Electric Forest Founder Jeremy Stein Says Festivals Are Like Families -- Here's How He Maintains His

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Courtesy of Electric Forest
Electric Forest 2019

Electric Forest is a phenomenon. Launching its ninth year today (June 27) in rural Rothbury, MI, the event is a festival season highlight for the roughly 45,000 attendees arriving from around the Midwest and beyond. With a lineup pulling heavily from the jam and electronic worlds, the festival maintains the loosely merry and community-oriented vibe that's long been fundamental to both scenes. The bucolic setting and whimsical art installations throughout the woods help create Electric Forest's singular atmosphere. 

The festival is co-produced by Madison House Presents, the Colorado-based production company behind myriad concerts and tours. (Madison House Presents co-produces Electric Forest with Insomniac, the Los Angeles-based production company behind major dance festivals including Electric Daisy Carnival Las Vegas.) After years of quick sellouts, Electric Forest expanded to two weekends in 2017 and 2018. This year, the festival is back down to one weekend with a lineup featuring Bassnectar, Odesza, Kygo, Zeds Dead and many more. 

Here, Madison House Presents and Electric Forest founder Jeremy Stein discusses the festival's special appeal.

Electric Forest expanded to two weekends in 2017 and 2018, and this year is back down to one. What's the story there?
We learned a lot in the last couple of years going to two weekends, One particular thing about the Electric Forest site is that there really isn't much infrastructure. It's a lot of the boring stuff -- Internet lines, water lines, water wells, how the grass is taken care of and so on.

What we noticed is that in order to really support multiple events in the future, we almost skipped half a step. We needed to pull it back a bit and get that infrastructure in a better place. What we are effectively doing is building the site from scratch every year. Any festival producer will say that's a very hard thing to do. So, we spent the last year curating, landscaping, putting in new grass and some new structures and putting a lot of money into things that will help us in the future. The goal is to focus the money and resources on the art, music and stages. In order to do that, you've got to get some permanent infrastructure in there.

Would the plan in time then be to expand back to two weekends?
It's definitely an idea. There's no doubt that that could happen. We've done it before, and we did it with less infrastructure. The timeline is unclear, although it's not too far away. We just wanted enough time to put this infrastructure in place and make sure it all works. It's really a two- or three-year project that I'd say we're right in the middle of.

The festival has a residency with The String Cheese Incident, who headline every year; it also seems to be the case now with Bassnectar, who’s headlined for the past five years. What's the thinking around bringing these sort of marquee artists back year after year?
It's a good question, and it's a complicated one because we got asked that a lot, not just by folks like yourself, but also other artists who want a similar scenario. A lot of artists say, "I'm in. I'll come every year. I love it here." To some extent you will see there are names who repeat maybe not every year, but over the years.

We like that idea, because there's a cross between not doing the same lineup every year, but also wanting the consistency of a family of artists. What we wanted to do was bring together musical cultures that we see as much more closely related than people might think. In some ways String Cheese and Bassnectar embody that.

How so? What similarities do you see between the jam scene and the electronic scene?
A lot of people like to focus on that, because they like to categorize the music. I'm not saying that's not the case, but for me it's more about the street credibility of great music. There are artists with tons of credibility that you might not listen to, but you respect them.

That certainly, for us, has been centered on jam bands and subsets of electronic music, but there's also a lot of other stuff at the festival. There's funk, bluegrass -- guys like Lee Fields & The Expressions. What I care more about is that attendees walk past a stage where they don't know the act, but they stop because it's cool music. [A diverse lineup] also creates a lot of doors for people from different walks of life to come to the festival. You'll come because you're a fan of ten artists on the lineup, and you'll leave a fan of a lot more. 

You're bringing in a lot of different demographics.
Whether it's the electronic scenes or jam scenes, one of the core elements is community. It doesn't really matter if it's the old school rave vibe or the old school hippie culture -- those are communities. You hear the world "family" a lot in those scenes. People who are thinking that way are already predisposed to being open and really caring about their surroundings. They really care about the music and the other folks at the show. That commonality is [in the jam and electronic worlds] is very close. It's almost identical.

It also creates an intergenerational vibe that can be lacking at other festivals.
That's really important, especially as Electric Forest evolves over time. Folks who are elders in the scene and who have been around for awhile -- it's really important for them to still be just as attracted to it as they ever were, but also come and set a standard for ways of behaving. That's not too different from any anthropological tribal feel of communities where people new to the scene can bring new ideas, and established people in the scene can stand steady on the ideals of what made it great in the first place.

What is the nature of the relationship between Madison House Presents and Insomniac?
We're partners on the show. I think it's a love affair between all of us. When we started Electric Forest, Insomniac and Madison House Presents were totally independent. In that sense, it was kind of like classic American music families coming together and bringing their way of doing things and thinking, "They're all cool, and we're cool" and combining families with lots of good ideas. I think that's stayed true, even though now they're part of Live Nation and we're part of AEG. I would think they'd agree that those partnerships have only expanded our collective capabilities.

What's unique about the Midwestern market?
Electric Forest is such a national event now, even international. At this point there are attendees from all over the world. But [the festival scene] can be very saturated in other cities. If you're in New York or Los Angeles, there's another show every second. To dig deep and actually be part of that community can be much more difficult in other parts of the country. Whereas if you're in college in Michigan and all of your friends are going to Electric Forest, that can be a much deeper focus.

Is it right that the festival sold out in four hours this year?
It was actually three, but you know, whatever. [Laughs.]

How do you deal with such massive interest? I'm sure two weekends seemed like the solution, and now you're back to one, for now. Do you have to resign yourself to the fact that a lot of people are going to be disappointed?
There's no right answer. That's what I'm resigned to, but what I do know is that the focus always has to be on excellence in what we're doing. I don't think of what we do as handing down the way of the show and designing everything. We obviously do a lot of that, but really what we are is part of the scene and a conduit for ideas. 

One of Electric Forest's greatest strengths is that it's very open source. You see this with the plug-in programs and the Wish Machine and all the other ways people can take part. We're not sitting here saying that we have all the ideas and we're going to produce the coolest show in the world. It's only great because of all of us are doing it together. We're very careful to listen to what's out there for ideas, and then throw in a few tricks that are up our sleeve.

Festivals 2019