Electric Daisy Carnival
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The festival's best year yet was all about the owl, not the talent.

The blue owl’s head bobs, gently but unmistakably -- which taking into account its massive size is already a bit of a wonder. Up and down, side to side it goes, its plasma retinas brightening or narrowing in reaction to the music; part mood ring, part intensity meter. When one DJ finishes playing, its giant wings close and envelope the booth below it, allowing for discreet changeover between artists and the anticipation/release of a big reveal for every set.

The owl is a spectacle. And it sees all. It broadcasts emotion to the thousands before it, and signals when it’s time to react. It dwarfs the booth below; it whisks away and replaces DJs all while you’re watching its wings move. It’s fitting, then, that the owl is the longtime avatar/spirit animal of Insomniac Events head Pasquale Rotella, and the centerpiece of the gigantic kineticFIELD (A.K.A. Main Stage) design at this year’s Electric Daisy Carnival, which wrapped its third and final day at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday. If attendance matches last year – and a previously announced sell-out indicates it will – 300,000 will have attended EDC over its three days.

Rotella has from the beginning insisted that EDC is more than just a festival: it’s an experience. He focuses attention on its many circus-style performers and Burning Man-inspired “art installations,” creates his own media to ensure his messaging is relayed as intended (Insomniac has its own magazine and opts to announce lineups and news directly to fans on social media), and purposely reduces the importance of the DJs he books. Superstars like Avicii, Armin van Buuren, Afrojack, and Tiësto all played EDC this year, plus hundreds more, but you won’t see them in the official images released by Insomniac the morning after each day. Instead, there are pictures of who Insomniac calls “the headliners” – the event attendees – plus helicopter shots of the crowds; the fireworks; and the expanse of carnival rides, stages and lights that fills the entire Raceway. A giant billboard at the EDC exit reads “Insomniac Loves You.” A look at Rotella’s social feed proves that his followers believe it, and requite.

When the Los Angeles Times took Rotella and Insomniac to task earlier this year, deeming them responsible for 14 drug-related deaths at Insomniac events over the last 10 years, the fans rallied: petitions were signed, angry Tweets to the Times sent, editorials about the demonization of electronic music culture written. Boutique rave clothiers are even selling red, white and blue T-shirts reading “In Pasquale We Trust” -- shows of support leading up to Rotella’s July court case, in which he’s accused of bribing officials at the Los Angeles Coliseum around the 2010 EDC. Benevolent, misunderstood, persecuted: Rotella has become a folk hero.

But for all that rhetoric, the EDC's past (prior to coming to the Raceway three years ago, it had a few momentum-building years at the Coliseum), and the ancillary events Insomniac throws each year (including other EDCs in places such as New York and Orlando), this is the year that the Insomniac myth became real. Electric Daisy Carnival is now a fully formed, expertly marketed brand in line with the top live experiences in the world - with a massive audience to match.

Why this year, of them all? Perhaps it was the owl made into a functional icon. Or the undeniable wow factor of the Main Stage: A fairy tale tableau with giant inflatable mushrooms and painted flowers, flanked by owl-covered towers bearing giant LED screens, and gated by a massive, high-flying truss arch. Or EDM’s current dominance as a genre.

Maybe it was the announcement of an EDC documentary, produced by Haven Entertainment and directed by Dan and Jane of Magical Elves. The three fans who will be featured in the film were introduced during a panel at Insomniac-hosted industry event EDMBiz the week prior to EDC: their stories, which they retold in earnest, personalize the EDC ethos. One all-American girl met her boyfriend at the event. Another, who self-defines as an outsider, found an extended, international family through EDC. The last lost the use of his legs as a teenager, and says he found hope in the EDC community; in the documentary, he’ll be shown hoisted above the crowd in his wheelchair. It’s the kind of casting that marketing titans like Procter & Gamble might nail.

In the midst of all this master-branding, some artists did right by their own. A DJ for only a few years, Porter Robinson was bred to be a festival Main Stager: His expertly programmed one-hour set blasted through genres and feelings without seeming too fast, too slow, or too cheap. He was even brave enough to drop an a capella: Full seconds of silence across kineticFIELD could feel like dead air on the radio, but he used it to build tension and drama, more than a standard drop could (although there were plenty of those, too). Crookers - now the one-man operation of Italian DJ/producer Phra, with the recent departure of co-founder Bot – played a less dissonant set than usual, moving away from the challenging glitch of last year’s festival sets for a more thumping, bass-based sound. Headhunterz – and in his wake, the entire genre of hardstyle – made an unannounced debut on the Main Stage Saturday night, definitively answering the question of whether the U.S. was ready for his high-BPM onslaught. (If parents thought dubstep was rough on the ears, wait until they hear this.) Artists such as Dillon Francis, Flosstradamus and Moombahton founder Nadastrom made the most of the relocated BassPod stage, interspersing popular hip-hop with Major Lazer, Baauer, and even Whitney Houston (Francis has quite the sense of humor) for a crowd that seemed to stick around, no matter the DJ.

But according to Rotella’s plan, the owl and all it represented was the true star of EDC 2013. Insomniac was acquired by Live Nation in a deal announced last week, reportedly worth $50 million for 50% of the company. It’s aggressively courting corporate sponsors. Next year’s EDC Week will also host a nationally televised dance music awards show, produced by Dick Clark Productions. So the question now becomes: What next? When the rave goes Disney, what’s the new rave?

For now, it’s a moot point, because all any “headliner” could think about while stumbling out of the Motorway gates this morning was next year. The EDC experience is an undeniable one; a time and place that seems to transcend both parameters. And the creation of that, no matter the machinations, is one of the greatest achievements in the history of live events.