Editorial: How the media influenced Electric Zoo 2014
Three weeks prior to Electric Zoo’s sixth run at Randalls Island, a NY Times article titled “A Year After Drug Deaths, the Electric Zoo Music Festival Tries Again,” was shared and re-shared on Facebook, Twitter and beyond. Though the topic itself was nothing new, the article earned its buzz by marking the first time Made Event founders Mike Bindra and Laura de Palma had publicly opened up about 2013’s disaster. After nearly a year of merciless conjecture from both fans and the media, the makers behind Electric Zoo were at last given the opportunity to put their losses behind them and silence the critics. But that would prove no small feat: expectations were high, the pressure was set, and everyone was watching and waiting. This year, the focus was far less on the music, aesthetics, and overall feel of Electric Zoo. Alternatively, it was Bindra and de Palma’s capacity to create a safe festival experience that was under scrutiny.
Did Electric Zoo flourish despite unfair pressures from both sides of the spectrum? The answer depends on who you ask, as the festival experienced both triumph and trauma. But in retrospect, Mike and Laura were able to keep their cool in the face of adversity, making for a more or less prosperous sixth year.
“We just didn’t know if [the deaths] were tragic or nefarious,” Mr. Bindra explained to The NY Times. “So we felt we had no choice. We had to shut it down.”
Photo courtesy of Marc van der Aa for ElectricZooFestival.com
It is undeniable that the media has largely contributed to Electric Zoo’s poor reputation, such as when NY Daily News designated it as “troubled,” or when The Baltimore Sun posed the question – “Does the EDM scene have a drug problem?” – citing the festival as a prime example. As Diplo once said to Rolling Stone, “[This] is the first time music writers can have something to write about… It’s a story because the writers don’t write about electronic music, as it’s flat and boring all the time.” His argument is on point: for the media, it is far more alluring to frame music through the lens of drugs than the lens of music itself.
A second important question to ask is, “Why is it that the mass media has shamelessly singled out Electric Zoo, regularly questioning if it “will be back next year,” or arguing that the festival has to make a ‘comeback?’ For instance, one might point to Pix 11’s article titled, “Electric Zoo making comeback with tighter security after last year’s drug overdose deaths.” The partial press directed toward EZoo rarely went unnoticed, considering that its counterparts like Bonnaroo and EDC Las Vegas, which have both experienced significant deaths of their own, received perhaps a slap on the wrist at best.
The answer, in short, is because the cancellation of Electric Zoo’s final day illustrated the first time a major festival was called off during the three-year EDM boom. Writers used 2013’s tragedies to their advantage by angling stories specifically within the context of drugs, and it could be argued that these frames might have negatively persuaded attendees’ overarching attitudes toward the festival.
Photo courtesy of Doug Van Sant for ElectricZooFestival.com
For some, like SFX CEO Robert Sillerman, Labor Day Weekend was viewed as “a homecoming” (NY Times) during which the annual festival could redeem itself. Others, such as resentful fans and contentious media, watched Electric Zoo leading up to its opening moments in the hopes of finding reason to condemn the event for its underwhelming execution. In light of the heavy, pre-festival criticism, Bindra and de Palma straightened their postures, as they were confident that 2014 would be different. They had spent 365 days ruminating on how to create a safer experience and, in working closely with the city of New York, were able to devise a new plan of action that was played out successfully.
This year was certainly filled with transitions. Humble main stages and quieter sound systems were palpable modifications. Those attempting to rise above the rest typically cannot afford to cut back on essentials like sound quality and stage setup, as music festival culture continues to expand at an exponential pace. Nonetheless, these limitations (due to budget cuts and reallocation of funds to security and insurance) were often overlooked by the handful of positive moments that shone throughout the weekend. Lines at the three water refill stations remained orderly, Sunday School Grove returned as a circular pop-up stage containing stained glass windows, and a generous amount of approachable Zookeepers browsed the festival’s grounds to ensure the good health of all. Crowds arrived in smaller quantities, but this was only a blessing in disguise for those who sought extra dancing room when watching Kaskade, Armin van Buuren and over 100 others who gave it their all, delivering outstanding performances expected at any festival of Electric Zoo’s stature.
There was a noticeable sense of precaution in the atmosphere, however, even before stepping foot onto the festival grounds. This unease is partially rooted in the media’s pessimism toward the deaths and, subsequently, fans’ even more unfavorable inclinations. To an extent, the fun that we ‘animals’ have had at the Zoo for the past five years was less thrilling in 2014, because the community was now fully cognizant of Bindra and de Palma’s greatest fear. Through tell-all articles and countless efforts of prevention, it became all too evident that the couple’s efforts to play it safe possibly had an undermining effect on the festival’s traditional air of elation. The quality of Electric Zoo suffered, as its organizers were justifiably preoccupied with ensuring the safety of their guests. Sunday’s stroke of bad luck only further tarnished the festival’s reputation as “cursed” among fans, but blaming Made Event for being washed out is unwarranted and bears little justification.
Photo courtesy of aLive Coverage for ElectricZooFestival.com
While the deliberation over the company’s decision to close its doors last year has been long irrelevant, what did remain pertinent was the its ability to remain resilient and to overcome the memories of last year’s terrors and devastation. Although the attention of the media as well as festivalgoers has been fixated on 2013’s misfortunes, it is hard to argue that Made Event’s safety agenda was ineffective. It did set new standards for future events, although the Zoo’s efforts were considered by some as excessive. Most notable was its anti-drug PSA, which The Huffington Post declared “well-intentioned, but misses the mark.” In spite of the initial excitement following the innovative idea, many felt defeated by Made Event’s required PSA video, claiming that the company lost an excellent opportunity to actually educate attendees about MDMA and, should individuals choose to take it, how to consume the drug properly and safely. The short film could have become a milestone in rave culture and had a stronger impact had it taken a more serious approach to which viewers could relate. It did, however, sufficiently serve its purpose – to prevent the loss of young lives.
It may be that Electric Zoo is still hurting from the cynical coverage it has received over time, and it is conceivable that its semi failure, in some measure, stems from one too many jumps in conclusions made by journalists. The media undoubtedly helped to manipulate fan perception and expectation of the festival’s performance, convincing some that Electric Zoo had set itself up for disaster even before materializing. Take, for example, The NY Post’s article, “Electric Zoo is returning despite last year’s Molly deaths.” There is an unsettling aspect to the Post’s headline, with a subtle implication of chiding the event for bouncing back. Even so, the Made Event power couple proved its ability to bulk up under the watchful eyes of relentless spectators, and to follow through with its promise for safety.
Regardless of its shortcomings or being curtailed on its final day, the musical celebration ultimately ended in success. By the weekend’s closure, each attendee that entered Randalls Island returned to their families and friends – a luxury that, unfortunately, is becoming increasingly scarce in the dance music community. Some might be counting down the days until Electric Zoo bows out of the festival market, but after Mike Bindra and Laura de Palma proved that it could be a non life-threatening event, it appears that the three-day New York affair still has a few years left in it.