollapalooza 2011 opened my eyes to the new culture of electronic dance music. Just a few years earlier, Perry’s was a small, barely lifted stage situated within the wooded area of Grant Park. By August 2011, a new form of dubstep was taking over American dance music, and with the influx of these blistering beats stormed an entirely new demographic of EDM fanatic. To house this new legion, Perry’s began expanding into the mammoth structure that it is today. As if the tent that year somehow established a barrier against the rules of the outside world, pills were distributed by the bag full, strangers could be seen grinding fervently up against other strangers, and somehow a fight broke out during Modeselektor. It wasn’t that any of this was necessarily new– Miami had offered a warm introduction to the club scene years earlier– it was just the cumulative amount of excess and ignorance that I couldn’t look past. Actually, I haven’t returned to Lolla since.
As this weekend’s tragic news from Electric Zoo attests, the hedonistic actions described above are not relegated to just one festival, state, or subgenre. The new drug culture has begun to infect the very roots of the EDM community– a community that has lost base with its own history and is therefore attempting to grow without context. While dilated pupils, passed-out revelers, finger dipping, and open drug deals are a common site at festivals ranging from broad appeal events like Bonnaroo and Coachella to more EDM-focused fests like EDC and Camp Bisco, Perry’s Stage at Lolla serves as the perfect microcosm for the evolution of EDM.
Photo by Lilian Cai
The festival is based in Chicago, though many revelers are totally unaware of the city’s history in dance music. During the late 1970s and early ’80s, artists within the Chicago underground were developing house (Frankie Knuckles/Derrick Carter), acid (Phuture), techno (Derrick May), and even the predecessor of deep house (Larry Heard). During this same period of time, MDMA (“molly”, “ecstasy”, “x”, “Adam”) was moving from labs– University of California, Berkeley professor Alexander Shulgin, along with some of his colleagues, famously took the drug in low quantities for recreational use– into trendy nightclubs and eventually into the rave culture. So, as many journalists and fans point out, drug culture and electronic dance music have very much developed concurrently.
What this new generation doesn’t know is that America has already cracked down once on the dance music community because of this belief. Despite what many consider a relatively small number of deaths when compared to the total number of yearly EDM event attendees and comparisons to the the drug culture of other genres (think drunk driving and country, weed and reggae, heroin and grunge), there is historical evidence that the government frowns on club culture. Beginning in the 1990s, officials began prosecuting rave promoters under vague crack-house laws. By 2002, Congress was attempting to outright ban all raves and dance music events on the basis that club owners and promoters knowingly allowed illegal drug activity on their premises. Interestingly, language from a 2002 USA Today article reads almost identically to those currently being published: “Ravers say the scene is still all about the music. But a rising number of critics say it’s also about rampant drug use, mostly involving the illegal stimulant Ecstasy. The critics accuse party organizers of looking the other way as dealers peddle pills and stoned kids trash the neighborhoods where raves are held.” Treatable overdoses are mentioned as an issue, but there is little mention of death or sexual molestations, two issues which have surfaced within the new EDM scene.
Photo by Derek Staples
Despite the community’s ideal philosophy of “PLUR” (Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect), EDM in the 21st century has become more like “SEEP” (Selfishness, Ego, Escape, Prophet), or as Dillon Francis so plainly shared with his young fanbase, “IDGAFOS (I Don’t Give A Fuck Or Shit)”. Fantasy has been an enduring part of EDM, but millennials take it to new heights. Imaginative costumes, bright colors, and kandi have been around for 30 years; the new school takes them to extremes. During the process of transforming from co-ed to raver baby, it’s easy to lose one’s sense of self. Jeffrey Russ and Olivia Rotondo were by all accounts great people, but who they chose to be at Electric Zoo last Saturday might have been someone totally different than the person their parents and even best of friends knew. Like spring break, these festivals are an opportunity for youths to be someone else. For three days, they aren’t accounting students, frat boys, prom princesses, or class nerds; they can become any character of their own choosing.
This identity swap is often followed by a general disregard for safety precautions. I, for one, have partaken and seen many educated friends (both male and female) engage in risky drug behavior and sexual promiscuity. So, while MDMA might be the reported cause of these deaths, without at least some official blood work, it’s hard to know for certain. Just like Lollapalooza has cashed in on the rise of EDM, so have shady drug dealers. The sense of camaraderie that existed in EDM a few years ago has been largely eliminated by greed. In order to make a quick profit, dealers will be advertising “molly” but actually sell research chemicals like 2C-B or 25I-NBOMe, or simply cut the pure MDMA with cheaper amphetamine substitutes or other far more dangerous substances.
That bag of pills I spotted during Lolla 2011 wasn’t being sold by someone villainous; it was being toted by a security guard who could very well have confiscated them from numerous individuals. This security guard wasn’t there to ensure people were taking safe drugs or properly enjoying the experience; he just found a quick way to make a lot of money off of the crowd. While more educated revelers might head here to stay up-t0-date on the legitimacy of pills and powders or obtain a bunk kit to test their drugs, young adults YOLO-ing it up might not have the slightest idea that someone might try to sell them dirty drugs– a lapse of judgement that probably wouldn’t happen in a different atmosphere.
Furthermore, what has happened to the much-needed festival buddy? Anyone who has been to a festival has probably seen lone, passed-out party-goers. It is quite rare for a person to attend a festival or rave alone, and yet somehow, in his or her time of need, the person’s friends are often nowhere to be seen. If the community is still about respect and unity, we shouldn’t leave our friends passed out in order to continue our own out-of-body experiences. Simple companionship can help speed transport to authorities in case of possible overdose and greatly alleviate ongoing problems with sexual molestation.
Many DJs and producers themselves have now grown weary of the excess and the negative publicity that’s being directed at their art. Back in 2011, following an MDMA-related death of a 15-year-old female during the final year of EDC Los Angeles, superstars like A-Trak, Kaskade, Z-Trip, and Tommie Sunshine helped out with a PSA addressing MDMA and how to safely enjoy the drug. Taking a similar approach to that of precautionary sexual education, leaders within the club community know revelers won’t remain celibate from MDMA, so they must be offered insights into safeguarding themselves from the negative aspects of the drug.
Since the tragedy at EZoo, even more artists have shared their thoughts about drug use. On August 31st, Bassnectar took to Facebook to share insights to his 1.2 million followers: “No need to overdue it or get sloppy or reckless with your nervous system, maybe try taking half as much, and letting life’s natural magic work its charms or maybe try a night off and see if you can have just as much fun without getting high. Also I think it’s fun to spend time lookin out for other people so if everyone out there takes a few moments out of their evening to doing something sweet for someone else, everyone is better off. Drugs are a tricky topic, but remember your health and safety is in your hands, so make good decisions.” The message seemed to have a ripple effect through the bass-community, with Brillz recently sharing his own personal story about sobriety. These stories, along with many others from Tommie Sunshine and Proper Villains, won’t immediately curb the prevailing drug use at events, but hopefully it can compete against the messages broadcasted so loudly by the likes of Madonna, UZ x Salva (“Molly and OJ”), and Cedric Gervais (“Molly”).
It’s easy to point the finger at artists for touting the joys of MDMA, but artists have long been writing songs about drug use. However, we must look even further up the ladder to better understand why the EDM culture is now killing youth. Never before in dance music have such large companies sought to profit from the genre. Instead of local promoters bringing in friends for thousand-person raves or larger all-night massives, corporations like C3, Live Nation, and SFX are all marketing the culture on a much larger scale to pull in big budget sponsorships. As SFX goes public, and in order for Live Nation to improve their own financial performance, public companies rely on the EDM base to continue growing, and as artists, fans, and promoters will agree, the growth potential is in the sub-21 demographic. As such, talent buyers that formerly booked 21+ shows are now bringing in EDM talent to play to 18+ and even all ages sets.
When looking at festival deaths, vandalism, and sexual assaults contributed to MDMA, it’s true that most have been attributed to those over 21. While not to be callous, this fact has kept much of the negative publicity surrounding EDM from hitting mainstream media. Before this week, the national media paid little attention to overdoses and deaths during Camp Bisco and following EDC Vegas. One major factor: they were all over 21. But, when these tragedies strike those under 21, broader pop culture turns their heads. Like the loss of the 15-year-old that forced EDC out of Los Angeles, the deaths of 20-year-old Rotondo, and sexual molestation of a 16-year-old during EZoo could very well mean the end of that festival as well.
Photo by Derek Staples
As more minors are swept into the EDM culture, a perfect storm of negative PR has approached the horizon. Solutions to protect festivals and events from further tragedy and scrutiny won’t be easy, but the discussion must be had. Judging from conversations across media and the blogosphere, there are four frontrunners: better security, more accessible hydration, augmented regulation of MDMA, and implementing age restrictions. Although the TSA already thinks their presence can deter illicit drug use, they’re simply wrong. Without getting into specifics, it’s extremely easy to traffic powdered MDMA into any venue. Better, and less costly, access to water is also a quick and relatively inexpensive approach to ensuring revelers don’t find themselves so easily dehydrated and needing emergency help. Water is key, but it doesn’t protect anyone from bad drugs.
The two other solutions aren’t so easy. After noticing unsettling trends in British Columbia clubs, the region’s health chief recommended that MDMA be regulated and sold like alcohol. Not only would this allow for ravers to purchase clean drugs, but it would also make testing kits more readily available for safety purposes. Having these types of kits available for free at US events would undoubtedly help alleviate overdoses, but the States’ taboo on drugs remains far too overwhelming for such actions to take place. And although TomorrowWorld has taken the pro-active risk of limiting attendance to those 21+, pressuring similar events to do so won’t be so easy. Nonetheless, that approach could serve well as a blockade against new policies regulating the culture or securing permission to host events on publicly owned property. It’s not like that policy will keep young adults from attending underground raves or trying MDMA at a younger age, but hopefully by the time they attend these more visible festivals they will have developed their whit about purchasing and partying on stimulants.
There’s a reason the government has regulated how alcohol and tobacco companies market their goods to minors: They realize that marketing agencies know how to sell a lifestyle to an impressionable demographic. By better regulating themselves, festivals can deter that need for increased government interference, eradicate the vultures praying on unsuspecting ravers, and create a better experience for those 21+ whom have grown disenchanted of watching young teens fall all over one another. This will infuriate those under 21 and greatly cut into short-term profits, but if people are actually interested in the music and the scene’s long-term sustainability, they shouldn’t mind waiting a few years to thoroughly enjoy the experience. If no actions are taken and more minors die during upcoming festival seasons, SFX and Live Nation might find themselves spending a lot of money to safeguard events from the same problems that burst the first dance music bubble a generation ago.
Until a solution arises, for those of us old enough to actually remember “PLUR”, let’s look after new entrants into the family. Instead of turning our backs on the pookie-heads in too much glitter pushing toward the front, how about we try to educate them on the dangers of dirty molly, help them stay hydrated, demonstrate how to use a testing kit, and assist security guards in keeping shady drug peddlers away? A change is coming, and the EDM community — and not angry house moms and politicians — should be leading the renaissance. It’s true that we can’t protect 100% of society against poor decisions, but we can help begin to break the potentially fatal handcuffs of ignorance.
Writer’s Note: With all of the above written, it’s your choice whether to imbibe at a festival. Personally, I choose not to partake in powders during music festivals, and the last three years of covering festivals has been a thrill. On the other hand, I maintain friendships with adults who prefer to indulge and feel that greater connection with those around them. In the end, this is your life, and you should make decisions justly. We just hope that you do it as safely as possible.