Atte[Photo: Doug Van Sant; ElectricZooFestival.com]

Attending Electric Zoo as an EDM Outsider

PLUR is in the air, as is commercialism

The EDM industry hit a valuation of $6.9 billion this year — more than XBox Live, Beyoncé’s house, and a Princess Di Beanie Baby combined. A scene with European roots, electronic dance music gained popularity during the 80s and 90s in the clubs of Ibiza, where PLURists regularly popped MDMA and danced ‘til dawn. As the phenomenon made its way north to London, parties typically were held in warehouses, which led to its subgenres being appropriately referred to as acid house and rave music. In fact, EDM wasn’t even called EDM until it garnered the attention of American capitalists in the last decade. Cash-infused festivals with whimsical names like Electric Daisy Carnival and the Electric Zoo have sprung up in the U.S. alongside their European counterparts, festivals with names like Tomorrowland and Mysteryland which attract hundreds of thousands of attendees per year.

Until this year, I was not one of those attendees. I am, by all accounts, an EDM outsider.

It’s Friday, September 4th, and I’ve just gotten off the subway at 125th street in Harlem. Immediately I see a group of young people: a bro with basketball shorts and a backpack, a girl with short shorts and crop top with splatter-paint Converse Chuck Taylors, and another girl dressed similarly. It’s clear that we’re going to the same place, and I follow them down Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Just ahead, another group of people clad in pastel rainbows crosses the street. We traverse the cop-lined Robert F. Kennedy bridge to Randall’s Island Park, which is the home of the Manhattan Psychiatric Ward, a street called “Hell Gate Circle,” and the 2015 Electric Zoo Festival.

Randall’s Island is peculiar in that it was originally two islands: Randall’s and Ward’s, which were separated by a small channel until the early 60s. The two land masses share a similar history, having been home to several cemeteries for the impoverished and — at one point — the largest psychiatric institution in the world. Now, the names are used interchangeably, and as one New Yorker put it, “Nothing goes on here.”

…Except the Electric Zoo Festival, every Labor Day weekend, since 2009. Since its inaugural year, the 3-day Zoo has featured big-name acts like Calvin Harris, Deadmau5, and Skrillex. This year, however, no such names are on the lineup. This is perhaps because festival organizer Made Event’s budget has been cut by parent company SFX Entertainment. Yet Made Event wants — nay — needs the world to know that this year, the Zoo has been Transformed.

Pre-festival pump-up wubs are audible from the end of the footbridge. A large crowd forms at the gate, which should have been open half an hour ago, as the time is 1:30 PM. Yet no one is moving, and it becomes clear that the Zoo is off to a rocky start.

The crowd is as colorful as a bag of Skittles, but this rainbow has some pretty garbage flavors. A man and woman wearing matching insults to Native American headdresses appear, with feathers coming dangerously close to poking the eyes of those around them.

Another man is sporting shoes that look like they came straight out of a $1.00 claw machine at Chuck-E-Cheese. Ahead, neon and kandii abound. It’s a rave-meets-Coachella atmosphere, complete with faux metallic tattoos and thick, smoky air. There is something to be said about these festivalgoers, though: they are outgoing, friendly, and reek of posi vibes. In a conversation behind me, people talk about where they’re from, how old they are, and how long they’ve been into EDM. They trade safety tips and encourage each other to stay hydrated.

Safety is a big theme this year — not only amongst festival-goers, but for festival organizers as well. On the final day of the Electric Zoo in 2013, two individuals died as the result of a bad batch of Molly (MDMA). Something of a curse has been placed on the festival since then, with the final day of Electric Zoo 2014 being cancelled due to severe thunderstorms. This year, SFX Entertainment has enlisted ID&T, a Dutch entertainment enterprise in which the company has a 75% stake, as “creative partner” to rebrand the festival. ID&T has a proven ability to brand and promote events as it operates some of the largest EDM festivals in the world, including Europe’s Tomorrowland and Mysteryland. Revitalizing a Zoo, then, should be a piece of ketamine-laced cake. All eyes are on EZ 2015: will it truly be Transformed?

The gates open at nearly 2:00pm, and after undergoing several security checks, festivalgoers gallup inside. Excited screams spout from the mouths of several. The grounds seem barren in spots, save for few not-so-strategically-placed neon plastic zoo animals. A DayGlo® koala is tied to a tree. A glittery zebra-rhino crossbreed hangs its head low, possibly dreading the next 72+ hours. People take selfies in front of the Sally-Hansen-Fuzzy-Coat-inspired gorilla. The crowd is getting hype. The 3-day Zoo has begun.

According to the official EZ booklet, I’m currently in a place called The Hideaway, which is merely a shaded area with benches upholstered with the hides of fake plastic Christmas trees. Just off The Hideaway is the Vitamin Water Treehouse, where unnaturally happy brand ambassadors pass out free Vitamin Waters in exchange for high-fives. The Treehouse also features a small elevated booth where “up-and-coming local artists” spin “chilled-out sounds” for the small crowd lured in by free sports drinks. A few of them dance half-enthusiastically.

The main Help Point lies dead center of the festival, and I walk over in hopes someone can point me and my full bladder in the direction of the VIP toilets. With a degree of realness I hadn’t been ready for, a medical worker tells me, “Look, I don’t work for SFX, so I can give you straight-up: this festival is a mess. Every year is a mess.” She also informs me that they don’t yet have any of the supplies needed to perform their duties. This is not what I had hoped to hear.

Legs slightly tense, I make my way to the T-Mobile VIP Lounge situated to the left of the main stage. Two pseudo-bouncers let me in without checking my wristband, and I question what, if anything, VIP means here. As it turns out, the VIP toilets are housed inside a small white trailer. Anything is better than a Port-A-Potty. Although the main stage isn’t open yet, pump-up wubs blare from its speakers. When the bass drops, the T-Mobile VIP trailer toilets shake.

The T-Mobile VIP Lounge might just be the most appealing area of the Electric Zoo, and maybe that’s because it gives the appearance of a pool party without featuring any water whatsoever. There are plastic zebra loveseats as well as ottomans and couches of the finest white vinyl. On the lower deck, bar menus sit atop mirrored tables and white paper ceiling lanterns blow in the AC. The ambiance is pretty chill, except for one thing: Someone forgot to take the price stickers off the potted palm trees.

The time is 2:24 PM, and Riggi & Piros still hasn’t taken the main stage yet. This sets the festival back approximately 84 minutes. A waiter glides through the T-Mobile VIP Lounge with a platter of bruschetta, which I later regret passing up as this will be the first and only sighting of the promised hors-d’oeuvres all day. Pump-up wubs still pound through the air. The T-Mobile VIP crowd is about 15 years older and 45% more clothed than the other festivalgoers, although this percentage will even out as the day progresses.

Feeling restless, I head to the MasterCard “Hilltop Arena” which, despite its name, is not located at the top of a hill and is more akin to a tent. It is, however, the first stage to have live music: a DJ by the name of Filibusta who probably has nothing to do with politics. The Mastercard Tent features decor reminiscent of vacation bible schools I attended as a child, complete with foam butterflies and papier mâché caterpillars. Unlike vacation bible school, the air smells like weed.

Smirnoff operates two “Rendezvous” areas of the festival which the official EZ booklet claim to be “the perfect meet-up spot for your EZoo crew to Refresh, Recharge, and Reunite.” I’m primarily interested in the Recharge aspect as my phone battery is nearing depletion. In addition to charging stations, the main stage Rendezvous area features bowls full of free vanilla lip balms and Wint-O-Green Lifesavers. There’s a bar, too. The “great view” promised in the booklet leaves much to be desired, and the ground is covered with dead grass and clumps of dirt resembling horse feces. Red and white cups spell out “SMIRNOFF” on the chainlink fence surrounding the area, an art installation befitting the mood of the festival.

The first act takes the main stage, and everyone goes batshit insane for a remix of Linkin Park’s “In the End.” A rainbow-shaped mylar balloon floats above the crowd. PLUR is in the air.

As is commercialism. Over 30 food vendors are present at this year’s Zoo, serving up shaved ice to pizza to soba noodles. For the less health conscious, there’s a booth entirely devoted to candy. Prices seem pretty reasonable: $2 for a taco, $6 for a veggie burger, $8 for a burrito.

But things at the Zoo are not always what they seem.

The Electric Zoo is entirely cashless, meaning in order to buy anything at the festival (ie. tacos, veggie burgers, or burritos), one must purchase “EZ Bucks.” These Bucks get loaded onto one’s wristband, so payment is only a tap away. It’s not unique that the Zoo is cashless. Many festivals are, especially large EDM ones of the European variety. Intellitix, a company which makes such cashless payment systems, touts their ability to “drastically reduce theft.” They seem to make lines move a hell of a lot faster, too. However, the conversion rate between USD and EZB is approximately 2.2222222222, much worse than even the British Pound. This inflates the price of a $2 taco to $4.44 USD, and a $6 veggie burger to $13.33 USD. It’s no surprise, then, that Intellitix also cites their systems’ ability to “increase spend per head by between 15–30%.”

Overpriced food is essentially a tradition of festivals everywhere (and not just festivals — sporting events, theme parks, major cities — basically anywhere you could be trapped in a group atmosphere). However, by adding the extra step of cash conversion, the cashless aspect of this Zoo certainly seems duplicitous. Take into account the nature of EDM festivalgoers who are probably too blissed out to care, and the whole thing seems pretty scammy.

I don’t want to give these people my money, so it looks like I’ll be drinking free Vitamin Waters in the T-Mobile VIP Lounge for dinner. At 5:31 PM, the main stage act plays a bastardized version of Van Halen’s “Jump” and my eyes glaze over. AT&T service is cutting in and out. This seems to only happen in the T-Mobile area, and I suspect a conspiracy. Fifteen minutes later, the people to my right start posing for pictures with vodka bottles. A girl walks past and her feathery angel wings hit my face. This is my own personal hell. I am going to starve and die here as a result of my refusal to purchase EZ Bucks.

I didn’t die on Friday, September 4th at the Electric Zoo Festival. No one else did, either. All three days of the festival were seemingly successful. Festivalgoers raved about it on Twitter, EZoo was trending on Facebook, and even the New York Times cast positive light in its direction. It would appear that the Zoo had indeed been Transformed, from the outside at least.

The Zoo was not without its problems, though. The delay in Friday’s festivities was due to the fact that workers had not yet finished building the main stage. Organizers of EZ 2015 also failed to designate an area for handicapped festivalgoers and instead herded them into the T-Mobile VIP Lounge, forcing the ADA to file a noncompliance report. By the end of the weekend, two people had been arrested for drugs and two had been taken out by ambulance. At least they, and all other attendees, will receive a refund for any unspent EZ Bucks — minus a $5 USD handling fee.

Still, everyone survived. There were no mass cancellations. The Animals had a good time, and that’s what counts. I remain an EDM outsider, albeit one with a little more empathy for those on the inside. It’s okay to let others indulge in what they like even if you don’t quite understand it yourself. Unless, of course, that activity is murder. The Electric Zoo wasn’t all that bad, and I can say with relative certainty that it is better than the Gathering of the Juggalos. There’s still a certain ickiness to the EDM industry, though, and it’s as subtle as the dude behind you who keeps touching your butt.