With light at the end of the tunnel, September 2021 is shaping up to look and feel very different than the pandemic-stricken September 2020. But for the founders of the New York-based Elements festival, both points in time will still be characterized by dancing.
Last summer and fall, Elements made headlines by hosting a pair of "open-air retreats" called In My Elements, after its flagship Memorial Day weekend event was forced to cancel. Hosting crowds of just a few hundred, In My Elements advertised a safe (if small) festival experience made possible by a two-part testing system in which all guests were required to be tested for Covid-19 ahead of the event, and then again when arriving onsite. In My Elements reported that no new cases of Covid occurred as a result of either event.
Now, with these pair of events serving as proof of concept, Elements founders Brett Herman and Tim Monkiewicz are ready to scale (back) up.
This September, they'll host Elements on a 150-acre property in Lakewood, Penn., where the festival has taken place for the last several years. During a non-Covid year, Herman and Monkiewicz would expect a crowd of between 5,000 and 8,000, and although they cite "a ton of interest" around the fest (the first two tiers of tickets are already sold out), they're not yet sure how many people they can safely accommodate.
Pennsylvania currently requires outdoor events such as Elements to operate at 50% of maximum occupancy, regardless of venue size and only if attendees and workers are able to comply with the six-foot physical distancing requirement. All guests will be required to either show proof of vaccination or take part in the two-part testing system.
With California's Lightning In a Bottle and Canada's Shambhala both canceled this year, Elements is one of the few independent dance festivals remaining on the 2021 calendar. The heavyweight lineup includes Diplo, Bob Moses, Griz, Chris Lake, J. Worra, Clozee, Claude VonStroke and more.
Here, Herman and Monkiewicz discuss the daunting task of bringing a dance festival back during the late stages of the pandemic.
At what point did you feel comfortable enough with current circumstances to decide to pull the trigger on your next show?
Monkiewicz: This is the second time we’ve rescheduled. We wanted to keep hope up, and it was really only until February that we saw the tides turning enough– there was an end in site with regards to vaccines, testing availability. Now [a month and a half later], things are only trending in the right direction, and we hope that continues.
Why does this September feel like the right moment? Are you banking on people being largely vaccinated by that time?
Herman: All government indication seems to say that everyone who wants to be vaccinated can be by July or August at the latest. With our safety plan, we announced that in order to enter the festival, you would either need vaccine verification, or we would do our proven two-part COVID testing system where you have to have a two-part PCR test within a few days and then a rapid test on site. At this point we feel like everyone who wants a [vaccine] can get one, but if you choose not to get one, at least you have that option.
Your events last July and September had a pretty robust protocol system that sounds like it worked well. How much of that system will be in place for this September?
Monkiewicz: It will be hard to give exact specifics until closer to the date, because technology is constantly improving. Every month that goes by more data comes out on the best practices and protocols. So we’re going to use the best technology available, whether that be a breathalyzer, an antigen or rapid PCR test, in the best methodology that public health officials recommend. I wish I could say exactly what that looks like at this point, but that was what we did in October -- we used the best methodology we could figure out.
You’ve got a fairly massive lineup. Was it hard to put together, or were artists eager to play?
Herman: There’s definitely a lot of fatigue in the industry, everyone has rebooked their festivals three or four times. It’s crazy. People are just exhausted. It’s tough, doing the same thing over and over again and no one is really getting paid enough.
I would say that people were eager to play. They were stoked to see that we did [events] last year. I think of any festival, we had an easier time [booking a lineup] because we had all this testing and this new company with medical doctors and [other protocol experts]. It was a super small-scale event, but doing all of that, seeing how it went and working out all the kinks was a really smart thing, because now agents, artists and management are all really confident that we will pull off the safest festival possible. There's been a lot more camaraderie this time around, and it’s been a really nice feeling to feel that we’re on the same team, even though they’re trying to get more money for their client and I’m trying to get them for cheaper.
Did you have any difficulty with hiring vendors like food, sanitation and insurance?
Herman: I think everyone really wants to work with us. When they saw what we did last year, obviously everyone’s looking for work. We’re getting a lot of vendors from bigger events like Coachella that are iffy, and they're hitting us up and saying "Hey, we saw what you did last year, and we know you’re going to happen; let’s work together.” That’s a nice feeling.
When you saw Ultra cancel in March, Coachella cancel in April and Lightning in a Bottle cancel in May, did it have any bearing on your expectations for this September?
Monkiewicz: Running an event at our size versus running an event like Coachella, it’s really two different animals. In a way it’s been a good time to be small and boutique. We’re watching out for industry best practices, but really trying to develop our own. I think we have a little bit more latitude in doing so than some of these larger, more institutional events may have.
What feedback are you getting? It sounds like the interest is there from fans and artists. Are people grateful you’re giving them something to do?
Herman: I think a lot of people were grateful for the stuff we did last year. They said that this year they felt like they could buy a ticket with confidence because of what we did last year.
Have you gotten any backlash from people who think it’s too soon for a festival?
Herman: It was July of 2020 when we first tried to do an extremely small mini-festival, In My Elements, and it was a tense time, to say the least. A lot of people were very happy that we were trying to do things as safely as possible. A lot of people felt it was unsafe to do anything under any circumstances. For the September and October events, things have largely trended very positive after the success of the first one.
We do believe there is a way to hold large events safely. I think trust has grown over the last year and also the understanding of where we’re at as understanding of the pandemic has grown. People need the festival culture. They need nightlife. These are essential aspects of gathering in a society that we have been deprived of. Very few people in living memory know what that feels like.
Festival production in and of itself is already a stressful endeavor, and considerations around the pandemic certainly must add an increased level of worry. Why is it worth it to do this?
Herman: If anything, the general stress of doing events for the last 12 years has prepared us for the ultimate stress of a pandemic. Getting to where we’ve gotten thus far has been because of our confidence in our ability to problem solve and tackle whatever comes in our way. So yeah, it’s absolutely draining, but if anything I believe it’s all just been training for greater challenges.