What EDM Promoters Are Doing To Stop Drug-Related Deaths At Their Shows

October 28, 2014

To become more safe, American raves are looking to Europe

When Brian*, an EDM fan in his mid-20s, arrived at the gates of July's Hudson Project music festival in upstate New York, he felt prepared to enjoy a long weekend of dance sets by Bassnectar, Flying Lotus, Excision and more. Then he noticed the drug-sniffing dogs ahead.

"I freaked out. I had this fake root beer can that twisted apart and there were shrooms, acid, ecstasy inside," he told The FADER in October. "I had one friend go stand inside the side fence. Once the cops were facing away, we threw our drugs over and he caught them. It was probably the riskiest thing I've ever done in my life, but we had no choice."

Molly-sniffing watchdogs may have seemed Orwellian a few years ago, but over the past year, they've become one of several increasingly utilized security tools for EDM show promoters. Not all such tactics bark—promoters also employ PSAs and amnesty bins—but they all serve one desired goal: to stem the tide of drug-related deaths and injuries at raves. Preventing drug abuse is a complex task in the American dance scene. Like a microcosm of U.S. politics, ideas about how to stop deaths at raves often fall into two categories: an enforcement-based, abstinence model and one of acceptance and harm-reduction.

“We can’t keep kids from drinking, we can’t keep kids from screwing, and we’re not gonna be able to keep kids from doing drugs.”

Of all the recent tragedies, Electric Zoo 2013 was the most publicly marred; the third day of the festival was canceled and the New York Times, Rolling Stone and Billboard scrutinized its operations and subsequent drug-dealing arrest of an attendee. Not surprisingly, Electric Zoo's organizers implemented a barrage of extra security measures this year: drug-sniffing dogs, more plainclothes security offices, background checks for onsite vendors, a two-hour shortening of the length of each day's show, mandatory viewing of an anti-drug PSA, and amnesty bins in front of the gates where revelers could discard drugs free of punishment.

"We looked to Europe a bit, where such things have worked out well," said Dr. Andrew Bazos, Chairman of the SFX Medical and Safety Committee. (SFX bought Electric Zoo's promoter, Made Event, in fall 2013.) European electro promoters typically enact more comprehensive, long-term strategies than their American counterparts: specifically, they encourage peer-based crisis management and drug education. At the Amsterdam Dance Event, an annual electronic music conference held in the Netherlands in October, Dr. Bazos gave a presentation called "Alive and Well at Live Music Events" that called for increases in two sectors of festival management besides security: harm reduction (cool-down areas, substance intake education, water stations) and medical (on-site treatment, fixed and roving EMTs).

Electric Zoo and Electric Daisy Carnival recently launched programs that combine both. They dispatch young medical workers into crowds to hand out water and discreetly help any revelers in bad drug-induced states. At Electric Daisy Carnival in particular, this supplements a screening process—bag searches, shoe removal, pat-downs—that hasn't changed significantly in recent years. "We've invested a lot of money in ID scanners, and all events are now 18 and over. We've found that to be effective," said Insomniac's Forkish. This year, at SFX's Electric Zoo, no one died.

Promoters interviewed by The FADER all denied that drug-related tragedies have led to pressure from law enforcement. (True enough, after Electric Zoo 2013, then-New York mayor Michael Bloomberg praised Made Event for enforcing "as good procedures as we could think of.") But that doesn't mean organizers' hands aren't tied in other ways. American promoters must contend with the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act of 2003, which focuses on dance music events (and was sponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden), states that promoters can be arrested or fined $250,000 if they show knowledge of drug use at their events. This scares many away from harm-reduction tactics inside their raves, such as the drug-testing kits common in the European dance scene, which will identify if a drug is laced with toxins.

The Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act also may contribute to EDM insiders' apprehension in discussing their existing safety measures; many appear shaken by the publicized uptick in onsite tragedies. Over a dozen promoters, and nearly as many DJs, declined The FADER's interview requests on this subject and deaths that have occurred at raves in recent years.

Abiding too enthusiastically by the law also has its own pitfalls: organizers risk losing their audiences if they're seen as coming down too heavily on substance policing. Some attendees at Electric Zoo 2014 found the atmosphere overbearing. "I gave my friend a piece of gum in tinfoil and a guard came up to me and asked what I gave my friend, telling me I was lucky he wasn't searching me," said Dmitry, 27, a dental technician who has attended Electric Zoo for three years running. "Someone told me he was doing ecstasy, and undercover cops in banana suits tackled him to the ground. It was a very nervous, high-stress environment."

"There were way more security people around, to the point that it was a little oppressive," added Jeremy Blutstein, 27, who works in sales. "I understand the promoter's motivations… but I may not go next year."

It's for this reason that policing the crowds is short-sighted, said Robbie Kowal, cofounder of SunsetSF promotions in San Francisco, which stages the Silent Frisco party series. Despite the liabilities looming within the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, he agreed with Dr. Bazos that ravers should be educated about drugs and safe dosages before they step anywhere near a show. This, he maintained, is the only true solution.

"There's no security measure you can take when a kid who's ignorant does something he shouldn't before he walks in. So we have to educate them how to do these things safely," said Kowal. "We can't keep kids from drinking, we can't keep kids from screwing, and we're not gonna be able to keep kids from doing drugs."

Photos: Ethan Miller / Getty Images, Alex Welsh for The FADER

* Name has been changed

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article made Dr. Andrew Bazos' affiliation to a promotion company unclear. He works with SFX, not Insomniac Events.

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Beat Week
Posted: October 28, 2014
What EDM Promoters Are Doing To Stop Drug-Related Deaths At Their Shows