The producers of Electric Zoo, it seems, just can’t catch a break in New York City. Last year, the last day was canceled in the wake of two drug-related deaths and the subsequent flood of negative media coverage. This year, human nature wasn’t to blame for an early end, but rather Mother Nature.
At 4 p.m. on Sunday, people were jazzed up to make the trek to East Harlem and board one of the buses to Randalls Island for Electric Zoo’s final hours. Then the sky darkened to a threatening hue as cell phones went crazy with beeps alerting to an emergency text: “Imminent severe alert: Flash Flood Warning.”
Judging from the dozens of postings on Electric Zoo’s Facebook page, EDM fans were especially outraged by the cancellation of the rest of the night. True, the sky cleared up and stayed that way for the remainder of the proceedings (following a late-afternoon rainstorm of biblical proportions).
With rumors swirling around the reasons for the abrupt decision to cancel, Stefan Friedman, the senior publicist in charge, attempted to set the record straight. In an exclusive interview with the Voice, Friedman went to great lengths to explain that the various city agencies involved — especially the Parks Department and the NYPD — had determined that “extremely unsafe conditions,” including lightning at Orchard Beach, a mere stone’s throw across the sound from Randalls Island, requested that the Zoo shut down for good.
A source told us off the record, however, that Zoo officials were more than willing to let the acts continue after the thunderstorm. The torrential rains had left the field a muddy mess; but ever since the mother of all pop-music festivals, Woodstock, has that stopped people from slipping along, sliding about, and even covering themselves with acres of mud?
What has changed since the ’60s, of course, is a general hardening in the public and official perception of what are considered “safe conditions” for such a massive gathering. Chief among them is drug use. In the wake of a spate of deaths at festivals over the past few years, the fallout from designer drugs has become a source of anxiety among public officials and the festival promoters themselves.
At the Zoo, there’s no question that the publicity from last year’s deaths resulted in a considerable tightening of security that was meant to be as visible as possible — and, indeed, it was. That’s what made the cancellation doubly disappointing to the organizers. “The sad irony of it is that the shows were really good and really ‘clean,’ ” Friedman said. “The huge preponderance of people were sober and enjoying the evening.”
The searches began with bag checks when attendees boarded the buses and continued with body searches through at least two on-site checkpoints. The prominent presence of drug-sniffing dogs, TSA-level searches, security both identifiable and plainclothes, and even the placement of a dozen cameras throughout the festival grounds let attendees know, in the words of one source, that the organizers “weren’t fucking around this year.”
In addition to deterrents, there were visible signs that this year’s Zoo intended to treat anyone who was experiencing negative effects. The four medical tents on the field were supplemented by 50 to 75 young medical students keeping an eye on possible dropouts.
As for the well-publicized “amnesty bins” that offered a last chance to get rid of contraband before entering the grounds, they were not nearly so prominent as other deterrents. It’s unclear how effective they were, since organizers understandably are tight-lipped about exactly what and how much was left in the bins. Equally unquantifiable is how much another heavily dissected precaution — the two-minute PSA of a young man rolling into oblivion that was required viewing before wristbands could be validated — ultimately affected what partygoers tried to smuggle into the field or how much they dropped once they got there.
Although there was inevitable grumbling, it’s questionable whether the overall vibe was quite the “day-glo version of North Korea” described in the New York Post. “Was there a show of force?” Friedman asked rhetorically. “Absolutely. But nothing more than what you see in a nightclub. The fans were far more understanding than a tabloid newspaper.”
As a veteran of the city’s club scene, I can testify to experiencing and witnessing body searches that have included taking off my shoes and socks and even female security reaching into a woman’s bra. Undergoing such demeaning procedures has become an unfortunate reality of going out dancing these days.
While attendance didn’t reach last year’s, there were enough people to pack the main stage when headliner Armin van Buuren played the Saturday-night set that was the culmination of a day of superstar DJs. Producing organization Made Event is still working out whether and how thwarted attendees will secure refunds, but it would be difficult to dole them out to those who were inside the grounds on Sunday and had to leave early.
Whether the event made a profit probably won’t be known for several weeks, until all of the vendors are paid. Friedman echoed the sentiments Made Event principals Mike Bindra and Laura de Palma made in my preview article that they look at this year’s Zoo as a labor of love as much as a way to make money.
“Mike and Laura love New York,” Friedman said. “They love this venue. They want to do everything possible to save it.” This year, that meant responding to the many media requests for information and interviews. Far from shying away from the limelight, Zoo officials made a conscious decision to embrace it as a way of getting out the message of vigorous monitoring of drug use. “You saw more press about security than the music,” Friedman noted.
In the same article, however, the Post, which proved it was no friend to EDM festivals when it led the media sensationalizing of last year’s Zoo deaths, admitted that this year’s Electric Zoo had “an energy that few other festivals can get close to.”
Meanwhile, a source close to the organizers reiterated the point made in our preview story that, sooner or later, Americans are going to have to face the reality that European governments reached long ago: Like it or not, drug use is a part of the landscape. Groups like the Harm Reduction Coalition and DanceSafe are going to have to be brought in from the fringes to become an integral part of helping ensure that people at least know what they’re putting into their bodies.