Some Thoughts On Deaths At Electric Zoo, Dance Music And Drugs

The deaths of two Electric Zoo attendees and hospitalization of at least four others prompted the cancellation of the third day of the festival on Sunday. As a music journalist who covers dance music for one of the nation's biggest media outlets, I can't say it's a story I'm shocked to hear.
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The deaths of two Electric Zoo attendees and hospitalization of at least four others prompted the cancellation of the third day of the festival on Sunday. As a music journalist who covers dance music for one of the nation's biggest media outlets, I can't say it's a story I'm shocked to hear.

I recently watched "Gimme Shelter," a vintage documentary on the tragic events of Dec. 6, 1969, when a massive, free rock festival headlined by The Rolling Stones turned into a bloody, disorganized mess that left one man killed and scores more injured. Meredith Hunter, who died that day, returned to a fight with a gun and was stabbed. He was reportedly high on methamphetamine to the point of incoherence. With the benefit of some distance, many cultural observers marked the festival as the end of the peace-loving, feel-good era that is popularly remembered by events such as Woodstock.

To compare Electric Zoo, a festival whose organizers (Made Event) have spent years developing with careful attention to detail, to the Altamont Free Concert would be reckless. Altamont was tossed together after multiple venues refused to host the proceedings, and the Hell's Angels ended up playing the role of a de facto police force. It was hardly the type of event that Zoo organizers Made Event would ever put on (nor, it's worth noting, could such a major event happen in today's America, much less in New York City).

But just like rock and roll culture cannot be fully considered without taking the events at Altamont into consideration, dance music will also have to come to terms with the fact that the broader society now views it as underscored by drug use and reckless behavior.

There's an understandable resistance to this idea within the dance music community, and it generally rests on the following points: that not all ravers or festival attendees do drugs; that most who use drugs "do so responsibly" and that artists and festival promoters cannot be held responsible for the actions of a few. There's a meta claim too: That it's "unfair" that dance music gets victimized when these incidents occur.

Except for the first, which is almost too obvious to matter, those assertions are at once true and false. Of course "all" dance music fans don't use drugs. It's unclear what percentage of fans do and how that compares to other genres. The second assertion, that "plenty" of EDM fans "do drugs responsibly," is the type of thought that keeps D.A.R.E. counselors and parents up at night. It's impossible to do drugs -- particularly those in powder, rock or pill form, like MDMA and ecstasy -- responsibly. In the absence of on-site pill testing, it's virtually impossible that the vast majority of fans have any reasonable idea what's in their drugs. That's to say nothing of latent health conditions which can cause serious injury and/or fatalities when revealed by drugs that put additional stress on the body. At the very least, an organization such as DanceSafe should play a more prominent role in festivals.

There's also a constant "that wouldn't happen to me"-type of arrogance that underscores the reactions of fans who themselves have tried drugs but didn't suffer any medical consequences. Given the lack of details given about the deaths at Electric Zoo, it's ignorant to speculate as to the decisions that those who passed made. (Also, news flash: While being hydrated during any bout of intense physical activity is important, chugging water bottles in the face of adverse drug-related symptoms is not going to help. MDMA stems the rate at which the body gets rid of water, and over-hydration actually dilutes your blood and puts you at greater risk for seizures or cardiac arrhythmia.)

As for the role of artists, promoters (and, I'll add here, dance music journalists), there's much work to be done. It was disheartening to watch countless top-tier DJs simply tweet some variant of "our hearts go out to those who died; drugs are bad" this morning. Tweeting your condolences and half-assedly reminding people that drugs are "bad" or "dangerous" is not enough. Artists should be promoting non-profits that work to provide information on the risks (and ways to mitigate said risks) associated with drugs that are popular among those who consume their media. If it's off-brand for them to tweet links to fact sheets, perhaps they should reconsider their brands.

Festivals, too, should be doing a better job of distributing information. Zero-tolerance policies are laudable, but anyone who has tried to sneak granola bars into a festival knows how easy it is to thwart checkpoints. And since no checkpoint will be 100 percent foolproof, there should be greater attention paid to crowds -- organizers should have security and medical professionals roaming crowds at the main stages. A number of music journalists (including myself) have witnessed fans suffering from heat exhaustion and/or drug-related health issues being walked or carried through crowds that easily number in the tens of thousands. Simply put, medical tents are not enough.

Finally, there's the idea that dance music is unfairly scrutinized for such incidents. Sure -- at least 10 people have died at Bonnaroo over the past decade and there's no current backlash against the artists who headline that festival. But anyone who thinks that other genres haven't been criticized for the dangerous actions of a relatively small number of their participants is myopic at best and more likely ignorant. Ask rap fans if their shows were said to be hotbeds of violence. Ask people who were fans of rock in the '60s if there was any stigma associated with their favorite bands.

There seems to be a confusion between morality and risk prevention that pervades the discourse on "EDM and drugs." I'm not arguing that artists should preach values, but I am arguing that anyone in a position to distribute information that can save lives who shirks that responsibility is a coward. There's a difference between "don't do drugs" (which is, as previously mentioned, the dominant artist Twitter response whenever something like this happens) and "there have been a number of high-profile deaths within our community -- please take a minute to educate yourselves."

I've covered this scene for the entirety of its current explosion, and I hesitate to say that things don't seem to be getting better. As Kerri Mason (a true veteran of the scene) noted, Electric Zoo's Sunday cancellation marks "the first major festival of the three-year-old EDM boom to be shuttered due to drug concerns." It also comes on the heels of the drug-related death of a 19-year-old at a dance music concert in Boston.

This is not a Made Event problem (the festival repeatedly advised attendees to reach out for help if they see anyone who needs assistance and took other precautionary measures) or an [insert artist name] problem. Nor is it a simple problem. But the time to act is now. Artists, promoters and attendees: Don't let this weekend mark the end of dance music's resurgence.

Official statements are available from the New York Mayor's Office and Made Event.

Note: This article has been amended to clarify the claim that "chugging water bottles" is not always a solution when it comes to MDMA-related health issues. The original version of this article was factually correct, commenters raised concerns that a discussion of seizure and cardiac arrhythmia-related deaths without mention of deaths related to symptoms of hyperthermia is misleading. I've amended that passage to make it explicit that hydration is important, which I had previously imagined was a given. Not drinking water is certainly not going to lessen the risks associated with drug use, nor, in the case of MDMA use, is drinking a disproportionate amount of water once adverse symptoms appear.

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