The Pros and Cons of Mysteryland USA 2016
Mysteryland’s US edition returned to Bethel Woods, NY for its third iteration from June 10-13. Though put on by embattled SFX Entertainment, the festival showed no signs of distress and, indeed, radiated positivity throughout the grounds. Those grounds, of course, are hallowed in American popular culture: the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts was the site where the original Woodstock was held. Mysteryland didn’t exactly shy away from its shared site with history — numerous signs were visible drawing connections between the two festivals — but it is impossible to miss that this new addition to Upstate New York’s musical history was bent on carving out its own niche, much the same way its parent festival in The Netherlands has. Read on to hear more about our firsthand account of the Mysteryland USA experience.
PRO: The Main Stage was consistently stacked with top talent
While the US edition of Mysteryland only just concluded its third year, its parent production in The Netherlands is the longest-running festival in the world and lends the name enormous cachet. The event’s organizers wisely parlayed that influence into drawing top-shelf talent to the festival and kept the main stage consistently stocked with the cream of the crop.
Friday’s highlights included a thumping performance from up-and-coming techno producer Rezz, while the scheduling resulted in consecutive sets from Mr. Carmack, Gesaffelstein, and Odesza. That threesome also speaks to the festival’s willingness to consecutively feature disparate styles — Carmack’s rolling, constantly-morphing trap offerings, Gesaffelstein’s merciless, pounding techno, and Odesza’s swirling live shows don’t make for obvious bedfellows on paper but, nonetheless, proved to be an inspired way to start the festival.
Mysteryland USA’s organizers also seemed conscious of selecting artists to play at certain times of day. To see Tchami’s set, whether by design or happenstance, take on increasing energy as the sky turned from powder blue to a bruised purple was the perfect transition into the meat of Saturday’s lineup. Similarly, for an artist who has a stated affinity for the golden hour, GRiZ’s sax licks and raucous Sunday set appeared to receive an extra bit of funkiness from the setting sun.
In all, attendees could have a full day by finding a spot at the festival’s epicenter.
CON: Never having to leave the Main Stage
It may seem odd or even hypocritical to lavish deserved praise on Mysteryland USA’s efforts to make their main stage special and then turn around to say that it’s a negative. Still, a festival is truly the sum of its parts and for all that emphasis placed at its center, the remainder of Mysteryland USA suffered.
To be clear, that’s not to say that the sound coming from the main stage washed out or interfered with any others; a special recognition should go to the festival’s sound engineers who did a pristine job at each stage to create rapturously pure sound with enough highs and lows. Whether by design — this year’s festival downsized by two stages — or gravity (the main stage was surrounded by a sloping basin), the whole affair seemed to limit the drive to explore the festival grounds, robbing Mysteryland USA of a bit of character.
Case in point: Sunday at The Boat Stage — admittedly the most remote of the stages, being a significant walk with a dearth of any sort of installments or artwork away— saw a magnificent back-to-back from Mija and Ryan Hemsworth. The Canadian Hemsworth in particular weaved his dreamy, idiosyncratic take on trap into one of Mysteryland USA’s absolute highest moments. All the same, and not without its own merit, the crowd was lightly populated. While artists on the main stage are the biggest draws, festivals are also about being exposed to and discovering new acts. Mysteryland USA’s set up, however, made for a distinct difficulty in doing just that.
In spite of its name, the festival placed too heavy an emphasis on the known quantities that consistently ignite the electronic music scene with each release rather than the smaller acts that, from the periphery, define its character. Skrillex’s closing set on Saturday was much like the rest of his sets; bombastic and played to a crowd of thousands. The setup leads one to wonder, though, how many people felt compelled to seek out their own intimate and personal experiences at the smaller stages. As a result, Mysteryland USA lacked a challenge for its attendees and a cohesive, unique personality that they could latch on to, failing to separate itself from the summer’s myriad other festivals.
PRO: Catching intimate sets from big name producers
The buzz surrounding Warp signee Hudson Mohawke seemingly grew to a fever pitch during his Coachella performance earlier this year. The set was a culmination of ridiculously hyped credits on Kanye and Drake releases and an acclaimed solo effort to boot. A genuine production genius, Hudson has pushed his genre-bending sound into a place that can leave one, eyes closed, drinking in oxygen like a first fresh breath and grinning like a loon, in turn.
By Sunday evening, no more than a couple hundred fans had amassed around the Boat Stage. Many of the die-hards clustered around the barrier near the front had been waiting in the sleet for nearly three hours. Together, they hung onto every note. The producer cycled through his best offerings — Hudson classics like “Chimes,” and some happy hardcore influenced mixes — for over an hour before closing out with a deliciously teased-out display of T.L. Barrett’s “Father Stretch My Hands” as it appears on the similarly titled Kanye track from earlier this year. It was a subtle power play from the producer (who isn’t credited on that track) and perhaps an Easter egg in the ongoing saga between the two. Production politics aside, the dreamy set ended with the crowd swaying and singing “You’re the only power,” hands raised in deference.
It’s hard to imagine such intimacy and euphoria taking place at any other big name festival boasting around 50,000 in attendance. Small gatherings with Lee Burridge and John Digweed in the Spiegeltent and MK’s distinguished showing in the Big Top kept the torch of intimacy alive throughout the weekend. As niche gatherings like FORM Arcosanti and Shambhala are gaining popularity, Mysteryland USA has managed to foster these sublime moments that are key to any good festival experience. Other lineups may entice, but crowds are often kept at arm’s length from the talent. You just might turn up to find your idol playing at you. When Hudson took Dancing Astronaut’s Boat Stage on Sunday night, it was as akin to communion as any festival experience could be.
CON: VIP and GA experiences aren’t so different
While the VIP experience at other festivals of this ilk come with loads of perks, the Mysteryland package was relatively modest. This “con” could easily be spun as a pro; after all, nearly anyone who attends the festival as a GA is getting relatively excellent treatment. Still, “Premium” and “Platinum” options set festival goers back a cool $500-849 for a set of fringe benefits that never quite manifested into spectacularity.
The Easy Tent option, however, was a luxury worth splurging on for those averse to meticulous festival prep. VIP campers arrived on site to a pre-erected tent stocked with Red Bull, an air mattress, and sleeping bags. The commemorative tents were even theirs to keep.
PRO: The unforgettably positive atmosphere
In a recent infographic, Adweek explored the different spending habits of various festival die hards. The top portion of the design reveals an unsurprising truth: Coachella attendees are 15% more likely to buy cosmetics than the general public and spend 35% more on average. During an era where popular clothing outlets actually create and disseminate “festival look books,” festival fashion, posturing, and Instagram content can outshadow the event itself.
Mysteryland USA seemed to outstep this “trend” trend altogether. In fact, the crowd spared no energetic expense lunging for high fives and complimenting each other’s creative totems. The atmosphere of the gathering actually seemed to a convey universal acceptance that cut to the core of festival unity. “Go ahead,” the vibes whispered. “Be your basest self, we’ll still love you.”
Despite its proximity to New York City, Mysteryland USA was unaffected by the oppressive coolness that pervades city culture. If only for the weekend, it was no longer embarrassing to express in earnest. The idea that people were free to operate under guidance from their most reptilian brain and be met with acceptance and caring from total strangers was an overwhelmingly powerful core message that isn’t being offered at many other venues.
CON: The show is over, now what?
One of the biggest shortcomings of Mysteryland USA 2016 was the lack of official activities between the hours of 1:00 AM and around 2:00 PM while the festival grounds were closed. When main stage shutters at the end of the evening’s festivities, campers shuffle back to the greens abuzz with energy and no outlet to blow off steam. Despite last year’s attempts to liven up camping, such as morning deep house yoga, Pineapple Paradise and BangOn!’s silent disco, the grounds seemed deflated during off hours all weekend long. Silent Disco aside, Mysteryland seems to suffer from a relative dearth of the activities that accompany the allure of camping at other festivals.
Coachella, for example, lights up as early as 10:00 AM with craft tents, camping DJs, well-stocked vendors, and morning yoga. Bonnaroo fills their off hours with stand-up comedy and intimate sets from burgeoning talents that often blaze on through sunrise. In many ways, the festival seemed to cater to day-pass visitors — from the physical layout to vendors and pricing — and this oversight was clearly part of a new strategy to funnel dollars into attractions that might appeal to this demographic.
There are many obvious solutions to this drawback — not least of which is being an adult and entertaining one’s self — yet, the fact remains: most festival attendees who camp on site seek a more immersive experience that fosters social interaction, creativity, and chance epiphanies.