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Interview with Everfest Creative Director: Traveling the Globe to Find the World's Best Festivals

March 23, 2017 - by Molly Sinclair

Photos courtesy of Everfest

Each year, tech-driven online festival community Everfest releases their list of the world's 300 most epic festivals, dubbed the Fest300. With the broad term "festival" referring to celebrations in music, film, art, and culture, it seems like an incredibly exhilarating yet daunting task to accurately highlight the best gatherings around the globe.

Enter Eamon Armstrong. A key player in the industry, Armstrong travels far and wide to scour the best events of the year, keeping the Fest300 list diverse and up to date. With a noticeably heartfelt passion for community building and culture, Armstrong has experienced it all - from the boutique, alternative North American music festivals, to uplifting gatherings in Southern Africa, to Berlin's vibey underground scene, and hundreds more.

Yet besides touching on his journey shaping the Fest300, which released the 2017 list last week, Armstrong shared what seemed like an unlimited stream of wisdom of a considerably deeper perspective on why we festival -- and how it's changing the way we interact with each other in an increasingly virtual world.

Eamon, it sounds like you have a pretty stellar gig! With the Fest300 list released last week, can you briefly explain the link between Everfest, Fest300, and your role in these organizations?

Everfest was originally a database of 15,000 festivals around the world. Fest300 is a list of the world's best festivals within the Everfest community.

I am a festival community specialist. I like to call myself a social alchemist, because it's fun to give yourself your own special name [laughs]. I started with Fest300 when we launched in 2013 as a community manager, and am now officially the Creative Director at Everfest.

My goal is really about supporting the goals of the international festival community, and hoping to use this website as a platform to connect that community, and to encourage people to attend festivals and participate in this global movement of participatory arts and music events.

So you get to travel all over the world?

Yeah, I actually got a pretty cool run last year! I went to 18 festivals in 10 countries.

Wow! What were some of the most exotic festivals, location-wise?

In terms of exotic, I went to Malawi, which is actually the poorest country in the world with the lowest GDP per Capita on the shores of Malawi. There's this incredible festival there called Lake of Stars, which is a festival that combines the kind of expat NGO worker type wealthy people in the region, with local Malawi people in culture, not just music, but in poetry, talks, that sort of thing.

Interesting. So it sounds like the festival merged some social classes there.

Absolutely. Part of the goal of the event was to enrich the local people and bring African music more exposure to expats in the region.

So why did you get involved in festivals specifically, rather than another form of community building?

Festivals are fun! I'm interested in festivals because I see them as opportunities for emerging culture. It experiments in civic organization and cultural bonding.

I went to Burning Man for the first time in 2010 so all of my experience in the festival world really comes from the Burning Man world primarily. Since then, it's obviously expanded. But what I find most meaningful about festivals is that they're these sort of other-worldly environments that you immerse yourself in, and they give you an opportunity to experiment with your identity, with your community, to experience a sense of belonging. I've seen a lot of people enter into different festival environments and they sort of transform, become more self-expressive, become more open, and have more loving connections to their lives.

I turned 35 this year so I'm a little bit older in the festival world, but I still find festival culture to be really cutting-edge and exciting. It's a great opportunity to learn about yourself and to learn about others.

Why do you think people tend to act more freely at festivals versus other large gatherings like sports games or other events?

So for one thing, festivals are self-filtering. You already know that you have a lot in common with the people around you. If I attend a psytrance event, that's a specific community of people that are interested in psytrance music, so they often have commonality. I think its the same for sports games too; there are some similar dynamics at play. Any gracious community gathering can give you an opportunity to experiment with identity.

Festivals, because they're so focused on arts and music, already have a vibe of experimentation. Since you're going to go discover new music, there's already a sense of discovery and desire for adventure.

Specifically in Burning Man culture, the alternative festival scene, the fancy dress party in England, Bush Doofs in Australia... these environments tend to bring people together that desire another worldly experience. There's dressing up, there's often sexual experimentation, there's often drug experimentation, and so there's an expectation that you can go into them and try out different ways of being.

A lot of the production, particularly immersive music festivals, is designed to stimulate you in a certain way that takes you out of your normal life.

What are the qualities that get a festival on the Fest300 list?

The goal of Fest300 from the beginning was a lot about travel and experiencing different cultures and getting out of our separate virtual world and into a more ritual experience.

One co-founder of Fest300 Art Gimbel, who sadly passed away in 2015, was a world adventurer that had gone to 70 countries and many, many festivals. The other founder, Chip Conley, is also the founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels, he's on the Board of Directors at Burning Man, he's a good friend of mine and I really admire him. He was really interested in Fest300 as a way of helping the world become more culturally curious.

So when we started the list, it was a way to find the best festivals in the world - not just Coachella, Burning Man, Glastonbury - but also Rio Carnival, or Running of the Bulls, or Kumbha Mela which is an Indian Festival that has 100 million participants. Over time, we kind of shifted and half of our festivals were music festivals, half were cultural, because music festivals were exploding around the world.

Originally we were like a museum, curating what were the best festivals. We read a lot of books, worked with travel writers, festival professionals. We started the list with 270 festivals and crowd sourced 30. Each year we invite our community to vote on 30 festivals that will be added to the list.

In my travels, I would go to events that mostly were already in our list that I already knew had the stature of one of the world's best festivals, and in my case it was mostly music festivals, and then I would just talk to a lot of people about what else was exciting in the region.

So it's a combination of research that we were doing around the world by going to renowned festivals in the region, and then offering those nominations up and allowing the festival community to vote on festivals.

There is one situation in this year's list I thought was pretty exciting. In West Africa, an artist called Fela Kuti was a hero in Nigeria and would perform these epic all night parties, which led to a festival called Felabration. What was beautiful about the nomination process was that the whole Kuti family rallied their community to get Felabration on the list. I thought that was really cool, to look at a group of people in Nigeria wanting to elevate this gathering to be one of the world's best festivals, and using their community to do so.

So how do you think the festivals "get it right"?

Well for one, there are the big, undisputed, culturally influential events around the world. One example is Glastonbury - there is no way you can make a list of the world's best festivals and not have Glastonbury, which started in 1971 and is the granddaddy of music festivals in the UK and has spawned all of these incredible festivals.

Secondly, we would like the list to include a lot of diversity in location, genre, size. So looking at the list as a whole, we wanted to have some film festivals, food, the most epic human gatherings. As we proceeded we found that there are certain trends that people really like and want.

In terms of what we consider getting it right, for me personally I look for two major aspects: production value and community engagement.

For production value, what is the festival offering? How well is this put together? What's the value for money? How well have they attended to safety, environmental impact, waste disposal? How are they building their story? What is their marketing, etcetera.

More importantly for me is how engaged the community is. There are these events that create year-round communities. It's not just that they go to Shambhala it's that they consider themselves Shambhalovelies. Or Bonnaroo attendees call themselves Bonnaroovians, or Burners. You can feel that in the vibe of the festival, when the community around feels like they own the culture of the festival, which is epic.

Do you think being heavily involved in the festival community can alienate people from mainstream "reality"?

This question can refer to participation in any subculture. When we find a culture that really resonates with us, there is a desire and tendency to go deep within that, and like any part of one's journey, there is an initial desire to make your identity into it. Like this is me, I'm going to wear these clothes and do these things. Then over time you experience some disillusionment because with any subculture, there are some things that work and some things that don't. There are hypocrisies in the festival communities in the same way that there are hypocrisies anywhere else.

The festival community overall contributes quite positively to mainstream culture, and for a lot of people it offers a good alternative to a narrative that doesn't necessarily make space for people who are different. When I say the festival community, I am referring to alternative music festivals.

These are often kind of safe havens for people to be a little weirder, an ambiguous sexual identity, or to be more free with self expression. These environments are environments for a lot of openness and sharing love, and I think we need more of that in mainstream culture.

So I would rephrase it back to the other way and say, does the mainstream culture alienate people? I think it does.

How do you think it does that?

I find that festival culture offers me an experience of spontaneous play and magic and adventure, that I don't have when I'm walking through a strip mall. I don't feel adventure in a high corporate environment; it just seems sterile to me.

Burning Man has this idea of safety third, the idea of curated risk, like there's some risk involved in what you're doing - the ticket even says you can die on it. I don't want people to be put in harms way or to be experiencing risk they are not made aware of, but I think a totally risk-free environment loses the feeling of being alive. My idea of a mainstream environment is a kind of sterile one that doesn't really have the same opportunity for adventure.

What is unique or different about our U.S. festivals compared with the rest of the globe?

Well, it's sometimes said that the U.S. festival season scene is about 5 or 10 years behind Europe. When we talk about global festivals, U.K. / Europe is kind of looked at as the most developed festival environment. We had Woodstock here and then we kind of went away from festivals and came back again.

The big contribution in my opinion to the global festival scene from the U.S. is Burning Man and the West Coast alternative scene. There are the more mega concerts here, like Coachella, Lollapalooza, and then there are the alternative conscious gatherings that followed after Burning Man. But since the U.S. has a sort of strong corporate culture, our big mega festivals are very advertisey, while you don't have that same experience in Europe.

So, I think that's what makes the American festival scene different - we have access to bigger headliners, we have really great production value here, and we tend to have more corporate festivals.

With booming expansion in music festivals recently, is massive growth a step in the right direction, and is it beneficial for society in general?

I don't have a value judgment on people gathering. I think in this day and age, it's a great thing. People often socialize virtually now - you can use an app to get a cab or food to come to your door - so any in-person connection with people is a good thing across the board. I think gathering and getting to know people is a great way of understanding your fellow humans.

So as you can assume from my field of work, I think festivals are a good and a wonderful thing. That being said, there are issues and challenges that need to be addressed and looked at with a hard lens, like the environmental impact of festivals. But overall I feel like the growth is providing people opportunities to experience art and music, to connect with each other, and in certain cases they can become their biggest selves.

I think people mature into experiences. If you're familiar with the Desert Hearts festival, I remember talking to its creator Mikey Lion, who is a friend of mine. When he went to Coachella, he discovered the Do Lab stage and thought it was so cool. Someone told him, "If you like this, you should check out Do Lab's festival, Lightning in a Bottle." From Lightning in a Bottle he was led to Burning Man, and these experiences ultimately inspired him to start Desert Hearts.

I think Desert Hearts is a great example of how festivals don't just reiterate themselves year after year, but they splinter into other festivals or they criss-cross. A 20-year-old festival will lead to a 5 to 8 year old baby, that is smaller, more boutique, more refined... created by people that have grown up with and loved the parent festival and then wanted to create their own. The two women who founded Bass Coast in Canada were actually Shambhala people who loved the epic festival and wanted to create something more intimate. In Australia there's Rainbow Serpent, out of that came Earth Frequency.

So when someone asks me if I think there are too many festivals, to be honest, there's not enough! Let us continue to refine and start these celebrations. The only thing that I think is a danger problem is the environmental impact - we need more solar, better waste disposal - but that aside, the more vibey communities, the better.

What is likely to happen in the festival community in the next few years or more? Will the bandwagon-ers move on to the next fad, or will everyone and their grandma be hitting up festivals in 2027?

Well, it's certainly not a fad in the sense of emerging fashion or trends. I think there are different types of culture, for example, you could talk about global psytrance gatherings that came out of Goa trance in the 70's and 80's, and there's this trajectory into Boom Festival, Rainbow Serpent, and even the upcoming Oregon Eclipse Gathering. That's a trajectory of a cultural movement from the 70's until now, hardly a fad. Burning Man is around 30 years old. Yeah, Burning Man certainly started really ballooning around 2007, but a lot of these big gatherings have been picking up steam.

So what my mentor and co-founder Chip Conley said is: "the more virtual we get, the more ritual we need." We are increasingly getting more virtual, and we will increasingly need more in-person connection. As long as technology makes it easier for us to not actually see real people in the world, and as we are more alienated, the need for community is only going to increase.

Festival culture is a lot about people's desire to belong and to feel part of a community and to be able to have magical adventures and experiences, and I just don't see that need changing. Unless something shows up that's better than a festival to help you feel a deep connection in a relatively condensed period of time, I think we're only going to see this culture grow.

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