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Behind the Scene’s with Electric Zoo’s Creative Team

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Headliners: a simple word that the creators of Electric Zoo thought to last when introducing this massive festival in 2009. Eight years later, maybe they were onto something.

In its eighth consecutive year, Electric Zoo proves to be the live entertainment staple in New York City. Breaking the mold in the grandest of cities brings difficulties, competitors, and major triumphs, if you are festival producer Made Event.  This Labor Day weekend Electric Zoo returns bigger, bolder, and more wilder than ever with Wild Island, a jungle’esque playground for the spirit animal of your choosing. Five massive stages, delicious animal treats, and the wackiest of creatures landscaped across lush green lands to let your wildest inhibitions roam free.

Why is it that 70,000+ fans choose Electric Zoo to fulfill their Labor Day Weekend year after year? Amid 22 hour work days, the creative forces behind Electric Zoo, Jeff Wright (Creative Director, Made Event) and Michael Julian (Marketing Director, Made Event) sat down with DT to discuss 360 degrees of Electric Zoo: past, present, future, and all other-worldly details in between.

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We’re familiar with Made Event from the trance events held in the early-mid 2000s. How did the idea for expanding into a music festival in 2009 come about?

MJ: The founders and owners of Made Event, Mike Bindra and Laura De Palma had a vision that they wanted to bring a music festival to New York City. It was the matter of having the right venue where they could have executed their vision properly and when Randall’s Island became available, they immediately jumped on it and that’s how Electric Zoo started.

“We weren’t just focused on bringing big headliners, we were focused on bringing in all types of talent.”

Ultra Music tried to break into the New York festival scene back in 2005, but the outcome proved not so successful. Then in 2009 Electric Zoo comes to town and proves major success with almost 30,000 attendees. What were some of the difficulties faced in producing a festival of such size in New York City with it never having been done before? How did Made Event plan on marketing itself differently to separate EZOO from the abundance of electronic music festivals that were coming to market in the late 2000s?

MJ: Mike and Laura didn’t sleep too much in the first 2-3 years and neither did any of us on the team. We were growing really fast so it was nonstop work and dedication to the project. Our sales goals were increasing as fast as artist fees were increasing. Production costs were on the rise so we needed to expand the festival, raise ticket prices and sell more each year. We grew faster than anyone could have predicted. Our angle was ‘let’s position ourselves as New York’s festival. WE’RE New Yorkers, we were doing it FOR New Yorkers. We wanted to be edgy, we brought innovative technology to the festival, we tried to have something no other festival had. We wanted our lineups to be 360 degrees all around where we had music for every type of fan. We weren’t just focused on bringing big headliners, we were focused on bringing in all types of talent. We believed we could blow up because we took this approach first. Over the years we worked with many artists, some that started out on the smaller stages eventually became our headliners. I think it was the right place, right time, together with a lot of hard work and we got it done and we were very happy with the outcome.

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2015 proved that themes could bring a fresh approach to longstanding festivals. In its eighth consecutive year, the marketing approach and overall theme of Electric Zoo prove to be quite different than previous years. Why the change, and how did the idea for Wild Island come about?

JW: Wildness is about people coming together to party and go wild, but It’s more than that. It’s also about a wild place that still has elements of nature’s wildness. I think that’s fresh ground for exploring things in terms of production. We have this beautiful venue and we have the ability to create an environment in that venue that makes you feel like you’re in another world, maybe in a place where nature is a stronger force than what you feel in Manhattan for example. And of course, it’s on an island. New York city is a collection of many islands which people often forget. An island has the connotations of a place that’s isolated, a place that offers a lot to explore, a place that you can get away to. 

“…a place that’s isolated, a place that offers a lot to explore, a place that you can get away to“

Another noticeable difference in 2015 and 2016 is more collaboration with global, non-commercial brands. Last year we saw an AWAKENINGS stage, a techno brand with huge European exposure. This year you’re bringing in major European brands ANTS, Anjunabeats, and Elrow which stray far from the mainstream. How did the idea for bringing in these popular European brands come about?

 JW: Although you have the main stage and four other stages and you’re presenting a variety of different subgenres, Deep House, Techno and underground music has always been an essential part of the festival. We’ve been showcasing these genres for over a decade, it’s always been a passion of ours to expose more people to these genres and a festival is a great way to do that. Bringing in those international brands definitely originated from Michael Julian and I was immediately on board because I had coincidentally seen some stuff about Elrow online last year and I thought it was really cool. It had a party feel rather than a festival or concert.  There’s something different about creating a party and having everyone at that party feel like they’re part of something more connected than when you’re in an audience. You’re not standing in the middle of an audience crowd, you’re at someone’s party that they’re hosting for you to show you a great time.

As far as Elrow’s production, so much of their DNA is about characters that populate that party, elaborate costumes, inflatable and colorful deco elements and all of those elements will be present at Electric Zoo, Sunday School. ANTS is a very different esthetic, but still an exciting one. They have a certain type of coolness that’s very sleek and modern with unique costumes and great video content, and again has that party vibe. You’re part of something that feels more intimate. Both of these brands have a really strong connection to Ibiza so naturally the collaborations were a great fit for our Wild Island theme. We wanted to bring a taste of their island to our island so that fans could experience something new and exciting. And as far as our longstanding friends at Anjunadeep their specific music programming is always a great fit for Sunday School so we’re very excited to have them back on the grove.

We have the space setup like a jungle environment. Its half open, half closed by design so you get the benefit of shade from the sun, but at the same time have light shining in, air flowing through, creating the essential festival ambiance.  Expect lots of earth elements all around with changes in décor specific for each brand.

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MJ: This all comes from the heart. We’ve always had underground music flowing in our veins. We had a party very dear to our hearts called Sunday School for Degenerates in Miami for many years. That’s where all the underground artists would come together for 24-36 hours nonstop, but we unfortunately had to discontinue that party. Luckily we were able to keep that party alive through Electric Zoo with the Sunday School Grove stage. We were always thriving to do this type of party. We’ve hosted Carl Cox and Friends, Drumcode, and so on, but as the time went on it became a little more about production. We had an opportunity to bring Awakenings to Electric Zoo last year which was a great experience. The fans were very happy, it was good for Awakenings to come to New York, it was good for Electric Zoo to have them here, so we decided to grow on that. We then got together with Yann Pissenem, the founder of ANTS, which I consider to be the best outdoor party in Ibiza. It’s a very well-known international brand with Saturday residency at the legendary Ushuaia Hotel. It’s my job to select great brands to partner with, ANTS had never done a stage in North America so we both agreed that it would be a great fit. Our theme is Wild Island and this is a party from the wildest island I know, Ibiza, so it made a lot of sense to bring them in.

After we got ANTS, we had a really great talk with Elrow which is the party that everyone is talking about these days. These guys are selling out Space Ibiza every weekend, they’re selling out their home residency in Barcelona, plus countless stages around Europe. They’ve also never done a stage in North America. They’re bringing their Brazilian themed party which is again a perfect fit for Wild Island. Locking those two European brands was amazing for us! Then we got in touch with our old friends from Anjunabeats and locked in the first Anjunadeep stage in New York. We like to bring different types of partners on board to make the festival more diversified and bring more new music to the fans. We thought this was a very big deal as music is constantly evolving. the festival seemed like the perfect match.

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Would you say the main inspiration behind Wild Island is to bring the music culture of Ibiza to the states?

 MJ: Perhaps Jeff could elaborate more on this, but basically our thought approach to Wild Island was backwards. The first thing that we wanted to do this year was create a theme. We liked what happened in 2015 with Electric Zoo: Transformed, although the theme came after certain factors, in the end we delivered everything promised to fans and it worked out well for us. When Transformed was over we knew right away that we wanted to do a theme for 2016. There was a lot of brainstorming within our team and we all came to the realization that people sometimes forget that Electric Zoo takes place on an island in the heart of New York City and it is Electric Zoo, so people go wild for 3 days! So we loved the name Wild Island.  We knew exactly what the name would mean for us and how we would translate it into the décor, on-sight entertainment, stage design, into a full story – that was the first step. Once we figured that part out, we started working with partners and curators. Hence why ANTS and Elrow made so much sense. We are already a Wild Island so adding those guys to the festival this year seemed like the perfect match.

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Aside from the bringing back last year’s Treehouse Stage, we noticed on snapchat that a Cobra head is being used for the Main Stage theme. What was the idea behind the cobra for the Main Stage? And, what else can we expect to see different this year, production wise, with such major collaborations in place?

JW: We refer to the cobra as ‘The Temple of the Cobra’. We think of all the stages as the central focal points of a particular environment; Sunday School is the jungle environment; the Hilltop Arena is a crystal cave environment. You’ve crash-landed on this extraterrestrial island and these are the different parts which you are going to explore. The main stage cobra is inspired by the idea of you finding a temple from an ancient civilization, but you’re surprised to find that this temple is much more technologically advanced than you would have thought. The main stage has to serve as a stage for the show that’s being put on but every DJ performing there so it also has to have the flexibility to do that. The massive LED screens will be taken over by many different images and themes. At different points throughout the day festival goers will see the inspiration for this high-tech temple throughout the festival grounds.

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Another exciting addition to our high-tech temple is the March of the Wild Beasts featuring creatures from Big Nazo Lab among dozens of other worldly beasts that will have a huge presence. Expect to see a cast of characters that are part animal, part alien, and part robot to fit right into the Wild Island theme.

As for other animal-inspired additions, we have a collection of art installations that we like to upgrade from year-to-year. We have a giant gorilla with a completely new color coat, a 20-foot tall giraffe that’s getting a new treatment with moving lights, a rhinoceros that everyone loves jumping on so we gave him a saddle and harness to make your rhino ride more smooth, our giant Octopus is returning along with some aquatic friends that fit into our riverside area, and a several smaller animals that you’ll see throughout the festival grounds.

MJ: We really like the treehouse stage because it’s in an area where originally, there was no music. We had an opportunity to bring a lot of great up and coming talent to that stage which means more music and more fun for the fans. It’s a cool area to chill-out, grab a bite, dance and listen to great music.

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In your personal opinion, what would you say makes Electric Zoo unique?

MJ: There was no festival in New York and a few of us wondered, ‘Why can’t New York have something like a Coachella?’, which was something that really inspired us when we first experienced it. Before Electric Zoo came about, Made Event was already a lead promoter in New York with hundreds of shows a year in nightclubs throughout the city, Central Park, outdoor piers, McCarren Pool, we were constantly growing. Naturally, the next step to evolve into was a festival. We cared most about making a festival for New York. This was before the internet blew up so no one cared about Facebook. We wanted to introduce something to new to New Yorkers because at that time, not many people knew what a festival was. Tracing back to the first year, I remember watching people standing and staring in amazement with no idea as to what they were about to experience. We decided that we were going to bring talent that would help fans explore more and understand electronic music further. We wanted to educate New Yorkers about many different subgenres of electronic music, because back then outside of “headliners” like Armin van Buuren and Tiesto, subgenres weren’t a big thing. We wanted to position it in a way where we could save Sunday School and have something for techno fans all the time, we placed a major focus on this. We believed that techno fans deserved as much love as the main stage fans.

Every year we would get feedback from the fans, we would find areas we needed to improve on and we would do it. It was a lot of hard work that we never took for granted. Mike Bindra made sure that we didn’t spare money so that we could always be way ahead of production trends to really invest in the fans experience. The key is to create a product that fans can truly enjoy. Back then the market wasn’t saturated so fans came from across the coast, the states, and Europe to experience something they had never seen before. Today, we have presence from more than 50+ countries and growing. We believe we’ve been doing something right, but we’re constantly looking for ways to improved. We always want to be ahead, we’re willing to take risks to get there and that vision we will never lose.

“We believed that techno fans deserved as much love as the main stage fans.”

 JW: It’s a combination of people, place, and production. First and foremost, it’s New York City’s electronic music festival and we’re lucky to have a beautiful venue within New York City that inspiring to all of us on a creative level. It gives people a celebratory energy, whether they are excited to be visiting New York to attend the festival, or they live here and they’re excited to get away from the everyday crowd and concrete and get away to this beautiful green space. It’s about creating these worlds for the music and celebration. We really try to give you a temporary alternate reality.

Grab your last minute tickets to Wild Island here: http://electriczoofestival.com/tickets/

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