Just two years ago, Electric Zoo was the Northeast's premiere EDM festival, drawing 150,000 fans to New York's Randall's Island during Labor Day weekend with some of the biggest DJs in the world, including Avicii, Tiesto and Bassnectar, on two massive main stages. But after two attendees died from drug overdoses, escalating an already alarmed public reaction to the EDM festival scene, the 2014 edition consequently felt borderline Orwellian: Organizers required attendees to watch drug PSAs before ordering tickets, security checks (complete with mandatory shoe removal) resulted in three-hour-long waits for entry while police and drug-sniffing dogs patrolled the grounds, and on the final day, a severe thunderstorm caused organizers to shut down the festival six hours early.
A source tells Billboard that ticket sales dropped 30 percent from 2013.
So how does the festival bounce back? "You start over," says Jeff Wright, creative director for Made Event, which has produced the festival for seven years and was bought by SFX in November 2013. "We stumbled in 2014, admittedly, so we said, 'Let's rebuild this from the ground up.'"
For the 2015 Electric Zoo -- again taking place Labor Day weekend -- Made partnered with Dutch promoter ID&T, which produces some of the world's biggest EDM festivals, including Tomorrowland, the decade-old fest that draws more than 400,000 fans to a Disney theme park in Belgium. After SFX's chief executive Robert Sillerman bought ID&T in 2013 for an estimated $130 million, the brand's longtime creative director, Jeroen Jansen, moved to New York to launch TomorrowWorld near Atlanta, Mysteryland in upstate New York and the white-wardrobe-themed Sensation in Brooklyn.
"You can't just put a DJ in front of an LED screen," says Jansen. "You need storytelling -- from the minute you start your ticketing campaign to the grounds themselves."
Electric Zoo is arguably his biggest undertaking to date. Now renamed Electric Zoo: Transformed, the festival resembles other ID&T events -- immersive and otherworldy, with a zoo theme, naturally enough -- without simply repeating the Tomorrowland formula. Many of the suggested improvements came from Zoo attendees who participated in surveys issued after the 2014 event. "We got essays," says Made marketing chief Michael Julian. In addition to a themed experience, fans asked for more restrooms (which will be increased by 30 percent) and faster entry lines (the entrance will be expanded).
Wright's designs for the festival, viewed by Billboard in March, resemble a pop-up theme park: a main stage inspired by a winged phoenix, elephant-shaped topiaries and an octopus-like circular stage. While the designs were not final and many budget-related questions remain, at press time, ticket sales were up 30 percent ahead of 2014, according to Jacob Smid, SFX's managing director in North America.
"Europeans have always done festivals right," says Wright. "But this isn't our first rodeo."
This article first appeared in the May 16 issue of Billboard.