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How Music Festivals Move to the Beat of Social Awareness

Rolling Stone Magazine
Rolling Stone Bonnaroo

Rolling Stone looks at how music festivals inspire fans to participate in social and environmental change.

Music festivals are never just about the music. For decades, they’ve given people a reason to come together, feel a sense of connection and come away changed for the better. From spreading the “save the planet” ethos – compelling young people to vote or inciting music fans to buy electronics made with conflict-free minerals – many minds have been enlightened while music played in the background.

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The ultimate example of this is, of course, Woodstock.

In 1969, Woodstock attracted more than half a million people to a dairy farm in Bethel, New York. They came to define that decade’s spirit of activism and love, the world awakened to the monumental impact that a music festival can have.

“Over that August weekend, during a very tumultuous time in our country, we showed the best of ourselves,” festival co-creator Michael Lang wrote in the prologue to his 2009 book The Road to Woodstock. “And in the process created the kind of society we all aspired to, even if only for a brief moment.”

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Today, technology, the environment and ways to effect social good are cornerstones of a great festival. A few events in particular are the leading the way.

Glastonbury

One of the biggest music festivals in the world, the U.K.’s Glastonbury draws more than 100,000 people each year. It was founded in 1970 by a dairy farmer named Michael Eavis, who was inspired by the counterculture ethos of the Sixties.

Rolling Stone Bonnarroo
It’s all about community and connection at Glastonbury.

When Eavis first registered the company, he wrote that the festival would include a “green” area with “displays of environmentally-friendly technologies and techniques,” and “a forum for debating environmental, social and moral issues.”

That mission has held true. Most profits from Glastonbury are donated to Oxfam, Water Aid, Greenpeace and other charities, and politics are central to the festival: The “Left Field” section combats political apathy. For example, rain boots left behind at 2015’s event were donated to migrants in France, and in 2016, Eavis encouraged revelers to vote in the E.U. referendum.

Bonnaroo

The Guardian called Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, “the Glastonbury of the U.S.”

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“Bonnaroo has always strived to not only deliver a world class music festival but also provide our fans with the tools to make profound changes in their lives and the world around them,” said Alex Machurov, Senior Director of New Business and Partnerships at Superfly, which co-founded the festival in 2002.

Bonnaroo maintains a special village called Planet Roo, where the music stage is solar powered and activities, including daily yoga and meditation, are geared towards expanding attendees’ “global consciousness.”

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This year, Planet Roo hosted discussions like “Change the World One Purchase at a Time” and “How to Turn Your Passion Into Advocacy.” Many festivalgoers learned for the first time about the global movement to use conflict-free minerals.  The mining of minerals — such as tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold — used to make consumer electronics can be used to fund militant violence and human-rights atrocities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is now becoming possible for computer devices to be made entirely with minerals that come from ethical and responsible sources.

Intel, which has committed to ensuring all of its products are Conflict-Free by the end of 2016, invited filmmaker Paul Freedman to Bonnaroo to screen his new documentary Merci Congo. The film brought festival attendees to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where these minerals have been mined for generations.

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Bringing this kind of awareness to younger generations growing up in the digital age could help them make more informed purchase decision that impact the lives of Congolese miners, their families and communities.

Other partners included Kohler, who sponsored Bonnaroo’s onsite showers with a #CommitToSix campaign, encouraging people to limit showers to six minutes and thus reduce water usage by 25 percent from the eight-minute average shower time.

“With every fan commitment made, Kohler donated to the Bonnaroo Works Fund and the Nature Conservancy,” Machurov said.

Additionally, Alex and Ani jewelry makers produced Bonnaroo charm pendants and sold them both onsite and online, with profits going to the Bonnaroo Works Fund and the VH1 Save the Music Foundation.

South by Southwest

Festivals are also helping to foster a brighter future by encouraging technological advancement. SXSW began as a music festival and morphed into SXSW Interactive (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, and is now an epicenter for social media technologies.

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SXSW is a reliable gauge of where technology is – and should be – heading. Throughout the festival’s 30-year history, it has hosted notable tech speakers from Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales to NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

“[We] always seek to showcase inspirational leaders who can share their vision for a better tomorrow,” said Hugh Forrest, Director of SXSW Interactive.

In 2016, President Barack Obama appeared at SXSW to highlight the role that technology plays in civil engagement. He noted that it’s “easier to order a pizza than vote” and urged the tech community to increase political participation and bring positive change in today’s internet-driven world.

Quieter but Mighty

Several smaller, boutique festivals are making a name for themselves with a more intimate feel and a specific viewpoint.

Lightning in a Bottle on the central California coast promotes an ethos of social consciousness and environmentalism. It has won awards for its Leave No Trace policy, worked with local Chumash Indians to spread awareness about cultural appropriation and earned a reputation for its pro-woman atmosphere. Even its build crew is mostly female.

“Inspiring a world we want to live in is one of the core goals of the festival,” said Kevin Rowell, Director of Operations for Do LaB, which designs and builds Lightning in a Bottle. “Technology is playing an integral role in how we do this.”

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That runs the gamut from using the latest 3D modeling software to design the festival, to constantly collecting data to improve the experience, to using drones to study the flow of people at the event.

Further Future, held on the Moapa River Indian Reservation in the Mojave Desert of Nevada, is another festival on the forefront of tech and culture. Several of its co-founders are prominent tech entrepreneurs, and TED-style talks from business, technology and the media are a major component of the festival. Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google parent company Alphabet, spoke this year.

“[Attendees] left inspired by speakers’ views on topics such as the future of education, how we’ll listen to music next, innovative food trends, hacking systems with machine intelligence and the nature of the cognitive mind,” said Robert Scott, Further Future co-founder.

Scott also notes that at this year’s event, festivalgoers experienced such “new, cutting-edge” technologies as Avegant Glyph VR goggles, a hyper-realistic humanoid robot from Hanson Robotics and an immersive sound installation called ENVELOP.

It’s a long way from Woodstock, and yet, in a deeper sense, today’s socially-conscious and technologically-advanced gatherings represent a natural evolution from that historic event. The fundamental goals have not changed much since 1969, as festivals today try to help to raise awareness about the environment, promote political engagement and otherwise positively impact the world.

“All of this [is] part of an effort to push the boundaries of how people think and view the world we live in,” said Further Future’s Scott. “We want our guests to not only have fun, but to also ask themselves: What next?”

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