Note 02/25/13: There was an error and misrepresentation of a quote used in this piece — see note at the bottom for details.
Before reactionary responses arise from the recent L.A. Times articles, it is important to put the information into perspective, and see what we can do to make them safer for the attendees and better for the hosting communities.
Festivals are on the exponential rise. They are becoming the summer activity for young adults. But these aren’t your father’s concerts or Grateful Dead reunion shows. These festivals are on a grandeur scale: they often have multitude stages running simultaneously, hosts the most popular musical artists of the world, and run for days and weekends at a time.
Recently the Los Angeles Times released an exposé on the rising trend of music festivals and their relation with fatal use of drugs at these events.
Neglecting bigger, multi-genre music festivals like Coachella, Bamboozle, or even Lollapalooza, the Times’ article focuses exclusively on electronic music festivals and even goes so far as referring to them as “raves.” Although this is a contentious point (there’s a staunch difference between festivals and raves), I will ignore this stigmatic oversimplification of electronic music festivals and focus on interpreting the information the article highlights, what it all means to the communities and attendees, and flesh out some potential reactions and solutions.
First, I would like to fully disclose and even agree with Times’ presupposition that drugs are commonly used at “raves,” and even submit that these events have an intimate relationship with drug use. James Penman, San Bernardino city attorney and anti-rave advocate said, ”A rave without drugs is like a rodeo without horses. They don’t happen.”*
To begin, using the Times’ own infographics, I would like to put the numbers into perspective (while trying to remain as sensitive as possible to those affected by these tragedies). The Times listed a total of 14 deaths ranging as far back as 2006 and from 12 different events. The deaths noted presumably resulted from consequences of being at the event (direct overdoses; heat exhaustion with drugs identified as an exacerbator) and some outside but correlated with attending the event (accidents outside the events were victims had drugs in their system).
Isolating the Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC) numbers only, there were a total of six deaths since 2010: two in 2010 (one in Dallas, other in L.A.), two in 2011 (Dallas), and two in 2012 (Las Vegas). Using estimated attendance numbers of those years and locations where fatal incidents have occurred only, the deaths make up 0.00001% of the attendees (again, events in with no reported incidences were not counted).
If you take all 14 victims listed and compare them with EDC’s 2012 Vegas attendance numbers alone, the mortality rate comes out to 0.000046%. Taking into account that they may have not listed every fatality from drug use at these festivals, multiplying by twenty brings the average to 0.00093% — again, using attendance numbers from one event.
Should we have to tolerate any percentages at all for those attending these events? Many, including myself, would contest that human life should not be reduced to numbers and percentages in such a utilitarian manner. So how can we get 0.00001% to straight zeros? We can look at this issue in several ways.
First, there is the typical reactionary response that is expected: shut the “raves” down. For people not involved in the scene, as they say, I can easily imagine this type of overbearing backlash. But let’s look at some of the consequences in doing so.
Rothbury, Michigan, a town of 432 residents, hosts the Electric Forest festival which has doubled in size every year since its inauguration. The longstanding Electric Daisy Carnival brought in 300,000 attendees over a weekend in Las Vegas in 2012 (with numbers is expected to rise this year). It has also expanded to Orlando, New York, Chicago, and even Puerto Rico (past locations include Los Angeles, Texas, and Colorado as well). After Miami’s Ultra Music Festival brought in 165,000 attendees last year, it will be held over two consecutive weekends this year.
These events are becoming so large that it begins to make a significant economic impact on the hosting communities.
According to Insomniac’s own report, the Las Vegas EDC alone “created an estimated $13.1 million in tax revenue for state and local government, the equivalent of 2,018 full-time jobs, bringing in $84 million in income for workers in Clark County.”
Back in Rothbury, in regards to the Electric Forest festival, town clerk Carol Witzke likes “the idea of new people coming into town and taking a look at Rothbury,” and that “it’s a great economic impact.” Rothbury police chief agrees: “The village is 100 percent behind it … It’s going to bring a lot of money into the community, and God knows we need it.”
By adhering to standard economic principles, there’s clearly a significant indication for the demand of festivals. Analogous to the adverse effects of the “war on drugs,” if we are to outright banish these festivals, then there will likely be an significant rise in illegal raves. Raves of the old days inherently lack the structure of contemporary, larger legal festivals: no on-site emergency medical services, no security, no oversight or responsibility, and no overall organization. These variables lead to increased dangers and risks on a much greater level (which is why there was an onslaught against them during the 90s).
Unlike the 90s, ‘old-fashioned’ raves are virtually non-existent not only in part by law enforcement’s campaign, but also in part by the establishment of legal and commercial events in the late 90s. As Simon Reynolds of the Guardian states in ‘How rave music conquered America’, “Paul van Dyk/Paul Oakenfold type spurred a resurgence of raves … which by the turn of the millennium reached the 20-40,000 range.”
The most controversial move is to admittedly recognize drug activity at festivals and dance events. In doing so, attendees can receive education and support for safe drug use.
DanceSafe (DanceSafe.org) is an organization that promotes drug testing for recreational use. Since their establishment, the nonprofit looks to educate users in hopes of harm reduction particularly “within the rave and nightclub community.” The organization states that testing is “an important harm reduction service that saves lives and reduces medical emergencies by helping ecstasy users avoid fake and adulterated tablets that often contain substances far more dangerous than real ecstacy.”
Similar to the type of pragmatic method to sexual education, this view assumes that people will use drugs at their discretion, and the best way to make users safer is to support safe use through education and not abstinence. This takes an unfamiliar amount of tolerance and an acceptance on the use of drugs at such events; naturally opposing our culture’s current conservative view of zero-tolerance (via the war on drugs).
Aside from this culture conflict, by event organizers promoting safe drug use, it follows that there is knowledge of such activity. This acknowledgment potentially puts a legal responsibility onto the organizers which obviously creates the hesitation to do so out of fear of suit and litigation.
Both of these views are potentially controversial and wouldn’t be easy to initiate, not without a fight. Is there a middle ground to possibly meet in? Unfortunately, this middle ground would be nearly if not already identical to the situation we’re in now: not condemning festivals and not addressing the drug use at these events. This seemingly means communities and attendees must be content with the 0.0001%. What are we content with? Should we expect accidents to happen? Who is responsible? What are some ways to prevent accidents? How can we educate attendees? These are some of the many questions we’ll need to ask ourselves in order to find our ground.
*Post-note: The first draft of this article cited Pasquale Rotella, founder of Insomniac, as saying, ”A rave without drugs is like a rodeo without horses. They don’t happen.” I also incorrectly referred to Mr. Rotella’s first name by “Adam.” This was an incorrect, embarrassing, and egregious error on my part. While no excuses are acceptable, I would like to apologize for the air-headed mix-up.
Although I cited the wrong person, I would still would like to emphasize the quotation’s meaning that drug use at dance events such as festivals and raves is a complex issue as I continued to show throughout the article.