Welcome to the music festival bubble, the work-to-rave economy. With annual price hikes for almost every major North American festival, from Coachella to Electric Daisy Carnival, companies have found a way for the penniless party animal to get inside the gates of a neon wonderland—volunteering.
It's an excellently marketed—yeah, marketed—experience. Take a look at any festival volunteer opportunity and you'll be greeted with something that reads with the rhetoric of advertising copy. Ontario's WayHome festival calls its volunteer experience an "incredible behind-the-scenes adventure." Hangout Festival in Alabama says it offers "amazing opportunities and a fun time!" Shambhala in BC gives you a "sense of being a part of something special," plus "memories to last a lifetime!" Does that sound like work to you?
In Paul Mason's recent piece for The Guardian he argues that the present global economy has "blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages." This is the burgeoning economy of sharing; it's about community and experience—supposedly anyway. Nowadays, volunteering or interning is a two-faced beast that can be, on one hand, a "spontaneous rise of collaborative production." On the other, it's merely an exploitative work practice. This is clearly indicative of a cynical statement made last year by Stephen Poloz, a central banker in Canada, that young people living with their parents should "get some real-life experience even though you're discouraged, even if it's for free."
The way we see it, the best thing for the cash-strapped twenty-something to do, facing mountains of debt and an existential need to party, is to volunteer at a music festival. After speaking with several people across Canada and the United States about their experiences going pro-bono at fests, the answer was unanimous—they loved it.
Michaela Desiree, a bubbly 21-year-old from southern California with sea foam green hair, volunteered for Insomniac at Electric Daisy Carnival in 2013. "The whole point of going to festivals is to escape regular life for a while," she says. "I'm in it for the music, not the money." Similarly, Marcus Del Re, 19, who worked for Digital Dreams in Toronto, wrote a piece about his overwhelmingly positive experiences there this year. Sara Bobadilla, a 20-year-old student at Ryerson University, scored a volunteer gig that had her and a friend bring champagne to Armin Van Buuren on stage at VELD Music Festival in Toronto.
It's not hard to understand why volunteering is an enticing experience. Whether or not it should be equated to free labor for promoters, is another thing.
Insomniac, the reigning electronic music event organizer and promoter in America, didn't change this sentiment either. In a brief and vague email conversation, the PR representative claimed that all staff members are paid, but Desiree, the EDC volunteer from 2013, says she is sure she was never compensated.
"Well now they pay people," she says in a rapid-fire Facebook exchange. "[sic] I heard there was a lawsuit, but I didn't have any part of that cuz I didn't know 'till after."
In 2013, the same year Desiree volunteered at EDC, Elizabeth Valladares volunteered at an event also run by Insomniac called Nocturnal Wonderland. In March 2014, Valladares filed a class action lawsuit (which is available to read online here) against the company on behalf of any "current or former unpaid volunteers."
The allegations are sprawling and include a myriad of federal and state work code violations like "failure to keep accurate time records," "failure to pay minimum wages," and "false advertising." All that sweet talk promoters are shilling to prospective volunteers about "memories to last a lifetime" was one of the most egregious aspects of the lawsuit. It claims that workers were solicited "under the false pretense that [they] will get to enjoy the event in exchange for their services."
The change in volunteer/pay structure at Insomniac occurred between 2013-14, ostensibly due to the media hubbub surrounding the lawsuit. The story regarding the Valladares claims was picked up by numerous music blogs and other national publications, including Billboard.
Since then, the jobs previously worked by volunteers have been filled with paid staff. Insomniac declined to comment.
Marlin & Saltzman, a law firm based out of Irvine, California, is handling the ongoing lawsuit. Hanna Raanan, one of the lawyers on the case, says the core importance of this case rests in the basics of workers' rights.
"Logically, our lawsuit challenges the 'volunteer' classification and, after our lawsuit was filed, we've learned that Insomniac has begun to classify the workers as 'employees,' so to the extent our information is correct," says Raanan. "We fully believe that our lawsuit was the impetus for that change."
As for the numerous festivals that continue to recruit volunteers, Ranaan says that they would "be in violation of applicable law and that they should be paying their employees for all hours worked." However, without a major court ruling—Valladares's case against Insomniac could be the first—it's unclear how workers rights are applicable in volunteer scenarios.
Marcus at Digital Dreams. Photo courtesy of The Scene.
Volunteer opportunities at festivals have many things to offer, besides the music: networking, job training, and resume padding. But, an event that annually relies on throngs of volunteers for staffing—while at the same time being immensely profitable—seems disingenuous. Insomniac, along with other event production and promotion companies, create events that are cherished by those that attend, but they are also functioning businesses. EDC, for example, isn't the grassroots community-driven festival that, say, San Diego's Pride Festival is. Rather, EDC is a hugely successful commercial enterprise.
There is a whole generation of people that will stand and refill water bottles for twelve hours a day, just to be near the music they love. Most companies strive relentlessly to build such a loyal and motivated workforce similar to the ones music festivals collect by default. Insomniac's decision to change the pay structure for festival employees seems like the right move and should only encourage increased participation from their already dedicated fanbase. How other festivals will react to Valladares's lawsuit and its pending outcome is unclear, but if they want to keep things PLUR—that P better stand for payment.