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The Day They Pulled the Plug on Electric Zoo

Review by Lara Gamble

The Electric Zoo festival has grown in popularity since its inception in 2009, as has its superstar lineup. EZoo has expanded year after year to welcome a crowd of over one hundred thousand dancing animals and more than one hundred artists. What originally took place over the span of two days now hardly fits inside its ample three-day time slot.

I attended the festival in its second year over Labor Day weekend in 2010 when the lineup was a mere sixty-six acts long over the span of two days. Though even in its early years, the talent was never lacking with EDM superstars including ATB, Kaskade, The Chemical Brothers, and Moby.

This past Friday (August 30), I took a shuttle bus over to Randall’s Island to interview some DJs and schmooze with festival organizers but secretly relished in the idea of immersing myself in a culture that I loved as an adolescent “scenester” in the 90s. I was disappointed (but not at all surprised) when I overheard to a group of twentysomethings bragging to others on the bus about their experiences with smuggling illegal substances into music festivals. They compared instances where they did not have any problems hiding a stash in their underwear but sounded genuinely upset over another time where a certain security guard discovered their “Molly stash” and took the drugs and their money. Who would report stolen cash when they could get charged with drug possession?

Upon arrival, I made my way over to the media check-in where I received a wristband that I was instructed not to remove…for the entire weekend. “You mean I have to shower with this?” I swore this chick was fucking with me, but unfortunately, she wasn’t.

I pushed through a throng of twerking Showtek fans surrounding Main Stage West to find the media tent. Everyone who was on site with Plexi PR were incredibly friendly. When I realized I was not in the right place for my interview with trance legend Ferry Corsten, a member of their team led me back to the Artists Compound to meet Ferry and his entourage. Ferry could not have been more friendly and forthcoming during the interview about his trance roots and how his music has evolved in the last decade.

After the interview, I went back to the media tent and struck up a conversation with Dan and Houston from LifeBeat, a national nonprofit dedicated to educating America’s youth on the best prevention methods against HIV/AIDS. They were anxious to talk to DJs about helping them promote their message. I gave them a few names off the day’s roster that I thought would be happy to help spread the word.

I had a few acts I wanted to catch before heading out, and as I made my way back through the herd of animals near Main Stage West, I heard UK dubstep DJ Flux Pavilion drop Swedish House Mafia’s recognizable hit “Don’t You Worry Child”. The majority of young men and women lounging in the grass or dancing to the beat were singing along, which made me smile.

My electronic music subgenre of choice is drum and bass. Alvin Risk was once one half of drum and bass duo Corrupt Souls, and I wanted to make sure I caught some of his set inside the Riverside Boys Noize Records & OWSLA tent. I found myself up front by the stage where most of the fans were busy inhaling the ever popular topical ointment from a bandana wrapped tightly around their faces. I tried to avoid the security guards hosing down the overheated crowd. It wasn’t that hot in there.

I later stopped by the Hilltop Arena tent during Ferry Corsten’s time slot where the crowd was going absolutely mental over his set. In front of me, a good-looking young couple assisted in enhancing each other’s drug-induced euphoria, but they seemed to be having a good time, so who was I to ruin their fun?

I finished off the night in the Sunday School Grove tent with Four Tet, Dixon, and Danny Tenaglia. Thirty years into his career, and he can still make your jaw drop. I laughed as a young woman told her friends, “This guy is old! He could be my grandfather, but he’s really good!” At 52 years of age, Tenaglia still schooled the crowd that night.

I didn’t make it out to Randall’s Island for Day 2 but wasn’t worried because Day 3 looked like it had the best lineup of the weekend. I woke up early Sunday morning to make sure I had everything ready, as I was scheduled to interview Aussie duo Yolanda Be Cool of “We No Speak Americano” fame later that day.

I checked my phone and saw a text from a friend alerting me that Day 3 had been canceled. I figured she was just joking around.

Then I saw the alert from the EZoo app on my phone. It was true. Made Event and the Mayor’s Office made the decision to cancel the third and final day of Electric Zoo 2013 after news that Jeffrey Russ, 23, and Olivia Rotondo, 20, died after allegedly overdosing on MDMA (aka “Molly”). Four other festivalgoers were taken to local hospitals and treated for overdoses while more than thirty others were arrested on drug-related charges over the weekend.

Many have noted that if the security had been more diligent, these deaths could have been prevented. But anyone who has attended a large-scale festival knows there are ways around security. Who’s to say these young people didn’t ingest the life-threatening substances before entering the festival grounds?

With these larger crowds comes great responsibility, and festival organizers Made Event are well aware of this. Billboard Contributor Kerri Mason said it best when describing their attention to detail:

Made Event was known to be one of the most diligent event promoters where attendee safety was concerned. Throughout Electric Zoo’s first two days, messages broadcast over loudspeakers onsite and sent to all attendees via the Electric Zoo smartphone app reminded fans to be safe, often breaching the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy that promoters frequently adopt in regards to drug use. ‘If you see someone sick or struggling, be a friend to a friend in need,’ said one. ‘Seek out a medical professional at one of our Medical Aid tents marked with a Red Cross.’

Maybe the EDM industry needs to take notice of what LifeBeat is doing and come up with a way to educate young people on the dangers of drug abuse, particularly in an outdoor setting at the height of summer. Maybe if everyone’s favourite DJs spoke out about how fans don’t need to be under the influence to enjoy their music, it would deter young people from experimenting with illegal drugs.

An event staff member repeated, “If you can’t enjoy this music sober, maybe you shouldn’t be here” multiple times as excited animals herded through the festival gates Friday afternoon. I wonder how many of them were listening…

PS. Here’s some live sets that popped up from this weekend.

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