This past weekend, pop star Justin Bieber surprised tens of thousands of Electronic Dance Music fans at the HARD Summer Festival in Pomona, CA, when he performed with Jack U — the megastar DJ duo that is Skrillex and Diplo. But the festival ultimately made news for a very different and tragic reason.
Two young women, aged 18 and 19, died Saturday from suspected drug overdoses at the festival at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona. The fatalities were just the latest in a series of deaths at electronic music festivals.
In 2013, the Los Angeles Times found that at least 14 people who had attended EDM festivals run by two major Los Angeles-based rave organizers died from overdoses or in drug-related incidents since 2006. Since then, at least five more people have died in local drug-related incidents.
Zel McCarthy, Vice President of Media at the online electronic music site Beatport and former editor-in-chief at the electronic dance music and culture channel “Thump” on Vice, talked with the Frame's John Horn to discuss the safety measures festivals are taking to prevent these incidents — including the drug safe kit "DanceSafe," and the consequences these festivals face.
So first off, are overdoses more common at EDM Festivals than they are at other music events like Coachella?
Before we answer that, we need to talk about the word "overdose." Overdose implies that there is such a thing as a safe dosage. The reality for a lot of these substances is that people are taking things that they're trying to get MDMA from, which gives you that kind of ecstasy high, but they can be cut with anything from sugar to garden fertilizer. It's important for everyone to know that there is no such thing as a safe dose if you don't know what you're taking.
In 2010 at the Electric Daisy Carnival, when it was held at The Coliseum, a 16-year-old female died. Do festivals now have a minimum age? Do they require that you be 18 or over to prevent underage kids from attending? Is that enforceable?
Yes, and to be clear, that girl's name is Sasha Rodriguez. She would be in college now if she was still here. She was there when she was not supposed to be. There was a minimum age set of 18 for that event.
What has happened in the last few years is a lot of these festivals have been bought by larger companies. HARD is owned by Live Nation as is Insomniac, who is behind Electric Daisy Carnival. They have a much better way of regulating these kinds of safety measures and it has improved things on the whole, but risk like this is inherent when you have large groups of people.
On Sunday, two LA County supervisors said that they were going to ask for a full probe to see if the Pomona concert event was properly managed. How do these festivals go forward to prevent incidents like this from happening? Is there a consequence in terms of being able to get permits and get access to venues if these kinds of deaths continue?
I heard that those two supervisors were saying that they were going to look into it, and particularly if Hilda Solis is listening she should give me a call, because I can't imagine she knows too much about what she is about to investigate.
I think it is really important for people to understand that this might not be something that they personally enjoy or that culturally speaks to them. But this is a part of a larger generational movement and drugs are very small component of it as they have been with every musical movement of the last 50 years.
How worried do you think promoters are right now?
I think they're always worried. I think that anytime I've talked to them in the last 10 years it's become increasingly a problem for them to manage. As their crowds have grown so have the risks. They've brought in more and more experts. They've sought the advice of different organizations. There are a lot of controversial methods of how to keep people safe.
There is an organization in the US right now called DanceSafe that provides drug testing kits at festivals, which allows you to essentially test the substance which you are about to ingest. It's very controversial, understandably, because people think it kind of condones drug use. Other people say, "If people are going to do drugs you might as well empower them with some information about what they're taking."
Are there any consequences for the festivals themselves once these deaths happen?
I mean, there can be. Case in point, Insomniac, who puts on Electric Daisy Carnival, has been effectively banned from venues in Los Angeles. You know there are financial implications as well. There are festivals all over North America that have had to close up because they can't afford the consequences of having someone suffer this kind of fatality at their event.
I think that most importantly it really ruins the goal of what these festivals are, which is to be a place for people to come together. I think that truly is what people are most concerned about when something like this happens — not the financial impact, not the bad PR, but losing life at something that is there to celebrate life.