How Mega Rave Electric Zoo Will Try to Keep the Drugs Out
As many as 100,000 EDM fans will descend on Randall's Island this weekend for the return of Electric Zoo. Over three days, the mostly 20-something crowd will hear an impressive roster of DJs that includes superstars David Guetta, Armin Van Buuren, Paul Van Dyk, Victor Calderone, Kaskade, and Sasha.
All photos Kaitlin Perry Electric Zoo
But first they will have to have their wristbands electronically validated after proving they have viewed — either online or there on site — a video on the dangers of Molly, the Ecstasy derivative responsible for several recent deaths at EDM events. Written and directed by James Manos, Jr., creator of the popular Showtime series, Dexter, and his teenage daughter, Ellie, the two-minute PSA shows a young man getting so high on the dance floor that he ends up alone in a very dark head space.
It's only one of the steps the festival's producer, Made Event, is taking after last year, when two attendees died, and several others were reportedly hospitalized. In the wake of intense media scrutiny and criticism, and after a strong recommendation by the mayor's office, the third day was abruptly canceled.
This year, attendees will be greeted by drug-sniffing dogs and "Amnesty Bins," which offer a last chance to trash the stash, no questions asked.
The dogs, according to Made Event principal Mike Bindra, are "more of a deterrent factor. They aren't storm trooper German shepherds. You're going to have to go through a gauntlet. It's a way to bolster our security practices and eliminate stuff from getting into the festival."
Other innovations new this year are geared toward keeping partygoers happy and healthy. Messages from the stages will give advice like how to stay hydrated. EMTs will roam in the field, along with "Zoo Keepers," young medical students casually observing, offering free water or electrolytes, and offering assistance where necessary.
EDM fans took Electric Zoo to task on its Facebook page after it announced it would not allow CamelBak-type hydration packs, even empty ones. But the list of prohibited items at another local event earlier this month included empty cups, eyedroppers, Kandi bracelets, and even pacifiers and stuffed animals, a decision that might seem more reasonable in light of the two deaths and 20-plus hospitalizations at the EDM-heavy Mad Decent Block Party in Washington, D.C., just a few weeks ago.
Bindra says he is seeking a middle path. "When people in their early 20s are dying, even if some of the actions seem overreactions, we have to do everything in our power to prevent it from happening again."
Tammy L. Anderson, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware who closely follows youth culture and drug use, says that in the heyday of rave culture music fans banded together on websites.
"They were wiser about their drug consumption," says Anderson, also the author of Rave Culture: The Alteration and Decline of a Philadelphia Music Scene. "They had a methodology about recovery. Then came the 'realists,' the routine clubbers, the do-overs or pretenders, who said, 'I want to be a part of this scene' — frat boys, college kids. The sometime-goers would just overdo it and not have as much drug knowledge. Finally, there were the 'bandwagoners.' They would just do dance events to get fucked up."
The founding publisher of website YourEDM.com, Jordan Keeling, also blames bandwagoners — "the most damaging thing to our culture, the types of people who attend massive shows, whose sole purpose is to get laid, take handfuls of pills, get totally wasted."
Getting wasted, of course, is hardly unique to the EDM world. While national media blare headlines about a fatality at an EDM festival, there was far less coverage last month when more than 20 people were hospitalized due to "alcohol-related issues" at a country music concert starring Keith Urban.
Binge drinking at college sports events has become a national epidemic; dozens of hospital admissions were attributed to a giant tailgating party before a 2004 Harvard-Yale game, yet no one calls for the stoppage of intramural competition. In March, when I wrote a Voice cover story about Roseland closing its doors, Donald Bernstein, the industry attorney for the city's nightlife establishments, made a pointed analogy: "Should George Steinbrenner be penalized if drugs are found at Yankee Stadium," he asked me. "Could you imagine the police closing down Madison Square Garden if drugs were found?"
"All events are plagued with substance abuse," Meghan Ralston, harm-reduction manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, says. "It is unfair for music festivals to be taking such a hit in the press."
Certainly, two deaths at last year's Zoo was two too many. But that's two out of nearly 100,000 attendees. Not that you'd have known that from tabloid headlines like the Post's "Death-plagued Zoo," or the Daily News' "Death Fest."
In a damning Huffington Post column after the Zoo deaths, "dance-music journalist" Kia Makarechi compared the current state of EDM to rock 'n' roll after the disastrous 1969 Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, California: "The broader society now views it as underscored by drug use and reckless behavior."
In other words, perception equals reality.
Today, nearly 40 years to the day after a Woodstock announcer warned the crowd not to take the brown acid, aging rockers look with disdain at the music enjoyed by millennials as only fit for druggies. Two months ago, veteran rocker Tom Petty told USA Today, "I don't think it would be any fun without the drugs. It's a drug party."
"The only thing that differentiates raves is that it was needed to reinvigorate the war on drugs," Anderson says.