How to Throw a Destination Music Festival That Doesn't End in Disaster
As Fyre Festival proved recently, throwing extravagant events in far-flung locales is no easy task.
My stomach lurches as our dune buggy barrels through the brightly coloured streets of Jaco, a sleepy surfer town on Costa Rica's Pacific coast. It's a Sunday night in late February and I'm en route to Bamboo Bass Festival—a three-day homage to bass music and sound system culture—one of two Canadians in a vehicle with a couple of Costa Ricans and a small, brown-and-white dog named Ground Beef. The road is bumpy and I'm gripping desperately onto my hat and backpack to keep them from flying out of the buggy. Ground Beef is wearing a canine-sized camo-coloured helmet. Clearly I'm underdressed for the occasion.
As we arrive at our destination, we're welcomed by a wall of sound pumping from the La Selva stage, a pulsating temple of bass nestled amid jungle foliage. It's the last night of the festival and New Zealand dubstep duo Truth is making the forest rumble. Overhead, a pair of acrobats dangles from a zip line suspended 70 feet in the air, just beneath the leafy canopy.
By marrying tropical locations, such as old-growth jungles and golden beaches, with electronic music, destination festivals like Bamboo Bass offer visitors a unique experience. Fittingly, they've been multiplying, as adventurous promoters from Canada and elsewhere flock to far-flung locales for events like BPM, Electric Festival, and SXM Festival. Attracting an influx of international tourists, these festivals can provide some major perks to their host communities, offering a boost to local businesses including hotels, restaurants, retail stores, and taxi services.
However, in light of the costly and embarrassing aftermath of this past week's disastrous Fyre Festival in the Bahamas, the flipside is worth examining for all involved parties. Who truly benefits from these events? Are the economic benefits lasting? Or do they evaporate as soon as the music stops and the last weary, strung-out partier boards his or her plane home?
When Montreal resident Julian Prince first started visiting St. Martin in 2003, tourism was the Caribbean island nation's biggest industry. But visitors started to dry up after 2008, when the financial crisis crippled the global tourism sector.
"In St. Martin the economy started really fading," says the long-time event organizer, DJ, and producer. "You could see it in the infrastructure. Everybody was struggling. I hated to see this place like that because when I discovered it it was blossoming. You had flowers, new paint, people in restaurants. That's why I liked to go there, because it was happening."
Over the years, Prince had fallen in love with St. Martin and it pained him to see its economy struggling. Driven by a desire to help the island's lagging tourism industry, he devised SXM Festival, a five-day house and techno party held in March that just wrapped up its second year. Featuring performances by Black Coffee, Lee Burridge, Nina Kraviz, and more, an estimated 4,000 people attended this year's event, with roughly 3,200 of them hailing from outside St. Martin.
Electronic music is a massive industry, pegged at around $7.1 billion globally according to the International Music Summit's 2016 report. But in spite of the genre's popularity, there's scant data available on the impacts that these events have on local economies. One longitudinal study by the University of Central Florida examined the economic impacts of a jazz festival held annually on the Caribbean island of Curacao. It found that hotel revenues in the region were higher in August, the month that the Curacao North Sea Jazz Festival is held, than in all other months outside of the January-April peak tourism season.
With SXM though, Prince wants to do more than just inject additional tourism for St. Martin during the one week out of the year that he stands to benefit from it. He hopes that by showcasing the island's most scenic spots, he will make festival-goers fall for the place just like he did, creating a cohort of loyal visitors year-round.
"If we're lucky it'll be able to generate this new wave of visitors who are going to go to St. Martin for the next 30 years," he suggests.
Like Prince, Bamboo Bass organizer Jordy Grant says he was motivated by the desire to combine his two loves—music festival culture and a locale that holds strong sentimental value. "There's just something magical about this place," points out Grant, who first visited Costa Rica on a family vacation.
But putting on events in a foreign jurisdiction such as Jaco comes with a seemingly endless series of bureaucratic hoops to jump through, says the Calgary native. And while the Central American nation's laidback attitude provides excellent respite for travellers looking to escape from the frenetic energy of life in a big city, it can make throwing a festival a stressful process. For instance, deliveries are often delayed, leaving builders scrambling to finish the stages once materials had finally arrived.
Ticket sales pose another challenge. It can be tough to convince Canadian or US partygoers to commit to a pricey plane ticket, and the time off from work that's required to attend. Plus, you have to persuade them that the festival is legit—that when they arrive onsite they're actually going to find a festival there, as promised. That task is likely to get even tougher following Fyre Festival, where concertgoers who had shelled out thousands of dollars for a luxury experienced arrived on a remote island in the Bahamas to mass chaos.
Costs pose another challenge for Canadian promoters throwing destination festivals. In SXM's case, its hard-to-access location makes importing the goods and services needed to run the event a pricey proposition. "They don't have the materials we need, so we end up having to bring everything, from sound to lights to technicians," says Prince, who spends around $100,000 USD just in plane tickets for crew. Plus, he adds, everything is more expensive in St. Martin because it's priced in euros ("Romaine lettuce is six bucks US").
In spite of their highly-touted economic benefits, electronic music festivals are not always well received by residents and business owners —largely due to the drugs and, sometimes, violence that accompanies them.
In Mexico's Riviera Maya region, local authorities are calling for a ban on festivals in the wake of a shootout at Canadian-run BPM Festival in Playa Del Carmen earlier this year, that left five dead and 15 others injured (BPM did not return an email request to be interviewed for this piece). During a press conference following the shooting, a union of business owners called for a stop to events like BPM. Sure, businesses wants to see local tourism flourish, but not at such a steep cost, union president Maria Elena Mata said. The city of Buenos Aires, Argentina banned dance music events altogether a year ago after six people died from drug overdoses at Time Warp Festival, a spinoff of a German festival bearing the same name.
Organizers say the amount of backlash that a festival draws typically depends on how well-behaved its patrons are. In Mexico City, Montreal-based MUTEK has been throwing a festival for the past 13 years without any incidents. That's because MUTEK—which draws its name from the words "mutation" and "technology"—is more of an audio-visual experience than a full-on rager. "Even though there is electronic music involved, we define ourselves as a festival of digital creativity," says festival co-director Pablo Del Bosco.
Of course, those kinds of concessions don't placate everyone. In St. Martin, for instance, Prince has heard some grumblings from locals about the inconveniences associated with the surge of tourists. He recalls sitting in a local bar once and hearing a middle-aged man complain about how difficult it is to find a parking spot while SXM is underway. Yet overall, he says the festival has been very well-received, attributing it partly to the fact that the average attendee age is 33.
Still, from a cost perspective, it's not always worth it for organizers to throw festivals in sunny vacation spots. Even in Mexico, where the comparatively cheap peso works in MUTEK's favour, Del Bosco says the exchange rate isn't quite the economic silver bullet that one might expect. While many goods and supplies are cheaper, he points out, "so are the tickets."
But while destination festivals may not be a cash cow for organizers, the experience for their patrons is unique and unparalleled. After all, how often does one get to hear some of their favourite DJs and producers perform beneath the canopy of a lush Costa Rican jungle after spending the day exploring a foggy cloud forest or taking in the sunset at Jaco Beach?
For Prince, the payoff is the thrill of pulling off a four-day, nonstop rave in the scenic wilderness of a Caribbean island, and contributing positively to a place that holds a special sentimental value. That is perhaps the biggest motivator for promoters to deal with the headaches involved of throwing an event abroad—the desire to create something in a place that they feel a strong emotional attachment to.
"You don't do passion projects to make money," says Prince. "You do them because you have to be part of that energy."
Alexandra Posadzki is on Twitter.