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Can Transformational Festivals Like Lightning In a Bottle Survive Their Own Popularity?

Can Transformational Festivals Like Lightning In a Bottle Survive Their Own Popularity?: Eric Allen, courtesy of The Confluence

Eric Allen, courtesy of The Confluence

When I attended Lightning In a Bottle last year, cofounder Dream Rockwell said something about the California festival that stuck with me.  

“Sometimes, out in the real world or whatever you want to call it, there’s an expectation of each connection—What are they trying to get from me?“ she said. "‘Here, there’s none of that. It’s just love and joy and moments of bliss and pure connection.”

When I went back this Memorial Day weekend, this sentiment was still very much alive among the record 20,000-plus attendees. The festival is spread out across a series of semi-grassy hills in Bradley, CA, about 80 miles south of Monterey Bay. For the weekend, it’s a miniature world connected by temporary bridges lined with colorful lanterns overhead. Self-expression through clothes is a hallmark of festivals, especially this one, where a giant raven—a woman in stilts—walked amongst the crowd. I walked among candy ravers with heart-shaped pasties and OG Burners in their handmade leather holsters. I found myself entering different worlds at once, wandering from the rainbow-colored, beat-thumping Thunder Stage to the tranquil tea temples where exotic brews are freely offered to passersby.

Jacob Avanzato, courtesy of The Confluence

Jacob Avanzato, courtesy of The Confluence

This year was a turning point: For the first time in the festival’s 10-year history (informally it began in 2000), passes sold out before the festivities began.

“It’s an exciting thing for us,” said Dede Flemming, one of the three Flemming brothers who founded the Do LaB, the Los Angeles-based production company that puts on Lightning in a Bottle. “It means that people really cherish what we’re doing and that they want to be a part of it.”

From its beginnings as a renegade forest party, LIB has stood for transformational culture—the subset of the festival world that differentiates itself from events like Coachella and EDC with experiential offerings on top of the requisite music acts. These events encourage self-realization, introspection and overall well-being of the individual. There are yoga classes, lectures on feminine energy and kung fu lessons, all of which I sampled at this year’s event.

Jacob Avanzato, courtesy of The Confluence

Jacob Avanzato, courtesy of The Confluence

“There’s just a focus on learning and growing,” said Tucker Gumber, also known as “The Festival Guy,” who runs a festival advice website and an app called FestEvo. This year’s Lightning in a Bottle marks his hundredth festival, he says, and it’s his favorite out of the many he’s attended over the years—even as he watches its demographic shift.

“The crowd has changed as it has grown. It seems to have gotten a little younger. What ends up happening is they experience all the people that have been coming to LIB all these years and pick up after themselves and handle themselves in a specific high-vibe manner. And the younger crowd really seems to step up: You don’t see these kids taking away from LIB. They end up adding to it, and next year they’re part of the process of teaching the next generation.”

It was something I’d noticed as well, the crowds getting noticeably younger in even the three years I’ve been going. In some ways, it’s an inevitable and natural shift in demographic, since for the last 12 years the Do LaB has hosted a stage at Coachella, arguably the premiere pop festival in the US. This has driven increasing numbers of Coachella devotees, many of whom have no idea what “transformational” means, to Lightning in a Bottle.

“LIB is the bridge between Coachella and Burning Man,” said Dawn Hoang, also known as Mrs. Amori, one of the producers of the sensual interactive area Amori’s Burlesque and Casino. “The younger crowds are eating it up because it opens up greater expressions of creativity.”

Peter Leal

Peter Leal

This isn’t to say that the festival is turning into a big undergrad party. Three distinct regions ensure a good balance: the main stages, which attract the biggest crowds with the music acts, like this year’s Chet Faker and Grimes; consciousness and well-being spots like the Temple of Consciousness and the Yoga Om stage; and the playful interactive areas organized by longtime Burning Man and alternative festival goers.

“You get people to an event because of giant music headliners, but once they’re at the event you start to show them what else is out there. It opens their eyes to this whole other world and the creativity and the expression is intoxicating,” said Eric “Helix” Wolfson, aka Mr. Amori. “What I saw this year more than any other year is the huge emphasis on interactive areas.”

It’s these uniquely curated areas that set LIB apart from a standard music and arts festivals. Other immersive stand-outs this year included the Grand Artique, a Wild West-style village with the Frontierville stage that made me feel like I was in Back to the Future III, and Giggle Juice at the Lost Hotel, a hippie cafe oasis within a two-story nomadic hotel theater. These are transient, fantasy realms whose lifestyles you actually take part in and cannot experience anywhere else.

Going into the festival, I had some apprehension knowing that the crowd would be at a record high and that those high numbers might translate to a mainstreaming of the experience. Collectively, though, Lightning in a Bottle 2016 held on to the original magic while accommodating more people than ever before. It’s encouraging to see younger people embracing the open-hearted connections that Rockwell talked about last year, and that the quirky areas that give it its essential character are encouraged and emphasized. (Another benchmark of scaling gracefully is the upkeep of the portapotties, and this year was one of the most hygienic I’ve ever known. Well done. Thank you.)

“The more people that come here, the more that get to go home with real stories and share them with people, and I think that’s why the event is growing,” said Flemming. “It enables people to go home and share this newfound energy. And it’s a magical thing.”

Jacob Avanzato, courtesy of The Confluence

Jacob Avanzato, courtesy of The Confluence

Check out Yoonj Kim’s video report from LIB, “The Best Thing to Consume at Music Festivals Is Not What You Think.”

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