A New Kind of Festival

Unlike a concert where music is the primary focus, EDM festivals are primarily a social entertainment. It’s about the people around you and your participation. Beyond a weekend entertainment, attendees will often characterize the events as communal and often life-changing. Many leave the events feeling inspired and transformed in some way.  This is especially true for first-timers.

A festival goer’s first few seasons of events often marks a period of tremendous personal growth. They form life-long friendships, feel a part of a larger community, and experience self actualization on some level. While the media has done well to portray the carnivalesque side of dance music festivals, little is reported on the transformational impact such events have on those attending. John Michael Thomas sought to change that.

After spending 14 years in the film industry, Thomas left to start a tech company. After involving himself in the tech world, he was soon introduced to a new kind of music festival popular among tech leaders of Silicon Valley, the “Transformational Festival.” Like so many, Thomas found himself deeply inspired by the event and decided to document his journey into the subculture and investigate the reality of their “transformational” propaganda. Thomas writes:

“Every weekend, the tech leaders of Silicon Valley and Los Angeles, find themselves intermingling with hippies, spiritual advisers, artists and shamans, in prehistoric lake beds and dilapidated warehouses, while they listen to electronic dance music and do copious amounts of drugs. The richest people in the history of mankind are being transformed by this movement. The transformational music festivals are changing the people who change the world… but will it be a world we will want to live in?”

One EDM: What was your first festival? How did the experience impact you?

John Michael Thomas: While Desert Hearts was my first festivals, I consider Lightning in a Bottle to be the birthplace of this journey. I will never forget that feeling of, “I had no clue anything like this existed.”

One EDM: Where did the inspiration for Life in the Festivals come from? What was it about that initial feeling that led to the creation of the book?

John Michael Thomas:  I come from a pretty conservative Christian background, and went into this world with a very cynical and negative view of it. While I was at Lightning in a Bottle I wrote a Facebook status update which later became the prologue of my book:

“The thing is, these people may actually be right; if nothing matters then why not believe in something? Why not make happiness the end all be all of everything you do? Why not be selfish? Why not escape? why not play and love? Why not live forever in the now, never looking forward or back? These people, they may be right, they probably are right. But I just keep thinking, this story has to have a happy ending, and they don’t seem that happy.”

I started receiving some PM’s asking what book I was quoting. I guess that was the start. I kept writing, and then right before Burning Man—I didn’t even know I was going yet—a friend pulled me aside and started talking to about that Facebook status update, and how they were affected by it.  I just blurted, “I think I am writing a book,” and I guess it was true because a year later, almost to the day, it was published.

One EDM: You explored a multitude of festivals, and many you identify as Transformational Festivals. What did you find to be different between transformational festivals and the standard EDM festival? 

John Michael Thomas:  EDM festivals are fun and silly. A lot of fun, honestly. Sex, Drugs and people running around in underwear while listening to repetitive electronic music.  What’s not to like?  “Transformational?”  Well for me, the difference is a simple answer. Before I leave my house to begin a new quest, I tell myself, “For the next four or seven days, you are going to be your best reflection. The most adventurous, most giving, most caring, person you can possibly be.”  No one could pull this off forever, maybe not even a month.  But over the duration of a week/weekend festival you can. And being that person you want to be, stepping out in faith, being authentic, pushing yourself, and doing things you like and maybe even don’t like, you find things out about yourself. You become better.  All the hippie crap I make fun of…makes a little sense.

One EDM: What role do you think transformational festivals are playing among the global electronic music culture?

John Michael Thomas:  It’s just another way for people to discover it.  Music is a funny thing, it’s an acquired taste. Almost everyone I know, including myself, hated EDM at first. But then it gets stuck, you realize it’s not about the “songs” but the sets.  You realize “it doesn’t all sound the same,” it’s actually subtle like classical music. I’m sure the more people who partake, the more people will create and this will push music forward.

One EDM: When you began exploring these events, what were some of your initial questions?

I’m older, I was 35-36 when I entered this scene. I find a reoccurring theme for anyone who is in their thirties when they first discover this culture. They thought life was going one way, and it took a hard turn in a direction they never expected.  They asked,  “this is what I have been fighting for my whole life?”  Then they tried to find something new.

Mine, I guess, was a bad breakup and career change. Everyone has their reason, be it a divorce, a suicide; I had a friend who made millions and millions and just didn’t know what to do…Now what? Now what? Now what?

I had no initial questions; to this day I have no clue why I even went to my first festival; I just know I was not happy, and was sick of not being happy.

One EDM: Do you feel these events are a form of escapism, or are they really “changing people who change the world”?

John Michael Thomas:  Of course they are changing the world. You cannot have a movement that involves millions of people and not affect society. Is it real change? Good change? Lasting change? I don’t know, and I don’t think we will know for awhile.

We live at one of those important times. A time where history books will say “before and after” the You know, World War II, The Industrial Revolution, The Great Awakening, The Age of Exploration, The Scientific Revolution.  We used to call it The Information Age, but we’re not really sure what it is yet. A lot of things are changing fast, the entire world is being “disrupted” and “transformed.” There’s a line I like in my book, “Humans were meant to create this world, but not meant to live in the world they created.”

What makes us different, different from all those who came before, is they had history thrown upon them; they reacted to being invaded, or having a new technology recreate industry to a point where not moving forward meant death, they reacted to disease and discovering an alien world.  Us, we have to choose to make a difference, we have to be proactive in change. We have to say, “well life is pretty good, but if we don’t make some sacrifices to figure this out, it might not be for the next generation.” I’ve seen families do that, maybe even towns and tribes, but a whole culture? I don’t know if we have it in us.  But in some weird way, festivals are part of the decision we have to make. They do something to you.  Maybe it’s the safety, maybe it’s the reset. I don’t know. The skills they teach, their morals, their fun.

Sometimes I fear we are all full of crap though. We like to dance and listen to music and see half naked people all while yelling and shouting that we are making a real difference dammit! But these festivals changed me, made me a better person; I can’t be alone, right?

One EDM: Where do you see this side of festival culture going?

John Michael Thomas:  I expect the culture to stagnate a bit. I think we are nearing its peak and that’s by no means a critique. The Hippie movement of the 60’s disappeared, but they gave us a lot of great stuff! Granola and Janis Joplin washed down with Ben and Jerry’s and eco-friendly houses!

We’re going to give the world a lot of great stuff too.  You’ll see our shadow all over the planet; I think mostly these will be in the realm of engineering new ways of physically living and a recreation of how we view social circles; how can you not be forever affected by Burning Man camps?

Once you taste the tribal life, it is always with you. Once you have that mentality of “I can fix this myself” you will always be free. The choice is yours.  Most will choose an easier path and wonder why life isn’t going their way. But us few, us fortunate few, we’re going to help shape the next chapter in America.

As for festivals themselves, they will be around, but never quite the same.  We’ll look back and realize we were part of a special time, and then when we look forward, will realize they never really left us.

One EDM: Do you have any new projects on the horizon?

John Michael Thomas:  I was about 100,000 words in on a book about traveling through America, then Trump won.  Looking back on the words I wrote, I realized my whole book was about Trump Winning. I have a lot of respect for “Trump Country” and the people who live there; even if I disagree with their politics. I kept coming back to one conclusion; we judge people more for what they believe than what they do…I saw this all over. Trump won, and I realized instantly I was writing a book about this, not about traveling. So I put the book down.  I’ll get back to it in a few months.

I decided to instead write a little novelette I had always wanted to write. Cyberpunk was always my favorite genre, but it hasn’t aged well, so I decided to bring it back. A little 120 page book that is Part One of a serial. It takes place about 100 years from now after the collapse of the United States – hell why don’t I just share the back of the book:

“The EU has just launched its entire arsenal of nukes towards North America. Everything we know and love will be destroyed in 10 minutes; all while the more important battle of who will retain dominance over the massively lucrative slurpee industry, takes place on the streets of Phoenix. One young hacker is trying to change the way we look at frozen carbonated drinks. Could this be the end of Convenience store food? You’ll never know unless you read the book.”

It’s super fun, absurd, and everything I loved in 90’s Cyberpunk. Look for it in about 3 months: “The American, Book One: The Last American”


To learn more about John-Michael Thomas’s journey into the world of transformational festivals order a copy of “Life In The Festivals” here.

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AC Johner

AC Johner is the creator of the feature documentary Electronic Awakening released in 2012. He is a writer and researcher on topics of electronic music cultures, transformational festivals, and new religious movements. He holds a masters in Ethnographic Journalism from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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