As a frequent attendee of music festivals, I’m used to seeing two types of coverage in major consumer outlets. The first of which is your standard “what to expect” preview of the music lineup, food vendors, and general tips for attending – often followed up by a photo gallery “recap.” The second form of coverage – far less pleasant – comes when something bad happens at a festival. This can be anything from ludicrous amounts of trash, unhappy neighbors, or a serious incident involving attendees.
In the case of the latter, this year’s Burning Man festival captured national attention when substantial rainfall turned the desert setting into a clay-like mud that made mobility a harrowing challenge. It’s understandable that Burning Man yielded the attention it did. Along with Coachella and Bonnaroo, it’s one of the best-known festivals in America. However, on the other side of the country, another festival had an even worse 2023 edition that’s worth highlighting for its PR misses.
Since 2009, the Electric Zoo festival has taken place on Randall’s Island in New York City. But notably, it changed ownership last year and this year’s event had major issues, which may impact its future. Let’s take a look at what happened, and the fallout.
Less than three hours before gates were set to open the festival sent word that the day was cancelled, citing “global supply chain disruptions” that delayed the completion of the main stage’s construction.
The timing of the announcement was met with criticism. Some attendees were in the process of getting ready to head to the festival when the news broke, to say nothing of those who were traveling. When pictures of the in-progress stage emerged later that day, the short-notice of the cancellation was called into question further. If completion was that far away, why, roughly 13 hours prior to the announcement, was the festival continuing to promote the first day?
To make matters worse, a report from Billboard indicated that the festival’s explanation for the cancellation wasn’t quite accurate. While it was objectively true that construction was not complete, the festival omitted the fact that it was denied permits from the city due to safety concerns.
The festival moved forward with its second day, but not without further hiccups. Again, just a few hours before gates were set to open, the festival announced that it would indeed carry on but with a two-hour delay, which meant that some acts were bumped from performing (some of whom found this out because of the social media post, not from the festival directly).
The truncated window also meant multiple hours-long lines for attendees picking up their wristbands to enter the festival. For some this meant more time in line than inside.
Operationally, this was the festival’s best day of the weekend.
While Day 3 started smoothly, it took a turn following yet another announcement. At roughly 6:30 PM the festival indicated it had reached capacity “earlier than anticipated” and no additional attendees would be allowed in, even if they had a ticket. People were understandably livid, and that frustration turned a bad situation into a worse one. Shutout attendees rushed the gates and breached the barriers, pouring into the festival grounds. Fortunately, no serious incidents occurred, but it was a terrible end to the weekend
The festival fell short in three key areas
First, it failed to deliver the product it promised. This is true in the most basic sense, that a ticket purchased ultimately did not guarantee admission. In general, the festival could not meet its own timeline with its setup, which significantly limited what it could offer once attendees arrived – assuming they were able to get in.
Second, in communicating the shortcomings, the festival did not provide ample notice nor was it transparent with explanations. The day one cancellation announcement was made far too late (given what the festival knew) and by not being straightforward with reasoning, they damaged their credibility with their most important audience, their customers.
These issues represent a huge blow to the trust that people put in the festival and will stay with them in the future. With so many competing events, people may think twice about putting their money toward one they can’t be sure will be ready when the time rolls around.
Third, they did not respect their stakeholders. Not communicating directly with the artists is unforgivable. And having to shut off entrance to the festival with nearly four hours remaining in a day was a clear indication that the organizers had oversold the event. One can speculate on the reasons for overselling, but the fact of the matter is that people were denied entry despite purchasing tickets and that’s a very bad spot for any event to be in. When things went haywire on Sunday, the festival became a safety concern. Mayor Eric Adams even indicated his administration would be “dealing” with the festival given how the weekend played out.
In rising to the level of being on the mayor’s radar, the festival may have put itself in a position of losing the ability to host future events. An organization must stay in the good graces of its host community and key audiences if it wants to thrive. Unfortunately, Electric Zoo fell short of doing either and it faces a major uphill battle to produce a 2024 event and can win their stakeholders back.