The Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival, showing off the borough’s talent and bringing artists from across the pond
From negotiating venue licenses and artists' requirements to avoiding hurricanes, putting together a music festival in this city is no mean feat.
The Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival, taking place this weekend in six Williamsburg venues, is now into its fifth year.
"Jen [Lyon] and I are community based people,” Katie Longmyer said earlier this week. “And we love music, so this is where it all marries." Longmyer, who, along with Lyon, founded MeanRed Productions, the entity behind the festival, was talking on the phone from upstate New York, where she was taking refugee from Hurricane Sandy. The weather, often the biggest headache for event organizers, created a few bumps for BEMF. Luckily all their events are inside and weatherproof, but Sandy did slow down marketing.
"We discussed the right course of action, and promoting [immediately after the hurricane] felt inappropriate," Longmyer said.
BEMF started in Gowanus. Longmyer and Lyon put on their first festival in the BKLYN Yard, a venue on the canal's banks. The BKLYN Yard was perhaps the most well-calculated risk MeanRed Productions took.
"We loved the Yard," Longmyer said, "It felt like an oasis." Back when they first opened the space, Gowanus was hardly on New York’s party map. The canal was better known for its odor than its oeuvre. Now, even though the BKLN Yard no longer exists in its original form (it’s now called Gowanus Grove), promoters have flooded the space. Mister Sunday, recently voted “best place to dance” by Time Out, just wrapped up their summer series of weekly dance parties there.
That first iteration of BEMF was intended to show off local talent, a modest endeavor. It turned out to be a roaring success, and the pair decided to repeat the exercise the following year. In 2009 they were still holding the festival by the canal (and during the summer), but they'd moved activities indoors into the nearby Old American Can Factory. At the time, their attendance numbers were around 1,500—decent, but they wanted more.
In 2010 BEMF attempted its first foray into a multi-venue setup—Brooklyn artist FaltyDL played the back room of Public Assembly (he’s playing again this year) while British D.J. and producer Sinden rumbled the bass at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Last year MeanRed really ramped things up, adding three more venues and a second day to the festival.
This weekend the festival will be larger still: 40-plus artists on the bill, yet another venue involved (in all they are Public Assembly, Cameo, Glasslands, Brooklyn Bowl, 285 Kent, and Music Hall of Williamsburg), and a keener focus on visual curation.
"In selecting artists, we tried to take into consideration the aesthetics of the music acts," Paul Amitiai, BEMF's on-site art curator, said.
MeanRed hired Amitai, who ran the New York Festival of Electronic Composers and Improvisers in the early ‘00s, to match artists with spaces, taking into account the visual element many of the acts bring with them.
BEMF now centers around N. 6th Street in Williamsburg. Longmyer said the idea to "take over the block"—multiple stages in six venues are within a one-block radius of one another—was inspired by SXSW, the Austin, TX music festival.
Whether by luck or design, BEMF's growth has coincided with a global expansion and interest in electronic music. The epicenter of that shake-up, however, has been across the pond. Longmyer said she and Lyon were very aware that the traffic of D.J.s across the Atlantic was mostly one-way. They aim to change that to some degree (European talent includes Benji B., Gold Panda, Deadboy, Heathered Pearls, Photek, and Jackmaster), but also to give New York talent the chance to play for hometown crowds, which isn’t always guaranteed.
"It's the opposite of stress," Drop the Lime (Luca Venezia), the native New York producer and D.J. who's playing BEMF for the first time his year, said. "I rarely get to play my hometown. It's a great energy and vibe because you've got your fans there but also you have your friends."
"Every artist is connected to Brooklyn in some way," Longmyer said. Many of them—Nick Catchdubs, Lauren Flax and Mess Kid—are longtime Brooklynites or, like ShadowBox, recently moved to the borough. Trouble & Bass, Mixpak, and Fade to Mind are among the Brooklyn-based labels hosting stages or bringing their signed artists to the festival.
Nicolas Jaar, the Chilean-American producer who's been studying at Brown University for the past four years, is headlining the festival (he plays the 1–2 a.m. slot on Saturday night). Previous headliners have included Four Tet, Sinden, Juan MacLean, and RJD2.
"He's not making traditional dance music," Longmyer said of Jaar. She and Lyon are very happy, she said, to be able to have a young talent like Jaar topping their bill, but also to boast a lineup that represents the broad spectrum of electronic music. Although most of the artists are ostensibly rooted in dance music, many of err on the softer, more experimental side.
The L.A.-based Friends of Friends label, known for its experimental sounds, is crossing the country to put on a showcase of some of their D.J.s and producers. Praveen Sharma, Salva, Shlohmo, Groundislava, and label boss Lazy Brow will all be playing together on Saturday night at Public Assembly.
"I'm a big fan for the Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival," Lazy Brow said when we spoke on the phone a couple of weeks ago. "I'm thankful they booked me." The showcase he’s involved with is one of a number on this year's bill. The Friends of Friends stage will be in the front room of Public Assembly while in the back Brooklyn label Mixpak will host its own stage, featuring, among others, Jubilee, the Miami-born D.J. another recent Brooklyn transplant.
"I get to play all my own music," Jubilee said, excited for a chance to really indulge, as other Mixpak artists, and play their own material exclusively.
Longmyer said they're not ruling out expanding even further in years to come, and that maybe somewhere down the line she and Lyon will consider an outdoor, two-day festival. For now, however, they're still focusing on what they love: making people realize there's no risk involved in coming to Brooklyn for a party.
"Our original idea was to show off Brooklyn," Longmyer said, "because people don't even realize what's in it."