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The Digital Mirage Festival Offered Building Blocks For How Events Can Create Community In Isolation

What does a music festival during a global pandemic look like? Turns out, it looks a whole lot like your kitchen, or living room, or bathroom — whichever room you decide to place your laptop in while you tune into a livestream of your favorite performers. During the first weekend of April, independent electronic music brands Proximity and Brownies & Lemonade invited people to do exactly that, as they linked up for a charity stream that managed to raise $300,000 to benefit the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, a 501 c nonprofit supporting out of work musicians. In the process, they created Digital Mirage, one of the world’s first post-COVID-19 online-only multi-day music festivals.

Digital Mirage was a three-day electronic music festival live-streamed on Proximity’s YouTube channel that brought together some of the genre’s best producers and performers like TOKiMONSTA, Kaskade, Alison Wonderland, Louis The Child, and A-Trak. All proceeds from the stream went towards providing financial support for musicians who make their incomes through performing and other industry professionals who are now experiencing hardships in the face of COVID-19. Though it was designed to generate funds, via sponsorships and other revenue-generating opportunities, the festival was completely free to stream for the at-home audience, a decision that was baked into the concept from the outset.

“I think it’s really important that we try to do as much as we can in this current situation to help not only people that are displaced in our community, but also to help people that are just trapped in their homes, and to keep them in their homes, ” Kush Fernando, co-founder of Brownies & Lemonade explained over the phone, last week. He was joined by creative director Chad Kenney and Proximity head Blake Coppelson.

“It just goes back to our genre of electronic music and what our community really embodies,” Coppelson added. “When we threw this event we knew that wherever people were enjoying it, they were making the best of it.”

So can a livestream ever live up to the tangible experience of a real festival? In truth, probably not. But the reality is that this is the new normal for all of us and we’re just going to have to make the best of it. Digital Mirage passed that test with flying colors, and the interface of streaming brought about some of its own unique connective benefits,

“One of the things that made it feel like a communal experience was that a lot of the artists were engaging with the fans on an eye-to-eye level through Discord and YouTube chat and other areas where there wasn’t an even playing field before,” Kenney said. “It created a level for fans, members of the community, the people producing the event, and the artists themselves to all connect.”

Some “festival-goers” even took it upon themselves to rock their favorite festival fashions to the digital event.

Contrary to common assumptions, putting on a festival experience online isn’t as easy as throwing some performers in front of a webcam and pushing play. Right now, the scene is a Wild West of best guesses and experimentation.

“One of the biggest challenges of throwing an online music festival is the fact that this is really our first time doing it,” said Kenney. “The biggest hurdle that we’re running into is being able to plug-in artists from all different time zones and places around the world live and for them to stream into this central hub. The technology isn’t really at that point yet where it ideally could be to make this stuff efficient and pretty seamless.”

Those growing pains gave Digital Mirage a distinctly charming lo-fi aesthetic that matched well with the DIY moment that we’re all collectively experiencing. For the festival organizers, it harkened back to their upstart roots, throwing small scale shows in the LA area.

“Everything that we do has always kind of felt DIY,” Fernando said. “We’re an independent event producer, so everything that we do is very much based on our relationships, our connections to the industry, and that people we’ve come up with.”

While states nationwide are gearing up to reopen by mid-May, life isn’t going to go back to normal for some time — a widespread COVID-19 vaccine likely won’t be commercially available until Spring 2021, at the earliest — which is why festival organizers across the country are scrambling to figure out how to foster a digital iteration of their events for an audience hungry for quality content and connective experiences. Burning Man is taking the leap to digital, though they’ve been openly vague about what that will look like, but other big festivals are having less success transitioning, like California’s Lightning In A Bottle, which is canceling this year and asking ticket holders to consider donating the money for their ticket refunds to ensure the festival can bounce back in 2021.

How long COVID-19 will prevent us from experiencing music festivals is anyone’s best guess, which puts the idea of a physical Coachella in October in question. In the event that we still can’t gather in large groups by October of 2020, will the technology and online infrastructure be there to deliver an experience that ticket holders will feel adequately meets their expectations?

“I think that the model is ever-changing,” Kenney said. “It’s obviously a time of global crisis but also a time for certain models and schools of thought within our industry to be tested, revised, and changed. It’s not really clear cut whether it’s sustainable per se, but I definitely see that given the projections of where the world is going to be in the next six months to a year, this is definitely going to be a very very regular thing, no doubt.”

COVID-19 may indeed put a permanent end to some of our favorite festivals that are unable to adapt to a rapidly changing landscape, but while we may not always have a Coachella or a Lightning In A Bottle or... any one of our favorite annual festivals, the idea of gathering together in some form to share the experience of live music is never going to die.

“I do think that the future is going to really reshape for us what we think of as a ‘live’ festival experience,” Kenney said, near the end of our call. “There will be more interactivity that people are unaware of yet that will really make some of these experiences for some people just as real or transformative as live experiences were. It’s obvious everything is going to be different, but the world itself is different.”