Interview: Electric Forest Promoter Jeremy Stein

Two years ago, Rothbury appeared to be on its way to becoming a mainstay on the festival circuit. Famed for the “Sherwood Forest”, its environmental bent, and incredible amenities, it was a unique, high-end and highly conscious event. But financial issues with the host resort (along with trouble attracting top headliners) put Rothbury on ice last year. Then co-promoter AEG Live stepped aside. No fear though. A new July 4th weekend festival is back on the same site in Rothbury, MI. Like Rothbury, it’s organized by Madison House, the company that manages String Cheese Incident. But this year there’s a new addition – the nation’s top electronic music promoter. We caught up with Madison House’s Jeremy Stein to discuss Electric Forest and the unique partnership behind it.

HeadCount: Why don’t we start with Rothbury. Two years ago you had what seemed to be a very successful festival and model. What happened between then and now and how did we end up with Electric Forest?

Jeremy Stein: Well you know there was kind of a little bit of a perfect storm there a couple years ago where that site had gone through bankruptcy. The old owners who were no longer on the site and a state trustee had taken over and new buyers had not yet surfaced and the site was nonoperational. So for the second Rothbury we really had to take over everything and that really wasn’t the original intention of doing this. The vision was to get the very rare situation where we were combining a resort with a festival in a way that we’d never seen done before – definitely not been done in the States before where so many camping festivals are essentially in a field. So this was a chance to have real infrastructure and lodging and all the things that come along with the Double JJ Resort. Then they go bankrupt and they weren’t operating. Combine that with difficulties in booking and our confidence in getting the lineup of the integrity that we wanted and a million other little issues that were going on at the time. It’s gonna be a lot better to protect the pristine nature of what we’re doing there then to put too much risk on it where we could actually hurt a really good thing. So that’s where we took the year and all the things we hoped that would happen, happened. New ownership came in, they got the place up and running again, and they’ve had a good year under their belt, they’ve really learned all the ins and outs of the resort. They’re fantastic to work with and we had great talks right away on how to get things restarted. And what made the best sense right now was to have an event like Electric Forest where there was – we had to have a lot of building out at the site and changes in landscaping so that we could do different sized events there. There are different templates for everything from a 5,000 person – 50,000 person event or more. And so this is kind of the first installment of that.

And where does Electric Forest fall into that 5 to 50,000 range?

You know we’re right now in the 15,000 range, it could certainly grow. That’s the beauty here. We can create a venue of almost any size and scale the show to it at anytime. So this one is more in the 15,000 range, we could easily call Electric Forest any size we want in the future, or we could bring back Rothbury, or we could even do both, or we could do something totally different. You know I always talked about different genres being able to go into the site as well. If anything I wanted to get things back up and running. We get e-mails galore about people wanting to go to the site pleading to do any show there and we felt the same way. It’s too great of a site to just let it lie, so it was time to try to pick up the pieces and make it happen.

Why did you decide to not call this festival Rothbury?

Well, that partnership was with AEG and AEG has gone through a lot of really good and positive changes, but they’re not involved with this event. And the Rothbury name is one that – the intellectual property on that is between AEG and Madison House and us so we had to change the name. But really this isn’t the same event with a different name, it’s actually quite different. And there’s a chance in the future Rothbury comes back.

What are some of the differences?

That’s a good question. There are a lot of little things. Some of them are certainly advances on Rothbury. We’re upgrading probably the most spectacular part of what Rothbury was – it almost made it famous on its own –the forest, and really pushing that to a new level. There were some really big headliners at Rothbury – I think there’s great bands involved here too, but there seems to be a common thread here that’s really a scene unto itself.

How would you describe that scene?

There’s definitely more cohesiveness to the nighttime music. I think a lot of folks that are interested in that dance-jam crossover; they know a lot of the players involved at night. Daytime I found what worked really well here, especially July 4th weekend is when we’re doing things like bluegrass, reggae, or just kind of straight on rock n’ roll for people just looking to have a good time. It’s almost like there’s two events – there’s the daytime and the nighttime and they take on very different characteristics – especially in the forest. Where daytime in the forest it’s either more of a relaxation hangout zone, it’s really social, people can just hangout, but nighttime it turns into something really mysterious and alive.

You’re partner in this is Insomniac, one of the top dance and electronic promoters out there. How did that come together and how will that be represented in the festival?

Yeah, I don’t know if there’s necessarily specifics that are one way or the other, it’s the Electric Forest team, you know? They’re traditionally more dance-oriented and I think that’s good to get a good critical eye when we’re all booking things together. I think marketing-wise it’s been a really good experience for everybody to be very experimental and trying a lot of new things, especially on the social-networking side. It’s hard to really delineate what we did and what they did. It’s really just the Electric Forest team at this point.

A lot of people probably don’t realize that some of the largest live music events in the country, or maybe the largest, are from your partners in this event and that the electronic music scene has totally blown up.

Yeah. I think that’s a big part of the story that I don’t think no one has really talked about. Madison House has some really rich history not only in the jam world, but also in camping events and special events and events like Rothbury or New Years events with String Cheese and on and on. And it’s a really grounded well-known group for what it has done in the past. And then you get Insomniac based out of Los Angeles and now expanded nationally and has either eight or ten festivals they’re working with right now - Electric Daisy in Vegas being the biggest one, which moved from Los Angeles. Last year that festival did 180,000 people and when you look at – it’s funny to me because when you look at events like Coachella or Bonnaroo that are similar in size and a lot of folks never even heard of Electric Daisy, yet it’s doing as many if not more tickets on a daily basis. I find that fascinating because in a way I remember those days too when some of the bigger events like Bonnaroo started in year-one a lot of folks were surprised by how many people came. That’s what happens when scenes grow, it’s almost like they grow independently and I think it’s really exciting to see that Electric Daisy’s moving to Vegas and it’s still having pretty much its best year. Bringing those two groups together, there’s a melting where a lot of what was termed the jam world over the last decade has kind of melted into this pot with the dance world where some of it mixes really well and other times the genres, the niche genres, are too specific and different. But unquestionably the crossover is tremendous and that’s a core reason that we got together on this show is that recognition that no one’s really crossed those worlds together. It’s been talked about, but no one has really gone all the way with it yet.

Are you concerned at all about the crowd, about drugs, about safety? Because I know those have been issues at some of the large electronic music events.

Not as much. We have incredible systems in place. We have a great history with Rothbury with the medical teams out there with the state police will work with us. There’s a really good system in place to ensure safety and honestly safety always has to be number one. I have a lot of things that are 1a, 1b, and 1c, but if safety isn’t in place you’re just not gonna be able to do events like this anymore. So, I always ensure that first. I feel great about it and I don’t really foresee that many issues. A lot of times when people look back on dance events histories with the word “rave” which I think is an antiquated word at this point for the people that don’t understand the differences between a lot of different events. But a lot of times the greater history with issues is actually an urban environment. Camping festivals create a whole different sense of social action of people getting together. It’s a longer stay, people are there for four days. It’s not this intense burst of energy around an event for five hours one night in the city, it’s a very different experience.

Rothbury had a very defined mission. A lot of it was about taking the shared energy of the music experience and turning it into something that drives the greater good and an environmental angle and socially conscious angle. Are any of those elements transferring over to Electric Forest?

Yeah, I think almost all of that is just a little understated this time around. Partially because when Rothbury came up four years ago a lot of what we were doing then, especially operationally for the sustainability, were relatively new. It wasn’t necessarily that we were the first innovators, but we might’ve been the first one bringing all of those elements into one place. And now it’s starting to become standardized practice to the point that it isn’t really a headline for folks to talk about. I’m saying standardized across not only just music, but you’re starting to see it in sports arenas and just large events in general – especially things like college football games. So I’m happy about that. Our practices for sustainability through operations – camping and waste management with compost and recycling, that’s all the same. Biodiesel in the generators, etc. There’s a difference this year, we don’t have the Think Tank on board that we had at Rothbury for some really interesting talks. I think that was more a specific vision of what Rothbury was about and if Rothbury continues we would get back to that for sure. Otherwise, what I’m most focused on is the social contact and the way people connect – partially with the camping, but definitely in the forest. There’s a lot that goes on in Sherwood Forest on this site day and night where a lot of people meet, a lot of lasting friendships, and even business relationships start. It became a place where almost anything is possible and we’re looking to foster that in a lot of different ways – I can’t talk about all of them, but a lot of them are related to our art projects that will happen in the forest – where it’s not just four days in the forest that is actually just the manifestation of 365 days of maybe virtual reality through your computer, but it comes actually to real life in the forest.

I can imagine one of the more fun things will be kind of watching the faces during Tiesto or String Cheese and you might be able to see that someone has really come from one side and how they react to the other.

I’ve done this before where we’ve experimented on a little bit of a smaller level. We did String Cheese New Years in San Francisco in a place called the Concourse, we did that two years in a row. Half the room was very dance/Burning Man oriented and half the room was kind of devoted to String Cheese and it was fascinating watching people cross between both worlds because by the end of it they were definitely all one.