In the world of high-octane mega-festivals that approach the size of small planets, the Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival, returning this weekend for a ninth year, is a welcome outlier. “We don’t want to do a 50,000 person festival,” Jen Lyon, co-owner of BEMF, tells Billboard Dance while meandering around Brooklyn examining ghosts of clubs past. “We just want to do thoughtful shows.”
Katie Longmyer, Lyon’s partner in crime, echoes this thought later: “There’s some subtleties to what we’re doing,” she says, “and we want to put a spotlight on those subtleties.” “A bigger festival wants that heavy-hitting lineup: ‘bam,’ and everyone’s like, ‘I get it,'” Longmyer continues. “We’re more like, you might not understand what’s happening, so let’s talk about it. We’ll pull you in with one half, and then explain the other half.” “Or we’re gonna pull you in,” she says, “and you’re not gonna realize it, and you’re gonna be partying, and then we’re gonna take you to the afterparty, and you’ll be like, ‘why am I in a warehouse in Bushwick and the sun came up?'”
Judging by the festival’s steady growth since its inception, a number of listeners have succumbed to the allure of dancing until the sunrise over the years. The first edition of the festival took place in 2008 for roughly 100 people. In 2015, BEMF drew a crowd of 10,500 spread across a number of venues, mostly in Northern Brooklyn. This year, the festival expands to incorporate a second weekend of events for the first time; still, a pass to see everything costs a relatively affordable $75.
Longmyer suggests this latest expansion is fitting for BEMF. “It used to just be one compact weekend,” she says, “all packaged in a nice bow. You got four days: ta-da. I think people always want us to define it in a very concise, take-a-little-pill-and-you-get-it [way]. But I don’t think Brooklyn is like that.”
Both the electronic music scene and Brooklyn have changed immensely during the course of BEMF’s existence. Some of these changes track roughly parallel — pockets of electronic music now enjoy massive commercial success, and many of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods have become, as Lyon puts it, “fancy.” The initial edition of BEMF was thrown at The Yard, a space abutting on South Brooklyn’s Gowanus canal that is now covered by a brand new, almost open condo building. BEMF then moved across the canal to the Cutting Factory, which, as of 2013, stands adjacent to a Whole Foods. In 2010, the event set up shop in Williamsburg. Plenty of the north Brooklyn venues that hosted BEMF shows — including Public Assembly (which later became Galapagos), 285 Kent, and Glasslands — are now defunct as well.
And those are just the spaces that BEMF used; as promoters and also humans who enjoy dancing, Longmyer and Lyon have seen even more venues go under, including Volume, Studio B, a basement space on Orchard street that hosted early iterations of The Bunker (a techno-based party), Hiro Ballroom, and the original Halcyon record store on Smith Street in Brooklyn.
“It definitely hurts your heart,” Longmyer says of the closings. “I’ve been doing this for a really long time; that’s part of the game — you see people tap out. You can choose to evolve. It’s not always comfortable, but I think it’s important.”
BEMF both moves with the changing tides and works against them. “Either you’re curating as a force or as a reaction, and I think we’re right in between,” Lyon says. “I think we’re doing something predictive at times, hopefully not with ego but like, [whispers] ‘this is pretty good — I hope other people like it.’ Or I think we’re doing something like, ‘hey, this artist hasn’t come here in a while,’ which we did with Armand [Van Helden] and Masters at Work [who played back to back last year in a historically ground house music extravaganza].”
“That in and of itself is what Brooklyn is,” Lyon continues. “Brooklyn is right next to Manhattan. It’s pushing its own course, and it has to react when you’re next to the center of gravity.”
BEMF prides itself on “for tapping into emerging artists and supporting them throughout their career,” and the festival has a good track record when it comes to showcasing future stars early. In 2011, they booked Hudson Mohawke to play a set in a dive bar; the following year, he was credited on Kanye West‘s “Mercy” and released an acclaimed EP as TNGHT. One of the local acts that helped cement BEMF’s reputation was Nicolas Jaar, who headlined the event in 2012. “I have a photo of this whole block all trying to get into that one room [to see Jaar],” Longmyer remembers. “That was when I remember looking up at Jen and being like ‘ok, this is a thing.’ Usually we’ll grow 1,000 to 1,500 people a year. That year I want to say we grew 2,000 to 3,000.”
Last year, BEMF invited the local DJ collective/booking agency Discwoman — which aims to “represent and showcase cis women, trans women and genderqueer talent in electronic music” — to do a panel. “They were really awesome,” Longmyer recalls, “and they significantly took off this year.”
The second part of BEMF’s approach to event programming — the historical reverence displayed in the booking of MAW and Helden last year, or Kerri Chandler and Robert Hood this year — also connects to the festival’s second wing, its panels, which began a couple of years ago. Lyon refers to these as “the best part” of the event.
“This is an industry that’s been around for a long time,” Longmyer notes. “We want to make sure what we program helps the people who are gravitating to it really appreciate where it’s coming from. We’re gonna have a conversation about diversity. We’re gonna have a conversation about what voguing is, where it came from, how long it’s been there, what it means now.”
That meaning is shifting if you believe, as Lyon does, that “electronic dance music is a work in progress.” “It got commercial, ok, fine,” she explains. “It’s been commercial in Europe forever. But it didn’t do what it’s going to do in Europe.” She’s not sure the next generation of listeners will necessarily gravitate to dancefloors. “I think we’re carefully poking along. I think people trust us, and this is why I think it’ll grow more next year in a different way.”
Regardless of where electronic music goes, BEMF’s co-owners are determined to remain close it. “Jen and I dedicated our lives to music,” Longmyer says. “I feel like I’m not done yet. I’ve still got the bug.”