On October 30, something won’t happen at UMass-Amherst’s Mullins Center. That something is the Pretty Lights concert, the last in a series of three electronic dance music (EDM) concerts the university has cancelled since September 11.
The reason for the cancellation is that on August 31, two people died and dozens more were sickened after they overdosed on the ecstasy-related drug MDMA, or molly, at the Electric Zoo concert in New York. That same day a young woman in Washington, D.C. died at a club, the Echo Stage, of an overdose of molly. Earlier, on August 28, a 19-year-old college student died after overdosing on molly at a Boston club, the House of Blues. UMass officials didn’t want similar tragedies on the Amherst campus of the state university, so they took a financial loss and cancelled the EDM events.
UMass’ action lands it squarely in the middle of a controversy fraught with farreaching issues. Should arts events be cancelled because of the potential results of attendees’ choices to use harmful substances? On the other hand, these large concerts are so highly commercialized that they amount to marketing extravaganzas as much as artistic performances—huge sonic parties that bring in so much money that Wall Street eyes the industry they represent with growing interest. EDM isn’t Woody Guthrie; it is, increasingly, corporate music.
Large concerts with heavy drug use are nothing new. But media reports have given wide play to the apparent connection between EDM events and molly. Shaken by the events of Labor Day weekend, on September 11, UMass officials cancelled the Return to Fantazia dance concert scheduled for September 21.
Then on September 26, it became clear that the Fantazia cancellation was not just a one-off when Enku Gelaye, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Life, sent this announcement in an email to all UMass students: “A short time ago, the University cancelled the Return to Fantazia, an electronic dance music event scheduled at the Mullins Center. We were gravely concerned about a rash of MDMA, ecstasy or molly-related overdoses and deaths in the Northeast related to these events. Unfortunately, the factors that led to cancellation of the Sept. 21 concert have not positively shifted. In fact, we have grown even more concerned about ongoing reports of overdoses at such events.
“The molly-taking culture at these shows is real and now exceedingly dangerous to the health and safety of concert attendees. As a result, the University is cancelling Above & Beyond, scheduled for Oct. 4, and Pretty Lights, scheduled for Oct. 30.”
UMass’ student newspaper The Collegian protested angrily: “Are the cancellations wholly about protecting our students, as claimed, or is it also aimed at protecting this institution?” Any number of things, from horseback rides to pain killers, cause deaths, the article pointed out, and the university doesn’t challenge people’s choices about them.
But the university saw the connection between EDM and molly as a special hazard, insists UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski. “It is clear from what’s happening across the country, and from the information we get back from our police department, that, unfortunately, the use of ecstasy-type drugs is very common at EDM concerts,” Blaguszewski told the Advocate. “The concern anytime we have a concert at UMass would be always tied into public safety and the use and abuse of drugs and alcohol. Does that happen at concerts? Yes, it does. But it’s clear that this is a much more pronounced public safety issue. The intelligence we get back is that those drugs are still out and about in our community.
“We have a distinct responsibility because these concerts are on our campus,” Blaguszewski added, noting that colleges in the Boston area discharge their responsibility for student welfare by sending warning notices about substance abuse hazards to students who attend large concerts. However, he said, “Many of those concerts are not on their property. We are hosting these concerts.”
Actions like the ones taken by UMass have repercussions for an EDM industry that’s now grown so large that Wall Street is eager to get in on its profits. By some estimates that industry is now worth $4 or $5 billion a year, and venture capitalists like its rate of growth—growth that might slow down if more venues cancelled concerts because of concern about molly.
In the early 2000s, the electronic music industry successfully fought the so-called Crack House Law, an attempt by law enforcement to hold club owners and promoters responsible for drug-related health problems at concerts. Now a new version of an old problem has arisen, as the molly problem gives rise to the threats of low turnouts and cancellations. “Rampant abuse of the designer drug ecstasy, and specifically a bad batch that brought death and mayhem over the Labor Day weekend to Electric Zoo, a huge annual electronic music dance concert on Randall’s Island in New York City, is threatening to derail the rapid growth of the $4.5B electric dance rave concert industry,” Treatment Magazine declared in September.
Late this summer, a company called SFX Entertainment, Inc. was poised to launch the first initial public offering of its stock. A look at SFX is instructive as to how much money is at play in the EDM business, which involves musicians, clubs and promoters and aspires to lure more corporate sponsorships for events. SFX owns promoters and producers of such events; it’s in the process of acquiring a piece of the company that mounted the Electric Zoo event in New York during which two people overdosed on molly. SFX, a billion-dollar corporation, is seen as enhancing the attractiveness of EDM for large investors because of its size; large venture capital doesn’t look so kindly on many music enterprises because they tend to be, as one investor said, “very localized, very artist-specific.”
On a much smaller scale, UMass is in the events business, at least in its role as the proprietor of the Mullins Center, and the cancellations aren’t especially good for its bottom line.It’s clear that the university will lose money because of them; what’s not yet clear is how much, because, said Blaguszewski, “you need to calculate the impact not just on ticketholders”—who received refunds—”but there have been commitments by the promoter and the performing artists.”
Beyond that, the Mullins Center is in competition with other performance venues, such as the Mass Mutual Center in Springfield, and cancellations aren’t necessarily good for an arena’s reputation, either with audiences or promoters.
“It’s very rare for us to do something like this,” Blaguszewski told the Advocate. “Are there ramifications when you cancel something? Absolutely. But the broad definition of success is not just financial.”
Will EDM concerts ever run at the Mullins Center? What would it take for that to happen?
“It’s a hypothetical question,” Blaguszewski said. “We’re not really at a place to come down on that now. I think the drivers for this particular decision were the drug and its dangerousness and the correlation with this type of music. But if the experience changes and this type of music becomes uncoupled from this trend, then of course we would look at that. If these concerts become uneventful, we would take a look and reconsider.”•