When Charli XCX bellowed “what the fuck is up Firefest,” I felt a rush of tingly excitement even though I hadn’t made it through the festival gates yet. As the popstar spoke during A. G. Cook and Umru’s set, that prickle of euphoria rushed through the expectant crowd. Collectively we lost our shit and spammed a chat with a string of heartfelt expletives and candy-colored emojis. We got in 30 minutes later, but instead of muddy grass underfoot, we were crunching through pristine polygons. Giant digital animals lined the festival paths while the stages themselves stretched up infinitely into the sky. The crowd, over 5,000 strong, ran around manically, cube-shaped avatars pogoing with each bass drop, their heads gyrating in strange and exuberant shapes.
Fire Festival—a Minecraft-specific goof on the ill-fated Fyre Festival—took place on January 12th and 13th in the wildly popular, block-building video game Minecraft, spearheaded by the 21-year-old music producer Max Schramp, aka Sleepycatt. You might not play it but your younger cousins almost certainly do. At the very least, they probably spend hours at your aunt’s house watching YouTube personalities roam around the game’s pixel-perfect landscapes, fighting off crude-looking zombies and weird-ass giant spiders. Minecraft’s biggest hook is that it’s basically a video game version of Lego and since its release in 2009, savvy, coordinated groups of players have created sometimes monstrous, often beautiful totemic configurations within its 3D walls, from a Babylonian city to a vast subterranean highway.
Fire Festival made good on this tradition. Starting in October 2018, its two stages and hub-world (the area where players first meet) were constructed by a team of over 50 “builders,” working at an epic sci-fi scale, albeit grounded by a cornucopia of delicate, personal touches. An art gallery housed work from IRL, scans of artwork pasted onto its walls as if they’d been smashed into Minecraft from another dimension (think that episode where a CGI Homer finds himself in our world). Low-poly plants and flowers were scattered around the environment while a gigantic passenger jet hung motionless above it. The entire world was emblazoned with the LGBTQ+ rainbow alongside the blues, pink and white of the transgender flag. Oh, and there was a giant model of Sophie’s possible Grammy award because, yes, this is a dream world where she has already won.
The mechanics of listening were slightly convoluted but functioned perfectly. An audio stream from the virtual festival’s website broadcast sets from its two stages while players were instructed to switch off C418’s extremely chill and excellent Minecraft soundtrack that usually plays in the background. Instead, our audio channels were graced with blistering party sets spanning ballroom, grime, screamo and, of course, that Animal Crossing edit of Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode.” Hudson Mohawke, Iglooghost, and Kai Whiston assumed the glistening, pixelated Angle—not a typo, just a joke about Minecraft’s boxy environs—and Devil stages alongside PC Music affiliates A.G. Cook, Umru and over 70 other artists.The idea of experiencing music performance through technology isn’t new. Following virtual reality’s reemergence within popular consciousness in 2016, the remote consumption of live performance was touted as a desirable innovation by both the music and sports industries. Boiler Room flirted with the idea in 2017, enabling Google Daydream owners to experience a FJAAK live set from Berlin’s Arena Club in VR. In sports, Fox has designed its own app enabling Oculus Rift owners to watch sports by situating themselves within digital stadiums. There are obvious physiological deficiencies to such initiatives—the inability to feel the rippling bass and the conspicuous absence of odor for instance—but there are bigger issues, too. It might be viewed as evidence of our seemingly irreversible slide towards societal atomization—a retreat from the public to the private typified by the hours we spend glued to our phones, laptops or tablets (actually scrap that, nobody uses a tablet anymore).
Fire Festival is interesting because it goes some way to contradicting the (often justified) skepticism that emerges around technology, performance, and music. I might not have felt the music coursing through my rib cage while I listened using headphones, but the spike in my endorphin levels at well-placed drops or killer vocal edits was undeniable. It made me question my own assumptions about how I respond to music physically, reactions not borne in the body but in the brain, chemicals slowly diffusing throughout my bloodstream and nervous system. With the right line-up, perhaps other festival goers can learn to dig it? Far from the event reinforcing our increasing isolation from another, it brought everyone together in a way that felt genuine. Fire Festival offered a physical space (kind of) to its myriad artists who exist almost ethereally on Soundcloud and Twitter as posters of weirdo rap edits. (Side note: in what was almost certainly the most Fire Festival moment of the entire weekend, Cavan Brady dropped this unholy mashup of Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” and Alice DeeJay’s “Better Off Alone” on the unsuspecting crowd.)Unlike the majority of IRL music events (and society more generally), Fire Festival felt like a welcoming place for LGTBQ+ attendees and artists, made possible by a conscious effort from Schramp and his co-organizers. “It was was a reaction to politics, society, and the current state of the music industry,” he told me over Skype the Monday after the festival. “When we decided to do Minecraft, we were just like, ‘OK, we can do anything we want. Let's just do it right.’" The team followed through on the sentiment by donating the $1,750.97 raised through its VIP system to The Trevor Project, an organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ people under 25. Such convictions are a far cry from the bigoted views of Markus “Notch” Persson, one of Minecraft’s original developers who’s tweeted “It's ok to be white” alongside other comments calling for “HeterosexualPrideDay.” When I suggested to Schramp that Fire Festival might be the kind of thing that really pisses Notch off, he replied, “We love that.”
And yet, Fire Festival is built on precarious foundations, just like any other underground music scene—IRL or otherwise—in the platform driven economies of the twenty-first century. Schramp and his co-organizers have constructed the event on borrowed digital infrastructure and real estate. As of 2014, Minecraft belongs to Microsoft which bought the video game, its intellectual property rights and developer, Mojang, for the eye-watering sum of $2.5 billion. Schramp’s efforts, similar to all the other events organizers, artists or labels who use Facebook, Soundcloud or Spotify to host or promote their work, are reliant on a stable, transparent (relatively speaking of course) set of rules. Currently, Minecraft—a platform in its own right—enables such events to take place but their existence is contingent on Microsoft’s continuing goodwill and, more importantly, the synchronisation of mutual interests, the benefits of which will always be weighted in favor of the platform provider.
In an excellent piece for Logic magazine, Liz Pelly highlighted how Facebook is threatening DIY venues around the world through its increasingly labor intensive mechanisms, emphasis on both paid content and that which generates big click throughs. Like the organizations Pelly describes, Fire Festival is run on voluntary labor, making it particularly vulnerable to the whims of the platforms it relies upon. Towards the end of the piece she wrote, “We need to fight against the trappings of convenience, and make sure that it’s us using the digital tools and not the digital tools using us.”
Thankfully, Fire Festival swung the balance in the favor of the event, its community and artists, but that comes with a caveat. When I purchased Minecraft in preparation of the festival, I was only able to do so under the proviso that I was happy for my data to be collected from the game. Following Fire Festival’s 2018 forebear, Coalchella (also organized by Schramp), an article appeared on AdAge, a publication focused on the advertising and marketing industries. It’s hard not to see Microsoft or advertising boardroom execs sensing an opportunity in the emerging digital festival market, especially one populated by hip, internet-savvy young people.Schramp and his peers have never known a DIY music culture which isn’t touched by corporate platforms in some way, a scary prospect in itself. But over the course of Fire Festival’s 12 hours, he and his co-organizers twisted the rules of the game to meet their own ends. They created an online world and community in the image of what they hope might come to pass, one decidedly more equal and diverse, thankfully free of Markus “Notch” Persson’s insecurity-driven bullshit. “We've put it in people's minds that festivals can be changed,” he said proudly. “There's the potential for the music industry to be shifted to be an accepting platform for all artists.” Even days after the event, Charli XCX’s jubilant voice still echoes in my brain from Fire Festival’s glittering, rainbow-colored world, one built on land rented from the world’s biggest corporation.Lewis Gordon is a reporter based in Minecraft. You can find him on Twitter.