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Music Tuesday: A Flashback to the First Rothbury Music Festival

September 1, 2009

1[Since I didn’t get to go to a music festival this summer, I thought I’d take a moment to relive the one I went to last year by republishing this post]

In about a month everyone’s going to be asking each other, “So, what did you do over the summer?” Mostly, people are going to be interested in what internships everyone did, and just as importantly, where they did them.

Sure, these are interesting questions for SIPA people. After all, some are out there working on climate change, food security, economic development, conflict resolution, HIV/AIDS, or human rights. They are doing it in places like Ghana, Uganda, Thailand, Brazil, and Nigeria. And so much of it is important work, in the name of helping others.

I, on the other hand, recently did something that was of pivotal importance to helping me. I got my head screwed back on right. It wasn’t until I pulled this off that I realized just how askew my head had become after a year of pushing my brains to their outer reaches at SIPA. For all the good it had done me, something just wasn’t right.

My cure was the four-day music festival known as “Rothbury”. It gave me much needed perspective that set some things straight in my head, and I realized along the way that the world of development could gain a thing or two from it.

Anyway, here are some things I picked up along the way at Rothbury, thoughts on living and development, in no particular order.

***I was struck by the organization, the order, the feeling of systematization. There were some 35,000 hippies at this festival, and somehow there was structure. Bands started on time, ended on time. People knew where to be. There were schedules, and more importantly, they were followed. 2Sure, it got a little hairy at night, in the darkness, with only the crazy hypnotic decorative lighting in the forest to light our way. Still, everything fell into place like clockwork.

I thought to myself, “Just because a society is not known for being on time doesn’t mean it can’t be. That’s just an excuse. If we can get this many hippies to follow a schedule, we can get developing country population X not known for following a schedule to follow one.”

***Rothbury was located in Michigan, of all places. These kinds of things are NEVER in Michigan. It’s a peninsula, and therefore a pain to get to. Yet, every indication was that it was a success. People 3really were willing to go the extra mile for something they valued. There were people there from as far away as Texas and Jackson Hole. In fact, there were people from a whole other country—Canada.

Just because a place is remote by one’s definition does not mean that it is remote by another’s, and isn’t worth trying to reach. Far too many great ideas are focused on the easy-to-reach places. Development should always consider digging deeper into “the jungle.”

***One very important facet of this festival being located in Michigan is that the state is currently embroiled in a serious economic decline. The local economy has been decimated by the relative collapse of the automotive industry, which has rippled out into many other industries. Michigan has the highest unemployment in America. And yet, one music festival alone brought millions of dollars in revenue to a state desperate for income.

Hmm… music festivals as tools for economic development. Particularly without Bob Geldof prominently involved. Hmm…

***This festival really was “green,” as advertised. In the venue, all cups sold were made out of corn, 4and all plates were made of sugarcane, and therefore completely compostable. There were bins everywhere that were clearly labeled “Landfill,” “Compost,” and “Recycle,” with someone standing by the bins guiding you. It made you feel bad, like you had to justify it, every time you threw something in the “Landfill” bin. Mostly importantly, the bins were actually used properly. This may well have been the cleanest festival I have ever been to.

How many people came away from this experience thinking more deeply about where their trash goes? Is this a more effective way of reaching people than just preaching environmentalism at them? Clearly if you meet them half way, they will respond. But for environmentalism to work, you MUST meet them half way.

***I couldn’t help but notice all the market research behind this event. Man, they’ve really got us nailed. The bands we’d be willing to pay $250 to see. The crazy hypnotic lights in the woods. The giant boot (our recurring meeting point for our team of ten). The wacko monkey machine. The environmentalism. The think tanks. The free American Spirit cigarettes. The General Store. The Farmers Market. The cloth wristbands (as opposed to the terrible plastic ones). The Magic Hat beer option, instead of just Bud and Bud Light. The organic, sometimes vegetarian, food options outside the venue. The body painting. Snoop Dogg. But most importantly, the crazy hypnotic lights in the forest. I couldn’t help but think that YEARS of serious market research had gone into this. So many festivals have come before. This was the inaugural Rothbury. How else could they have gotten it so right? It’s like they were inside of our heads. They knew almost EXACTLY what we wanted.

Market research.

If you want any event to reach people, there MUST be market research. It seems so simple. And yet, in my years of development experience, it really feels like this is one of the weakest aspects. Too often it seems like developers just want something to work so badly that they don’t do the legwork beforehand to see what the likelihood of success will be.

5***Jon Fishman, historically the drummer for Phish, sat in with two bands other than his own—Yonder Mountain String Band and Mike Gordon’s band. Once again he showed that he can just slip into any band and fit right in.

I want to be the Jon Fishman of media developers. It’s so easy to get stuck, pigeonholed, into one slice of expertise, become a one-trick development pony. I want to be a many-trick development pony. Fishman will be my example.

***The security seemed the least effective when it was at its most stringent. Generally, security was only concerned with overt violations, allowing everything to flow smoothly at the gates. But, just 61before Snoop Dog, the gates were log-jammed with people. The staff was furiously and over-strenuously going through bags to find whatever trace of wrongdoing it could find. The combination of the sun beating down on us, the suffocation of being packed so tight into other people, and that more and more people were joining the pack, meant something had to give. A whole phalanx of people banked left and made a run on the closed fence, climbing over, running to freedom on the other side. All because of security taking things too far. Too much security created the only situation of threat to people’s security I saw the whole weekend. All because of the assumption that these people couldn’t be trusted, largely from a fear of abusable substances and weapons. Of course, in spite of all the substances I saw people abusing (you could pick the intoxicated out of the crowd), I didn’t witness even a hint of violence or rumor of it. And the only “weapon” I saw the whole weekend was the utility knife my friend Josh gave the security girl at the entrance to the festival grounds before we even set up camp.

All of this opportunity for violence, and yet no violence. Perhaps it is because we all shared at least one or two basic ideals—enjoy some peace and have a good time.

7Perhaps one problem is supposing that people are violent, that people intend to do harm to themselves and to others. Perhaps our whole definition of harm is awry, as well.

Perhaps another problem is that one thing that truly separated the peaceful “trustafarians” of this festival from the violent people of poor conflict-ridden countries was that the trustafarians were wealthy enough not to be violent, wealthy enough to afford a peaceful approach. How much violence would go away if we stopped focusing on the violence, and instead focused on the poverty? Sure, it seems simple. Maybe too simple. But walking around the festival grounds, I couldn’t shake the feeling that too many people in too many positions of power either don’t understand what really causes conflict or don’t really care to stop it.

Or maybe, far too few people really embrace the idea of peace, community, unity and how music can bring all of this together. I mean, seriously, how many wars were started over music versus how much peace?

***All people should experience Medeski, Martin, and Wood. Hopefully some of those people will experience the same fits of elation I get from them.

8***There was a farmers market at this festival. A farmers market. At this festival. We bought a steak, an organic grassfed top sirloin, to be exact. It was the best thing I’ve ever eaten while camping. And we chose the sirloin only because the cut above that was sold out. People took full advantage of this farmers market. Probably because it was accessible. Now, imagine how different things would be everywhere else if farmers market accessibility were more widespread. I mean, real accessibility. Would Americans, at least, once again know the real taste of fresh meats and produce?

And what a great opportunity to expose people to solar power possibilities, political movements, think tanks, crazy monkey machines, and various hemp products that don’t begin with “m.”

How much of a difference does mere exposure make? Frankly, I think it is essential to difference.

***One thing I really like about these festivals is that people just don’t take themselves too seriously at them. Sure, there are the burnouts, the wookies, the hippies that don’t know when to stop and can’t resume “normal” life. But most of the people there seem able to step outside of that normal life and let go.

9Another thought I walked around with: “Would our social fabric really disintegrate if everyone were to care this little about their appearance, attire or stinkiness, or would everyone just be a lot more relaxed about things?”

It is that letting go that is so key, and that helped me get my brain back in order. So much drive, so much work, so much money, so much caffeine, so much stress, so much exhaustion, so much onward and upward, pushing higher and higher, maxing out, burning out, only to wake up and go right back at it—that’s an important part of what happens at SIPA, right? For me, that seems to be the case. So much so that I forgot how much I value living life with one foot in and one foot out of the door. It’s all part of that Fishman thing. Versatility. Never too deeply cemented in any one thing. Never stuck.

10It took the glow rings, the hula hoops, the hammocks in the trees, the crazy hypnotic lights illuminating the woods with alternating colors and effects, the women who braved the bodypainting, the lack of a traffic jam getting into the festival, the perfect weather, the fireworks, the Voltron Canopy Complex and the Stereotron XL 3000 with deep marine battery, the Canadians camping next to us with their many Canadian flags adorning just about everything, the fire dancer, the kaleidoscope of musical styles from Snoop, to Dave Matthews, to The Crystal Method, to Primus, to Mike Gordon, to John Fishman, to Trey Anastasio, to Phil Lesh and Friends, to Govt Mule, to Medeski, Martin and Wood, to snap out of it. And just how seriously can we take ourselves when we are surrounded by a giant musical playland?

I was reminded of a realization I came to at my first Phish concert, nearly ten years ago, during a moment of inner struggle with identity—The irony of trying to find a sense of self in a crowd like 11this. From that thought on, through the rest of the night, I was able to let go of myself, stop with all the seriousness, and delight in the feeling that I was just a fraction of the whole, pleasantly insignificant, adrift in the sea of people.

It’s so easy to get too tightly wound when trying to help straighten out the vast kinks of the world. It’s so easy to take things too seriously. Sometimes, I think many of the problems of the world stem from taking things too seriously, often taking the wrong things too seriously.

I personally think my work in development is going to really benefit from relaxing a bit, chilling out, not digging in too deep, letting go, seeing the forest for the trees (and the crazy hypnotic lights!), and never getting too firm a grip on reality.

But seriously, those monkeys… Er, apes… Seriously…

Author’s Note: This post was originally published here last year, a month before the start of the school year at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Photo 1: The “Monkey Machine”, a piece, um, art at Rothbury.

Photo 2: Snoop Dogg on the big screen next to the Odeum stage.

Photo 3: There’s that “Monkey Machine” again, from afar.

Photo 4: It’s a little blurry, but this gives you a sense of the crazy lights in the forest.

Photo 5: The versatile Jon Fishman sitting in on drums with Yonder Mountain String Band.

Photo 6: Fishman sitting in with Mike Gordon’s band, with Trey Anastasio, as well. Not to be confused with a shot of Phish.

Photo 7: The Boot.

Photo 8: Sound Tribe Sector 9, and their light show. Best light show ever.

Photo 9: Medeski, Martin and Wood. This is what jazz was meant to be.

Photo 10: A shot looking away from the Odeum stage, hippies, the Rothbury sign.

Photo 11: Another look into the forest. It was really hard to limit myself to just two pics of the forest for this post.

Photo 12: The “monkeys” in action.

All photos were taken by the author.

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One comment

  1. […] Read more here: Music Tuesday: A Flashback to the First Rothbury Music Festival […]



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