The stakes were high for TomorrowWorld, the three-day EDM festival that took place this weekend (September 27-29) in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia. And so were the risks -- some of them self-imposed.
TomorrowWorld is the biggest play so far for SFX, the new corporation that's been rolling up EDM entities, including ID&T, and Zoo promoter Made Event. SFX is scheduled to go public next week, aiming for a market value of over $1 billion. It needed a whiz-bang, feel-good, trouble-free, unequivocal success, to cleanse the palette in advance of its IPO.
TomorrowWorld also had the added pressure of redeeming itself after recent missteps by its parent company ID&T, like the faltering arena tour of its party Sensation White. Plus, there's a battle brewing with Live Nation's Insomniac Events, which produces Electric Daisy Carnival. The two companies are playing chicken over Memorial Day 2014: Both have announced events that weekend around Saugerties and Bethel New York, the old Woodstock sites.
The storied European fest, called Tomorrowland in its native Belgium (Disney reportedly forced the domestic name change), didn¹t select a major market for its inaugural U.S. event, which featured headliners like Steve Aoki, Armin Van Buuren and David Guetta. Instead, it went with a farm 45 minutes outside Atlanta, because it resembled its original home a sprawling park in the small town of Boom, between Antwerp and Brussels.
Citing a desire to maintain a "quality level," organizers opted to make TomorrowWorld 21-plus (most EDM festivals are 18-plus) before the deaths of two fans at New York's Electric Zoo festival brought nationwide attention to drug use at EDM events. The decision probably cost them a sell-out, and made ticket sales slower than expected overall, fueling industry chatter about a potential flop. TomorrowWorld was also the first major dance event since the Zoo tragedy, inviting scrutiny from media and law enforcement. One reporter from a major news outlet said he was attending "in case something happened."
But with the odds stacked against it -- non-destination location, age restrictions, hawkish press -- Tomorrow delivered. The first-year festival not only attracted 140,000 attendees (according to organizers) and went off without incident; it effectively recreated the feel-good vibe of its marquis event in Belgium, proving its formula, claiming its space in the U.S. market, and setting a course for its future.
Over three days and eight stages, the festival showcased the breadth of the EDM genre -- from groovy house to punk-step blasts -- and the obsessive attention to detail that is the ID&T hallmark. There were randomly placed mushrooms, fire-spewing fish in the lake, food courts that looked like lily pads, and other perfectly rendered little moments, amounting to an overall effect of immersion. Attendees responded in kind: There were no fights, no arrests, and only 17 medical transports reported.
There is, however, room for improvement -- or perhaps change altogether. The mythic motif of the towering TomorrowWorld Main Stage -- the same "Book of Life" structure used in Belgium in 2012 -- came off a bit hokey for this rave crowd. Extended videos featuring characters like the Wise Man (who resembles an African shaman yet writes with a quill pen) and other contrived creations rang strange, if not funny, despite the fact that the stage itself was a production marvel: a functioning book that opened and closed, with timed explosions of fire and light.
Atlanta welcomed the festival with open arms. Many attendees were locals, who showed their pride by crowding stages for hometown boys like Le Castle Vania. But apart from a BBQ stand and custom cocktail called "Sweet A-Tea-L," the fest itself didn't reflect the proud city's diverse culture. Alongside this year's stage dedicated to Belgian DJs, one for Atlanta talent would be a welcome addition in 2014. This type of annual championing could fire the local dance scene all year around, putting Atlanta on the EDM map alongside Miami, New York, and Las Vegas.
The festival was spread over a massive 500-acre area, so getting from the Main to the further-most stage, fans had to embark on a half-hour trek through a forest path, over a foot bridge, and beyond a hill. One attendee wearing a fitness tracking device logged 18 miles walked on Saturday alone. The distance made it less possible to stumble upon lesser-known DJs, reducing the potential for music discovery that defines festival culture.
But none of these flaws were fatal. The crowd Americanized some TomorrowWorld conventions: the flag of your country replaced by the flag of your fraternity or sorority, for example (although there were some international travelers in the throng); or a totem of Will Ferrell (as Ron Burgundy, or Mugatu from "Zoolander"), rather than a spirit animal. But the spirit of togetherness and respect -- sure, you can call it PLUR -- that courses through Boom made its way to Chattahoochee. And that was a sweet and unexpected surprise.