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The Rise of the Sober Music Festival Scene

The Rise of the Sober Music Festival Scene: Phil Sanchez

Phil Sanchez

Overheard at Coachella 2015:

I found Molly…

I’m coming up so hard…

And my personal favorite, from the security line, Quick, pop it or crotch it…

Music festivals have long epitomized the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll” lifestyle, but there’s a new modus operandi gaining momentum at music festivals: sobriety. And no, it’s not just for nuns and prudes.

With names like Soberchella, Soberoo and Anonymous Village, sober groups like the ones cropping up at Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Burning Man, respectively, attract all sorts. Their ranks include former drug addicts, straight edge people, health nuts, athletes and pregnant women, among others. The festivals themselves accommodate these groups by offering sober campsites, meeting spaces and support groups.

Rick Farman, co-founder of Superfly Productions and co-creator of Bonnaroo and Outside Lands Arts and Music Festivals, likens the sober initiatives at Bonnaroo and Outside Lands to festivals serving vegetarian food. “One of our absolute tenets of doing business is that we try to go really as far out of our way as we can to make sure our events are accessible and available to anyone,” he said.


I stopped drinking in 2011 following my involvement in what is colloquially known as a “wet reckless,” what the law calls an “alcohol-induced reckless driving incident,” and what my boyfriend refers to as a “white girl DUI.” My roommates picked me up from Van Nuys jail on Easter Sunday, and shortly thereafter I elected to give the water wagon a go. I loved drinking. I would’ve loved to learn how to drink like a lady. But it became apparent that drunk me had more pressing concerns, such as dancing on tables and losing my phone.

My first sober music festival was a nightmare. You understand what I mean if you’ve ever been the only person in a group of 20 people who is not on molly. The second one was easier. I went with a small crew of sober friends who were on the guest list of a Very Famous Headlining Act. Determined to cater our experience to our sobriety, we met several like-minded attendees in a tent that was reserved just for people of our ilk. I finally felt connected to the culture of the festival.

It was there that I met Q Brickell, one of the frontrunners of the growing subculture of sober festivalgoers. In 2012 Q co-founded Harmonium, an organization that provides clean and sober environments at 14+ major music festivals in the U.S. each year.

His two big tips for sober festivalgoers are to 1.) crew up and 2.) create a safe space (either at a sober campsite or elsewhere). With social media facilitating many of these groups and meet-ups, it’s increasingly easy to find comrades-in-arms. And in the loud, chaotic energy that festival crowds exude, a space that’s your own can be very calming, he says.

Thomas Hawk via [Flickr Creative Commons](https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/10412609216/)

Thomas Hawk via Flickr Creative Commons

Just as different music festivals have different scenes, their respective sober contingents come in different flavors. At celeb-centric Coachella, your best bet is to catch a meeting backstage with your favorite performers – if you can get access – or through the Soberchella mailing list. Lightning in a Bottle, which offers yoga classes and sound baths as part of its regular festival program, has a teepee reserved for its dreadlocked and barefoot Lightning Without A Bottle attendees. Lockn’, a particularly family-friendly, inclusive festival, has Sober Lockn’ codified into its program.


In my experience, most kandy-clad ravers tend to be less than thrilled at the perceived buzzkill by molly-free partiers.

A friend of mine recounted: “I was in line to buy water and started talking to these kids. They asked what drugs I was on. I normally avoid answering that question, but they kept pushing so I told them I was high on life. They immediately stopped talking to me.”

Even at less drug-fueled festivals, Q has had people pour beer on the tables where meetings were gathered.

What’s most surprising, to me at least, is the resistance by some festival promoters to embrace sober groups—a viewpoint that is, I’m glad to say, is becoming less prevalent as sober facilities are being popularized. Q explained, “The promoters do have a hard time, because in order for them to say ‘Let’s have a sober tent’ they have to say ‘We have a problem with people who are not sober.’”

Q points out that it isn’t the 12-steppers who are dying of overdoses. “They’re not usually alcoholics,” he said. “They’re usually just kids who party, and they don’t know what they’re doing, and they take three pills of something and forget to drink water for 12 hours, and their friends wake up in the morning and they don’t.”

Providing facilities for people who abstain from mind-altering substances should be viewed as an entirely separate undertaking from the need for festival planners to acknowledge responsible drug use.


On the industry side there are organizations such as MusiCares, a subsidiary of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences that “provides a safety net of critical assistance for music people in times of need”. Among its services, which include various forms of financial and medical aid, MusiCares recently began providing support groups and “safe harbor rooms” for touring artists in recovery. MusiCares has formal initiatives at Coachella, Warped Tour and the Latin Grammys.

While initially meant for bands and crew, these meetings have opened up to concertgoers who hear about them by word of mouth. The demand seems to have originated from tour managers looking for ways to provide support for performers struggling with addiction.

Sober facilities at today’s music festivals trace back to groups such as the Wharf Rats, a fellowship of sober Dead Heads. Similarly, Widespread Panic has The Gateway, and The Phellowship hangs with Phish. Moving the locus of a group to a festival rather than a specific act’s tour was the natural progression.

At Bonnaroo, Farman says, “It’s part of the fabric of the festival. A lot of the artists that we worked with had sober groups that they were affiliated with, so since the festival was originally about bringing different artists together, it was just a natural extension for us to bring some of those (sober) groups together.”

Bonnaroo’s Soberoo is a good example of a sober sect integrated seamlessly into a festival’s culture. Farman attributes this to the festival’s code, which encourages “Bonnaroovians” to “radiate positivity.”

Bonnaroo itself exemplifies the genre of “conscious” music festivals, which are on the rise. With seats for non-profits, yoga classes and motivational speakers, these festivals highlight spirituality and social consciousness as well as partying hard.


So, is this the death of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll? Not quite yet. Sober groups are simply another, addional facet of the music festival experience. What is becoming more common is an acknowledgement that health—both physical and emotional—is necessary for some ravers and rock stars alike to have a good time.

Q said promoters, including reps from Insomniac and LiveNation, have been reaching out to Harmonium in record numbers, and the number of facilities is increasing. Lightning In a Bottle gave Lightning Without three times as much space this year as last year, and Soberoo’s space will quadruple this year.

Said Q, “If you had told me four years ago that I’d be at EDC, and we’d have a meeting with like 30 people talking about, you know, feeling insecure while they’re all dressed up like go-go dancers and animals, I would’ve told you that you were crazy. But even in these scenes that are so new, sobriety is showing up.”

sober-EDC

Maya Harris is a photo editor and stylist for Playboy.com. She has more than one Spirit Hood.

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